New Orleans Revisited

Call it unsinkable. The one-of-a-kind city of New Orleans takes a hit from an epic hurricane and manages to go right on ranking high with travelers in search of storied jazz, fabled food, casino action and choice events in a year-round spread of sports and festivities.

After the havoc wreaked by Hurricane Katrina in the dark days of August 2005, clients trickled back slowly, lured by the irresistible deals on the agent table. And many were happily surprised to find some of their favorite places were in better shape than anticipated. In familiar haunts of the French Quarter, visitors would scarcely have believed a storm had passed this way if not for the notably spiffed-up properties and clean-swept streets.

It’s the Lower 9th Ward that wears the scars. Here, too, the continuing efforts to rebuild the community by groups such as Habitat for Humanity and Brad Pitt’s Make it Right initiative have made mighty strides, and many visitors have lent elbow grease of their own to the recovery projects.

Four years later, from Canal Street to Bourbon Street and beyond, New Orleans has re-emerged with its mojo intact—successfully battling odds that at times seemed insurmountable. Not to mention the country’s plummeting economy. But the comeback continues admirably and earlier challenges—a shortage of service personnel, for instance, that left hotels and restaurants hard-pressed to maintain customary standards—seem largely overcome.

This past Aug. 29, as the city marked its annual commemoration of the devastating hurricane, the mayor’s office announced that the local population was back to nearly 80 percent of pre-Katrina numbers, and that $26 billion in construction had either been completed, was in progress, or was good to go. Ongoing projects include repairs to streets and public buildings and putting golf courses back in business.

Similarly upbeat figures roll from the New Orleans Metropolitan Convention & Visitors Bureau. In 2008, 7.6 million fun-seekers made the scene, leaving $5.1 billion in their wake. It’s a dramatic contrast to 2006, when only 3.7 million visitors showed up and spending totaled $2.8 billion.

“The New Orleans hospitality community was very pleased to come so close to our goal of eight million visitors,” says Kim Priez, the CVB’s v.p. of tourism, “especially with the recession causing many to stay close to home. Much of our success is due to the support of the travel agents and tour operators who spread the good news that the New Orleans experience was thriving. In 2009, Mardi Gras, the French Quarter Festival and the Jazz Festival experienced record-breaking attendance, so we expect to maintain the success of 2008 even during these tough economic times.”

Tour operators echo the optimism. Notes Michelle Burmeister, marketing and public relations manager for Funjet Vacations, “Our travelers are up from 2008 to 2009, and this upward trend is likely to continue into 2010. The city is making a comeback with new culinary events, festivals, restaurants and attractions. People are excited to visit and experience the revitalization and recovery of one of the most enchanting cities in the U.S.”

accommodations Where to stay? Clients with a taste for grande dame glamour and titillating tales of Louisiana politicians past (does the name Huey P. Long ring a bell?), should head straight for the newsiest hotel game in town. A downtown icon built as The Grunewald in 1893, renamed The Roosevelt in 1923 (for President Theodore), followed by a change to the Fairmont New Orleans, has returned to its roots as The Roosevelt New Orleans. As the newest member of Hilton’s Waldorf Astoria Collection, the reborn Roosevelt staged a grand opening weekend Oct. 23-25, debuting its 12,500-sq.-ft. Guerlain Spa and celebrity chef John Besh’s Domenica Restaurant. Restored to its original architectural splendor, the property is showing off a $145 million restoration that includes 504 rooms (135 of them are luxury suites), and 60,000 sq. ft. of meeting space. Rates for a Bed and Breakfast stay—which includes a Waldorf Astoria breakfast—start at $299 per night for a king deluxe room.

Other properties, large and small, have completed makeovers in recent times. In December 2007, the New Orleans Marriott Hotel unveiled a new lobby and restaurant—part of a $38 million overhaul that kicked off in 2005. A key French Quarter venue, the Marriott has 1,329 rooms and 80,000 sq. ft. of meeting space, including Louisiana’s largest hotel ballroom at more than 27,000 sq. ft. The hotel’s Papa Noel rates, which celebrate the holidays, start at $89 and are valid through Dec. 30; promotional code HOL.