WHEN KELLIE MATHAS left New Orleans for a 1994 summer internship at Walt Disney World in Orlando, Fla., she was, by her own account, fed up. “I hated New Orleans,” she recalls. “I hated the tourists. I hated how it smelled. I was at a really bad point.”
But a season in Orlando changed all that. “It was the best experience of my life, but at the same time, it made me do a full turnaround on what I thought of this city. I came back with a fresh perspective.”
Not long after, Mathas wrapped up her hospitality degree and embarked on one final internship, this time with DMC USA Hosts New Orleans. She's been turning her love for her native city into an asset for the company's event clients ever since.
As USA Hosts' director of special events since 2001, Mathas — now a CSEP and CMP — has witnessed many changes in the region's corporate and association event market. These include the growing demand that the DMC demonstrate how it is saving clients' money. She says doing so often involves a sort of reverse sell. “I find myself trying to help clients by saying, ‘You may not need to do X, Y or Z in order to be effective.’ That really shows them we're not just trying to make it a huge bottom line for us, but that it's about what their needs are.”
Perhaps a more disconcerting change is the one that has occurred on the vendor front, Mathas says. With increasing frequency, she notes, “I will see a vendor's ad, and all of a sudden they have ‘event planning’ under their company name. I know for a fact that they don't have any experience with event planning, but they are marketing themselves that way to our clients.”
Calling this practice “risky” and “frustrating,” Mathas says she has turned her focus to educating clients on the value of working with an event operation of her company's stature — the New Orleans office, which houses a staff of 18 full-time industry pros, is part of USA Hosts nationwide DMC network, which brings in more than $20 million annually by producing special events. It's a level of success her team has reached, in large part, because “we don't choose our partners based on getting commissions back; we choose the vendor that suits the event and is the very best for the client,” she says.
With all the changes that have taken place in the New Orleans event scene, Mathas notes that event groups' hunger for the city's famous cuisine is a constant. And while she'll gladly guide them to the classics, Mathas says her insider's knowledge of the city also allows her to introduce groups to off-site dining experiences like hip restaurant Jacques-Imo's, where the irreverent chef wears boxer shorts while he whips up what Mathas deems “the best food in the city.” It's all part of giving event groups a taste of her New Orleans, she explains. “We're a city of senses and sensation!”
USA Hosts New Orleans 365 Canal St., Suite 1400, New Orleans, LA 70130; 504/524-8687; www.usahosts.com
MOOD FOR FOOD
“What visitors don't realize is that people from New Orleans, we really live like this every day. We really start breakfast by talking about what we're going to have for dinner. We really finish dinner by talking about the next restaurant we're going to go to for a family meal.”
“Anything our city asks us to step up for, we do it. Whether it's for the city government, on behalf of our convention bureau or convention center — whatever they need. And of course, all on a volunteer basis.”
“The qualities that serve me best in my job are organization, attention to detail, thriving in an environment and industry that constantly change, and the ability to vacuum at an alarmingly fast speed.”
“The need for businesses to justify their existence trickles down to every level in this economy, and it has made USA Hosts have to redefine ourselves to stay ahead of the game. There is no room for complacency.”