Meetings held in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama have always been accommodating. The region's easygoing, warm hospitality is part of the package. But groups heading to these states will also notice the recent improvements that have been made to their meetings infrastructure.
There are new hotels and green spaces, increased transportation options and conference centers updated with the latest technology. All of which make association events in these states a little bit sweeter.
Louisiana: Vital & Vibrant
From music to cuisine and parks to parades, colorful New Orleans offers attendees experiences that simply are not found anywhere else. "New Orleans is, and always has been, one of the most exciting and unique places to visit," said Stephen Perry, president and CEO of the New Orleans Convention & Visitors Bureau. Perry said that the Crescent City has entered a new era of growth, a fact that continues to reward event planners. New Orleans recently hosted the annual conferences of the Vacation Rental Managers Association, which came to town with more than 1,300 members; the International Studies Association, which reported its largest gathering ever, with more than 5,300 participants; and the American Meteorological Society, which drew 3,780 attendees, also a record. Future groups will also benefit from continued city improvements, which Perry promised will "ultimately provide a better business experience full of culinary excellence, culture and innovation."
In 2018, New Orleans will celebrate its 300th anniversary and is prepping for an increase in visitors. As a result, Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport is undergoing an $807 million transformation that will introduce a new, 30-gate terminal, expected to open late that year.
One group that has made plans to return in 2018 is the American Rental Association, whose annual Rental Show convention was held in the city in 2012 and 2015. "Our attendees have long enjoyed visiting the city for our conventions for the dining, the music and the unique atmosphere that's only in New Orleans, and each time the attendance increased over the year before," said Chris Coleman, its senior marketing manager. "We're all looking forward to our convention returning in 2018."
The Ernest N. Morial Convention Center has been recently renovated. It boasts more than 1.1 million square feet of contiguous exhibit space, 140 meeting rooms and a 4,000-seat auditorium. Significant developments are in the works for the Convention Center District. A 47-acre tract upriver from the convention center will be transformed over the next two years into a mixed-use area with a four-star headquarters hotel, a transportation hub for shuttles and taxis, shops and restaurants and galleries, and outdoor entertainment and gathering spaces near the Mississippi River.
The Mercedes-Benz Superdome can also accommodate a wide variety of events. The stadium can seat upwards of 73,000 and the field can be configured to offer more than 160,000 square feet of space. In addition, there are four 23,500-square-foot club rooms and additional lounges. Just outside is the 90,000-square-foot Champions Square, home to Club XLIV and the lounge Encore, which offer a combined 18,000 square feet of space for up to 1,000 guests as well as advanced audiovisual technology and illuminated bars.
There are more than 24,000 hotel rooms within the city, and according to the New Orleans CVB, another 4,200 are slated to be built in the next three years. Newer properties include the Old No. 77 Hotel & Chandlery in the Warehouse Arts District, which has 167 guest rooms and partners with the nearby Race & Religious, a historic venue, to offer 6,500 square feet of indoor-outdoor event space. In the Central Business District, the new, 188-room Aloft/New Orleans Downtown has meeting space for up to 148 people; the nearby, 220-room AC/New Orleans-Bourbon-French Quarter Area offers 4,680 square feet of meeting space; the 194-room Hyatt House/New Orleans has executive event space for up to 50; and the 166-room Homewood Suites by Hilton/New Orleans has gathering space for up to 550 people.
After a $29 million renovation, Le Méridien Hotel (formerly the W Hotel on Poydras Street) has debuted with a reimagined lobby, refreshed guest rooms and a new restaurant. On Bourbon Street, the Royal Sonesta/New Orleans has undergone a $30 million renovation. And in the Garden District, the historic Pontchartrain Hotel is gearing up for its reopening in June on the heels of a $10 million restoration.
Two new public green spaces have opened in recent months. The $9.1 million Lafitte Greenway, a 2.6-mile bicycle and pedestrian trail connects Armstrong Park in the Tremé neighborhood (just blocks from the French Quarter) to City Park in Mid-City. Also new is the 1.4-acre Crescent Park, which runs along the river in the Bywater neighborhood; features include an open-air event space and lawn that can be used for functions.
Groups that meet in town during periods other than Mardi Gras can always get a feel for the experience at Blaine Kern's Mardi Gras World, which features several event spaces. Another attraction, the National World War II Museum, is well worth a stop and can double as an event venue for up to 1,200. It is currently undergoing a $370 million capital expansion campaign that is expected to quadruple its existing size upon completion in 2017.
In the capital city of Baton Rouge, the River Center and seven downtown hotels have teamed up to create Destination Downtown as a way to promote their offerings, which include more than 1,000 hotel rooms, restaurants and entertainment venues within walking distance of the center, which offers 93,086 square feet of exhibit space, an 8,900-seat arena and a performing-arts theater that can seat up to 1,999.
Lake Charles in southwest Louisiana is popular with attendees who can enjoy everything from nature trails to fishing and golf. The Louisiana Society of Association Executives, the Police Jury Association of Louisiana and the Louisiana Rural Water Association have all recently taken advantage of the city's offerings. In hotel news, the L'Auberge Casino Resort has recently renovated its guest rooms. And in nearby Sulphur, the new-and free-Creole Nature Trail Adventure Point includes educational displays on local flora and fauna.
West of Lake Charles, in Vinton, the Boyd Gaming Corporation has announced a $45 million expansion of Delta Downs Racetrack Casino & Hotel, slated for completion at the end of 2016. The centerpiece of the project is a new, 167-room hotel tower, but the 200 existing rooms are also expected to undergo a redesign and refresh.
In the northern city of Shreveport, planners will find nearly 11,000 hotel rooms, flexible venues, entertaining group experiences and improved transportation options. Late last year, New Orleans-based Glo, a new charter airline, began offering nonstop daily service between New Orleans and Shreveport Regional Airport.
The city's primary meeting venue-and the state's second-largest convention facility-is the Shreveport Convention Center, which features more than 350,000 square feet of space and is connected to a Hilton Hotel. Other options for events include the Robinson Film Center, the 1,536-seat Strand Theatre and the 3,000-seat Shreveport Municipal Auditorium, which has undergone renovations.
Groups with a taste for adventure might consider a visit to Gators & Friends Alligator Park & Exotic Zoo, just 10 miles west in Greenwood. The park offers seven zip line courses, one of which sends riders over alligators basking in the sun.
Just across the Red River from Shreveport is Bossier City. In November, the 131-room Residence Inn/Shreveport-Bossier City Downtown opened near the Horseshoe Casino and the Louisiana Boardwalk. It offers event space for up to 50 people. Downriver, the 270,000-square-foot CenturyLink Center has hosted events for the Louisiana Fire Chiefs Association, the Real Cowboy Association and the Home Builders Association of Northwest Louisiana.
Mississippi: Meetings Amid the Magnolias
The Magnolia State of Mississippi is home to scenic coastal beaches, historic cultural attractions, culinary programs, outdoor adventures on extensive waterways and more. When it comes to combining business and pleasure, Biloxi is a standout destination for association groups. The Mississippi Coast Coliseum & Convention Center has hosted the Mississippi Association of Student Nurses, the Mississippi Counseling Association, the Gulf Coast Carnival Association and the Worldwide Spirit Association and offers 400,000 square feet of expanded and renovated space. Other updated properties include the IP Casino Resort Spa, which is wrapping up a guest-room renovation, and the Island View Casino Resort, whose 405-room Beach Tower opened last April.
White-sand beaches beckon attendees during their free time as do newer area attractions such as the Pascagoula River Audubon Center in Moss Point, which serves as a gateway to one of the last free-flowing rivers in the lower 48 states. Visitors can learn about wildlife and take a two-hour interpretive boat tour. In D'Iberville, the Scarlet Pearl Casino Resort opened in December with 300 guest rooms, a 36-hole miniature golf course, several meeting space options and The Strand entertainment venue.
Near the center of the state, the capital city of Jackson pairs small-town sensibilities and an upbeat attitude with more than 5,000 hotel rooms and several large venues for events. Popular picks include the Jackson Convention Complex, with 330,000 square feet of meeting space, an 82-seat theater and the latest in audiovisual technology; the Mississippi Trade Mart, with 67,140 square feet of space; the Mississippi Museum of Natural Science, with classroom space and a 200-seat theater; the Mississippi Museum of Art, which can host up to 600 attendees; and the Mississippi Agriculture & Forestry Museum, with eight venues, the largest of which can seat up to 400.
In the northwest corner of the state, in Tunica, the Gateway to the Blues Museum opened last year with space for group events. The new owners of the former Harrah's Tunica Casino are evaluating plans for the 2,000-acre property that features more than 1,000 guest rooms and the 45,000-square-foot Mid-South Convention Center. Groups that have met in Tunica recently include the Jus' Blues Foundation and Mississippi Society of Public Managers.
Alabama: Booming with Business
As a hub for aerospace, research and manufacturing industries, the city of Huntsville is an ideal destination for groups seeking tech-savvy facilities but also convivial spots for attendees to have some fun. Two organizations that have met in the greater area include the Association of the U.S. Army and the Gold Wing Road Riders Association.
Key meeting facilities include the Von Braun Center, with more than 170,000 square feet of space and an arena that can seat 9,000, and the Jackson Center in Cummings Research Park, which offers 13,000 square feet of space. The U.S. Space & Rocket Center and the EarlyWorks Museum Complex each offer special-event space for up to 1,000 people. The Huntsville Botanical Garden also welcomes group functions.
On the west side of town, a 13-acre, mixed-use development called Campus No. 805 is gradually rolling out its offerings; a brewery, a saloon and a restaurant have already opened. Additionally, the TownePlace Suites/Huntsville-Redstone Gateway and a Hampton Inn are both scheduled to open this summer.
One hundred miles to the south is Birmingham, which has been receiving accolades from numerous sources for its attractions, cuisine and the ongoing restoration of its historic properties. The Birmingham-Jefferson Convention Complex unveiled the 270-seat Forum Theater last fall in its 10-story, recently refurbished Forum building. Other complex features include 222,000 square feet of exhibition space, more than 100,000 square feet of meeting space and an 18,000-seat arena.
Two local performance spaces also now welcome private events. In January, the historic Lyric Theatre reopened after an $11 million renovation. It can seat up to 750. And an entertainment venue called Saturn opened last spring and can host up to 500 people.
On the hotel front, a $45 million project is transforming the iconic Empire Building into what will be called the Empire Hotel, a property with 117 guest rooms, a restaurant, meeting space and a rooftop bar. Adjacent, the former Alagasco building is being turned into a select-service Marriott Hotel with 120 guest rooms. Both are expected to open this summer. Another landmark, the downtown Redmont Hotel, reopened in February after a multimillion-dollar renovation. It offers 120 guest rooms and event space for up to 100.
And in the nearby suburb of Mountain Brook, the Grand Bohemian Hotel opened last fall across from the Birmingham Botanical Gardens. A few miles farther south, Hoover is home to the 10,800-seat Metropolitan Stadium and, adjacent, a $70 million, 120-acre sports complex is in the works.
Down south, Gulf Shores and Orange Beach offer miles of sugar-white beaches, 15 area golf courses, zip-line adventures and deep-sea fishing excursions to strengthen team building. Organizations that have recently enjoyed their time in the area include the Economic Development Association of Alabama, the Alabama Propane Gas Association and the Alabama Dental Association. In Gulf Shores, the Erie Meyer Civic Center has 5,400 square feet of space, or larger groups can head east to the Orange Beach Event Center, which has 18,000 square feet of space. Hotels scheduled to open this year include the Hampton Inn/Gulf Shores and the 132-room Springhill Suites/Orange Beach.
Whether it's the offshore breezes, the beat of jazz music or the hospitable spirit, destinations in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama offer associations a unique opportunity to engage in both business and pleasure. And with new options on the horizon, the future looks bright for meetings in this region.