Tourism Exec Warns of Challenges Ahead

NEW ORLEANS – At a tourism industry event Tuesday at the downtown Marriott, New Orleans & Company President and CEO Stephen Perry cheered the industry’s successes while warning about challenges ahead. New Orleans & Company, formerly the New Orleans Convention & Visitors Bureau, is the destination marketing organization and private economic development corporation responsible for selling the city to potential visitors.

First the good news: New Orleans & Company’s annual report says that the city welcomed 18.5 million visitors in 2019. Those visitors spent $9.1 billion and sustained more than 92,000 jobs while generating $555 million in taxes. The bad news? Perry told the audience that after years of growth, the number of visitors to downtown hotels was slightly down last year.

“Those of you in the hotel business know that we’ve been on a 10-year roll,” he said. “Kind of like the stock market. it’s been kind of a bull market – we’ve had 3, 4, 5 percent growth each year. Well, in 2019, the downtown hotels, the ones that define our industry? Down 2.6 percent.”

In addition, Perry said, the city’s salespeople will be working with a smaller budget in 2020 and in years to come.

“There’s a big elephant in the room … and we should talk about it for a little bit,” Perry told the audience of hoteliers, restaurateurs and tourism pros.

He was referring to negotiations last year between the city and tourism groups that resulted in the city taking a bigger share of the revenue from hotel and short-term rental taxes. In addition, most of the staff and functions of the former New Orleans Tourism and Marketing Corporation – the group formerly responsible for promoting leisure tourism – have been assumed by New Orleans & Company.

All in all, Perry said tourism boosters are working with a 2020 budget that’s about $4.5 million less than last year’s.

“This past year was the most difficult one in our industry that any of us has lived through other than Katrina because it’s changed the landscape for us,” he said. “There was a lot of discussion about how it seemed that the mayor and our industry were just in a constant tug of war and the reality is that we were – and that’s because our city has serious problems and we can’t kick the can down the road anymore.”

Perry talked about the challenges of finding money for upgrades to the city’s infrastructure and other essentials while also investing in the things that will attract visitors and their tax dollars.

One of the investments he mentioned is a $1 billion convention center improvement plan that has its share of detractors. Boosters believe it will kick start the city’s convention business but opponents say that similar projects around the country have not produced the desired result.

Another major project is the planned $450 million Superdome renovation, which began after the College Football Playoff National Championship Game.

“We need to improve the Superdome to be able to host final fours, college football championships and to have an NFL team stay and prosper,” said Perry. “It’s not just about whether we have a football or basketball team but whether we remain at the epicenter of American sports.”

Perry acknowledged that finding the funds can be a challenge.

“These are hard decisions especially in a city that has a lot of needs, so what do we do – we have to figure out how to come together regardless of party and regardless of where we’re located in the state,” he said. “All we’re looking for is rational outcomes and things that move the needle economically because there’s one thing about our industry that’s different than every other business in this town: when we prosper, people on every street in every neighborhood do better.”

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