Bringing Back the Big Easy

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New Orleans has been, for several years, the fifth most popular destination for meetings and conventions in the U.S. It's been just over a month since hurricane Katrina changed that, but the good news is that work is progressing rapidly to bring the city back to full meeting/convention strength.

According to the New Orleans Metropolitan Convention and Visitors Bureau (NOMCVB), more than 150 meetings were scheduled for September and October in New Orleans. And meeting and convention business scheduled from September 2005 through March 31, 2006 represents $3-4 billion of business, most of which has been cleared from the docket. Most other events scheduled in 2006 are still on (those utilizing Convention Center space and three or more hotels). Other meetings (those self-contained in hotels and not utilizing the Convention Center) scheduled after January 1, 2006, are not cancelled, according to the New Orleans Metropolitan Convention and Visitors Bureau.

As we all watched in dismay just three weeks after Katrina, hurricane Rita caused floodwaters to wash through the city's Ninth Ward again, but the rest of the city, including the French Quarter, the Central Business District (where the Convention Center is located), Warehouse and Arts District, and Garden District, remained dry.

The Arts District, including the Convention Center, now has full power and gas service restored. Cleaning, repairs, and renovations to the Center continue ahead of schedule. The Center is undergoing extensive environmental cleaning. An actual layer of concrete is being scraped off of the building to yield it "hospital clean." Full renovations are expected to be completed by the middle of the first quarter of 2006.

The NOCMVB has promised to remain in constant contact with meeting planners to update them on the status of meetings and conventions (www.neworleansonline.com/katrina/cvb/conventions.html). Organizations planning meetings/events through a third-party planner should consult with that planner regarding hotel and city tourism status.

The tourism industry's biggest trade group is lobbying Congress on behalf of hurricane-ravaged Gulf Coast states for tax breaks on meals, travel costs, and housing for businesses whose workers are out of their homes, including a two-for-one travel expenses deduction on federal income taxes. Louisiana Lt. Gov. Mitch Landrieu has unveiled a plan, including a PR campaign and cultural institution restoration, to help the New Orleans area's hotels, convention, and other meeting and tourism related businesses get their employees back and start bringing in profits again.

For the short term, InfoComm International, NSCA, and CEDIA have all launched relief and recovery efforts for their members. InfoComm International has reached its goal set last month to collect $100,000 in Hurricane Katrina Relief donation receipts from its members and association staff. InfoComm will match these contributions by 10 percent with a donation of $10,000 to the Red Cross.

More than 75 companies and InfoComm employees rose to the challenge donating more than $100,000 to various charities including the Red Cross, The Salvation Army, Love Our Children USA, the Humane Society, and others. Companies and individuals gave whatever they could with contributions ranging from $25 to $18,000.

Additionally, InfoComm, through its foundation, has made grants totaling $60,000 to six member companies whose businesses were disrupted by the hurricane. These funds are helping businesses rent storage space, move gear, pay employees, or provide for other needs that call for immediate cash.

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