“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times … it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.”
Charles Dickens, “A Tale of Two Cities”
MANY have described our “new” New Orleans as a parallel to the famous novel “A Tale of Two Cities.” The footprints that Hurricane Katrina left upon our city are lifelong impressions that have changed almost every aspect of our city.
But Katrina did not destroy the passion of our people, our vital soul, and the nature of human survival and perseverance to rise above and move forward.
The hospitality and special event industries have been the backbone of our economy for many years. Men and women from every economic background are employed in hospitality and events, industries that temporarily have been crippled due to what many believe to be our biggest challenge: the national media. Unfortunately, because bad news sells, we are still answering questions from our clients across the country such as, “Are you still under water?”, “Is it safe to be there?” and “Isn't everything devastated still?”
Although it has become a very frustrating part of daily life in our industry — which we now describe as either “pre-K” or “post-K” — it is something we are all working hard to overcome. Life for many of us entails inviting our clients to come down and see for themselves what reality is and how far we have truly come. Every client whom I have toured through the city during the past several months has walked away with the same sentiment: New Orleans is back and ready for business!
What is reality in New Orleans? Our own “Tale of Two Cities,” as noted in my opening paragraph, is our reality. There are several neighborhoods that remain devastated from the man-made disaster that occurred over nine months ago. There are still New Orleanians displaced across the country who, we hope, will come home to share in our rebuilding efforts. These are neighborhoods and fellow citizens who are not forgotten in our daily life. Yet these are not places that would normally be visited during a typical stay in our city. The “typical” group or visitor is more likely to experience the everyday reality of what our tourism community has been built upon since the beginning of our history.
The reality is that our historic, picturesque French Quarter remains unscathed and is waiting for more visitors! Our riverfront area is still home to our grand paddlewheel vessels, and recently was the site of our famous French Quarter Festival. The Garden District and St. Charles Avenue are in full bloom with azaleas. Our restaurants are in full swing with the exception of a very few that are taking the opportunity to do much-needed renovations. Our Audubon Zoo is more beautiful than ever, and the Audubon Aquarium of the Americas is slated to open this month, which will bring much excitement to the children of our city.
Our venues are open and more user-friendly than ever before, and our hotels are filled with employees just waiting to share our message: “We're Jazzed You're Here!” We even have a newly painted, bright-blue streetcar on the riverfront streetcar line, which brought a big smile to my face one recent early morning. The months of April and May brought back the Zurich Golf Classic and the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival — two long-awaited events. Locals were salivating at the chance to once again have the opportunity to be hushed at the 18th hole and experience crawfish bread while listening to “The Boss” — all in the same day!
COMING BACK BETTER
Jeff Fugate, vice president of meetings giant Conferon, recently visited New Orleans during a customer advisory board meeting, and had this to say regarding our efforts: “As it relates to hospitality, 90 percent of the people I talked to thanked me for coming to New Orleans. There is a much stronger and positive service-oriented attitude in the city right now than I have ever seen. Additionally, this tragedy has really brought the hospitality community together.” He concluded: “Based on what I've seen thus far, I believe the city will come out of this tragedy a better destination than it was before.”
Those sentiments are echoed by almost every client who has been kind enough to come down and see for him or herself before deciding to cancel their future events. And this is what we need to continue during our rebuilding efforts.
For those of you who answered our pleas for help, thank you for stepping forward and not turning your backs on us. This will not be the last natural disaster to occur in our country, and the New Orleans hospitality and event industries will be there to return the efforts, both financially and emotionally, when that day comes.
We do still need your help. We need business, and we need you to bring your clients and guests here to support our thousands of hardworking and passionate employees whose livelihoods depend on our city's complete recovery.
It is our time to make a difference; it is our time to save what is uniquely New Orleans. We can only make this happen with your continued support.
Many of you may have heard that I gave birth to our first son during the chaotic aftermath that Katrina brought to the Gulf Coast. It was truly the worst of times and the best of times for my family for several months. However, through the darkness, I along with many of my fellow New Orleanians am seeing each day a little clearer, the sky a little bluer and the grass a little greener. My son is named Cole McGregor Mathas. His name was chosen the night before he was born when I discovered what the name meant. “Cole” means “victory of the people.” We felt it was symbolic of our fellow New Orleanians because we knew we would overcome this crisis.
Do you know what it means to miss New Orleans? We do. All that is missing is you. We invite you to come down and see for yourself the “new” New Orleans.
Kellie Mathas is director of special events for the New Orleans office of USA Hosts. Her office address is 365 Canal Street, Suite 1400, New Orleans, LA 70130; phone 504/524-8687; e-mail [email protected]; www.usahosts.com.