Forging the Path for Future Events with Small, Safe Gatherings

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Forging the Path for Future Events with Small, Safe Gatherings

By Blair Potter | Oct 6, 2020

Though the early stages of the coronavirus pandemic resulted in a near-total global shutdown of in-person gatherings, in recent weeks we’ve seen signs of life. And Louisiana is no exception. The MPI Gulf States Chapter—whose 150 event professionals hail from Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida—recently held a hybrid event (pictured above) at the New Orleans Culinary Institute, with a follow-up hybrid event planned for next month.

“Hybrid Meeting - Part 1: Reconnecting In-person, Inspiring Virtually” on Sept. 24 featured in-person hosts/speakers, 25 in-person attendees (the city’s current indoor gathering limit is 50) and 12 virtual attendees. The in-person attendees were asked to stay six feet apart, wear masks and wash their hands at the door (where temperature checks were conducted). A networking component wasn’t included, and preset seating was intended to help if any contact tracing is needed.

“This allows our world-renowned hospitality and meeting industry in New Orleans the opportunity to truly garner hands-on experience in producing an in-person event,” says Tara Letort, CMP (MPI Gulf States Chapter), senior director of group public relations for New Orleans & Company, the city’s CVB. “It also builds confidence in our leaders to reproduce what they’ve learned and share with their own teams at their respective organizations and keep them sharp and poised for this new way of gathering, putting attendees’ safety first and forging the path for future events in New Orleans.”

She says the chapter also produces Coffee Connection virtual events—open forums for members to join for free to ask expert speakers, such as psychologists and other professionals, questions about timely issues (the next one will include venues showcasing what in-person events will now look like).

Let’s take a look at what’s happening in some key Louisiana cities.

New Orleans

Stephanie Turner, senior vice president, convention sales and strategy for New Orleans & Company, says aggressive testing, masking and social distancing policies are working in New Orleans as the city remains “laser-focused” on the safety of workers, residents and facilities.  

“We’ve created a comprehensive resource on our website with safety plans for many member hotels, attractions, transportation companies, etc., to ease your mind while you plan to return safely,” she says. “In addition, members of New Orleans’ hospitality industry created the NOLA Hospitality SAFE program (Selfless, Accountable, Forward-thinking, Educated), dedicated to keeping our residents and visitors healthy by encouraging operators, business partners and guests to abide by COVID-19 reopening guidelines. We understand the importance of social distancing and our hospitality community, along with our city and state leaders, has been hard at work implementing new practices.”

The New Orleans Ernest N. Morial Convention Center (MCCNO)—which features the largest contiguous-space exhibit hall in the U.S. (1.1 million square feet), 140 meeting rooms and a 60,300-square-foot, column-free ballroom—has achieved GBAC STAR accreditation through the Global BioRisk Advisory Council, which certifies that the facility is implementing the industry’s highest standards of cleaning, disinfection and infectious disease prevention.

“It builds confidence in our leaders to reproduce what they’ve learned and share with their own teams at their respective organizations.”

“A US$557 million improvement plan is under way at the MCCNO, including interior modernizations, renovations to its meeting rooms and a complete makeover of its exterior experience,” Turner says, noting recent improvements have included digital meeting room signage and a new transportation hub. “In 2020, wayfinding kiosks will be installed throughout the lobbies and the [project] turning seven-and-a-half acres of Convention Center Blvd. into a lush pedestrian park will be completed.”

A new, state-of-the-art terminal at Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport features more than 100 check-in counters and a consolidated security checkpoint that’s 17 lanes wide.

The city’s hotel inventory, up to 26,000 guest rooms, now includes the Higgins Hotel & Conference Center at the National World War II Museum and boutique properties Maison de la Luz Hotel and the Kimpton Hotel Fontenot. A Four Seasons Hotel + Residences will debut later this year. 

Harrah’s New Orleans, a popular meeting and convention venue, is planning for a new hotel tower with 350 luxury guest rooms, a sizable meeting space upgrade, an outdoor pool, a spa and new restaurant concepts as part of a $325 million package. The 450-room property’s current meeting space options include a ballroom with an outdoor balcony overlooking the city, a 2,000-capacity concert venue and the Masquerade Nightclub—featuring a 53-foot ceiling with a fiber optic display.

Shreveport-Bossier City

David Bradley, vice president of sales and service for the Shreveport-Bossier Convention and Tourist Bureau (CTB), says that in addition to venues, restaurants, attractions and hotels following state mandates requiring masks and social distancing, venues such as the Hilton Shreveport are setting up numerous hand-sanitizing stations and offering boxed meals instead of buffets.

“Shreveport-Bossier is continuously working with our clients and partners to reschedule events,” he says, noting that although a few restaurants have closed due to the pandemic, the five riverboat casinos are open and offer after-hours entertainment. “Because we are a mid-size destination with big-city amenities, we are able to offer our clients the tools they need to pull off an excellent event with smaller city populations and plenty of outdoor venues.”

The CTB hosted a hybrid event, the North Louisiana Travel Outlook Conference, on Sept. 10 with mostly local partners as well as some regional partner destinations.

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“They had two options to participate—over Zoom from the comfort of their offices or socially distanced at the Hilton Shreveport,” Bradley says. “The small group of partners who tuned in together at the Hilton Shreveport while social distancing watched the conference’s live stream, were served box lunches and even got to dance around a little during breaks! Overall, it was a successful event as we pivoted to supply a good and safe experience for our partners.”

He says one success story during the pandemic was the Shreveport-Bossier Sports Commission (a division of the CTB) helping to renovate Cargill BMX Park for the BMX Louisiana State Qualifier, July 31-Aug. 2, painting announcer booths, restoring the concession areas and making other updates to the park thanks to equipment and supplies provided by local partners.

“USA BMX is excited to give Shreveport-Bossier an outdoor activity that is both safe and fun,” says Bronwyn Sanders, a USA BMX volunteer. “It’s rewarding to know that we were still able to host an event amid a global pandemic.”

Baton Rouge

Meredith Conger, communications specialist for Visit Baton Rouge, says in addition to establishing new and robust cleaning procedures to ensure guest safety is top of mind, several hotels have extended the time period in between room occupancy and limited seating at restaurants to keep within social distancing guidelines.

“Baton Rouge has now moved to Phase 3 of reopening. This means our restaurants can now operate at 75 percent capacity while following strict guidelines set forth by the governor,” she says. “Baton Rouge area businesses are following the mandates required to operate and we are proud to see visitors and locals alike wearing masks and maintaining social distance.”

“Everyone was able to maintain social distancing and follow CDC guidelines while enjoying the water.”

Conger says Baton Rouge has hosted a few small-scale events recently, most notably a national waterski championship event where “everyone was able to maintain social distancing and follow CDC guidelines while enjoying the water.”

The city will be adding several restaurants in the coming months, including a downtown Mexican restaurant with an outdoor patio within walking distance of numerous hotels and conference venues.



Blair Potter
Blair Potter

Blair Potter is managing editor for The Meeting Professional. He likes toys and collects cats (or is it the other way around?).