Posted on: October 10 2011
Published: Sunday, October 09, 2011, 9:30 AM
By Jaquetta White, The Times-Picayune
Homes and lives were rebuilt. The New Orleans Saints won a Super Bowl. Ground was broken on a Mid-City mega-hospital.
John McCusker/The Times-PicayuneThe lobbyÃ¢Â€Â™s main staircase is the centerpiece of the renovated Hyatt Regency New Orleans, located directly next to the Meredes-Benz Superdome. The hotel now has 1,193 guest rooms, which include 95 suites, and 200,000 square feet of meeting and exhibit space.
All the while, the Hyatt Regency New Orleans remained closed.
For more than six years after the winds of Hurricane Katrina blew out dozens of the hotel's windows, the property has been shuttered while development has occurred all around it.
But the Hyatt plans to make a splash when it reopens Oct. 19, the last of the major New Orleans hotels to do so following the 2005 storm.
First, there's the addition of nearly 1,200 rooms to the city's inventory of hotel rooms. There is also the development of a downtown sports district, including Champions Square, which the Hyatt will anchor.
And, finally, the property brings with it new entries into the sparse selection of food options in that area of downtown.
Several restaurants, a convenience store and a coffee shop will also create new employment opportunities.
"We have a few delighters we're ready to unveil," said Michael Smith, the property's general manager. "We're ready. This is a totally new hotel."
Visitors to the Hyatt Regency New Orleans likely will consider its new entrance on Loyola Avenue to be the most dramatic change.
But Smith is more excited about another feature: the hotel's old entrance.
The former porte-cochÃ¨re, or motor lobby, has been enclosed and turned into a 50,000-square-foot exhibit hall that Smith hopes will attract small and medium-sized conventions. The previous entrance was "like going into a cave," Smith said. The new use of the space is "the differentiator."
John McCusker/The Times-PicayuneSix years ago, Hurricane Katrina blew out most of the windows of the Hyatt Regency New Orleans and effectively shuttered the hotel located in the Central Business District. After years of delays and renovations, the hotel will reopen for business on Oct. 19, welcoming visitors for the Saints home game against the Indianapolis Colts on Oct. 23.
"The exhibit hall is the game changer for us," Smith said. "This is our economic engine."
The Hyatt Regency is betting on its ability to differentiate itself from the current hotel stock in New Orleans and elsewhere as it reintroduces itself to the marketplace following the long hiatus and $275 million renovation.
Opened in 1976, a year after the Superdome, the Hyatt Regency New Orleans was once a part of the big four hotel properties in New Orleans, which included the Hilton New Orleans Riverside, the New Orleans Marriott and the Sheraton New Orleans hotels. Together, the hotels captured the bulk of the city's meetings and conventions.
"When there were just 14,000 hotel rooms, we had a business model that worked for us," Smith said.
But as new hotels opened and convention business grew following the opening of the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center, almost a mile away from the Hyatt, the Central Business District hotel began to struggle to keep up with other properties because of its distance from the convention center and the French Quarter.
"Once or twice a month, we would have gaping holes because citywide conventions would book closer to the convention center," Smith said.
Smith believes the redeveloped property's exhibit hall is the built in solution to that problem.
"We won't be reliant on citywide (conventions)," Smith said.
John McCusker/The Times-PicayuneThe Hyatt Regency New Orleans will reopen later this month on Loyola Ave. The hotel has been closed since Hurricane Katrina.
The new Hyatt is modeled after the Gaylord Hotel sites, which offer guest rooms, meeting space and a variety of dining options all under one roof. Those properties are usually on the outskirts of major cities. Because it is still located in a major metropolitan area, the Hyatt was designed to be exactly half as large as a traditional Gaylord hotel, Smith said.
Smith declined to provide detailed information about booking pace, but did say that both 2012 and 2013 have at least 10 days so far in which the property is completely sold out.
Despite its attempt to be completely self-contained, Smith said the Hyatt isn't designed to poach business from the city's leading meeting space.
"It's not about taking business out of the convention center," Smith said. "It's about getting business the city couldn't have gotten."
But Smith said the Hyatt has secured three conferences from another city -- Las Vegas -- because of the hotel's new space.
"It's not about competition," Smith said. "We're taking on a niche business that's going to help the city in the long run."
John McCusker/The Times-PicayuneMichael Smith, the general manager of the Hyatt Regency New Orleans, said the renovated hotel is completing final touches for the Oct. 19 grand opening. Ã¢Â€Â˜This is a totally new hotel,Ã¢Â€Â™ Smith said.
The hotel's initial plan had been to welcome massive crowds over the weekend of Oct. 23, timed to coincide with a rematch of Super Bowl XLIV between the New Orleans Saints and the Indianapolis Colts. But the absence of the Colts superstar quarterback and hometown hero, Peyton Manning, has dampened some of the enthusiasm for the game.
"It's still the Saints. It's still New Orleans. It's still Sunday night football," Smith said. "I don't think it's going to make a huge difference for us as far as capacity is concerned."
When the Hyatt reopens, it will bring the city's hotel room inventory to almost 36,500 rooms. Pre-Katrina, the city had 39,525 hotel rooms. The property will employ 800 people, not counting part-time staff hired for special events. It has 1,193 guest rooms including 95 suites and 200,000 square feet of meeting and exhibit space, up from 100,000 before Katrina.
As evidenced by the fact that it took six years to reopen, redevelopment on the storm-damaged property has been slow.
The Hyatt received substantial water damage in Katrina after every window on the Poydras Street side of the hotel was blown out in the storm. The hotel also became an immediate symbol of the storm's tremendous damage, in part because several media outlets and city leaders were sheltered in the hotel when the storm made landfall. Strategic Hotels & Resorts, which owned the hotel at the time of the hurricane, performed some renovations on the site after the storm and proposed it as the centerpiece of a jazz district. But the plan never materialized.
The property sold for $32 million to Poydras Properties Hotel Holdings in 2007. The company received $225 million in low-cost GO Zone bonds to begin rehabilitating the hotel in February 2009.
In a nod to the hotel's six year closure, a maroon "hurricane wall" that extends the length of the lower levels is outfitted with several three- and four-foot renditions of hurricane lamps that will reflect onto Poydras Street.
In addition to the relocation of the main entrance, other changes include closing off the access to the defunct New Orleans Centre Mall. The hotel used to lead directly into the mall from its second floor and leased space adjacent to it for the property. That space, 36,000 square feet, has been closed in and turned into breakout rooms. Borne, a John Besh restaurant, located just off the main lobby is expected to open this winter.
On the third level is Vitascope Hall, a sports bar and 8 Block, a full-service restaurant.
Smith said hotel guests will be lead through that area -- similar to the same way Las Vegas hotel guests are led through casinos -- to reach the guest elevators after they check in.
Overnight guests, however, are just one part of the mix of people the property is hoping to attract. The Hyatt is wedged between and connected internally to the Entergy building and 1250 Poydras. The hotel is counting on the occupants of those office buildings stop in for meals. And two other incentives include the Hyatt's installation of a full-size Starbucks coffee shop and a 24-hour convenience store at precisely the point where the three properties intersect.