Conventional Wisdom

Fresh from taking San Antonio’s convention center into the future, Michael Sawaya, the new president and general manager of the New Orleans Ernest N. Morial Convention Center, shares his plans for a “decade of delivery.

Thoughts of conventions bring myriad ideas to mind. For some, they are an opportunity to network and grow as professionals. For others, they are obligations that guarantee rubber chicken luncheons and lumpy hotel beds. But for Michael Sawaya, the new president and general manager of the convention center, conventions mean prosperity and the potential to make New Orleans a tier 1 destination.

There’s no denying the intrinsic role the convention center plays in the tourism and hospitality industry in our region. In 2016 alone, the most recent figures show it held 128 conventions and trade shows, brought in 616,234 out-of-town guests, and generated a total economic impact of $2 billion, a 6-percent increase over the previous year.

In 2016 the convention center was also responsible for 437 direct jobs, 19,734 indirect jobs, $158.4 million in tax revenue for state and local governments, and 11 percent of the city of New Orleans’ total general revenue fund.

After 33 years, the convention center is poised for change, with new leadership at the helm. Sawaya, a 40-year veteran of the hospitality industry and certified hotel administrator, brings his experience and energy to New Orleans from San Antonio, Texas, where he recently oversaw a major redevelopment project for its convention center.

Biz New Orleans had the opportunity to speak with Sawaya in April. Only two months into the job, he was already busy with the convention center's initiatives.

How important are conventions to New Orleans and Louisiana? How would you describe their impact economically?

It’s extremely important. When you think about how we welcome people from all over the world from all different walks of life, whether it’s captains of industry or attendees who are attending different-interest events, the fact that we are a world-renowned destination gives us an opportunity to really have a lot of exposure to many different interest groups and individuals through the course of a year.

About 700,000 visitors a year come to the convention center, and our total economic impact is about $2 billion. That supports 20,000 jobs and tax collections are about $94 million and local collections about $64 million. So we represent about 11 percent of the city’s general fund. We’re just a great economic engine, not only for the hospitality community, but for New Orleans overall at large.

How does our convention center rank nationally?

There’s a common comparison measure of convention centers across the country and that is prime contiguous exhibit space. That means it’s the same quality and it’s connected on one level. From that measure and perspective, we’re the largest in the United States at just over 969,000 square feet. From a standpoint of total sellable space — where we’re talking about the exhibit halls, the ballrooms, the meeting rooms — we are the sixth-largest in the United States…and the best destination in the country.

How does the convention center market itself?

Several different ways. Mainly we target and focus on customers who exhibit at trade shows. We’ll go to shows where we have attendees like Meeting Planners International, the International Association of Exhibit Managers, the International Association of Exhibition Executives or any number of places where our customers are. We’ll go to those shows and set up a booth, just like our customers do here in our buildings, and we’ll have appointments or meet with clients and tell them about our facilities. That’s what every destination does.

In addition to that, the New Orleans Tourism and Marketing Association (NOTMC) and the New Orleans Convention and Visitors Bureau (NOCVB) market for conventions on our behalf. We partner a lot on that effort. They’ll do everything from trade association magazines to online web advertising to international trade shows as well. They do a lot of international marketing, and national marketing of course. And in our case, we are more focused and targeted, but they are the main marketing entity for the convention center.

How do you see the convention center working with the new mayoral administration?

We’ve met with [Mayor] Cantrell and we’ve found she is very supportive. She certainly appreciates the economic impact and importance of the tourism industry to New Orleans. She’s told us that she wants to work collaboratively with the stakeholders in the industry so that we get the best overall result. We’re all very encouraged by her comments and we’re looking forward to her new administration and working as a team.

Can you share some details about the vision plan for the Convention Center District Development and Linear Park Project? 

One of the things that attracted me to New Orleans was this opportunity to really reposition our convention center for success in the future. The first order of business is to have a true headquarter hotel that is in close proximity, and in this case attached, to the convention center. That’s something that is prevalent throughout the country, and most tier 1 destinations, and it’s something we are lacking, so we’re going to address that right off the bat. We’re looking for a 1,200-room hotel to be a headquarters for the conventions to come to New Orleans.

But the first project for that really is a linear park project because first and foremost, we have to provide a safe, attractive destination for our attendees. This project was envisioned several years ago and planned, and now it’s ready to come to fruition. Basically, we have a very long, linear building — it’s actually about a mile long — and it can be monotonous from an attendee’s perspective. We need to address that.

When we do the linear park, we have to first create a multimodal area where we can do bus dropoffs and ride-share before we can close Convention Center Boulevard. We’ll also have a structure that shelters people who are coming in to the building from that multimodal area, and then we’ll have to have an entrance lobby as well. Our intention would be to have an entrance lobby on that end of the building that is complimentary to the new hotel, and attached to the new hotel.

I came here from San Antonio where we just completed a $325 million expansion and San Antonio now has the most modern building in the country. We need to make sure that our facilities in New Orleans are as competitive as we can possibly be. We were originally built in 1984 for the World’s Fair and over the course of time we added to it, so we need some modernizing, not only on the exterior, but on the interior. Our plan is to really change our image to be a modern, convenient and contemporary center that meeting planners will, now and in the future, consider to be a tier 1 destination. That includes technology as well as aesthetic improvements in the meeting rooms and public spaces.

Last, but not least, there is the upriver project. We have separated out the hotel project from the bigger master plan of creating a neighborhood and a destination upriver. We own 47 acres on the river next to the convention center, and part of that will be used to build the hotel, but the surrounding area is going to be an entertainment district and a neighborhood, a mixed-use development that will bring not only residents of New Orleans, but also tourists, together.

With your experience in San Antonio with the convention center expansion and Alamodome renovation, how will that inform your approach to our convention center expansion project?

We spent 10 years studying what a convention center that’s built for the future is all about, including the types of amenities and services, and the design that it would need for it to be ultimately competitive. We got input from our customers, stakeholders and users of the building. In our planning here in New Orleans, we’ve done the same. We had a roadshow where we actually went to Washington, D.C., and Chicago, and we asked our clients what things were important to them and then we came back and made informed decisions on that.

Having been through that process, I got to operate the new building (in San Antonio) for a little over a year and it was encouraging to see that we got those things right. Our intention would be (to) follow that same plan here. The types of meeting rooms, the locations, the aesthetics, the technology, the equipment that we use, all of those types of things will go into our future plan to redevelop our convention center.

You have worked in the hospitality sector in markets around the country in states such as Texas, Indiana, South Carolina and Mississippi. What do you see as our strengths? 

There’s no place like New Orleans: Everybody wants to go to New Orleans. The history, the culture, the friendliness of the people, the convenience of the tourist zone, I call it, how tight-knit everything is. It’s easy to maneuver when you’re an attendee for a convention here. So there are those things that are just inherent to what we built here over all these 300 years that make it attractive, that make people want to be here. It’s just one of those world-class dynamic destinations that will always have appeal. There’s nothing like it. That’s why I’m here.

What do you see as our primary challenges?

We’re going to be under construction for a while. We have to renovate meeting rooms and we need to find the best way to do that with the least amount of business impact. We’re working on a plan for that right now, but it’s something we do have to overcome. Because we are such a busy convention center, it’s very difficult to take it offline to renovate without interrupting the flow. So we’re focused on that and we intend to come up with a plan that limits that interruption. It’s one of our highest priorities.

Closing Convention Center Boulevard, that’s going to create some stress because it’s change and it’s different, and people are going to have to get accustomed to that. The result is going to be fairly quick — we are looking at probably two years with construction. What’s important is people will see it as it develops, and they’ll be excited about what the result’s going to be.

And, of course, the other thing is that we have to get a hotel up and running, and we have to know when we can sell it.

Conventions book so far in the future, you have to track that and then determine which groups you target and what year that it’s going to be open so you can start booking it right out of the gate. We still have to have a development deal that we approve of. We have to get into negotiations with a private developer on that and make sure that we get the best deal for the city and state, and then get the construction done and have it open in time to host some of our dynamic events in the future.

What’s your hope for that?

Until we see the design, it’s difficult to say. I would hope that we could be open for the 2023 NCAA Final Four. That would be a nice target. But again, I don’t want to be unrealistic, and not knowing what they’re going to build and not knowing what their schedule would be, it’s difficult to say. There’s always a big event in New Orleans that we can target to be open for, so it’s a little too preliminary to say that yet, but our intention would be to award a contract to a developer no later than end of May and open negotiations so that that can be under construction this summer.

Who is our competition? A number of cities: I would say San Diego, Atlanta, Orlando, Chicago, San Antonio and San Francisco, along with some new competition from Nashville and Anaheim because they have done new facilities and expanded their facilities as well.

How is the convention center funded? I know there’s a balance in operating revenues and tax revenues. Do you anticipate any of that changing?

We get a percentage of the hotel occupancy tax as part of the Convention and Visitors Bureau. We also get a percentage of the restaurant tax through the participating restaurants here locally. A percentage of RTA (New Orleans Regional Transit Authority) goes to the center as well. There are some other minor sources, but that’s what makes up the majority of our funding. And then there are the revenues from the convention center of course, from our rentals, catering, concessions, audio-visual (and) ticket sales.

The budgets from 2015 to 2018 seem to be relatively stable. Of course, you are about to have major capital expenditures, but are you anticipating a pretty steady revenue line or are you anticipating a drop in revenue from having to close some of your meeting rooms because of construction?

Our intention is not to close any meeting rooms. Our intention is to get the renovations done without any impact to that, and there’s plenty of opportunity to do that when they’re not in use or during move-out. Our intention is to never have any of the facilities offline. So we’re not anticipating from that perspective any negative booking trends. Our expectation is that revenues will continue to grow. And of course once the hotel is open, even more so.  

With your background in hotel management, what have you observed about the hotel industry in New Orleans?

We’re very fortunate that we have a diverse group of hotels and somewhat unique in that we have a lot of independent hotels that are very unique in their design, and historic, but well maintained.

What convention planners are looking for more than anything is they’re looking for not only the number of rooms at different properties, but the distribution of them. They’re looking for different price points as well. The difference between a luxury hotel brand and even a select service hotel, they need that in order to make it work for their group. We’re fortunate that we have not only a great inventory of rooms — close to 50,000 in the region — but we have different price points, and we have specialty hotels that covers almost every segment of the market, whether it’s ultra-luxury or select service.

How do you think hotels and the convention center can work best together?

When we’re bidding on a major conference, the hoteliers have to come together to commit the blocks that we need. Having a headquarter hotel where we have a room blocking agreement as well will help us to put together the blocking using fewer hotels in order to make up what the meeting planner needs with rooms that are in close proximity to the building.

It really is about coming together as a team to make sure that we can be successful in booking major conferences throughout the course of the year.

How would you describe your leadership style?

I would say that I am overwhelmingly a participative leader. I have a great team here at the convention center, people who have been here a long time and have done a great job historically. I’ll say that our operations are solid. Of course, we’ll make some tweaks to it that will reflect some of my experiences, but I’m participative from that perspective.

There are times when I have to be a little more autocratic. If I have experiences that are more than others' in a particular setting, then I’ll tend to be more directive. But overwhelmingly, if I’m not the one who knows the most about a situation, then I like to say that I’ll use my delegator style and depend on those with more experience and expertise in that area in order to take the lead on a project.

What do you see as some national convention business trends?

There’s a lot of things you have to track with the trends. I don’t see convention activity going down. I actually see it improving. This next generation tends to place a lot of value on being together.  They also need technology to work in the buildings, which puts demands on buildings to make sure that you have enough backbone to support the devices that people carry with them. That requires a big investment on the building’s part.

The other thing, of course, is people are looking for a unique, authentic experience and you have to bring that into your building when you’re hosting a convention. It can’t just be a sterile building that could be a convention center anywhere; it has to be reflective of where you are. They want food from the area. It has to be plentiful. It has to well-prepared, and it has to be affordable and varietal. It certainly needs to reflect the culture of the city that we’re in. People are looking for that and they’re looking for unique spaces, whether it’s meetings that are outside or meetings that are in public areas instead of being in a traditional meeting room with four walls.

When we redo meeting rooms, we’re going to take the meeting planner of today and tomorrow into account. In San Antonio, we actually built a meeting room called “The Meeting Room of the Future.” We gathered a group of young architects to tell us what a learning environment for their generation looked like, and it was vastly different than the traditional meeting room. We used those things to design that room there. We’ll take the same approach here in New Orleans.

Favorite book?

I’m a real history buff and currently reading “The General vs. The President,” by H.W. Brands. It’s about the relationship between General Douglas MacArthur and President Harry Truman.

Favorite TV Show? 

“American Idol.”

Who do you look up to?

I literally look up to my 6-foot, 6-inch-tall son, Miles. He’s heading to dental school at the University of Tennessee in Memphis and I am very proud of him, and his brother, Meade, who will be a senior at the University of Texas. They are the guys I want to be when I grow up!

Biggest life lesson learned?

Man plans; God laughs! The secret to success and happiness is having a healthy balance in your life. Faith, family, health, career and social/recreational balance is what’s most important. Any time things get out of balance, happiness and well-being are sacrificed.

Best advice ever received?

In marriage — or in most any successful relationship — you can be right or you can be happy, but you can’t be both!

Favorite New Orleans food (so far)?

Andouille-encrusted sheepshead at Palace Café. Oh, man!


Golf, tennis, yoga, cycling, wining and dining.

Daily habits?

5 a.m. gym time, four cups of dark roast coffee, morning prayers, meeting and greeting internal and external customers, a robust and challenging work agenda and a quiet, sensible dinner with my soulmate, Leslie.

Pet peeve(s)?

Poor communication skills, meetings that don’t start on time, negative attitudes and gossip.

What are you most looking forward to in the next year?

Becoming a true New Orleanian and delivering on the great transformational plans that we have for the convention center. If you liked the success we have had in the past, you’re going to really love our future. For the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center, it’s the Decade of Delivery!