Leading the Charge

Tourism is coming back to New Orleans, in good part because of the work of these three women.

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To say that the pandemic was bad for the tourism industry in New Orleans is a bit like saying that eating a steady diet of beignets is bad for your health. Some industry leaders consider COVID-19’s consequences to have been even more severe than Hurricane Katrina’s.

“The pandemic was absolutely devastating,” stated Kelly Schulz, senior vice president of communications and public relations at New Orleans & Company, the regional tourism marketing corporation. “Many people lost their livelihoods. Business owners drained their life savings to try and stay afloat. The city lost billions of dollars in business from special events, festivals, conventions, etc. It was a huge loss economically, but also emotionally for our residents who love our culture and way of life.

“The tourism industry never thought anything would be worse than Hurricane Katrina, until COVID. After Katrina, the entire world came to our region’s aid. Planning a trip to New Orleans to help the recovery was considered the patriotic and philanthropic thing to do. But during COVID the entire world was in the same situation, and like us, [they] are still working to rebuild lost tourism business.”

To cite just a few examples of the deep hit the industry took:

According to the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics, the leisure and hospitality sector employed more than 90,00 people at the beginning of 2020. By April 2020 — just four months later — that number had dropped to 43,000 people.

In 2019, the average number of travelers per month going through Louis Armstrong International Airport was 609,241. In 2020, that number plummeted to 146,086, with monthly lows of 17,747 in April and 45,267 in May.

By May 2020, more than half of the restaurants in New Orleans were closed. While many survived via tactics like providing small catering jobs and meals to go, this put a huge hole in the dining out culture that not only attracts visitors but is a core piece of the local fabric as well.

The number of hotel room nights booked for conventions in 2019 was 1,411,119. In 2020, that number dropped by over 1 million room nights, to 303,435, with the vast majority of those occurring in the first months of the year, before the pandemic struck.

With tourism being the largest economic sector in New Orleans — hiring the greatest number of people, bringing in the largest amount of tax revenue, generating more than $10 billion in annual spending before the pandemic — the grave damage to this industry created ripple effects across the entire greater New Orleans area.

The good news is that tourism is rebounding well in 2023. Employment in the sector is now back to nearly 80,000 people. Last year, despite the emergence of the Omicron COVID variant early on, hotel room nights booked were 82% of pre-pandemic averages. Bookings to date, leads generated and other data point to the upward trend continuing strongly throughout this year. The airport is already on track to set a new record for passengers coming through. Most important for residents, the New Orleans restaurant scene is healthy again.

Achieving this recovery has required an industry-wide effort. The lessons learned while coming back after Katrina — and to a lesser degree the BP oil spill — have been valuable, but innovation, teamwork and the underlying strength and experience within the sector have led the way.

“The relationships of our account executives with convention planners and travel professionals is strong,” said Kim Priez, senior vice president of travel and tourism at New Orleans & Company. “We called upon those relationships to rebuild business.”

Priez noted that “the return of conventions and their attendees has been a major element, complementing the return of festivals, weddings, social travel and sporting events.”

The importance of that last item cannot be understated, and perhaps no single event had a greater recuperative impact than the NCAA men’s basketball Final Four in March 2022. This was the first Final Four that the public could attend since the start of the pandemic, which created huge interest and demand — and showcased the city’s readiness to again host visitors. It was followed by the Miss Universe pageant a few months later, which also put a media spotlight on New Orleans being open for business.

Another fortuitous marketing opportunity, also sports-related, came last fall when the Saints traveled to London to play the Minnesota Vikings.

“We had New Orleans-branded taxis driving the streets of London, complemented by Tube station ads,” said Priez.

The return of everything from cruise ships to Jazz Fest has further boosted tourism’s recovery. New events — such as the recently conducted New Orleans Book Festival at Tulane University and NOLAxNOLA, which features multiple local music and performance spaces — created new attractions for potential visitors. In addition, despite the downturn in guest numbers, a surprising number of new hotels have opened in the city, ranging across the spectrum from major international chains like the Four Seasons and the Virgin to boutique operations like the St. Vincent and the Frenchmen.

Underlying all of this is simply the worldwide desire to travel again.

“People are ready to travel!” exclaimed Rachel Avery, New Orleans & Company’s director of convention services and special events. “Planners and attendees are craving a sense of normalcy. Confidence in travel is increasing.”

This hits the sweet spot for the city, according to Avery.

“One of New Orleans’ strengths has always been the hospitality that our city delivers. Our residents take such pride in the city we all live and work in, and this love and sense of welcome truly translates to our guests. Visitors are eager to get back to New Orleans to experience our legendary hospitality.”

For anyone who was unaware of the area’s stature as a place to visit, the inclusion of New Orleans as a top global travel destination in several “best places” lists further assisted local marketing efforts. U.S. News and World Report currently has New Orleans as its top food city in the nation, and Forbes slotted New Orleans at No. 2 on its “Top 50 Places in the World” list in 2019.

As the lead entity for marketing tourism in the region, New Orleans & Company pushes many buttons and covers many bases. While the types of visitors, and the reasons they visit, vary greatly, the base of the industry is business travel: conventions, trade shows and corporate events. At the same time, this is the most competitive aspect of tourism, and staying in the top tier of business destinations is a never-ending effort.

“Our Convention Services team works hand in hand with Sales and Group Marketing,” explained Avery. “We present a united front when we speak of, and educate planners about, New Orleans. Our teams work hard to connect the planners with the best possible local vendors, be they hotels, restaurants, venues, attractions and more. And we provide planners with the most up-to-date and accurate information about the city. This transparent picture gives planners a sense of confidence when planning.”

Quality facilities are a major driver for convention business, and the addition of the new hotels, along with ongoing improvements at the Ernest N. Morial New Orleans Convention Center, help keep the city positioned well. Current projections are that this component of the sector will be back at pre-pandemic levels by 2024.

Although New Orleans has inherent advantages in the competition for leisure travelers, just as much work goes into cultivating this type of business.

“I manage a strong team of account executives and international representation firms,” said Priez. “Together we pursue and market to leisure groups and travel wholesalers, inviting them to come to New Orleans.”

To prepare for the post-pandemic opportunities, New Orleans & Company developed and implemented a sales and marketing plan targeting both new and existing accounts. As one example of this work, Priez and her team hosted an international travel trade show in New Orleans as soon as the United States borders reopened for travel, flying in 60 high-profile clients. Meanwhile, they reinstated international representation firms in five foreign countries.

To reach potential travelers directly, New Orleans & Company uses a variety of paid advertising and marketing strategies. However, given the global nature of tourism, and the huge number of publications, websites, blogs, and social media accounts that focus on travel, attracting coverage of the city across various media is even more important.

“Every day, we find creative ways to keep the New Orleans brand top of mind among potential visitors,” said Schulz. “We do that by working with the local, national and international media, travel journalists and social media influencers. We share good news about New Orleans culture with the world so that people will want to visit.”

This outreach takes many forms.

“We’ve prepared thousands of customized itineraries for journalists to come explore New Orleans and report on our amazing people, music, food, attractions and culture,” Schulz elaborated. “We provide a variety of tools to our members to help them sell and promote the city, such as monthly good news talking points.”

Schulz herself is willing to go above and beyond to get the word out: While everyone else was enjoying their Blood Marys and Mimosas on Mardi Gras morning, she did 33 consecutive live TV interviews from along the parade route. “In four to six hours, we reached 20 million viewers in 30 cities,” she reported.

While substantial progress has been made on reinvigorating regional tourism, considerable work remains, as do any number of obstacles.

For domestic travelers, Priez cited hurdles such as “increased travel costs, reduced flight options nationwide, more aggressive competition, and visitor confidence. Internationally, visa wait times, increased travel costs, reduced overseas air service, currency exchange rates, and some areas of the world that are slowing returning to overseas travel.”

In the bigger picture, Schulz observed that “we are in the business of sharing good news, but unfortunately, the news is not always good. Cities around the country are dealing with crime, homelessness, polarizing legislation, climate change and other factors that affect the reputation of a destination. Of course, it’s not just about negative headlines or visitor perception, it’s about making New Orleans safer and stronger for all those who live and work here.”

Sharp-eyed readers will have noted that all three of these senior New Orleans & Company leaders are women, and in fact, the tourism sector boasts a robust female presence in top positions.

“At New Orleans & Company we have dynamic females in leadership roles and many female team members who perform at high levels across departments,” Avery said. “And there are incredible women at the helm of destination management organizations, hotels, boutiques, restaurants, and many businesses that comprise the hospitality industry.”

“As a single mom to a teenage daughter, I am proud to be part of a city and organization full of strong women,” added Schulz. “When I look around the New Orleans & Company executive table, I see women leading sales, HR, finance and executive office operations. We all worked hard and paid our dues over decades to earn a seat at that table.

“It’s also up to us to mentor and shape future women leaders,” she continued. “The work we do at New Orleans & Company drives the economy and employs nearly 100,000 people. We must always act in their best interest.”

Indeed, while the tourism sector is still experiencing its share of turbulence, with many challenges yet to be overcome, the New Orleans & Company leaders see this as a prime time, not just for women, but for anyone interested in the business, to walk through that door.

“The hospitality industry offers many opportunities to those who are eager to learn and progress through the field,” Priez concluded. “This has never been truer than now, as the industry continues to rebuild from the losses incurred during the pandemic.”