|By Rick Alm, The Kansas City Star, Mo.
Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News
Sep. 6, 2005 - Twenty-four hours after Hurricane Katrina flattened New Orleans and much of the rest of the Gulf Coast, phones started ringing at the Kansas City Convention & Visitors Association.
Fall is the peak of Southern states' convention season and now scores of organizations face moving or canceling their events.
"Six major convention groups are in play right now and we suspect we're going to get a lot more," said Rick Hughes, association president.
Kansas City hotels and others are striving to guarantee the same rates and deals the groups had contracted for in other cities -- and then some. Hughes said the local hotel industry has pledged to donate $10,000 to hurricane relief funds on behalf of any group that relocates its event here.
New Orleans has been ordered evacuated for at least the remainder of September. Its massive Ernest N. Morial Convention Center, one of the largest in the nation, is heavily booked but will sit empty.
To the east, the Mississippi Coast Coliseum & Convention Center in Biloxi, Miss., just launched a $68 million expansion that now is in doubt. The center reportedly sustained moderate damage. But much of the rest of Biloxi and its many visitor attractions -- at least five of the area's 12 casinos and irreplaceable assets such as Beauvoir, the historic residence of Confederate States President Jefferson Davis -- lie in rubble.
A 13th casino, the $225 million Hard Rock Hotel & Casino also on the beachfront, was scheduled to open in weeks, but it also might be declared a total loss.
In an Internet message, New Orleans Metropolitan Convention and Visitors Bureau president and chief executive J. Stephen Perry pleaded for patience as his city tries to recover.
The bureau's September bookings have been canceled and he said October is in doubt.
Two Kansas City casino companies were hit hard by Katrina at six of their Southern casino properties.
Harrah's Grand Casino properties in Bilxoi and Gulfport were heavily damaged, with reported moderate damage to its New Orleans Harrah's near the French Quarter.
Isle of Capri Casinos sustained damage to its corporate headquarters and flagship riverboat in Biloxi that was undergoing an expansion. "The hotel is still standing," said Mike Tamburelli, general manager of the Isle of Capri Kansas City.
Two other Isle casinos, in Vicksburg and Natchez, lost power and were closed temporarily.
Tamburelli said it was too early to say how the economic ripple effects of the rebuilding might affect proposed expansion in Kansas City. Company officials only a few weeks ago speculated that an expansion announcement could come this fall.
Penn National Gaming, which is buying the Argosy Gaming Co. including the Argosy Riverside Casino, said it sustained "severe damage" to its Casino Magic hotel in Bay St. Louis, Miss., and the Boomtown Biloxi. Nearly 2,000 workers are affected.
Harrah's moved quickly into relief mode, announcing early last week it will continue paying more than 8,000 of its affected employees for up to 90 days. Gary Loveman, Harrah's Entertainment Inc. chairman, chief executive officer, and president, also announced a $1 million Employee Recovery Fund through a grant from the Harrah's Foundation.
Loveman said nearly 100,000 Harrah's employees and business partners nationwide are being asked to contribute to the relief effort to aid displaced company workers.
Meanwhile, Harrah's convention center at its Grand Tunica property in Tunica, Miss., was converted to an American Red Cross shelter and late last week housed more than 400 refugees.
Many others in the industry are similarly opening their pocketbooks.
The American Gaming Association is raising money industrywide to assist thousands of unemployed and homeless casino workers in Mississippi and Louisiana.
Ameristar Casinos and chairman Craig H. Neilsen donated a combined $250,000 to the American Gaming Association's relief fund, while kitchens at Ameristar's Vicksburg, Miss., riverboat casino are preparing hundreds of meals daily for evacuees.
The 4,100-hotel Best Western group contributed $250,000 to the Red Cross and other groups and launched an effort to raise $1 million. The company's Gold Crown Club customers are being urged to donate the monetary value of their accumulated points -- and earn bonus points for their generosity.
The Branson/Lakes Area Chamber of Commerce announced a relief effort offering free lodging, meals, entertainment and even employment for many of those who flee to the Branson area.
The Missouri Association of Convention and Visitor Bureaus has contributed $2,000 to state tourism agencies in the stricken states. "We challenge other state tourism organizations to do the same," said executive director Marci Bennett.
Destination Marketing Association International stepped up with $2,000 contributions and urged its 1,300 members to assist their sister convention and visitor bureaus.
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Copyright (c) 2005, The Kansas City Star, Mo.
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