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Thursday, November 3, 2005 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Revitalizing the Big Easy

The Associated Press

NEW ORLEANS — If anything demonstrates the post-Hurricane Katrina challenge in getting New Orleans' multibillion-dollar convention business going again, it's the dilemma now faced by the Bourbon House seafood restaurant in the French Quarter.

Tourists and conventioneers, who once constituted about 60 percent of the restaurant's business, have been replaced by relief workers and local residents with a limited choice of places to dine. And manager Kavin Lassalle has his hands full, trying to serve packed restaurants with half the employees he once had.

"We couldn't handle the convention business as it was," he said.

In recovering from Katrina, the convention industry and the businesses that service it face severe shortages of workers, as well as the task of convincing the public that the city is not a sitting duck for another storm that could shatter the levee system and unleash deadly flooding into the Big Easy.

"That level of comfort in attendees and the convention business is going to be vital," said Jeff Anding, director of convention marketing for the New Orleans Metropolitan Convention and Visitors' Bureau.

Katrina, which struck Aug. 29, wiped out all business conventions for the rest of 2005 — at an estimated cost to the region's economy of $3.5 billion. Twenty-eight of the 70 major conventions scheduled for 2006 have been canceled, Anding said.

But the convention district — downtown hotels and the convention center, along with the French Quarter — came out lucky in comparison to other landmarks such as the Louisiana Superdome. The convention center is under repair and is scheduled to host its first post-storm convention April 1.

"The elements that make up the tourist experience in New Orleans are there. It's really significant for us to get that word out," Anding said.

Before Katrina hit, New Orleans was trying to build on a record 2004 when it received an estimated 10.1 million visitors. Conventions pumped an estimated $6 billion into the economy, which had lost oil-industry and other jobs.

Now the business is flat on its back.

Hotel rooms are almost impossible to get. In a recent survey of its members, Smith Travel Research said only 24 of the 266 hotels in the New Orleans were open to the public. Another 67 were taken up by hurricane evacuees and relief workers. In the New Orleans metropolitan area, only 12,981 of the market's 81,753 rooms were open to the public.

The World Trade Centers Association (WTCA), which represents 278 private economic development groups in 78 countries, was the first major group to book a New Orleans convention for 2007 after Katrina. WTCA Executive Vice President Robert DiChaira said a major challenge for the city will be to reassemble the thousands who service conventions and work in hotels.

"That has to be the priority," DiChaira said. "People make a city."

The Bourbon House, for example, is down about 75 employees of its usual 150-person staff.

"We're having staffing problems, especially in the housekeeping and kitchen departments," Lassalle said.

The Ernest N. Morial Convention Center put New Orleans ahead of the curve for a number of years in the mega-convention business. But after seeing that success, cities such as Minneapolis, Chicago, Atlanta and San Diego hopped into the picture with big convention centers of their own. New Orleans' competitors are enjoying a sudden upturn because of Katrina.

For example, the National Black MBA Association, with 11,000 attendees, held its convention in early October in San Diego on five weeks notice. Atlanta has nailed down five meetings that were scheduled for 2005 and 2006 in New Orleans.

Lt. Gov. Mitch Landrieu, who heads Louisiana's tourism agency, said he would ask Congress for $1.6 billion over three years to revive the business, including $60 million for marketing. Businesses, the state and local governments would put in another $40 million.

The WTCA's DiChaira said he had little doubt that New Orleans would rebound. "Who doesn't want to go to New Orleans?" he said.

Nagin, however, warned against taking New Orleans' historic charms for granted in the face of competition from other convention cities.

"We can't sit back and say, 'People are going to come back because we have Bourbon Street,' " he said.

Associated Press reporter Janet McConnaughey contributed to this report.

Copyright © 2005 The Seattle Times Company

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