ArnieOn my initial post-Katrina visit to New Orleans in August 2006, just shy of the first anniversary of the hurricane, I found the psyche of the city to be depressed. The French Quarter was open for business, but it was, frankly, borderline eerie to walk into Galatoire's and be seated right away; to see Cafe du Monde a tenth full on a beautiful morning; to see signs in shop windows cursing the storm.

Back then, the French Quarter was open for business, uncrowded and eager to please. But visitors don't go to New Orleans to avoid crowds, they go to get lost in a multitude. The tourist portions of the city were renovated and arguably better than ever, but what makes New Orleans special has less to do with its material charms than its intangibles. The city's spirit feeds on swarms of visitors. It felt malnourished.

I returned again two weeks ago on the occasion of Travel Weekly's first New Orleans Leadership Forum, held at the Hotel Monteleone.

"We've got some pent-up demand for the pleasures of this city," J. Stephen Perry, CEO of the New Orleans Convention and Visitors Bureau, said as he opened the forum. "This is not a sterile or contrived place. It has grittiness, around every corner, in every meal."

The grittiness in the meals is, fortunately, not akin to sand in underwashed spinach. It is found in the food's elemental flavors and smells: An etouffee doesn't contain crawfish, it exalts them. Oysters, often simply mute bivalves in other cities, reveal the secrets of the deep when prepared in New Orleans. And in my personal belief system, God created rice in anticipation of gumbo.

That Perry mentions food -- often -- is not by chance. He believes food saved New Orleans after Katrina struck. When I had first met with him a year after Katrina, he told me how the city's famous chefs saved New Orleans' soul by preparing meals for rescue workers. "You can't be eating bologna sandwiches in New Orleans, even when you're doing cleanup work," he said.

The Travel Weekly Leadership Forum featured national industry leaders -- AAA's Mark Brown, Continental's Vic Kerckhoff, ASTA's Bill Maloney, Ensemble's Jack Mannix, CLIA's Bob Sharak, Travel Holdings' Jason Soss, Vacation.com's Steve Tracas and the USTOA's Bob Whitley -- in dialogue with New Orleans hoteliers and others connected to tourism.

Although New Orleans is seeing tourism increase significantly, it's not yet back to its tourism potential. It still suffers from the impression that it's not yet ready for prime time.

But the audience collectively, and literally, sat a little taller in their chairs when Soss, who brings inbound travelers to their city, said he thought their hotel rates were actually below what the market would bear.

That night, I experienced some of the reborn energy of the city. I joined a thousand revelers participating in the Royal Street Stroll, lining up in a pouring rain to eat and drink and eat and drink and eat and drink.

One of the restaurateurs who was dishing out food on Royal Street that night was Tommy Cvitanovich, proprietor of Drago's and inventor of the charbroiled oyster, easily the greatest advancement in oysterdom since Roy Alciatore first Rockefellered them at Antoine's 80 years earlier.

In the weeks following Katrina, Cvitanovich and his crew had fed thousands of workers and residents in neighboring Metairie, where the restaurant his parents had started is located. Last year, he opened a second in the lobby of the Hilton New Orleans Riverside.

After feeding Coast Guard personnel filling the breech at the 17th Street Canal, Cvitanovich set up a kitchen in the parking lot of his restaurant and, for the next eight weeks, solicited food from his suppliers and fed it to whoever showed up. "There was no place to eat, no stores open, no restaurants; half the city was just looted. A few employees and I just slept on the second floor of the restaurant; I had lost my house completely."

New Orleans, Cvitanovich believes, needs more of a certain type of visitor. "A lot of people come and want to volunteer. They clean and gut houses for a day, great things. But we got our FEMA money, our insurance money, our handout money. What we need is for people to come to our city, eat our food, drink our booze, have a ball and then tell everyone back home."

I had mentioned earlier that New Orleans thrives on crowds. It is in many respects the perfect symbiotic destination, becoming fat and happy by making others fat and happy. If you've been holding back on recommending New Orleans for vacations or meetings for fear that it can't deliver, here's my suggestion: Go see for yourself. Your clients, Tommy Cvitanovich and your taste buds will be forever grateful.

E-mail Arnie Weissmann at [email protected].

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