Let’s get one thing clear: New Orleans is not under water. In fact, all the water was gone back in September 2005. Amazingly, when I talk with people around the country, even today I am asked, “Is there still water in the streets?” And each time my blood pressure rises.
It shouldn’t surprise me, given the images that the media continue to spread across TV, Internet and print outlets. We’ve all seen them: water consuming a house in Lakeview, the roofs of cars barely peaking from beneath murky water in the Lower 9th Ward. But it’s two and a half years later, and New Orleans is in a much better place, despite what your local media outlet is showing you.
Because of the media, people believe we have infrastructure issues, hotels aren’t open, restaurants aren’t operational and there are no supporting service industry workers. We were even snubbed when it came time to host a presidential debate. What better place than New Orleans to round up all those candidates and talk about moving forward toward a better tomorrow?
As a local to the bone, I have a special appreciation for one client in particular. The New Orleans Metropolitan Convention and Visitors Bureau (NOMCVB) is the voice of the city’s main economic engine: tourism. But how do you convince people that New Orleans is open for business when even today they see images of a family stranded on a rooftop? How do you tell them the food is even more flavorful than before while CNN flashes shots of a flooded neighborhood? Well, you fight back with images of the real New Orleans.
To accomplish this, NOMCVB decided to step outside its normal boundaries of targeting the meeting/convention planner and travel trade industry and go directly to the consumer. The majority of its initiatives have revolved around interactive and nontraditional tactics to promote the Forever New Orleans campaign. Online exposure included masthead positions on the NYTimes.com homepage, WallStreetJournal.com, travel sites like LonelyPlanet.com, Kayak.com and Gridskipper.com, and online properties of the Travel Channel, Gawker.com, Yahoo and MSN.
So far, the campaign has generated 113.9 million impressions, with robust traffic to the NOMCVB site, www.24nola.com. Through our research and planning, NOMCVB was the first of its kind to launch a nontraditional campaign that included images of quintessential New Orleans dishes (including fried soft-shell crabs and shrimp) on 4,300 seat tray tables in 35 domestic airplanes, generating 6.16 million impressions. Through the donation of more than $3 million in bulletin space from CBS Outdoor, NOMCVB has continued to enhance the city’s image through simple yet engaging (and accurate) imagery and copy. The billboard campaign of 44 units in 18 major markets across the country generated an estimated 1.8 million impressions each day. A year later, the campaign continues to run in some markets. NOMCVB also brought a real streetcar (that’s a trolly, to those of you who have not spent any time in New Orleans) to Times Square that was seen by hundreds of thousands and drew at least 1,000 consumers inside for photos, visitor information and trip giveaways.
The results? Hotel room nights increased 64 percent from the first 12 months after the storm to the next 12 months, which coincided with the launch of the marketing efforts to promote the true status of New Orleans. We also saw an estimated 6.5 million to 7 million visitors in 2007, double the number from 2006 and closing in on the 8.5 million to 9 million range that NOMCVB deems as a good year.
Another strategy we’re taking advantage of is the spotlight the city is under as we roll into 2008. In case you were too preoccupied with the writers’ strike, we’ve been hosting events like the Sugar Bowl and BCS National Championship—perfect opportunities for the media to see firsthand how far the city has come. Then there’s the NBA All-Star Game, which took place this past weekend.
We just wrapped up another Mardi Gras, which offered its own challenges as it was earlier than normal and on the same weekend as the Super Bowl (oh yeah, Eli Manning—he’s from New Orleans). City and tourism officials were concerned that such an early date would limit attendance as it would be too cold and not coincide with the college spring break crowds. Initial reports are that it was a success. An average of 92 percent hotel occupancy and healthy crowds helped this Mardi Gras top 2007 and put the event close to pre-Katrina levels.
Hopefully, someday soon, the media will realize all the good things that are happening down here and, more importantly, that they could be a major component in the rebuilding of New Orleans. That is, if they would just update their catalog of Crescent City images.