June 25 2009 | Latest News
Posted by Jaquetta White, The Times-Picayune
The Roosevelt New Orleans Hotel will quietly reopen Thursday when about 300 Junior Achievement members gather in the hotel's Waldorf Astoria ballroom for a reception. The group will be the first to meet in the iconic building since Hurricane Katrina forced its doors shut nearly four years ago.
The luxury hotel's reopening helps to diversify the city's hotel stock and has the potential to catalyze development in a somewhat sleepy section of downtown. But the hotel is reopening at a precarious time, as the national recession has pinched the market for travel.
"Certainly there have been better economies in which to open a new hotel," said Mark Wilson, the Roosevelt's marketing director. "But we are very bullish on New Orleans and our potential here."
The Baronne Street hotel, which operated as the Fairmont Hotel before Katrina, has not reopened since the storm dumped 10 feet of water into the building's basement, destroying all the mechanical equipment, and wind-driven rain inundated most guest floors.
It was sold for $19 million in August 2007 to Dimension Development Co. Inc. of Natchitoches, which then contracted with the Hilton Hotel Corp. to add the hotel to its upscale Waldorf-Astoria portfolio. Hilton decided to reopen the property as a 504-room, 135-suite luxury hotel under the Roosevelt moniker, the name it held from 1923 to 1965.
Although the property will be open and receiving guests beginning next week, it won't celebrate a grand opening until October.
The hotel has a 375-person staff that Wilson said will grow to about 450, making it smaller than the 500-member staff of the Fairmont.
"It's a plus to have it back in business," said Mavis Early, executive director of the Greater New Orleans Hotel and Lodging Association. "More rooms gives us the option to woo more meetings to the city."
The city will have 34,765 hotel rooms when the Roosevelt opens, about 90 percent of its pre-Katrina total.
The Roosevelt is targeting business travelers. About 70 percent of the guests are expected to be people in town for corporate meetings. Much of the hotel's business so far is tied to meetings and events.
In addition to the one-night Junior Achievement event, the hotel has booked a 150-attendee wedding for this month and several receptions associated with the Tales of the Cocktail event next month. The Roosevelt will begin receiving overnight guests July 1, with a couple hundred rooms already booked for the Essence Music Festival over the Fourth of July weekend.
"We are not quite trying to sell out yet," Wilson said.
So far, just one day is sold out: July 10. The day is part of the four-day Cardiovascular Institute of the South conference.
But with corporate travel depressed because of the economic recession, the hotel will rely more on leisure travel during its opening months.
"With the economy being what it is, it's a little bit harder to secure business from corporate America," Wilson said. For the week ending June 13, nationwide hotel occupancy fell 10.1 percent to 61 percent when compared with the previous year, according to a data from Smith Travel Research. Meanwhile, revenue per available room, a key lodging benchmark known as RevPar, fell 18.6 percent to $58.96 during the week of June 7-13 compared with the same period last year.
Against that grim backdrop, however, New Orleans was one of just two cities to increase RevPar in the period. It was up 1.1 percent here to $68.59, in large part because hotel room rates jumped 7 percent.
Still, overall hotel occupancy is down, Early said.
"Summer is the slow time, and we are in an economic slump," Early said. "We're not as down as comparable states. But I think everybody is down overall."
Excitement about the reopening is building in the surrounding downtown neighborhood.
"What you're essentially doing is expanding the downtown residential base," said Kurt Weigle, president and chief executive officer of the Downtown Development District. "It may be transient residential, but they're making use of a lot of the same services that someone living downtown would."
That means that the hotel's guests and employees would patronize restaurants and other businesses in the area, an activity that would encourage more business development and economic activity there.
"The traffic going to the Roosevelt and the (Saenger) Theatre will be good," said Riad Dallah, who opened the diner Duffy's on Canal Street near the hotel two months ago with the expectation that he'd soon have a built-in customer base. "I know that Canal Street is going to be active again. I'm hoping to get more development along Canal so that we can all benefit."
Jaquetta White can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 504.826.3494.