There was a surprise around every corner when the Marriott New Orleans at the Convention Center hosted the 2007 Marriott Insurance & Financial Services Forum. First, when you hear “convention center hotel” you might not imagine a gracious property with elegant touches, upscale service, and fabulous gourmet food. But that's what the 82 planners and hoteliers experienced in May, welcomed by Judy Parker and Jennifer Glynn, the U.S. and Canadian directors of national accounts for Marriott International.

Attendees flew to New Orleans on Delta, fresh out of bankruptcy. “It is fitting to be here, in a city that has reemerged as well,” said Norma Dean, general manager, Delta corporate sales.

Rebuilding after Hurricane Katrina remains a topic of discussion in the city, and a spur to action for corporate groups engaging in “voluntourism,” as Sallee Pavlovich, director of corporate and trade show sales, New Orleans CVB, called it. But make no mistake: The New Orleans of meetings and conventions — the French Quarter, Magazine Street, Warehouse Arts District, Central Business District, Garden District — is up and running, safe and secure. To arriving visitors now, nearly two years after the devastation, the feeling is of a hospitality community yearning to stand tall again. Every individual — hotel GM to mule-and-buggy driver — is glad to see you and can't wait to share the city's treasures: its food, music, and indescribable energy.

For corporate groups, this is the time to go, while more dates are open. “Where New Orleans previously may have seemed ‘closed’ because citywides booked so far in advance, there is now more availability,” said Joe Blanchek, general manager, Marriott New Orleans at the Convention Center, who now has presided over two openings of the hotel — the first after it was built in July 2005 and the second after Katrina.

Growth Company

A New Orleans native, Mike Beardsley, vice president, Renaissance Hotels and Resorts, spoke from the heart when he told of his trips back to the city since Katrina. Beardsley and senior vice president, corporate and international sales, Marriott International, Dave Townshend, shared Marriott's aggressive development goals with the group.

In outlining new hotels from a 1,000-room JW Marriott in the Hill Country of San Antonio (opening 2010) to L.A. Live, a massive urban renewal project that will include a Ritz-Carlton and a JW Marriott (opening 2009), Townshend said, “We're a growth company.” Internationally, he said, Marriott is on the move from Dubai to China.

As to the Renaissance brand, Beardsley said half a billion dollars is being spent on property renovations from Eden Roc in Miami to Esmeralda in Palm Springs.

The Buzz

After hearing from Marriott, planners heard from each other during roundtable sessions on today's hot topics: shorter lead times, budget cuts, more meetings on the calendar, and staff cuts. On planners' wish lists: standard contracts, streamlined negotiation, a comprehensive registration tool, and technology to eliminate the repetitive data entry in the planning process.

A teambuilding project found attendees designing parade floats at Mardi Gras World, the warehouse and workshop of Blaine Kern, legendary designer of Mardi Gras props since 1947. The inventory must be seen to be believed, and the venue is available for meal functions as well.

Seeing the City

Another surprise: Expecting the usual coach transfer, attendees found carriages waiting to take them to Latrobe's in the French Quarter — the gorgeous former Louisiana State Bank building that dates from 1822. The event featured menu highlights from local Marriott properties: Marriott New Orleans at the Convention Center, New Orleans Marriott, JW Marriott New Orleans, Renaissance Pere Marquette, and Renaissance Arts.

Attendees were wowed again at the final-night dinner, with Marriott's creativity and culinary wizardry on full display. A Moulin Rouge theme complete with can-can dancers and black-and-red décor lent the event elegance with a touch of burlesque, capturing the jazz and sparkle that define the city of New Orleans.

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