With New Orleans' image still battered after Katrina, visitors bureau works to rebuild tourism industry
"Seeing is believing." That is the message that New Orleans hopes will bring the city back from the precipice of despair.
The city, once one of America's premier travel, tourism, and convention destinations, lost not only property and people in the wake of Hurricane Katrina; it also lost its reputation as a sought-after town for tourists from all parts of the country. And because tourism is the city's most lucrative industry, rebuilding the travel trade became a top priority when city officials began planning to restore some semblance of life to the crumbling capital of the bayou.
The bulk of the task fell to the New Orleans Metropolitan Convention and Visitors Bureau (CVB), the local government body whose job had seemed much easier when it was worried about controlling the crowds for Mardi Gras rather than exhorting people to come in the first place. "From what research we've done, we know that the brand that is New Orleans is badly damaged," says Mary Beth Romig, CVB director of communications and PR. "That's what we're working very hard to repair."
The 15 months since Katrina struck in late August 2005 have produced a million stories of groups and individuals bouncing back from seemingly hopeless odds. The CVB has its own tale. Most of its employees were displaced by the storm, but a core group returned to work immediately. The National Guard had taken over the CVB offices, so Louisiana's lieutenant governor offered his office space as temporary quarters - and later, local restaurant The Bourbon House donated its upstairs space. The CVB began to track down staff and posted daily messages on its home page with city status reports during the initial information-starved time.
Then, it got back to the real work.
"The most immediate concern was to relocate, or help to relocate, the [visiting] meetings that were in the immediate future," says Romig. But the situation quickly evolved from one of helping clients relocate to working hard to retain their business. "It became clearer," she says, "that indeed, by the spring we would be in good shape."
The CVB succeeded in retaining 330 meetings and conventions for 2006, just under half of what was booked pre-Katrina. But considering the news photos coming out of the city following the storm, that figure is impressive. While the destruction prompted some groups to stick with the city to help it, and others to turn tail and cancel immediately, the vast middle of wavering conventioneers became one of the CVB's prime targets. The American Library Association was the first major group to hold a convention after the storm; most recently, the National Association of Realtors, persuaded by a number of CVB-hosted visits to see that the town was truly rebuilt, brought 25,000 attendees to the newly renovated New Orleans convention center just last month.
"We have found in almost every single case, once we were able to welcome the meeting planner... down here for look-see," Romig says, "then they were reassured."
Mardi Gras fell on the six-month anniversary of the storm, a moment Romig calls "a flagpole stuck in the ground that the city was ready to welcome tourists back."
The message delivered to potential tourists was simple, she says: "The best thing that you can do to help New Orleans is to come."
Besides holding the line on the convention and tourism business, the CVB has been tasked with helping manage the flood of media coverage that followed the actual floods in the streets. Although Romig grumbles that the national media "is not necessarily our friend" - citing Brian Williams' preference for disaster-ridden background shots rather than picturesque ones, and a general unwillingness to pursue "good news" stories - she acknowledges that reporters play a major role in telling the city's story. For the first anniversary of Katrina, the CVB helped plan and run a media center for 10 days, credentialing more than 700 worldwide media.
"Our goal was... not to paint a rosy picture," says Romig, "but to try to put forth as much good news and facts as possible."
John Schwartz, a New York Times science reporter who has been visiting New Orleans monthly since the end of the storm, praises CVB head Steve Perry as a straight shooter with a good handle on hard facts. Schwartz notes that the city's tourism resurgence has been helped by the fact that famous tourist districts were spared the brunt of Katrina's devastation, while poorer, less-visited areas still have not been rebuilt.
"The places that you went before as a tourist are [still] tremendous," he says, "except that there aren't any other tourists there."
New Orleans is hoping to change that soon. The CVB is set to receive up to $8 million in government funds to launch a major rebranding campaign, but the hurricane's mark will never leave the city. Schwartz tells of visiting a fancy restaurant after the storm and admitting at the door that he had neglected to bring the required formal jacket.
"It's alright, sir," the maitre d' told him. "We're Katrina casual."
At a glance
New Orleans Metropolitan Convention and Visitors Bureau
PRESIDENT AND CEO:
n/a; budget varies yearly based on city tax revenue
Orlando, Las Vegas, New York, Miami
KEY TRADE TITLES:
"We read them all," says PR/comms director Mary Beth Romig
Kelly Schulz, comms and PR VP
Mary Beth Romig, comms and PR director
Erica Papillion, comms coordinator
Christine Decuir, media services coordinator
Marketing services agencies: Trumpet Advertising (advertising and marketing)