“From a marketing perspective, the most important thing is just get people there to see for themselves,” says Jeff Fugate, vice president of national sales at Conferon Global Services, Twinsburg, Ohio, and a member of the New Orleans Metropolitan Convention and Visitors Bureau's Customer Advisory Council.

Fugate was one of 12 advisory council members who met with NOMCVB officials in March for the first time since Hurricane Katrina. He came away from the two-day session impressed with the condition of the city's meetings infrastructure as well as its spirit. “People really have an appreciation for how much the tourism industry and group business impacts the community.”

CVB officials gave the council a taste of the progress New Orleans has made, and tapped the panel's collective brain on what officials need to do to bring meetings back. “Their responsibility is to provide us with advice and guidance about how to be better at what we do in terms of housing successful meetings and conventions in New Orleans, so they needed to see it first hand,” says Kitty Ratcliffe, NOMCVB's executive vice president.

The first thing on the agenda for the council — made up of corporate, association, and third-party planners — was a tour of the city.

“It's a tale of two cities,” says Ratcliffe. “We showed them the worst of the city and the best of the city.” They also brought out various local experts on every issue that would be of concern to groups, from the readiness of the levees to the housing situation for workers. Regarding the levees, experts informed council members that the recon-structed system — which will be ready June 1 — will be strengthened to withstand a storm the size of Katrina.

Fugate found the areas of the city where meetings and conventions happen to be vibrant and back to “business as usual” with no signs — other than some wind damage here and there — that a devastating hurricane hit. The convention center has actually been open since February 17, when a jewelry show brought 15,000 visitors. In mid-March, 80,000 people attended a boat show. The first meeting at the center will be held in May and throughout 2006, 16 citywide conventions will be held. In the third quarter, about 55 percent of meetings booked will convene, while 75 percent will meet as scheduled in the fourth quarter.

The only challenge that Fugate sees from a readiness perspective is the labor situation, as many workers were displaced by the destruction of neighborhoods outside the business and tourism areas. However, he saw evidence of rebuilding taking place and expects an influx of people returning home after the school year ends.