|By Stevenson Swanson, Chicago
TribuneMcClatchy-Tribune Business News
Jan. 7, 2007 - NEW ORLEANS -- From the crawfish concierge who will teach visitors how to eat this city's characteristic shellfish to the "voodoo love bath" in the spa, the newly reopened hotel on Canal Street strikes a distinctly New Orleans note, celebrating a city still recovering from Hurricane Katrina.
The reborn Ritz-Carlton hotel, which underwent more than $100 million in renovations during the 15 months it was closed, is a milestone in the comeback of an industry that is considered crucial to the city's future--its hotels, backbone of the $5 billion annual tourism and convention business that drives the economy.
After Katrina, the city's available hotel rooms plunged 70 percent, according to industry analyst Smith Travel Research. Many hotels have since reopened, but even with the Ritz-Carlton's 527 rooms, the city's hotel-room inventory is down 22 percent from prestorm levels.
Many tourist services and attractions are largely back in business, including about 700 restaurants, a large Harrah's Casino, a popular aquarium and all major museums.
But despite those positives and the availability of hotel rooms, it's unclear how many visitors will fill those rooms in the coming months.
That concern was one reason Myra deGersdorff, general manager of the Ritz-Carlton, decided she wanted the high-end hotel "to be a celebration of New Orleans."
"I want to celebrate our local entertainment; I want to celebrate our fabulous restaurants," she said, referring to the musicians who play in the hotel's bars and to the menu items from local restaurants featured in the hotel's main dining room. "If they get stronger, the city gets stronger. And if the city gets stronger, my business gets stronger."
Some conventions have returned to the Crescent City, including the Chicago-based National Association of Realtors, which brought an estimated 25,000 people in November. And Wednesday's Sugar Bowl, played in the Superdome for the first time since Katrina, drew thousands of tourists.
Still, the city's convention and visitors bureau says that last year's convention bookings and tourism were down an estimated 60 percent from the heady prestorm levels of 2004 and early 2005. A record 10.1 million tourists and business visitors thronged New Orleans in 2004.
This year, the bureau projects that the convention business will be down 30 percent, and tourism, which is harder to predict, will probably be far below pre-Katrina numbers.
In the aftermath of the hurricane, the hotels that managed to stay open were full of FEMA employees and construction workers, according to Brad Garner, a Smith Travel vice president. But that business has dwindled.
"If you were open, you were probably sold out," he said. "But now it's at the point where you have to rebuild that base of customers."
Tourist area escaped worst
The federal government has given the New Orleans tourism industry $30 million for advertising and marketing in an effort to drum up business. The convention bureau will use part of its share to pay for billboards in 40 American metropolitan areas advertising the fact that the city is no longer underwater.
"Our number one challenge is marketing and rebranding the city and letting people know that we're open for business," said convention bureau spokeswoman Kelly Schulz. "We're in a unique situation, because in terms of the area that tourists would experience normally, that part of the city is alive and well. Then there are the outlying districts that need years and years of rebuilding."
Ruined houses stand empty on street after street of such hard-hit neighborhoods as the Lower 9th Ward and Lakeview. But the French Quarter, the Garden District and the popular arts and restaurant areas near downtown are on higher ground that escaped the worst of Katrina's wrath and the flooding.
Many visitors have made a point of seeing the devastation, and some devote part of their stay to volunteer efforts, such as helping the non-profit housing group Habitat for Humanity build houses.
But reports about an increase in murders last year have some in the tourist industry worried the city's recovery could be further slowed if it develops a reputation as an unsafe place to visit.
After the shootings of five teenagers in June, the National Guard has been patrolling the still devastated parts of the city. That has allowed New Orleans police to concentrate on tourist areas and high-crime neighborhoods, but in the first five days of the new year, there have been eight murders. On Saturday, the police superintendent said a curfew was under consideration as a way to curb violence.
Hotel's pitch: See for yourself
When the Ritz-Carlton's deGersdorff pitches businesses to schedule their corporate meetings at her hotel, she tries to persuade the top decision-makers in a company to visit the city.
"The French Quarter is cleaner than it's been in years," she said. "Once the decision-maker comes to the city and sees the condition that it's in, we can close the deal."
The elegantly appointed hotel, which occupies two historic Canal Street buildings, suffered roof damage and extensive flooding of the basement, destroying the hotel's heating, air-conditioning and other mechanical systems.
As part of the refurbishing, deGersdorff added not only a crawfish concierge but also, during the summer months, a "snowball sommelier" to prepare the New Orleans version of a snow cone. Among the spa treatments, the voodoo love bath uses a potion that, according to the hotel's description, the New Orleans voodoo priestess Marie Laveau "bestowed upon her favored clients so they could gain the object of their affections."
Since the hotel's Dec. 4 reopening, revenues have been more than double deGersdorff's forecast, despite an initial $250 discount on the usual $419 daily room rate.
Based on advance bookings, the convention bureau projects that in 2008, the convention business will be back to 90 percent of its pre-Katrina level. But two big hotels--a Hyatt and a Fairmont--remain closed. The Hyatt is being renovated, but a Fairmont spokeswoman said no decision had been made yet on what to do with its heavily damaged building.
"We need the Hyatt to be back," deGersdorff said. "We need the Fairmont to be back. For the very biggest citywide conventions, we need all of them. Tomorrow, I don't need them here. But if I'm going to be successful next year, we need them here."
Copyright (c) 2007, Chicago Tribune
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