The flooding in Louisiana is being called the worst natural disaster in the United States since Hurricane Sandy in 2012, leaving at least 13 people dead and driving tens of thousands more from their homes in and around Baton Rouge. But the destination remains unbowed. On Friday morning, Visit Baton Rouge released a powerful video called “I Am Baton Rouge” that celebrates the people and culture of the Louisiana capital. We checked in with Paul Arrigo, CDME, Visit Baton Rouge’s president and CEO, that afternoon to see how everyone is holding up, what this could mean for meetings and events in the destination — and how the industry can help.
How are things going? We’re doing fine. Obviously, they’re still going through some recovery issues and rescue issues. Downtown was not at all affected, so none of our downtown attractions or downtown hotels were affected. The River Center, which is our convention center, is being used right now as a location for flood survivors, but we don’t know how long that will take place, and we’re trying to evaluate what if any businesses will need to be relocated. We don’t think that it’s going to be a major amount of business at this time, but the hotels that have meeting space and conference space — the downtown hotels — have been spared.
Did you have a sense leading up to the rain that it was going to be this bad? Not really. We went through Katrina, and certainly Baton Rouge was not [directly] affected by Katrina. Not being a weatherman, I can only say that I don’t think we all expected so much water for so long of a period that did affect so many of us. River cities like Baton Rouge, the high part of the city tends to be along the river as a natural levy, and we’ve been very fortunate that downtown was spared, as were the majority of our attractions.
So your meetings and events business hasn’t really been disrupted? We’re trying to evaluate what we have lost. We did not have a lot of business in this week, which is a relatively slow time in Louisiana. We have a couple of pieces of business that will be in the River Center between now and the next several weeks, and we’re trying to evaluate whether we’re going to have to relocate them or not, but we don’t see that as being a major issue at this time.
What are your priorities as an organization? We had a couple of our staff that were affected, and we’re certainly looking out for them. Like we had to do with Katrina, it is a matter of trying to find availability — even room-by-room availability — in the hotels so that we can accommodate the first responders and the contract people coming here to get the area back in shape. We’re almost going from a selling mode into research, to see what’s available day to day, hour by hour.
How can your colleagues in the meetings industry help Baton Rouge? There are several different funding options to help the area, and I will see if I can’t find one right now for you: the Baton Rouge Area Foundation. As far as us, we’re very fortunate, you know?