Cashing In On Custom Culture
Imagine promenading through a colorful collection of jugglers, acrobats and mimes in Lafayette Square, strolling under the stars towards the majestic Gallier Hall and celebrating inside in theme rooms decorated like a Louisiana swamp, a Cajun outpost and a Mardi Gras parade. Champagne is flowing, music is roaring and 2,000 attendees of the International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions convention are buzzing.
It may seem like a night to remember, but it’s just another day at work for Carling Dinkler, the CEO of Custom New Orleans.
“Authenticity, authenticity, authenticity,” he said. It’s the secret to his success. And exploiting the rich culture of New Orleans for his tours, conventions, galas and events is the trick of his trade.
“You don’t need to make it up,” Dinkler said. “It’s all here.”
Dinkler, whose family owned the famed St. Charles Hotel, has been in the destination management consulting industry since 1983, selling “authentic experiences” to corporate groups, cultural visionaries, conventioneers and a celebrity clientele. He organizes and creates huge blowout events, intimate Vodou Blessing ceremonies, tony private shopping excursions, art studio and gallery tours, French Quarter treasure hunts, historical and literary outings, cooking demonstrations with top chefs, fishing expeditions, photo safaris and airboat eco-tours, concerts, cemetery tours and massive battle reenactments.
Tonight, he’s focusing on a free event for the New Orleans Athletic Club’s Community Outreach Winter Program. Chaired by Dinkler’s Custom New Orleans business partner, Chief Creative Officer Morgan Molthrop, tonight’s “Wine & Sign” is part of the NOAC’s lectures series and will showcase 8 local authors at 222 N. Rampart St., New Orleans, from 7:00 p.m. to 9:00 p.m.
Scheduled to autograph, discuss and sell their books at the NOAC are Eddie Boyd, “African American Home Remedies,” (Health); James Nolan, “You Don't Know Me” and “Higher Ground” (Fiction); Richard Campanella, “Geographies Of New Orleans,” “Bienville's Dilemma,” and “Lincoln In New Orleans” (Geography, History); Michael Marshall, “Gallant Creoles” (Civil War); Freddi Evans, “Congo Square” (African American History and Music); Jason Berry, “Up From The Cradle Of Jazz” (Music); Marty Mule, “Game Changers” (Sports) and Molthrop, “Jackson's Playbook” and “Artist Spaces” (History, Art).
The University of Louisiana at Lafayette Press, a sponsor, will serve a free glass of wine to all attendees.
“We’re just trying to be culturally-centric with all our events and experiences,” Dinkler said.
Custom New Orleans sets itself apart by offering insight into the darker side of the city’s past. They don’t do ghost tours, but they do create signature adventures highlighting the history of slavery, Storyville, yellow fever, jazz and prostitution.
“We throw the hoopskirts away,” Dinkler said. “There’s blood on every brick in this city. We stand out by getting it right and offering a provocative viewpoint on the history of New Orleans. We don’t mind stepping outside the box.”
Specialty tours include “Sugar Empire Slavery and Plantation Experience,” “Afro-Creole and African Heritage,” “New Orleans: City of Tragedy and Resurrection since 1718” and “The Free People of Color and Quadroon Ballrooms.”
Many conventions outsource their complete tour programs to Custom New Orleans, who works with independent and in-house events managers to provide a unique schedule and enviable access to New Orleans’ hidden treasures.
Dinkler said his company is also making a splash in the local market by offering pre-event communications via social media platforms. Molthrop’s Barataria Communications, the publishing and PR arm of the company, provides Custom New Orleans’ conventioneers and group participants with Facebook pages for their events, content for their social media outlets, journalistic interviews and articles published on their blogs, Twitter content for continual updates before, during and after events, Instagram photo uploads to generate excitement and access to their library of more than 10,000 original photos of New Orleans and their historical and cultural database for theme ideas.
Barataria also publishes books on their own press, and can create custom-made memory books and cultural gifts for attendees upon their arrival.
“We engage conventioneers even before they step foot in New Orleans,” Dinkler said. “We target would-be attendees, send them tidbits of New Orleans culture and increase their appetite for wanting to be here. Once they’re in the city, we keep them engaged by sending them information from their association or corporation, helping to translate engagement into business. We also create team building campaigns.”
Dinkler, who said he used to own Gray Line Tours and had a staff of more than 350 when he ran a shuttle service to and from the airport, now runs his current company with a core staff of 4, but rapidly expands the ranks when help is needed.
One of those times, Dinkler said, was back in 1988 when he was chosen to produce 3 parties in 3 nights for the Republican National Convention. He calls it the most challenging week in his life, but he successfully pulled off playing host to 2,000 major donors a night at gigantic galas at Gallier Hall, The New Orleans Museum of Art and the Steamboat Natchez.
“Knowledge is key,” he said. “You can’t fake it. You really have to know your venues, hotels, restaurants, caterers, history, bus tours, swamp tours, tour guides… you have to be up on all that stuff.”
Custom New Orleans even customizes its pitches to meeting planners by presenting their proposals on storyboards or video.
“You need to be damn creative to get attention today,” Dinkler said. “You got to set yourself apart. If you stay in one place, and do your business every day, and you take the big with the small, and you do as good a job as you can do, and always be ethical, I think life rewards you with very luxurious opportunities. It’s still hard work, but you can make a nice living.”
Dinkler’s clients include Aetna, American Express, The Audubon Society, Barnes & Noble, Best Buy, Cartier, Farmers Insurance, Getty, Kroger, LSU, Morgan Stanley, Penske International, Rubbermaid, Salvatore Ferragamo and Tulane, to name a few.
Dinkler wouldn’t name celebrity clients but said it’s not unusual to get a call from a famous patron to ask him to plan a decadent theme party, whip up a New Year’s Eve adventure, arrange for a recording session or produce an intimate live performance featuring anyone from Dr. John to Deacon John to John Boutee.
“We have really talented people that live in this crazy town of ours, and we get to have a cup of coffee with them and get to employ them from time to time,” Dinkler said. “We have such an amazing culture and we use it as a backdrop for our tourist experiences.”
Dinkler said his clients have referred to him as a seeing eye dog, since he guides out-of-towners to the unique New Orleans experiences they didn’t even know existed. They also like to say Dinkler provides a 50-yard line experience for 30-yard line prices.
Dinkler said, since the recession, they’re not getting the kind of dollars for entertainment they used to get, but he can work with any budget. From 10 to 3,000 people, from $50-$1,000 a head, Dinkler said the scope of one of his custom affairs ultimately depends on who’s picking up the tab. He said the biggest challenge is getting clients to understand the cost relationship to the value of what they’re getting. But, the biggest reward, he said, is exceeding people’s expectations. “To see a smile of their faces and have very satisfied clients, I can’t tell you how wonderful that makes me feel,” he said.
“There’s a vitality in this community right now that’s really positive,” Dinkler said. “Yes, we have our problems and our potholes, but we’re the greatest city moving forward. I see nothing but good times ahead for New Orleans. I wish I was 20 years younger because it’s going to be a great ride.”
Custom New Orleans