If all goes according to plan, New Orleans’ citywide meeting and convention schedule should be “in full swing” by fall 2006.

That was the recent assessment given by Kitty Ratcliffe, executive vice president, New Orleans Metropolitan Convention and Visitors Bureau, during a November 16 webcast on the status of New Orleans, sponsored by Meeting Professionals International.

While the convention center will be open for public events such as boat and garden shows by January, the ongoing renovations to the meeting space mean that the first groups using the building for meetings won’t arrive until May, and citywides won’t resume until June. “By the summer,” said Ratcliffe, “the city will feel normal to most people.”

One of the main issues remains staffing, Ratcliffe says, but as inhabitants return to the city, that problem should ease. “Overall, staffing is at about 50 percent of pre-Katrina levels,” she said. There are 17,000 hotel rooms open and occupied (mostly by relief workers), restaurants are reopening, and basic services such as power, sewer, and water are back online.

While the Hyatt Regency New Orleans has canceled all group business until April 1, 2007, 450 of its 1,184 rooms are housing FEMA, the mayor’s staff, and construction workers. Several other large hotels—Fairmont, Ritz-Carlton, and the Park Plaza—are closed because they were in a section of Canal Street where many buildings took on water in their basements, requiring major rework of the mechanical systems, she explained. All are expected to reopen by September 2006. Most of the other meeting hotels are operating, although at less than full capacity. Ratcliffe added that media reports of no available housing are “simply false.” The people who lived in the three hardest-hit areas will have to find alternate housing, but the rest of the areas are fine. And “there is plenty for sale and rent.”

The airport is at about one-third of capacity, reported Ratcliffe, with 53 nonstops serving 22 cities; pre-Katrina, there were 166 nonstops. “The airlines are using the convention calendar to gauge future needs,” she added. In terms of ground transportation, bus service is available to all areas where visitors would go, and more than half of the taxis are in service. No problems have been reported for visitors getting from the airport to their hotels.

Accordingly, Ratcliffe reported, smaller corporate and government meetings have already returned to the city. And most groups with commitments beyond next June, after doing their due diligence, “have made decisions to stay in New Orleans.”

In the meantime, leads for future meetings are multiplying, and “there are deals to be had,” she said. “We’ve been inundated with site visits over the last couple of weeks.”