Saintsational Impact

Posted on: March 2 2010
Fan-demonium...Saints' Super Bowl win scores with tourists...

New Orleans CityBusiness

Saintsational Impact

by Richard A. Webster, Staff Writer
Published: February 25th, 2010

Al Groos, general manager of the Royal Sonesta, hasn’t seen anything like it since before Katrina.

The phone lines in the hotel’s reservation office are ringing off the hook, and it’s been so busy he has been forced to re-forecast his occupancy predictions for the spring.

February was supposed to reach the mid-70th percentile; now it is expected to reach the mid-80s. March was supposed to peak in the high 70s; now it has surpassed 80 and continues to climb. Groos already hit his 80 percent projection for April and has two full months left to book additional rooms.

The sudden rush in reservation requests is a byproduct of Saints euphoria and weeks of glowing national and international media coverage, he said.

“All the bad publicity we received for years went the way of the ‘Aints,” Groos said. “It was buried and should have been part of the jazz funeral.”

City and tourism officials expected the Saints’ Super Bowl victory to translate into a huge Mardi Gras, which it did. Hotels were nearly sold out Friday through Sunday. There are typically significant drop-offs on Lundi Gras and Mardi Gras, but this year more than 90 percent of rooms were booked.

The long-term impact of the Saints’ NFL championship has taken some by surprise.

“I have one word — wow,” said Andrea Thornton, director of sales and marketing for the Hotel Monteleone, which was sold out through Mardi Gras and has been flooded with reservation requests in the following weeks.

Since Katrina, the New Orleans tourism industry has spent millions of dollars in national advertising, trying to convince leisure and business travelers that New Orleans was not underwater, that much of the city had made a full recovery and it remained one of the best travel destinations in the world.

Despite their efforts, it has been an uphill battle.

Though visitor numbers have improved each year, tourism and convention business is still off significantly compared with pre-storm numbers.

But the Saints’ historic run — and all of the positive coverage that came with it — accomplished in just a few weeks what couldn’t be done in years.

“Everyone in the industry has spent a lot of money trying to change people’s perception. But I guess because it’s advertising, no one believes you,” Thornton said. “There’s no way we could have possibly paid for this kind of publicity. Everyone is calling, so excited, saying, ‘New Orleans is back.’ Well, we’ve been saying that for awhile but now they really believe us.”

Mary Beth Romig, director of communications and public relations for the New Orleans Metropolitan Convention and Visitors Bureau, recently returned from a skiing trip in Colorado where the Saints’ impact was evident.

“Whether you were on a lift or in a restaurant, once people heard you were from New Orleans they would say, ‘It’s great to see things are so terrific down there. It’s great to finally see good news coming from New Orleans.’ People would say, ‘Finally, the city’s back.’”

Romig expects the excitement to translate into larger crowds for French Quarter Fest and Jazz Fest.

“People are more aware and interested in coming to New Orleans and being part of the scene,” she said.

Convention business is not seeing an immediate impact like the leisure travel sector because events are planned years in advance. But renewed interest in New Orleans could sway someone to attend a convention which will increase attendance and potentially lead to more business.

“When the attendance of shows begins to exceed projections, it has an immediate impact as word quickly spreads through the industry,” said Tim Hemphill, vice president of the New Orleans Morial Convention Center. “There are three shows in town now and everyone is happy with the attendance. Six months ago, that never happened. We were off up to 40 percent.”

When attendance is up, it pleases meeting planners, event producers and exhibitors. And when that happens, it confirms the value of meeting in New Orleans, Hemphill said.

“It starts off with being a city that is marketable to the leisure visitor. If the leisure visitor doesn’t want to come here, there’s no reason why the business traveler would want to come here. It’s all intertwined,” he said.

Thornton put it more simply.

“People don’t like going to some place that’s depressing.”

And right now, there’s no happier place in the world than New Orleans.•