New Orleans Fights Image of a Destroyed City

New Orleans says its convention business is coming back, and this year will reach 70 percent of its pre-Katrina level. Officials say the city still has to overcome the negative images that many people have of the city.

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A year and a half after Katrina, here's a bright spot in New Orleans. The city's convention business has bounced back. Tourism officials say nearly three fourths of the conventions booked prior to Katrina will actually come to town. They say their biggest challenge now is getting the word out to meeting planners that yes, New Orleans is ready to host your convention.

NPR's Greg Allen has more.

GREG ALLEN: Before Katrina, handling conventions is something that New Orleans did well. And getting that business back has been a top priority. The city lost $2 billion during the nine months the Ernest Morial Convention Center was closed, a big blow to this tourist-based economy. That's why the recent annual meeting of the Health Care Information and Management System Society, with nearly 25,000 registered attendees, was so important.

Mr. JOE PARNELL(ph): The city was cleaner than I remember it being for this type of an event.

ALLEN: Joe Parnell knows what he's talking about. He's a former New Orleans resident who now lives and works in the Atlanta area for Athena Health, one of the exhibitors at the Health Information Convention. Before the convention, Parnell says, there was a lot of grousing in the industry that this year New Orleans might not be the best place to gather.

Mr. PARNELL: A lot of people felt as if that part of the city wasn't actually back to fully operational. There was also some concerns about the fact that we were actually having a convention in a fairly famous place during Katrina, that being the convention center.

ALLEN: As it turned out, Parnell says, New Orleans was more than ready. The convention center, a scene of desperation in the days after Katrina, was great, he says. Cab drivers and store owners seemed friendlier than usual. A fact about New Orleans is that many of the areas frequented by visitors - the central business district, the French Quarter, parts of uptown and the Garden District - were left largely unscathed by Katrina.

Eighteen months later nearly every major hotel has reopened. There are now some 31,000 rooms available compared with 38,000 before the storm. Flights in and out of Louis Armstrong International Airport are at 75 percent their pre-Katrina level. Ninety percent of the city's restaurants are back.

Kelly Schulz, with the city's Convention and Visitors Bureau, says the challenge now is getting that word out to potential visitors around the country. To help do that, the Convention and Visitors Bureau recently hired Weber Shandwick, a public-relations firm that will put together a 10-city media tour to promote New Orleans among meeting planners. Schulz says after 18 months of post-Katrina coverage New Orleans has an image problem.

Mr. KELLY SCHULZ (New Orleans Convention and Visitors Bureau): I think some people aren't quite sure. They don't know if you come to New Orleans as a visitor, what is it going to be like? And when they come here they find that the best part of the city, where they are, is alive and well.

Some other neighborhoods in the outlying parts of the city, yes, they're rebuilding and they have a long way to go, but the experience for visitors is the same.

ALLEN: Schulz believe it will be another two years before New Orleans gets back all of its old convention business. In the meantime, she says, the city has been picking up a lot of smaller, corporate meetings, groups like Whirlpool, Anheuser-Busch, Coca-Cola and others who bring in several hundred or a thousand people.

Many of the groups are coming to New Orleans not just because of the ready availability of rooms and meeting space but also because they want to help. As part of the meeting schedule, many conferences are scheduling work days in the community where visitors may help clean up yards or build houses.

At the Sheraton Hotel downtown, Suzanne Austin(ph) was relaxing with four coworkers in the lounge after a day cleaning out houses. She's with Gables Residential, a property-management company that decided to hold its annual meeting here in part so that employees could contribute to the city's rebuilding.

Ms. SUZANNE AUSTIN: And it just turned out to be a real bonus. I mean, we were all just sitting here talking about it right now, how huge our hearts are right now. It feels great. It feels great. And all the people that were living there in the houses were actually there and came out to see us, and they were all crying when we were done.

ALLEN: As important as their volunteer work is to the city, Austin says she and her co-workers recognize they have another duty as visitors to New Orleans: to spend money and have fun.

Greg Allen, NPR News, New Orleans.

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