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Convention Business is Evacuating New Orleans,
and Kansas City is Booking
By Rick Alm, The Kansas City Star, Mo.
Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News

Sep. 8, 2005 - Convention business is evacuating New Orleans, and Kansas City is booking.

Two groups this week moved October events here, and local convention officials said Wednesday that they are in talks with at least two dozen other organizations still venue shopping -- 10 of them for dates in 2006.

There's plenty more business out there.

Kansas City Hyatt general manager Rusty Macy said Wednesday, "I've got to think it'll be at least a year before the convention business in New Orleans is back to normal."

The official estimate is six months.

New Orleans officials announced Wednesday that all 55 events scheduled for the city's Morial Convention Center through March 31, 2006, had been canceled.

"America's most romantic, walkable, historic city is no longer herself," said New Orleans Convention and Visitors Bureau president and chief executive J. Stephen Perry in his daily Web site update of conditions in the stricken city.

Only days earlier, Perry had announced that conventions through Dec. 1 had been canceled in the nation's sixth-largest convention hall and seventh-largest convention city.

Besides exterior roof damage from Hurricane Katrina, Perry said, inspection of the interior of the 1.1 million-square-foot Morial center discovered extensive damage from thousands of evacuees plus some "unsavory elements" who were temporarily housed there.

"The interior will require considerable cleaning and renovation," Perry said.

Donna Carl, a Chicago-based division president for the New Orleans bureau, said smaller convention and meeting facilities around the city also were shut down for the foreseeable future.

Compounding the massive problems of no water, electricity or communications, Carl said most habitable visitor space in the city had been taken over by emergency workers and others. The bureau's offices are being used as headquarters by the Oklahoma National Guard while the tourism bureau has resettled in Baton Rouge.

Despite any ability of hotels and convention halls to reopen, New Orleans won't be ready to welcome visitors again until it is New Orleans again -- with its jazz, restaurants and French Quarter nightlife.

Perry noted that a few nightspots in the French Quarter had reopened to provide some respite for emergency workers.

Carl lamented that "there's no official word yet on Mardi Gras" and how or whether that quintessential annual New Orleans festival will take place in early 2006.

As for the city's convention clients, "we are helping them any way possible to relocate their meetings," Carl said.

The nation's convention cities -- which is to say almost every American city -- are only too happy to oblige. The nation's convention and visitor industries have been gradually emerging from a slump that began with the recession of 2000.

"Anytime we can bring more business to Kansas City, it's better for everybody," said Macy.

Next month Macy's hotel will play host to 2,700 formerly New Orleans-bound conventioneers for the annual gathering of the Associated Collegiate Press.

The gathering was originally scheduled for the Hyatt Regency New Orleans next month. The national hotel chain looked within and found sufficient guest rooms and available meeting facilities at Kansas City's Hyatt Regency Crown Center and its sister Westin Crown Center hotels to accommodate the Oct. 26-30 gathering of student journalists and their advisers.

Kansas City Convention & Visitors Association spokeswoman Laren Mahoney said those delegates are forecast to have a $1.68 million economic impact during the five-day event.

Also this week the local association booked the 3,000-delegate convention of the APICS Association for Operations Management at Bartle Hall.

"We are so glad to be here," said Karen Freeman, deputy executive director of educational society for management practices. She said the group depends on its annual event to help finance year-round activities, so canceling was out of the question.

"It is an important part of our revenue ... millions of dollars," she said.

"We did an all-out, countrywide search because we did not want to change the date because of our speakers' availability. This was it," she said of Kansas City.

"A lot of cities came through for us on different dates. But it wasn't just dates, but the amount of space. It was perfect match. Kansas City was meant to be."

Now, Freeman said, Kansas City is in the mix for the Virginia-based organization's future bookings.

"The city has done a great job," she said. "We had been thinking about Kansas City. We normally book 10 years out. This definitely helps."

Mahoney said the group is expected to consume more than 4,600 hotel room nights with the six-day event next month and spend about $2.5 million.

Smaller convention gatherings may be headed to the Overland Park Convention Center. General manager Kelvin Moore said Wednesday that he was negotiating with a military veterans group that had booked an event for the Mississippi Coast Coliseum and Convention Center in Biloxi, Miss., which also was in Katrina's path.

"If there's a piece of business that fits our size, we'll try to accommodate them," Moore said.

Carl noted that she and her colleagues were hoping to work out swaps with other cities, trading future conventions booked elsewhere for the groups fleeing New Orleans.

"We're working with (convention bureaus) around the country to see if they can take them this year and we'll take them in other years," she said.

One local company lost its New Orleans event set for next month and wasn't able to assemble the right package of rooms and meeting facilities in the Kansas City area.

"We tried to relocate, but it was so hard on short notice," said Nick Rhodes, marketing coordinator for Overland Park-based Brooke Corp., a franchiser of insurance and financial service agencies.

Rhodes said the company would rebook the event there in 2006 "to demonstrate our confidence that the great city of New Orleans will rebuild."


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Copyright (c) 2005, The Kansas City Star, Mo.

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