Saints Gift to New Orleans

Posted on: March 3 2010

Super Saints hit home run for New Orleans...

Saints help city improve perception

Super Saints hit a home run for New Orleans

Wednesday, March 03, 2010

Peter Finney

It was one of those moments that will remain forever frozen in time.

Where were you when Tracy Porter became the most famous athlete in the history of Port Allen?

Ask Stephen Perry, and he'll tell you he was sitting on the 43-yard line at Sun Life Stadium in Miami that night.

He remembers the feeling as "the closest to heaven I ever had," watching a 74-yard interception return of a Peyton Manning pass become the defining play of the Saints' 31-17 Super Bowl victory over the Indianapolis Colts.

"My wife buried her head in my chest and began sobbing," Perry said. "I was sobbing right along. Tracy jumps the route. He leaves Reggie Wayne empty-handed. Looking back, it's like everything unfolded in slow motion. The playoff run. The T-shirt craze. The resurrection of a city."

The Saints had become America's Team.

And, as Perry will tell you, in the minds of many all over the United States, New Orleans had become America's City.

The president and CEO of the Metropolitan Convention and Visitors Bureau for almost 10 years, Perry was living through an out-of-body experience.

He was riding a magic carpet in a highly competitive business.

"It's amazing how the Saints captured a national audience," he said. "I heard from friends in the tourism industry all over the country, including some in Europe, and it was like they had adopted not only the Saints, but the city. I heard from friends in Boston, in Detroit, in Cincinnati, from Redskins fans. After expressing loyalty to their hometown teams, the Saints were next in line. All around the country, you picked up the phone and you felt like you were speaking to members of the Who Dat Nation."

Probably, never in the history of tourism, has a city climbed so quickly from the primeval ooze to, let's say, a Mount Everest high.

"Next week," Perry said, "we're hosting one of the biggest, most lucrative conventions of them all, the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons. It's a convention that's on the books every four years. Because of Katrina, it had to be rescheduled. For the city, the timing could not have been better. When attendance at conventions has fallen 20 percent because of the economy, you have the Saints, and the city, become national darlings. And guess what? Hotel bookings for next week's convention are at 108 percent."

In the tourism business, that's standing room only.

In the tourism business, image and perception count.

"Lately," Perry said, "the attractiveness of New Orleans to our potential customers has been overwhelmingly positive. You turn on the TV and you've got chefs cooking, people having fun in the French Quarter, paddle-wheelers on the Mississippi. You've got a championship football team of solid citizens sending the right kind of message. You've got an underdog city that has fought back from a catastrophe. You've got a parade for a Super Bowl-champion team, more than half a million people are in the streets watching, and CNN is carrying it live. There is no way you could pay for this."

Before Katrina, a Competitive Edge Research survey showed the national perception of the city was far more positive than negative. Katrina hit, and the city's image was in shambles. "New Orleans' image," said the latest survey, "is probably even better than it was before the disaster."

How big is tourism in the Big Easy?

Consider: In 2008, 7.6 million visitors spent $5.1 billion hereabouts. That's billion with a "B."

Tourism is responsible for 70,000 jobs in the area.

"At the way things are going right now," Perry said, "I would not be surprised if visitor spending this year will be boosted somewhere between $300 million and $500 million."

Which can happen in a year you've celebrated two Mardi Gras and two Super Bowls, one in Florida, and an even bigger one in all sections of New Orleans.

"As happy as we were being there, sitting in that stadium in Miami," Perry said, "we missed being home, at the real celebration."

Proving you can't be in "two heavens" at the same time.

Perry has no regrets. He's been to "heaven" many times.

"I grew up in Boston, close to Fenway Park, a diehard Red Sox fan. Never thought I'd live long enough to see the Red Sox win a World Series. Well, we win two. Came here a big LSU fan. And the Tigers win two. Now this."


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