Three years after Katrina, the New Orleans Convention and Visitors Bureau is spreading a message of hope and hospitality.
Mardi Gras drew nearly 1 million visitors to New Orleans this year, the highest number since Hurricane Katrina devastated the city and its tourism industry in late August 2005. On the morning of Fat Tuesday (February 24), national media reported on the event's huge success. Headlines turned grim later in the day after gunmen opened fire on a parade route, injuring seven people.
Within 24 hours of the incident, Kelly Schulz, VP of communications and PR at the New Orleans Convention and Visitors Bureau (NOCVB), had conducted 25 media interviews, in which she stressed Mardi Gras' success, the “isolated” nature of the shootings, and the police department's rapid control of the situation.
“Coverage has been pretty balanced,” Schulz says. “It could have been much... worse. Up until [the shootings], all the [stories] reported that Mardi Gras was recession proof. Any CVB in a big city has to deal with crime. Every visitor we've talked to... said they would come back to Mardi Gras next year.”
Rebuilding an Image
Tourism creates 30% of New Orleans' tax base, and NOCVB's team of five and AOR Weber Shandwick work tirelessly to rebuild the industry and city's image. Schulz says the priority now is to keep generating positive tourism stories.
“The general rule is: celebrate the culture, communicate that we're back to business as usual, and encourage people to experience it for themselves,” Schulz says. “Part of the strategy has been to get away from Katrina messaging. We don't want everything in the context of pre- and post-Katrina.”
Visitors averaged between 8.5 million and 9 million annually before the storm. A record 10.1 million people visited in 2004, but numbers plummeted to 3.7 million in 2006. This year's Mardi Gras attendance is indicative of the overall steady increase of visitors, which hit 7.1 million in 2007. NOCVB did not know the total number of visitors in 2008 at press time, but Schulz expects it to be at least 7.1 million. Given the economy, she says she'll be happy even if the number is flat.
“Tourism is an... image, brand, and impression-based business,” says Stephen Perry, president and CEO of NOCVB. “Billions of dollars of highly visible [worldwide] media coverage [after Katrina] created a sense of absolute doom. PR was... more important than pure advertising by far. It's rare... in PR [that] the stakes are so high. It was literally the fate of an American city.”
Unifying the city's tourism industry has been key to success. In 2006, NOCVB formed the New Orleans Hospitality Industry Public Relations Council to enable communications pros from all tourism-related businesses, as well as local and state government officials, to speak consistently about the recovery. When the shooting news broke on Fat Tuesday, Schulz pushed talking points out through the Council; everyone from cab drivers to government officials were stressing the success of Mardi Gras and the safety of the city.
Messaging has evolved throughout the recovery. Perry says that building trust and credibility were the priorities immediately following the storm.
NOCVB hired WS in early 2007 to help guide and reshape national and international perception. Perry credits the agency for “innovative and creative” thinking, such as taking a New Orleans streetcar on a media tour in cities including New York, Chicago, and Washington, DC. The NOCVB also did media tours in Europe, and it hosted about 700 journalists in New Orleans in both 2007 and 2008.
Rene Mack, president of the travel and lifestyle marketing practice at WS, says that getting journalists, travel industry representatives, and consumers to visit the city was a main priority.
“Turning all those people into advocates was critical,” Mack notes. “[They] tell friends, colleagues, and families that the city is thriving and resilient.”
Perry doesn't expect the economic downturn to impact New Orleans as much as other destinations because post-storm reinvestment has invigorated the local economy and culture. He says current communication themes focus on the city's low cost and high value; its unique, authentic culture; and its abundant CSR and public service opportunities.
NOCVB actively reaches out to business travelers via earned media, such as MSNBC.com and Forbes Traveler. The internal team also develops customized PR and marketing plans to help business clients promote the city to their employees and increase meeting attendance.
Schulz explains that “voluntourism” is drawing both business and leisure travelers, and NOCVB matches groups of visiting volunteers with local organizations in need. Last October, 12,000 Starbucks employees visited New Orleans for an annual meeting, and they helped Habitat for Humanity rebuild houses.
“We now... market CSR/voluntourism as a sales... tool, especially on the corporate meetings side, when some companies are being bashed for having corporate meetings in this economy,” Schulz says.
The team is gearing up for a slew of spring festivals, many of which are free. PR will continue to lead promotion efforts.
“PR is absolutely essential,” Schulz says. “No other destination has been through something exactly like this – a natural disaster and government failure combined. PR is the only tool that can tell the story and communicate the successes. If anything, PR is going to increase in importance.”
This story appears in print as "Back on track"