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A Room with a View

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Hotels are leading the way to the city’s recovery
Hans Wandfluh knows how to batten down the hatches. While Hurricane Katrina raged and howled, Wandfluh, president and general manager of the Royal Sonesta Hotel on Bourbon Street, and 21 stalwart employees, barricaded the doors to protect their remaining guests.

The next day, with no police in sight and chaos threatening their lives, Wandfluh hired a bus and evacuated his customers to Houston. The staff stayed with Wandfluh, and they soon reopened and took in journalists covering the hurricane’s aftermath. The brave hotelier says there was nothing else he could do but keep working and offering service. “You do what you can,” reasons Wandfluh. “You have no choice but to do unusual things.”

New Orleans hotels have always adjusted to their guests’ needs. With millions of tourists, businesspeople and conventioneers streaming in from across the country and the globe, they strive to satisfy their customers. With Katrina pounding the city and flooding the streets, their mission had never been more challenging.

Local hoteliers could have abandoned the city, leaving one of the world’s most intriguing destinations forever, but they didn’t. That would have meant surrendering, and New Orleans hotels never give up. They simply adjust. It’s this kind of dedication and innovation that will lead the Crescent City back to its rightful place as a jewel of the South.

Wandfluh wasn’t the only one doing “unusual things” during and after the hurricane. Colleen Senters, manager at the Sheraton Hotel, says she has been inspired by how hotel associates quickly adapted to the new environment. Catering staff became front desk workers; German-speaking associates translated for anxious foreign travelers; and even today, Senters reports, some salespeople are still working security for the Sheraton.

Along with employees switching jobs, the typical hotel guest has been transformed. The Royal Sonesta houses a number of people with the FBI. The Sheraton currently has a contract with the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which has placed local hospital personnel who lost their homes at the hotel. Not only that, but hotels are housing their own employees. Just like their staff members who want to rebuild, the New Orleans hotel and tourism industry wants and needs to return to normal operations.

Sandra Shilstone, president and CEO of New Orleans Tourism Marketing Corporation, reports that while hotel occupancy is “doing well,” it isn’t a true reflection of the tourism market. Without the usual number of tourists—not New Orleanians or FEMA-contracted workers residing in the hotels—the city is losing about $15.2 million a day. The consequences of this kind of loss by the area’s largest industry will be felt throughout the city, says Shilstone. Hotel taxes go toward funding the Super Dome, Convention Center and the city’s general fund, which pays for police, fire department and other services.

Shilstone is confident that the market can rebound from Katrina’s devastation. She points out that many tourism resources—the architecture of the French Quarter, Faubourg Marigny music clubs, the elegant Garden District and some of the city’s finest restaurants—were spared. And there are plenty of places for people to stay when they visit. Shilstone says there should be more than 25,000 hotel rooms available this month. She says hotels are a vital part of the New Orleans experience.

“Running a hotel is like running a small city,” Shilstone explains. “Guests come to stay in the beautiful rooms, but they really come to see New Orleans: the antique shops on Royal Street, the French Quarter restaurants, the streetcars and the riverfront. The hospitality and graciousness of the hotels allow guests to truly love their visit.”

Another facet of the tourism market is the convention business. New Orleans has long been a favorite place for organizations to meet, and, according to Kim Priez, vice president of the New Orleans Metropolitan Convention and Visitors Bureau, it will continue to be. The Convention Center could be fully operational as early as May. It will host its first large convention, the annual meeting of the American Library Association, in June. Priez says it’s easy to be upbeat about the future of conventions and tourism in New Orleans, with hotels leading the way.

“Before, during and after Katrina, the hotels did an unreal job responding to the crisis,” Priez says. “They were up and moving the fastest, and dedicated to keeping the tourism engine running.”

On a somewhat smaller scale, the Marriott New Orleans at the Convention Center has already begun holding conventions. This new hotel had the dubious luck of opening in July, only a few weeks before Katrina. However, the hotel’s general manager, Joe Blanchek, and his staff were back by October 5. In February, the hotel, which can accommodate organizations with as many as 450 members, will facilitate a convention for Intralox, a local company that produces plastic conveyor belts.

Blanchek’s hotel won’t be the only one that’s busy in February, since Mardi Gras is taking place later in the month. Carnival has always injected fuel into the tourism engine. Even with the parade season shortened, local hotels are selling out. Ashish Verma, general manager of the Windsor Court, which is fully booked for Mardi Gras, believes “it’s a very important message to the nation: New Orleans is living more normally and we are focusing on improving our city.”

Wandfluh couldn’t agree more. “We’re taking the long view—not just a couple of months—to bringing the city back to what it was and even better. One hurricane cannot drown the music, food, heritage and culture that exist in New Orleans.”