Getting Back To (Tourism) Business In New Orleans

Though images of toxic floodwaters, damaged homes and a breakdown in law enforcement linger, New Orleans and Louisiana officials are already at work on marketing plans to resuscitate the city’s main economic driver: convention and tourism business.

While state and local officials are looking to the federal government to help get the economy moving again, Louisiana Lt. Gov. Mitch Landrieu has moved quickly at home, appointing a blue-ribbon panel to devise steps to rebuild a travel-dependent economy that was projected—before Katrina landed—to bring $10 billion to the state in 2005. Operating under the banner, “Louisiana Rebirth: Restoring the Soul of America,” the panel includes notables such as hotelier Bill Marriott, filmmaker Ken Burns, actor Laurence Fishburne and musician Aaron Neville (the latter two are New Orleans residents).

The effort is modeled on the work New York did after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, which tapped into the nation’s empathy to spur recovery. (Loews hotel chain CEO Jonathan Tisch, a member of Landrieu’s panel, has called the tactic “patriotic tourism.”) The city’s largest agency, Peter A. Mayer Advertising, handles the state’s nearly $20 million travel and tourism account and will assist the panel with marketing strategy.

Louisiana ranked seventh among states in ad spending on tourism in 2004 at $18 million, according to the Travel Industry Association. Last year, the state received a $15 return on every dollar spent in advertising placement and production, according to the Louisiana Department of Culture, Recreation & Tourism. As for New Orleans, its economy is heavily supported by tourism and convention dollars, bringing in about $5 billion in business annually and employing one of every seven residents in the city. With the city’s $13 million monthly sales tax revenue down (currently at zero), city officials have to balance rebuilding the tax base, as well as the city’s image. Already, the New Orleans Convention and Visitors Bureau is looking at its positioning; visitors to its Web site are greeted with the message, “You will love the NEW New Orleans. Opening in January 2006.”

For Mayer and other agencies, restoring the city’s image is as much an act of preservation for them as for their clients. With a largely local clientele, the agencies know their vitality is directly linked to the city’s. In the aftermath of the hurricane, Mayer had to scrap a $7 million television and print campaign for the state that highlighted music and cultural attractions such as Dixieland jazz players in New Orleans and banjo players in Cajun Country. In its place, the agency has prepared a short-term effort to launch at the end of the month reminding regional travelers that much of the state was unharmed by hurricanes. The campaign, which is likely to include TV, print and radio, will appear in markets within driving distance of destinations like Shreveport and Lafayette.

Creatives are working to come up with ideas for a bigger campaign to launch next year. “Longer term, we have basically an image campaign,” Mayer said. “We’re not going to address the images people saw on TV head-on. We are going to remind people of what New Orleans was and is.”

Similarly, one of the city’s other major ad shops, Trumpet, is at work on a campaign for its client, New Orleans Convention and Visitors Bureau. “I think this is the ultimate creative challenge,” said Robbie Vitrano, creative director and co-founder of Trumpet. “We have a clean sheet of paper that comes with hitting rock-bottom.”

Though no plans have been set, Vitrano said documenting the recovery efforts will be key to his shop’s efforts in promoting the city. “This is as seismic and massive [to New Orleans] as the Civil War was to the rest of the country,” Vitrano said.

Looking at the city’s dilemma from the outside, Rod Underhill, a former principal of The Richards Group who now runs Dallas consultancy Vibrand, said any tourist-targeted ads right now would be a waste of money. “Far better to pool the money, develop the campaign and spend like crazy in March and April,” he said.

Some experts said the city can take its time attracting leisure travelers, but that convention business is a much more urgent matter. “It’s going to require a major campaign to reposition the city, and it cannot happen until it’s been shown they have made changes,” said Deborah Sexton, CEO of the Professional Convention Management Association in Chicago and a member of Landrieu’s advisory board. Planners are already looking for convention sites for 2011, she said. “If they miss those rotations, they are going to suffer big time.”

In making a case for the city’s convention and visitors bureau, Vitrano’s shop will put the disaster in a historical context, juxtaposing floods, epidemics, wars and scandal with the city’s resilience, as well as its great food, literature and music. “We’ve done a lot of things right,” Vitrano said. “Let’s talk about the city we will leave for the next generation.”