The driver from the airport told me that I’d hardly see impact from Katrina on the ride through Jefferson Parish as I made my way to downtown New Orleans. Some signs of wind damage as we rode on Interstate 10, but no signs of flooding. Not anymore. They cleaned up the pathway into the city. Deep within the 9th Ward, however, I’m told there are still houses that remain empty. FEMA trailers still parked in the driveways of skeleton framed homes. This scene, important to keep visible, is out of sight from tourism’s view. The headline while I’m in town in the Times-Picayune still talks of levees and flood maps in development by the Army Corps of Engineers.
My company has helped our customers go back to New Orleans, in a virtual way at least. Working with several of my colleagues at Orbitz Worldwide, we started a volunteer vacations program with the United Way. In 2007, we launched http://volunteer.cheaptickets.com. Our CEO, Steven Barnhart, gave every employee 2 paid days off a year to volunteer — part of our Protect Planet Earth Campaign. Over 70 employees in the company took Steve up on the offer to volunteer in 2007. They’ve done some good work in many communities across the country. Hopefully, more employees take a volunteer vacation this year. Their efforts remind me that I should come to New Orleans or travel somewhere else to give back to these travel and tourism communities that help keep my paychecks coming. This industry pays my bills, and places like New Orleans remind us all why travel should be fun and what it takes to make the experience “keep on keepin’ on.”
But I’m not writing to promote the virtues of giving back to organizations like the United Way. Or about building homes for those impacted by the storms that destroyed entire towns in the Gulf States.
I want to talk about New Orleans, and why I am born again in NOLA.
I stayed at a great hotel I never knew existed, the Windsor Court. Huge rooms and a good price. They even had a little oven and electric range in the room, not that I cooked when I was in town. Other New Orleans hotels — Marriott, Sheraton, W, Westin, Holiday Inn, InterContinental, Best Western and Crowne Plaza — all packed and open for business.
My hotel was directly across the street from Harrah’s Casino, where I admit losing $60 in 45 minutes at the blackjack tables on my first night in town. And on my second night, I won most of it back after only three pulls on a slot machine! And while March is prime season for Spring Breakers, there were plenty of business people and even families to balance things out.
Bourbon Street is college crowds and strip clubs and dive bars, but a recovering New Orleans is much more than a horde of drunken kids on a week long binge and break from school.
The convention center is back and running. My hotel manager boasts New Orleans could handle the Republican AND Democratic National Conventions — if only our presidential candidates opted to hold it there.
The Superdome, home of the pro football team here, looks saintly. Hotels and cabs were plentiful. The airport is easy to navigate. This is a great place to do business. Certainly, the folks at the Windsor Court could not have been nicer or more accommodating.
It does seem like there are fewer direct flights here in 2008 than there were in 2005 pre-Katrina. Hopefully the airlines will create more capacity here as demand grows. And after a long day of air travel, leaving Chicago at 7:30 a.m. and arriving at my New Orleans hotel at 4 p.m. after a weather-delayed layover in Houston, I am pleased my first meeting is a dinner reception at the W Hotel near the convention center.
I’m in New Orleans for a conference with one of our trade associations, and
the W Hotel has really opened its arms to greet my travel industry
colleagues with great food and drink. After a long day of travel, good
food at the W, a stop later for a Po’ Boy sandwich at a great place
called Mother’s Restaurant on Poydras Street and a stroll through the
French Quarter to walk off my meal — well, it is just what the doctor
I’ve learned something in my travels. In Boston, everyone always asks
where I went to school. In New York, they ask me where I lived. In
Washington, D.C., they ask me who I work for. I guess the answers to
these questions say something about who we are in life, what status
we’ve achieved. But in New Orleans, they only ask if I am having any
fun. And that says something about the city.
While Bourbon Street does include crowds of the overserved, it is so
much more. And you miss its unique qualities and flavor if you only see
it for the oversized beers, neon signs and skid row facade.
On night two, my wife convinces me during a phone call to have dinner
at a place called the ACME Oyster House on Iberville Street. There is a
45-minute wait as soon as I get to the door. This once off-the- beaten-path restaurant has gone touristy. As it is 8 p.m. and I’m hungry, I
notice a place across the street that looks dodgier but promising.
Felix Seafood is a classic dive joint off Bourbon. If you are going for
authentic Louisiana seafood and ambiance, they have it. At the bar
(standing room only), I’m told to mix my own oyster fixings. I blend in
a Dixie cup, a combination of horseradish, hot sauce, ketchup and lemon
juice. I order some boiled shrimp and a dozen half shelled oysters. I
enjoy an adult beverage or two. The man behind the bar tells me he
likely shucks around 300-500 oysters a night. At his rapid pace,
opening the oysters and preparing them to serve, I would have guessed
he did a thousand or more a night. The seafood was fresh and tasty and
Another walk down Bourbon Street, I’m tempted to have a few more
cocktails, but instead I opt for a more relaxed night of going from bar
to bar over the next hour and listening to music. Country. Rock. Jazz.
Blues. A new band in every bar or club.
This city is music. Music is New Orleans’ central nervous system. And
heading back to my hotel as I approach Canal Street, I have an
experience that sums it all up. A dozen high school kids with tubas and
horns and trombones play an entire concert in front of the Krystal
hamburger joint. A few of their friends dance in the street and pass
the hat as they blare tunes from Motown to modern, from James Brown to
their high school fight song, from the National Anthem to Dixie.
For a few seconds, I close my eyes and listen. The 40 bands on Bourbon
Street and the Zydeco music blaring from the gift shops begin to blend
into an orchestra. It sounds like a symphony. I’m back home in bed by
10 p.m. for a good night’s rest.
Before I take flight for my next round of meetings in Washington, D.C., I
wake up early and go for my traditional "New Orleans Run" through the
French Quarter. Jogging through the French Quarter in the morning is a
peaceful and Zen-like experience vs. the fuel-injection of energy you
consume at night. I continue my run to Jackson Square and down Decatur
Street to my final destination — Cafe Du Monde.
And while it may seem counter productive to go for a brisk run and eat
donuts, I sit at a table at 7:20 a.m. and order a cafe au lait and some
On my flight to D.C., I’m smiling as cajun and creole thoughts dance
through my head. Next trip is definitely a family vacation. Some crawfish
and andoullie sausage must be on the menu. If I enjoy New Orleans this
much on business, I can only imagine the fun we’d have coming purely
Related Orbitz resources:
Brian Hoyt is the head of corporate communications and government
affairs for Orbitz Worldwide. He and his wife are parents to an
energetic 2-year-old daughter. Their favorite places to visit are Rhode Island, Pennsylvania, New
Jersey, San Francisco, Lake Tahoe, Florida, the Shenandoah Mountains, New Orleans,
Charleston, S.C., and Yankee Stadium.