Corporations are generally thought to be more nimble than associations when it comes to responding to changing circumstances, but when it comes to airlift in New Orleans, it may be time to rethink that truism. Airlift in New Orleans has shrunk since Hurricane Katrina hit in August 2005 — from 162 daily departures to 109 currently, according to figures supplied by Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport. While the reduced airlift was behind Microsoft Corp.'s decision to move three of its 2007 meetings elsewhere, associations don't appear to be stymied by the logistical challenges involved in the reduced air accessibility.

For example, take the National Association of Realtors, which brought 25,000 attendees to New Orleans in mid-November. Sue Gourley, NAR's vice president of conventions, says that her attendees appeared to have no problem getting flights in and out of New Orleans. Gourley came to New Orleans for a site visit last December, at which time she met with airport officials. “They told us that if there was any way to spread out our arrival and departures, that would be very helpful,” she said. “So we brainstormed and came up with the idea of doing volunteer activities before and after the convention. It's really helped to spread things out. We didn't heard anything from our attendees other than one or two calls that flights from some locations to New Orleans are expensive.”

Contrast NAR with Microsoft, whose TechEd and MGX meetings would each have brought 14,000 attendees to the city in June and July, respectively, while a smaller event, WinHec, was slated to attract about 4,000 attendees in May. Microsoft has yet to announce new sites for the relocated conferences. Microsoft spokeswoman Robyn Kratzer said the issue “really was all about the airline infrastructure.”

Stephen Perry, president of the New Orleans Metropolitan Convention & Visitors Bureau, said that since the city resumed citywide conventions in June, it has successfully hosted large events without airlift problems, save “a handful of people who have missed late-night connections due to weather.” He said the city has not had other cancellations because of airlift. Perry pointed out that New Orleans has hosted “nine Super Bowls, the Jazz and Heritage Festival, and Mardi Gras. We've consistently been one of the top four or five meeting destinations. And in every circumstance, we've been able to work around the lift challenge.”

Working the Problem

Now that convention business is returning to the Big Easy, Maggie Woodruff, deputy director of community and governmental affairs for Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport, says that airlines want assurance that demand will be sustained before they start adding more flights to accommodate the return of meeting and convention passengers.

For two days in September, representatives of four major airlines — Continental, Southwest, American, and Delta — met with representatives of the New Orleans CVB, the airport, and the Morial New Orleans Exhibition Hall Authority, as well as Mayor Ray Nagin and meeting planners from groups including the American College of Cardiology, which is expected to bring 17,000 cardiovascular professionals to New Orleans next March.

“We learned how they [the airlines] aggregate and collect information, and how they model out the allocation of their inventory,” Perry said. “We learned a tremendous amount.”

Perry said the CVB has worked out a system with the airlines. “We are feeding them our entire convention schedule,” he said. “We're even showing them housing patterns on the shoulder nights of meetings and conventions so they can see full fly-in patterns. With this kind of information, they can add new flights and update equipment so they can meet the demand for groups like the National Association of Realtors.”

Perry expects the airlift situation to work even more smoothly as larger groups such as the NAR and Meeting Professionals International, which holds its North American Professional Education Conference in New Orleans in January, start filling up the city's convention calendar.