America’s biggest Sunday night returns to New Orleans for a tenth time, but this time, it’s different.
I remember watching the news in late August 2005.
As the circle known as Hurricane Katrina churned across the Gulf of Mexico on CNN’s weather map, a guest on Larry King Live wondered if any of New Orleans would remain after the storm crashed on its shores. I was a senior in college in a nowhere town in the cornfields of Indiana and far removed from any body of water that could create a monster. I had never been to New Orleans, only heard of its magic through friends who had spent time in the city. When I went to sleep that night, I remember worrying that I might never actually get to experience New Orleans first-hand, that the city might become America’s Atlantis.
For those who had already fallen in love with the city, those worries were all too real. In the days and weeks that followed, those who called New Orleans home were living the headlines that people like me were reading and watching.
“There were moments when I worried that people weren’t going to come back to visit,” Kelly Schulz, vice president, communications and public relations, New Orleans CVB and New Orleans native, says. “We had horrific brand damage to the reputation of the city.”
Born and raised in St. Bernard Parish, Schulz was one of many who felt the devastation of Hurricane Katrina first-hand. Her family lost their home to the storm as the parish’s levees were no match for the 25-foot storm surge. At the time, Schulz was working at Meeting Professionals International in Dallas, but the aftermath of Katrina called her home.
“I felt like coming home to work at the CVB was my way of contributing to the rebuilding of the city,” Schulz says.
Schulz returned home to her new position at the CVB to find a city in despair. Many of her new colleagues had lost their homes to the storm, too. Even as they were sleeping on couches of friends around the country, they were calling planners to reschedule conventions.
The convention center was closed. The Superdome was closed. The Hyatt Regency was closed. In 2006, New Orleans welcomed just 3 million visitors, a number that represented serious challenges for a city that was used to an annual average of 8.5 million visitors.
2008: A City On the Rebound
By the time I finally had the chance to discover New Orleans, the city had already overcome many of those challenges. When I visited in the spring of 2008, I walked through the French Quarter to eat at the legendary
Galatoires, and the crowds were already back in full force. Thanks to the dedication of many volunteers and the hard work at the CVB, New Orleans had welcomed more than 7 million visitors the year after Katrina.
Still, there was plenty of work left to finish. The storm had submerged an estimated 80 percent of the city. While the most significant damage had not impacted the French Quarter and the heart of the tourist district, the signs of destruction remained in many outlying areas.
2013: A City Reborn
Today, any concerns that the rebuilding process might be too much are long, long gone.
“This is my hometown and maybe we don’t need to talk about New Orleans being on the way back anymore,” Tom Benson, owner of the New Orleans Saints, said after the announcement that the city had won the bid for the big game. “New Orleans is back and today is proof.”
In 2013, the memory of Katrina makes the upcoming Sunday evening much bigger than two teams facing off in the Super Bowl. When millions of viewers tune in, they’ll be watching more than the story of two brothers on opposing sidelines, the closing chapter of a soon-to-retire linebacker or the surprising breakout of a second-string quarterback - - they’ll be seeing the comeback story of New Orleans reach its full potential. This year marks the tenth time that the city will host America’s biggest game and the first since Katrina.
Today, the brand damage that Schulz remembers from late 2005 has been much more than simply repaired. New Orleans has reclaimed its place as a can’t-miss city.
Those negative headlines from years ago have been replaced with plenty of accolades: the distinction of “America’s Favorite City” by Travel + Leisure readers, a spot as one of the Top 10 Cities in the United States in the 2012 Conde Nast Traveler’s Readers’ Choice Awards and one of CNN Travel’s most romantic cities in the world. The list goes on for New Orleans.
Big Meetings in the Big Easy
While more than 100,000 visitors will enjoy plenty of the most recent additions to New Orleans throughout the week, all the preparation for the big game will extend much further than Sunday night for New Orleans’ group business.
“We’ve been able to say to convention planners, ‘if the NFL can bring the Super Bowl to New Orleans, you should feel good about bringing your group of 10,000 attendees here, too,’” Schulz says.
With the most recent additions, planners can feel better than ever, too. There’s a new 60,000 square foot Great Hall in the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center. The Louis Armstrong International Airport just completed a massive $300 million renovation. The New Orleans culinary scene is bigger than ever with more than 1,300 restaurants where guests can sample the finest in Cajun cooking. The Hyatt Regency recently reopened, and in the fall 2013 opening, guests will stroll down a completely transformed Riverwalk Mall.
“As a native of the city, it’s been exciting to be part of everything that’s happening here,” Schulz says. “New Orleans is so much stronger than it was before Katrina.”
That strength will shine in the spotlight this Sunday. For more on what the newest additions to New Orleans could mean for your meeting, visit the New Orleans CVB website.
Photos courtesy of the New Orleans Convention & Visitors Bureau.