New Orleans, Revisited

NEW YORK Willie Mae Seaton, founder of Willie Mae’s Scotch House in New Orleans, stars in a 10-minute Web film documenting the reopening of her famed Jefferson Parish restaurant. The petite 88-year-old tells the story of how the community pulled together to get her Creole restaurant up and running again.

Seaton’s story of rebirth is the kind Kelly Schulz, vp of communications and public relations at the New Orleans Metropolitan Convention and Visitors Bureau, wishes the public would see more of.

Her office, a city agency that received $8.5 million in federal funds to expand its resources and advertise, is dealing with a marketing challenge like no other: convincing the world that New Orleans is every bit the destination it has always been.

The image of New Orleans, two years after Katrina, has been ravaged by the devastating realities of the storm as well as the perceptions created by news coverage, which residents criticize as too negative.

The challenge for those working to rebrand the Big Easy is to promote the tourist destinations, which have long been ready for business, while news coverage focuses on still-suffering areas like the Ninth Ward.

“It’s very much a tale of two cities. You have this tourism area that’s intact, and you have unbelievably horrible devastation in the outlying neighborhoods,” says Schulz.

‘Beauty Out of Chaos’

That phrase is the crux of the brief Trumpet and Peter A. Mayer Advertising worked off of to develop the positioning of the “Forever New Orleans” campaign which is designed to stress the Crescent City’s resilience.

“The city has come back from trying circumstances many times,” says Jenny Dalton, senior brand strategist at Trumpet. “We put together a timeline from 1618 to present and realized there were seven or eight things that completely cut the city down. It burned down twice.”

Keeping the messaging optimistic was important, but honesty was critical. “Yeah, it’s worth coming and seeing and no don’t cancel your convention, but the expectation has to be real,” says Scott Couvillon, Trumpet’s director of brand strategy. “But you are going to see the water lines … you are going to see a modern city that was hit by something we’ve never seen before.”

The result is the ongoing “Forever New Orleans,” campaign, a print and outdoor effort that cleverly celebrates the city’s unwavering spirit and culture. “The one thing that Katrina did not wash away is our culture and the experience and emotional connection people have with this city,” says Schulz. The ads reference Katrina in a wry manner with headlines such as “Soul is waterproof,” over a picture of a jazz musician, “We’ve never been dry,” next to an image of a woman with a glass of wine, and “Open for just about anything,” with an image of a Mardi Gras parader on stilts. Last month, the campaign was extended to airplanes with ads showcasing the city’s famous cuisine. The ads, placed on tray tables, urge passengers to “reconnect with New Orleans.”

“People know New Orleans has an interesting culture. We wanted to bring that forward and let them know that culture is something that never dies. It’s the secret because to this place, it’s a city that built creativity around overcoming challenges and difficulties, be it jazz, from poverty, or the fact that the city was built out of a swamp,” says Robbie Vitrano, co-founder and director of brand design at Trumpet, which is working with the New Orleans Metropolitan Convention and Visitors Bureau and the Louisiana Economic Development office to help increase tourism and business investments in the city and state. “It’s always had a rich cultural dynamic to it, so we started to put some muscle around it.”

The city’s various tourism organizations and even small businesses showcase the campaign’s “Forever New Orleans” tagline and logo, which features a fleur de lis. For example, a TV and print campaign asking tourists to “Come fall in love all over again” from the New Orleans Tourism Marketing Corporation and the Louisiana Office of Tourism, now carries the tag. The campaign, from Peter A. Mayer Advertising, has been running since early 2006 and features celebrities such as Wynton Marsalis, John Goodman, Dan Aykroyd and Emeril Lagasse. “In a timeline of New Orleans history, Katrina is just a speed bump in what this city has endured and what it stands for,” says Josh Mayer, creative director at Peter A Mayer. “You can’t define New Orleans by Katrina; that would be a mistake. The French Quarter is 250 years old, Katrina happened two years ago. The French Quarter is still standing and Katrina is in our rearview mirror.”

Another tagline considered, according to Schulz, was “Old world. New promise.”

And it’s that truth in advertising that officials want to extend to other PR efforts, even city “disaster tours” of the damaged neighborhoods. “It’s something that we don’t discourage. It’s human curiosity,” says Schulz, plus it helps educate people about the geographic location of the damaged areas.

The Economics of Travel

With 35 percent of the city’s operating budget generated by tourism and hospitality—-a $5 billion industry in a good year—success is critical to the city’s economy. Before the storm, tourism was the largest employer of the metropolitan area, supporting about 85,000 employees. Post-Katrina, New Orleans has struggled to restore its tourist traffic. Last year, nearly 4 million people visited the city compared to 2004, which saw 10 million visitors, according to the NOTMC.

“Not having tourism stand up quickly was going to slow recovery,” says Vitrano. “The reason there was so much emphasis placed on it immediately was because the tourist areas were ready.”

While the news media often talks about all the businesses that have shut down or all the residents that have yet to return, Tim Williamson, president of The Idea Village, a nonprofit, says the bigger story is the influx of young professionals that are attracted to the rebuilding challenge. “This is the vanguard talent,” says Williamson.

And it is this new New Orleans that those marketing the city are trying to expose to the world. As trying as the last two years have been, Schulz stresses the silver lining. “Everything that’s broken, we now have the opportunity to fix, the way we market the city, the healthcare system, the educational system, everything is on the table and being looked at how to make it better,” she says. “It’s a good time to be here.”

Slow Recovery

There is still much work ahead. Two billion dollars in meetings business was lost between September ’05 and May ’06. Last year, says Schulz, the city retained about 40 percent of of the conventions it hosted pre-Katrina. This year, Schulz predicts New Orleans will see an increase to 70 percent.

Overall tourism numbers are also steadily increasing. In 2006, New Orleans had nearly 3.7 million visitors spending $2.9 billion, compared to 2004, which saw record-breaking numbers of more than 10 million visitors. This year, Mardi Gras—which according to Tulane University generates $20.5 million in tax revenues for the city—saw 800,000 visitors, as compared to ’06’s 700,000, while pre-Katrina figures were closer to 1 million.

The summer, never a robust tourist season for the city, is expected to be the worst in New Orleans history, with a hotel occupancy rate of only 35 percent. To help combat that drop, last month Trumpet launched 24NOLA.com, a CVB-sponsored Web site that offers insiders’ tips on city sites for every hour of the day. It is an attempt to reach a different kind of traveler, one that seeks an experience other than Bourbon Street, a more adventurous type of visitor. “They are not looking for mainstream travel, they are looking for a unique experience,” says Dalton of the travelers they’ve deemed the “seekers.” They “want to experience a new place like a local would want to experience and isn’t expecting everything to be perfect and polished, but a little bit grittier and authentic.”

Daryn Dodson, a 28-year-old Stanford MBA grad from Washington, D.C. working with Idea Village, relocated to New Orleans after volunteering in the lower Ninth Ward. “This is one of the great stories of American history,” he says, “but the rest isn’t written yet.”