New Orleans' Convention Business Suffers Post-Katrina
ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
Before Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans was a convention town. After the storm, organizers have had to cancel or reschedule hundreds of those meetings and conferences. As Tanya Ott reports from member station WBHM in Birmingham, Alabama, there are losers and winners.
TANYA OTT reporting:
In the first few days after Hurricane Katrina hit, officials with the New Orleans Metropolitan Convention and Visitors Bureau had to make some pretty tough phone calls, canceling 200 large and medium-sized conferences and scores more smaller corporate meetings. Stephen Perry is the bureau's president and CEO.
Mr. STEPHEN PERRY (President and CEO, New Orleans Metropolitan Convention and Visitors Bureau): Between September 1st and next March 31st we canceled nearly $3 1/2 billion worth of business in New Orleans.
OTT: Tourism is New Orleans' biggest business, generating up to $9 billion a year in revenue and employing 85,000 people. So the cancellations are a major hit. But they can also be financially devastating to groups that rely on their annual conventions for revenue, according to Richard Coughlan, business professor at the University of Richmond.
Professor RICHARD COUGHLAN (University of Richmond): In fact, examples with smaller organizations the annual meeting actually provides, you know, much of the operating budget for the entire year.
OTT: That's true for the Society of Public Health Education or SOPHE, whose annual conference was scheduled for November in New Orleans.
Mr. BRIAN GEIGER (Convention Planning Committee, Society of Public Health Education): The conference is necessary in order to keep the organization running.
OTT: SOPHE convention planning committee member Brian Geiger says they've rescheduled for Philadelphia in December, but he worries attendance will be down.
Mr. GEIGER: You haven't been able to promote this as well because all of the marketing materials that went out six months ago--the colorful brochures, the Web page, all of the direct mail--has been with a New Orleans address and a New Orleans date.
OTT: Geiger says he's nervous the sudden change in location will mean a big hit for his group's bank account. But large organizations, like the AARP, planned their conferences years in advance and Director of Member Events Bruce Sanders says there was no way they could reschedule.
Mr. BRUCE SANDERS (Director of Member Events, AARP): AARP's national event is not a professional convention where the attendees are on expense account and can simply change their schedule to adjust to it. A third or more of our attendees are baby boomers, full-time employed so they have to take time off from work to participate.
OTT: In the meantime, big cities like Los Angeles, Atlanta and Orlando have been circling like vultures, hoping to swoop up some of the displaced conventions. But New Orleans tourism officials like Stephen Perry are already gearing up for the fight to bring back the convention business.
Mr. PERRY: The city's largest economic sector took a major hit, but the positive thing was the tourism infrastructure ended up being the least damaged part of the entire city. We expect the tourism industry and the convention and meetings business to actually lead the rebound here in New Orleans and be the leader also in getting a lot of the working population home.
OTT: Even when New Orleans revs up its media campaign to draw the conventions back to town, Professor Coglin says it may be a tough sell, at least for a while.
Prof. COGLIN: I think that the psychological impact on the meeting planner on whose shoulders, you know, these events fall is just so great right now that it's going to be quite an effort to convince folks that it's good to come back.
OTT: The visitor's bureau Perry says he's up for the challenge. He says by Christmas 95 percent of New Orleans' hotels will be open and operating. But the date he's got circled on the calendar is February 28th, Mardi Gras, the soft reopening for the Big Easy's tourism industry. For NPR News, I'm Tanya Ott.
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