On Site: What’s New for Meetings in New Orleans

While in New Orleans, a city known for its longstanding and colorful traditions, Convene Senior Editor Jennifer N. Dienst finds a wave of revitalization is forging a new kind of visitor experience.

Author: Jennifer N. Dienst       

rendering of park with people walking

Outside of the New Orleans Ernest N. Morial Convention Center, the proposed 39-acre River District will offer a mix of work-live-play spaces in a compact, walkable neighborhood. (Photos Courtesy The National Wwii Museum)

It’s a sunny and crisp afternoon in late March, and the New Orleans Ernest N. Morial Convention Center (NOENMCC) is quiet, but not for long. Deep inside the exhibition hall, crews have begun the load-in for the Bronner Bros. beauty show, billed as the largest multicultural beauty show in the world. Just two days prior, higher education software company Ellucian wrapped its 4,000-person conference, and before that, the 2023 World Congress of Cardiology packed the halls with nearly 17,000 health-care professionals.

I’m touring the center as part of a sponsored fam trip with New Orleans & Company in celebration of Global Meetings Industry Day on March 30, and the facility is just one of several examples of the destination’s glow up. A steady stream of events, along with the fact that the center is now nearly 40 years old, has prompted the kickoff of a $557-million capital improvement plan that is slowly overhauling the building in phases, both inside and out.

courtyard dining space with green and orange table umbrellas

For more than 70 years, Brennan’s has been a New Orleans’ culinary fixture. Housed in a 228-year-old, salmon-hued building on Royal Street, the restaurant can host private events inside and out with its open-air courtyard.

Tim Hemphill, the center’s vice president of sales, marketing, and events, and Linda Baynham, the center’s director of sustainability and CSR, pointed out a few of the new features that helped it become the first convention center in the U.S. last year to earn certification under LEED v4.1 Operations and Maintenance — like the exhibit hall’s new LED lights (lit in Mardi Gras green and purple, naturally), the installation of 87 water bottle filling stations, and a team dedicated to waste reduction, composting, and recycling. The latter was put to the test while hosting Ellucian the week prior, when the company held zerowaste lunches. Achieving net zero meant getting creative: For example, attendees weren’t always sure what items should go into composting and recycling bins, so Baynham designated a team of employees as “compost captains” to help attendees sort their waste in real-time.

The more we explored the center, the more examples I found of this kind of ingenuity — particularly in how the team is reworking spaces and the overall experience to accommodate the expanding array of groups it hosts. For instance, where telephone booths once stood, exhibits now display portraits of historic and recent locals of note. And instead of piping in the typical top-40 soundtrack, the lobby is filled with tunes by local jazz musicians.

Over the next few years, the center will continue to add new spaces. Outside, a new outdoor plaza already anchors the entrance along with a new linear pedestrian park, which replaced a busy car thoroughfare. Eventually, a new ballroom will offer panoramic riverfront views. And the authority, working in tandem with an investment group, will soon transform the surrounding area into a new 39-acre, mixed-use neighborhood known as the River District.

dining room with waterfront views

The French fare and stylings of Chemin à la Mer at the new Four Seasons Hotel New Orleans makes it easy for groups to laissez les bon temps rouler (let the good times roll).

In Full Swing

Less than a half-mile away, the 280-room Four Seasons Hotel New Orleans, which opened in 2021 at the foot of Canal Street just steps from the French Quarter and the Warehouse Arts District, is at the crux of an ongoing revival of New Orleans’ riverfront. Close to Harrah’s Casino — where a $325-million renovation and rebranding as well as a new hotel tower is in the works — the Four Seasons has been designed to soak up its prime views of the Mississippi River. Many of its meeting rooms feature floor-to-ceiling windows and terraces, and a fifth-floor pool deck provides a cooling respite from the famously relentless Louisiana heat.

On the afternoon we visited, the hotel was in full swing. Just off the lobby, the Chandelier Bar buzzed with the chatter of guests and the rattle of cocktail shakers beneath a canopy of 15,000 crystals. We headed upstairs to Chemin a la Mer, one of three F&B experiences at the hotel, where we dined on fresh oysters, shrimp, and gumbo while sipping on French 75 cocktails — a delightful spritz made with champagne and gin.

For a city of its size, New Orleans already has an impressive collection of luxury hotels — historic properties like The Roosevelt New Orleans, A Waldorf Astoria Hotel come to mind. But in recent years, that inventory has multiplied with the opening of boutique properties like the ornate Maison de la Luz in the Warehouse District and Hotel Saint Vincent in the Garden District, a spunky 75-room hotel that frequently hosts live local music and burlesque shows.

For groups interested in American history, another recent addition stands out — the Higgins Hotel & Conference Center, part of Hilton’s Curio Collection. The property’s 230 guest rooms, F&B spaces, and 18,000 square feet of meeting space are all an elegant ode to American history — and in keeping with the National WWII Museum next door. The hotel and museum frequently collaborate for visiting groups, and on the evening we visited, we seamlessly moved from dinner and drinks at the hotel’s rooftop to a private showing of its new light and sound experience, “Expressions of America,” shown in the museum’s outdoor plaza. Using the museum’s facade as a projection backdrop, the show envelops viewers with the music, stories, and faces of World War II.

audience looking up at blue-lit stage

“Expressions of America,” an evening sound and light experience at The National WWII Museum, tells the story of the war experience through the words of veterans and their loved ones.

It’s a moving experience that is sure to resonate with its steady stream of visitors — the museum currently ranks second among top-rated tourist destinations in the U.S. on TripAdvisor. Immersive experiences are also on tap at Vue Orleans, a new 360-degree platform and interactive cultural exhibit at the top of the former World Trade Center, the same building that houses the Four Seasons hotel. Besides some of the best views of the city, the venue offers a high-tech museum experience, where visitors can interact with digital exhibits where actors cosplay local historical figures. That may seem like a hokey concept, but the content is top notch — the museum tapped Lawrence N. Powell, a Tulane professor and author of The Accidental City: Improvising New Orleans, to take the lead on the narrative woven into the exhibits.

It’s another example of one of New Orleans’ most powerful assets — its intellectual and cultural capital. Later that evening, we stopped in at New Orleans Entrepreneur Week (NOEW) 2023. In between startup pitches, speaker Bonin Bough — marketing executive, investor, and author who has worked with brands like Mondelez and PepsiCo — spoke on how culture is the most important and fastest driver of success, whether it’s a startup, an event, or a place. “New Orleans has the ability to draw because it has the cultural relevance that people seek,” he said, adding that the city’s younger population and higher-education institutions contribute greatly to that strength: “You all are driving the pool of investments.”

Jennifer N. Dienst is senior editor at Convene.

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