Chantele Wideman emerged from the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center late Tuesday afternoon with the city she has missed for five years at her feet.
A human resources manager at a Beaumont, Texas-based manufacturer, Wideman is one of about 16,000 people in town for the Society for Human Resource Management conference. She said she’s attended the same conference in three or four other cities, and this one in New Orleans is the best so far.
“It’s very good to be back,” she said, counting the food, drink and “atmosphere” among the charms of New Orleans. “I’m going to hate having to go home tomorrow.”
It’s music to the ears of New Orleans convention and tourism officials, who say 2022 is shaping up to be a stronger year for the convention industry after a brutal period. Individual events are still much smaller — sometimes up to 50% smaller — than before the pandemic, but the cancellations that characterized much of 2020 and 2021 are over, Convention Center President Michael Sawaya said. .
The Convention Center hosted 30 events in 2020, a year that also saw the building converted to a COVID-19 emergency service and hurricane evacuation shelter. In 2021, it hosted 60 gatherings, with a few annual events, such as the WorkBoat Show which drew around 10,000 attendees in December, returning to town.
This year, the center will end up with a hundred events. In 2019, there were 125.
“It’s not that far off the pre-pandemic year mark,” Sawaya said, noting that around Mardi Gras, “a switch tripped and all the big events started to come back.”
Conventions are booked out years in advance, and aside from a late booking caused by cancellation elsewhere, officials tend to know what’s coming.
Still, he says, “it seems like every week there’s something big happening in the building.”
For the second half of the year, there are 21 conventions with at least 3,000 attendees booked, and these events are expected to attract 357,688 guests.
By far the biggest is the Essence Ventures convention, a networking event tied to the Essence Culture Festival taking place July 1-3 and expecting 150,000 people to attend.
The second biggest is the 64th Annual Meeting of the American Society of Hematology, which is expected to draw 24,000 attendees in December.
call it a comeback
The return of convention business reflects the broader rebound in tourism to New Orleans in general, according to New Orleans & Co., the city’s leading marketing organization.
“From our perspective, we’ve had a good year,” Kelly Shultz, senior vice president of communications. of New Orleans & Co. “We’re definitely better than we’ve been, but we’re not quite at those pre-pandemic levels.”
She noted, however, that 2019 is a pretty high bar, with a record 19.75 million visitors spending around $10 billion.
For most of the pandemic, the Convention Center has relied on a reserve fund to keep the building up and running without any revenue from events and a diminished rake from its share of hotel taxes. He started the pandemic with about $250 million in cash reserves and used about $43 million of that in 2020 and 2021.
During a financial update from the board that oversees the property in March, officials said the hotels’ tax revenues have rebounded and their financial situation has stabilized.
Sawaya and Schulz said successful events held earlier in the year helped spur the rebound in visitor numbers. Mardi Gras, the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, the French Quarter Festival and the NCAA Men’s Final Four have all shown the rest of the country that New Orleans is open for business.
Additionally, Sawaya said the Convention Center never laid off any of its 400 employees, who he said worked hard to avoid cancellations and be ready for business to return.
The human resources convention of 16,000 participants? “I couldn’t do that if I was trying to recruit staff,” he said.
While the center may have more events on the calendar, attendance still lags behind.
During the pandemic, many would-be event attendees stayed home for safety reasons, and in the era of mask and vaccine mandates, some decided not to come due to rules they deemed too expensive.
For example, Sawaya said an agricultural convention that took place while the city had implemented a mask mandate had attendance about 40% of normal.
Of the vaccine mandate, Schulz said, “People told us it gave them an extra degree of comfort, but there were others who said, ‘It’s not for me’.”
“In the post-pandemic world, where restrictions are easing, we’re starting to see them go back up closer to where they should be, in terms of attendance,” Sawaya said.
On whether the convention industry will be permanently affected by companies’ increased reliance on videoconferencing, Sawaya said education and professional certification conferences may see a longer decline.
But anything involving sales, marketing, and new product development requires face-to-face interaction. Plus, he said, attendees have so far been “stunned” by the return of basic human contact.
“It’s almost like they haven’t seen each other in decades,” he said. “They are so excited to be together again.”