Wednesday, October 31, 2007

The Convention Center

Ernest N. Morial Convention Center
October 31st, 2007
New Orleans, La.

Dear Family and Friends,

You may remember, over two years later, the images of the Superdome and the Convention Center. Images of heartbreak.

I'm not the one to tell you why. I wasn't here.

But my friend Teddy was. He says that living for three days outside the Convention Center were the most horrific of his life. Teddy says that all the rumors you heard about the Convention Center were essentially true. Some of the crazy stuff like rampant rapes weren't. But, guys with guns and the rising of underworlds and tribes like something out of "Survivor" did happen.

Teddy left the Superdome because like thousands of others, he heard that the government had opened the Convention Center as a shelter. No order was ever issued. There was no food, water or preparations for the Convention Center to be used as a shelter.

Teddy tells people he's going to charge for the next time he tells his story. It's true, this guy should be getting paid for his knowledge. Journalists, even embedded journalists, can't tell a story like the one he has.

Dead New Orleanians were left for days on the street outside the Convention Center, he says.

Generally, like the ways of our primal world, these people were our elderly or special needs citizens. Just goes to show how fragile civilized society is. I'm not a New Orleanian, but I'll use pronouns like we to describe this. This was a national event. These were all of our brothers and sisters--our grandfathers and grandmothers.

I went to the Convention Center today. Sixty million dollars of renovations later, the one million square feet of space looks pretty darn good. Hall "A" the oldest part of the Convention Center, built for the World's Fair of 1984, was the most heavily damaged during Katrina and the days of pain after.

One of the Convention Center's event planners gave me a tour of the place. Every square foot of carpet has been replaced, all doors repainted, he says.

New Orleans has always been a Convention destination battling Las Vegas and Orlando for top honors. The convention are returning steadily to New Orleans. I've read some of the welcome brochures of these conferences. No matter whether it was the American Association of Surgeons or the World Association of Police Chiefs or architects or pharmacists, each welcome letter focuses on "the feeling that we must help New Orleans in it's time of need."

True that.

The Convention Center canceled all events from September 2006 to March 2006 due to Katrina related damage. In 2007, the Convention Center says it expects 324,568 people to visit and particpate in events held at the Convention Center. For 2008, they've booked 382,914. In 2009, they've booked 541,860 and 504,240 for 2010.

What happens when the feel good stuff runs out though?

It's the thing I fear most for this City's economic livelihood.

The airport reports as of the two-year anniversary that it's operating at over 80 percent of it's pre-storm level. That means visitors are coming here. Convention visitors are coming back and big events are coming back.

But these things can go elsewhere if New Orleans, the City, doesn't amount to a fantastic destination anymore. All indications point towards that not happening. The people I've met and spoken with who've come to New Orleans say they're gonna go home and tell a friend, "hey, New Orleans was great."

For the paradigm of how we think about New Orleans to shift, it will not be because of the national media. It will be a few consecutive years of millions of visitors coming--and leaving--with the "New Orleans was great" attitude.

"Do you do exit interviews with Convention people?" I asked

He says they have people rate their satisfaction with the Convention Center and the City. "I don't think I've seen less than a 7 since the storm," he says. Overwhelmingly, the response has been fantastic, he says.

This was good to hear.

The feel good Katrina reasons for coming here will dry up, it's inevitable. But, New Orleans' hospitality won't go away, no matter how you get here.

See you soon.



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