Perception too often is mistaken as reality. So is the case hampering New Orleans right now, where misperceptions are to blame for the city's inability to capture back its full pre-Katrina tourism business. A year and a half have now passed since Hurricane Katrina, and while area officials continue to affirm the resurgence of New Orleans, they are having a tough time convincing both potential travelers and travel agents.
The city had a successful Mardi Gras last week, but a recent
decision by the largest cruise line in the business may have dampened the party
a bit—for now. Carnival Cruise Lines is delaying deploying a second ship to the
Port of New
Orleans—the Carnival Fantasy remains there—citing
"lingering misconceptions by the vacationing public as to the recovery of New Orleans' tourism
infrastructure." The cruise line said it was fully committed to New Orleans, but that
"erroneous perceptions of the city are currently posing a challenge."
Carnival says though that it tentatively will deploy the Carnival Triumph
to the city next year.
Kelly Schulz, vice president of communications for the New
Orleans Metropolitan Convention & Visitors Bureau (NOMCVB), says the city's
current stigma is due in part to an uninformed public. "First, Carnival
postponed deploying the second ship because people weren't even aware that it
was coming to the port," she explains. "Moreover, there are
misperceptions above and beyond cruise ships. People don't realize that they
can come to New Orleans and have that same, old
and historical New Orleans
experience they could have had pre-Katrina."
To that end, New Orleans is
ramping up its efforts to notify the public that New Orleans is open for business. The charge
is being led by Gary LaGrange, president and CEO of the Port of New Orleans,
who not only got the port back up and operating only 13 days after Katrina, but
also turned down a potential run for Louisiana governor to specifically
concentrate on bringing back New Orleans to its rightful level.
Changing Perceptions, One Agent at a Time
The preliminary plan or "blitz," as it's being called,
is to barnstorm through a 500-mile radius from New Orleans,
visiting as many travel agents per city as possible to educate them about New Orleans' readiness for
LaGrange is looking to amass whatever team he can to take
part in the drive, and has already elicited support by Louisiana's lieutenant governor, Mitch
Landrieu. "It's a question of getting our image back," says LaGrange.
No one's talking about the good things, particularly downtown in the French
Quarter." He cites a tendency by many to believe that murders and other
crimes are pervasive, when the problems are only happening in isolated areas
where the tourist public would never venture—just like in any major U.S. city.
"Travel agents need to tell the story to help turn our image around,"
LaGrange says. "For instance, don't just send potential cruisers to ports
such as Galveston or Corpus Christi."
LaGrange says that all ships are leaving New Orleans full, but he doesn't mince words
when commenting on Carnival's decision to delay deploying a second ship to the
port. "I was very disappointed," LaGrange says. "That's six or
seven months we won't have to strengthen our economy. We hung our hat on a lot
of promises from the cruise industry. Not the end for us, but we don't need
more bad news." LaGrange says that Carnival's choice was part of the
impetus to create the blitz plan.
Mary Brennan, owner of Ambassador Cruises in Fort Washington, MD,
spoke with LaGrange recently in Miami
at the America Association of Port Authorities Latin American and Caribbean
Executive Conference, and lauded his efforts. "He's behind the charge to
bring the city back in terms of tourism," she says. "He told me about
his plan, and to put the word out against any negative press. A lot of New Orleans is back and
the word still hasn't gotten out."
If early returns on the business of Mardi Gras are any
indication, then perhaps the city is inching back to a semblance of normalcy.
NOMCVB's Schulz says that this year's Mardi Gras' numbers will likely stack up
close to pre-Katrina levels of approximately 1 million people. "Hotels for
Mardi Gras are running at 95 percent capacity, which is better than last year,"
she says when reached on Mardi Gras day. Last year only 13,000 rooms were
available compared to 30,000 this year.
Another positive for the city's tourism industry is that
ExpressJet will begin non-stop service this summer to six cities, marking a 75
percent return of flights to LouisArmstrongInternationalAirport.
As for support from the travel community, earlier this month
the city's Windsor Court
hosted 100 luxury agents for Orient-Express Hotels' top-producers conference;
and Vacation.com is having
its 9th International Conference & Trade Show in the city this summer,
during which attendees will have the opportunity to work on a project with