Arnie Weissmann
Arnie Weissmann

It makes me feel a bit old to admit, but I've been going to New Orleans every few years for 48 years.

I love the city. Some days, I give thought to changing my name to Arnaud.

So, I was happy to accept an invitation from the New Orleans chapter of Skal to speak at its annual Industry Update, held earlier this week at the city's National World War II Museum.

I was asked to provide a tourism overview -- where we are, where I think we may be heading -- both in terms of leisure travel generally and New Orleans tourism specifically.

In the planned format, another speaker, Sherrif Karamat, president of the Professional Convention Management Association, and I would also address questions submitted in advance by the audience.

A current overview of tourism isn't difficult to size up: Hotels are, in many cases, getting record-breaking daily rates, cruise lines are setting records for onboard spending and airlines are tallying record airfares.

And yet, far from high prices discouraging travel, travel advisors are sometimes turning away business because they can't handle all the requests coming their way.

The demand that's pushing prices higher can be linked to a stymied desire to travel that had kept many people housebound during the first years of the pandemic. Desire, if repressed, doesn't go away; it builds, and in this case, it built into cabin fever.

When at last the fever broke and the doors swung open, price was a secondary consideration at best.

All this has been postulated before, but I thought I should also address the alligator in the room: A potential recession.

There have been three recessions since I entered the travel industry in 1985 -- four, if you count the one lasting two months at the beginning of the pandemic. The longest, the Great Recession of 2007-2009, lasted 18 months. The previous two were eight months each.

Let's say we do move into official recession territory and that this one lasts 10 months; not as long as the Great Recession, but 25% longer than the two previous to that. 

I think it's possible that the leisure travel industry may be uniquely positioned to weather a potential recession better than most economic sectors. Reservations already on the books may shield us for months, certainly through the summer and possibly through the end-of-the-year holidays (omicron led to a lot of holiday travel cancellations last year, and families will want to get together).

Although travel has always been considered a discretionary spend, current consumer behavior seems to belie that notion. It's plausible that momentum from the current travel boom could stretch for months into an economic downturn, though forward bookings would likely slow.

 • • •

During the Q&A period, one question struck me as particularly interesting: "If you could change one thing about New Orleans to make it better for the leisure or business traveler, what would it be?"

I've often thought this type of question is akin to messing with the space-time continuum. Would you go back and kill a tyrant if you had a time machine? If so, someone worse may arise.

Or, would you change an intrinsic behavior in someone you love? Be careful; the complex chemistry that brought you together could go totally out of whack.

Organic evolution keeps New Orleans fresh, but I suspect that underlying the question "what would you change?" is the worry that the city's grittiness is a deficit.

I'm not belittling legitimate safety concerns, but where to draw the line on other perceived social concerns is not so clear. The city's unique character, the very things it's famous for and make it attractive to visitors, arose from the grit as well as from the blend of sophisticated, rich cultures that ended up there. 

"Be careful what you wish" feels particularly true as regards New Orleans. It is one of the tiny handful of U.S. cities that is unequivocally distinct. When you raise the blinds and look out the window in New Orleans, you know exactly where you are.

And you're happy you're there.

Because NOLA punches above its weight in so many areas -- music, food, art, culture, architecture, tourist attractions, famous native daughters and sons -- it's easy for visitors to forget how small the Big Easy is (population, 391,000).

But residents know. 

When a city that size might be feeling small and fragile, it could find comfort in having a tourism economy. It's also easy to forget how big the travel industry is. Karamat pointed out that if travel and tourism were a country, its GDP would rank it as the 14th largest in the world, between Australia and Spain.

And for all of us to remember: It's an industry that finds power by rising above the sum of its hundreds of thousands of component parts. Many, like New Orleans, play an outsize role. 

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