New Orleans CVB takes streetcar on the road in new campaign

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New Orleans is marking some tourism milestones in its comeback from the devastation of Hurricane Katrina. It is also investing some miles in a new marketing effort to stimulate more leisure tourism as a complement to its resurgent convention business.

Using a historic New Orleans streetcar as a draw, Metropolitan Convention and Visitors Bureau President Steve Perry and other representatives were in New York's Times Square last week to launch a road show they hope will help persuade tourists to return to the still recuperating city.

"We're continuing to battle misperceptions among the greater public," said Mary Beth Romig, a spokeswoman for the bureau. "That is what the road show is about."

She said the most recent "State of the City" report, a monthly update the CVB has issued for the past year highlighting the status of the recovery, has marked a series of important steps.

The national and international road show, which will include London; Frankfurt, Germany; Paris and major cities in the U.S., is only part of that.

"What the report is telling us is that with every passing month, we are hitting milestones and definitely moving forward in our recovery."

Significantly, convention business has been returning.

The American College of Cardiology held its 56th annual Scientific Session in New Orleans in late March. The event drew 30,000 visitors, the city's largest convention attendance since 2005. In total, March saw some 83,000 convention visitors.

The Sugar Bowl, which had an economic impact estimated at $126.7 million; two rounds of the NCAA Division I Men's Basketball championship tournament; and Mardi Gras, which drew 100,000 more visitors than the previous year's carnival, all helped boost businesses that have struggled since the storm.

Romig said the monthly milestone reports on the city's recovery, which highlight the return of cultural attractions, conventions and the slowest growing category, leisure tourism, had proven essential to attracting ever-increasing tourism-related spending. Only the CVB is compiling such reports, she said.

"We have to have answers right away," Romig said, "particularly for the meeting planners and customers for the next five to 10 years. It's important that we be able to answer questions factually and to show that the city is very much open. People are under the misperception that much of the city remains too damaged to operate."

While acknowledging that New Orleans still faces a long recovery, primarily in badly flooded neighborhoods, she added that "in the business district and all the parts that visitors want to see and experience about New Orleans, business is very much alive."

The American College of Sports Medicine will open its annual convention in New Orleans in May with 4,000 visitors.

Another 3,000 are expected over the summer months before larger conventions begin to return in September, culminating in 25,000 more visitors from the American Academy of Ophthalmology in November and Pennwell Corporation's 17,000 attendees in December.

But the road show push, in which the historic streetcar will be trucked across the country to Chicago and Washington, is aimed primarily at getting the message out to leisure tourists that the city is operating its traditional attractions at levels that are near normal.

"We are still struggling in the leisure-visitor market," said Romig. "It is the leisure visitors who have more doubts about coming to New Orleans than the convention market. But we are addressing that, and it is why part of our team is in New York."

Housing continues to be a challenge for the city. Some 220,000 residents are now living in New Orleans, less than half the number who lived there before Katrina.

But restaurants and other businesses are seeing improvements in the service labor shortage that, as a result of housing problems, has plagued the city for much of the past 18 months.

"The city is trying," Romig said. "They are redeveloping 17 key areas of New Orleans. But we have also seen the burgeoning of surrounding suburbs and parishes. The people who have decided to come back are making it happen."

The CVB's road show kick-off last week featuring the streetcar -- which represents a different kind of "desire" from the one Tennessee Williams made famous -- managed to draw some airtime on ABC's "Good Morning America."

It was trucked to New York from a museum in Connecticut, and it will be shipped the same way to Washington and Chicago later this year.

Romig said that after months of trying to persuade producers of the ABC morning show to give the event some footage, the marketing team of the CVB was relieved when it happened.

"It was huge," she said. "How can you miss a streetcar in the heart of Times Square?"

To contact reporter Dan Luzadder, send e-mail to [email protected].

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