National WWII Museum plans $41 million, 234-room hotel and conference center

Posted on: December 14 2016

BY RICHARD THOMPSON,  The New Orleans Advocate

In addition to its ambitious $370 million capital campaign, the National World War II Museum plans to build a 234-room hotel and conference center at its Warehouse District complex, which has attracted millions of visitors since opening to widespread acclaim in 2000.

The museum's plans, which were outlined in an application for a building permit filed this week with the city, call for an eight-story building plus a roof deck and lounge at 1000 Magazine St., at an estimated $41 million price tag.

The 107-foot-tall building will run the full length of the block of Andrew Higgins Drive between Magazine and Constance streets. The other half of that block is taken up by the museum's 450-space parking garage.

The hotel will include a ground-floor bar and restaurant opening onto Andrew Higgins, as well as conference space on the second floor and guest rooms on the third through eighth floors, according to the plans filed Tuesday with the city.

The second-floor conference area is to include a 6,800-square-foot main conference room, six smaller meeting rooms and a nearly 3,000-square-foot "pre-function room."

The addition of the hotel and conference center would be the latest piece of the museum's expansion, which will quadruple the size of the original facility.

The hotel will have plenty of company: As the city's tourism numbers have picked up, New Orleans has seen a wave of hotel construction and conversion projects, creating a building boom that's included nearly two dozen hotels in various stages of development.

In addition, the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center is continuing to push for building a 1,200-room hotel as part of a proposed $1.5 billion riverfront development project.

But museum officials said their project is a unique case, and that adding a conference center has long been part of their plans.

Months after the museum welcomed its five millionth visitor, they say they're monitoring the hospitality industry for new developments but are confident that the museum's hotel will have a captive audience and its rooms will be easily absorbed into the market, particularly if the city's tourism numbers continue to climb.

"Where we sit right now, we're confident that as we move forward, this is going to be a financially successful venture," said Bob Farnsworth, the museum's senior vice president of capital programs.

The new building, Farnsworth said, will be "just a jewel both for the city and for the museum."

Because it draws so many out-of-town visitors, the museum is betting it will be able to fill the hotel's rooms largely with them. In conjunction with the conference center, which will provide space for museum-related gatherings and educational programming, it will give visitors the option to stay on campus throughout their stay.

Last month, the museum attracted about 650 people from around the world for its annual International Conference on World War II. On a smaller scale, officials envision the space being used to host events like single-day symposiums and programming for students and teachers. It could also be used for gatherings like military units' reunions.

Nearly 85 percent of the museum's visitors are from out-of-state, officials say, and about half report the museum was a prime driver for their visit to New Orleans.

Having the hotel option is "something that our visitors have told us for a number of years they would really enjoy," said Stephen Watson, executive vice president and chief operating officer of the museum.

It's unclear whether the hotel will operate under a major chain's flag. Officials say they're in talks with "a number" of companies about that possibility. Meanwhile, the museum has hired Hostmark Hospitality Group of Illinois to run the hotel.

So far, the museum has raised about $270 million for the expansion program. "We've made a lot of progress, but we've still got a substantial amount of work to do in the next two years to finish the campus and make sure that we keep the momentum going," Watson said.

Though it's not definite, construction on the hotel could begin by next fall and take about 18 months.

It's been a busy few months for the museum.

In September, the City Council approved the latest tweaks to the plans for its multiphase expansion. Those included adding a third level to the planned Hall of Democracy; enclosing the American Sector restaurant's deck to replace seating that will be lost when the new hall is built; and adding a double gallery to the façade of 1037 Magazine St. to reflect a feature shown in a recently discovered historic photograph.

Plans for the 30,880-square-foot Hall of Democracy include ground-floor exhibition and retail space, second-floor classrooms, and a library and offices on the third floor, according to a report by the City Planning Commission's staff.

A nearly 25,000-square-foot Liberation Pavilion, which will explore the closing months of the war and the immediate postwar years, concluding with an explanation of links to the present, is slated to be developed in the future.