New Orleans is all for letting les bons temps roll, but that doesn’t mean the destination isn’t serious about meetings business. Indeed, the New Orleans Convention & Visitors Bureau recently hosted a press trip organized around the three-year-old Collision conference for technology startups — held at the New Orleans Ernest N. Morial Convention Center (MCCNO) on April 25–28 after spending its first two years in Las Vegas.
The move was due partly to New Orleans’ cultural bona fides — it’s not an accident that Collision 2016 was held during the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival. But just as attractive was the city’s booming tech scene. “We talked to a lot of the folks in our community and in our network,” Sinead Murphy, director of live events for Dublin, Ireland–based Web Summit, which produces Collision, said in an interview during the conference, “and everybody fed back that New Orleans was a really burgeoning-type scene.”
STARTING WITH WWII
I sampled a lot of that scene during the press trip. After checking in to the Hyatt Regency New Orleans, I met up with our small group of journalists at the National WWII Museum, whose already-impressive campus is in the middle of a $370-million expansion project that is adding state-of-the-art pavilions, theaters, and other potential event spaces. All of that is on top of the museum’s ever-growing collection of informative, moving exhibits telling the stories of the men and women who fought during World War II.
From there it was a four-block walk to the MCCNO, on the banks of the Mississippi River, where we had a few hours to explore Collision and its dynamic show floor. Then it was back to the Hyatt Regency, which sits downtown, close to the French Quarter and right next to the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. The property’s sleek bulk — built around the 31-story Lobby Atrium, a Hyatt signature — encompasses 1,193 guest rooms and some 200,000 square feet of meeting and event space, the most of any hotel in the city.
After relaxing and freshening up, we met in a private room at the Hyatt’s hip Vitascope Hall, where dinner began with a signature cocktail called Street Car Named Loyola — vodka, St. Germain, ginger syrup, Peychaud’s Bitters, ginger ale, lemon juice, and rosemary. Then came wave after wave of expertly flavored small plates, including Moroccan-spiced lamb meatballs; gumbo; deep-fried, crab-stuffed artichokes; and the Cherry Blossom, a gorgeously bright spicy-tuna sushi roll.
After dinner, it was a quick ride to Marigny, an intimate neighborhood just north of the French Quarter. It was a warm spring night, perfect for wandering along Frenchmen Street with a cold beer, listening to street performers, and slipping in and out of some of New Orleans’ best live-music venues for a little jazz, blues, and anything else the folks onstage felt like playing. The Big Easy, indeed.
ENDING IN THE ABBEY
It had been too long since we’d eaten, which in New Orleans won’t do, so the first order of business the next day was a full breakfast at Café Adelaide in Loews New Orleans Hotel. Over beignets and modern Creole cooking — Café Adelaide is owned by the family behind legendary Commander’s Palace — we listened as Walter Krygowski, deputy director and COO of the New Orleans Aviation Board, briefed us on Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport’s new terminal, now under construction and slated for completion in 2018, in time for the city’s tricentennial celebration. The $950-million project, which also includes a new hotel, highway interchange, and 2,000-space parking garage, will replace the airport’s aging, 650,000-square-foot terminal with a state-of-the-art, 760,500-square-foot facility.
Back at Collision, we sat down with Murphy to talk about the program’s explosive growth — from 1,500 attendees in 2014, to 7,500 the following year, to more than 10,000 this year — then had a guided tour of the show floor. During our interview, Murphy said that Collision hopes to have a long-term partnership with New Orleans. If so, MCCNO will be ready — thanks to the Convention Center District Development (C2D2) Project.
Also tied to the 2018 tricentennial, the $1-billion C2D2 will transform 47 acres just upriver of MCCNO into a thriving mixed-use neighborhood, tentatively called the Trade District. In the works: a 1,200-room headquarters hotel, restaurants, shops, arts venues, high-rise residences, a transportation hub, and a pedestrian park running along Convention Center Boulevard. “What’s happening is that we’re catering to the new convention attendee,” Tim Hemphill, MCCNO’s vice president of sales and marketing, said over a buffet lunch at Ma Maison, the center’s VIP dining suite. “They’re looking for more experiential stuff, both inside and outside.”
They’re also looking for resources that speak to their professional needs, which explained the next item on our itinerary: a business-development tour hosted by Greater New Orleans Inc. (GNO), the destination’s economic-development agency. Stops included the New Orleans BioInnovation Center, a business incubator for life-sciences companies that’s part of the city’s 2.4-square-mile biomedical corridor; the North Rampart Street/St. Claude Avenue Streetcar Expansion Project, which is adding 1.6 miles of track from the edge of the French Quarter through the historic Tremé, Marigny, and St. Roch neighborhoods; and Moxy New Orleans, a 108-room boutique hotel from Marriott — scheduled to open this month — that combines a playful, almost silly sensibility with a sharp, stripped-down aesthetic.
Finally, it was time to relax over drinks at the rooftop bar at the Ace Hotel New Orleans, overlooking Lafayette Square. Occupying a handsome 1928 Art Deco building in the Warehouse District, the vintage-chic property offers 234 guest rooms and four event spaces totaling more than 6,500 square feet. Stylish and classy, the Ace was the perfect place to catch our breath before the final course, figuratively and literally: dinner in a second-floor private room at Arnaud’s.
Opened in 1918, the famous Creole fine-dining establishment did not disappoint. Between courses — I opted for the veal tournedos Chantal, served with a rich wild-mushroom sauce — we stepped onto a wide porch overlooking Bourbon Street, where we watched the sun go down and the neon come up. Afterward, we crossed the street to Irvin Mayfield’s Jazz Playhouse, ending our evening with a nightcap and a set list of smooth, brassy lullabies.
I had a few hours before my flight left the next day, so I walked from the Hyatt back to the French Quarter. My goal: lunch at Central Grocery, the Italian market that claims to have invented the glorious muffuletta sandwich in 1906. Like Arnaud’s, the experience survived the hype. As I digested my way back to the Hyatt, the gray skies finally opened, dumping wrath-of-God rain onto Decatur Street. I ducked into a random bar that turned out to be The Abbey, a shadowy dive with old stained glass on the ceiling and $2.50 domestic bottles in the cooler. It was like New Orleans needed me to enjoy a few last bons temps, and I was happy to oblige.