NBAA Convention News

New Orleans shifts gears to take December convention

 - June 11, 2008, 5:43 AM

NEW ORLEANS, LA.– September in this Crescent City typically unwinds much like a sizzling escape valve. After the steamy summer, and a few degrees of cooler temperatures, this tropical town simmers down. Fall is prime time for exhibitions and conventions–a virtual industry for the city. The prospect of hosting NBAA 2001 was a highlight on the hospitality community’s to-do list.

But as the terrorist attacks struck New York and Washington, D.C., creating havoc across the country, the nation came to an abrupt halt–and NBAA 2001’s arrival into New Orleans was appropriately postponed by vote of the association’s board of directors. The NBAA board of directors on September 20 decided to reschedule the convention for December 12, 13 and 14 here, but it is not expected to draw the 30,000 people that were anticipated last month.

The postponement of the meeting took its toll. As the handful of NBAA staff in New Orleans tried to deal withthe impact on the organization and on the host city, Kathleen Blouin, association vice president of conventions and seminars, called a meeting for the representatives of the hotel community in an effort to try to plant the seeds for rescheduling the convention in December.

Visibly awed by the turnout of representatives of 35 of the 50 NBAA-designated hotels, Blouin and her colleagues expressed deep appreciation on behalf of NBAA for the support and flexibility it would take to reschedule the NBAA Convention.

“At this point, we’re shooting from the hip as to how many attendees and how much space we might need,” Blouin said. “We could lose exhibitors and attendees as companies downsize their involvement.”

The rescheduling of the meeting would be on the top of the agenda at an NBAA board meeting later that week, she said. “We will do everything we can to make this happen,” she told the hotel representatives gathering in a meeting room at the convention center. “NBAA loves coming to New Orleans, where we get so much support and great hospitality.”

According to the convention center schedule, the second week in December had openings to accommodate the convention, said Ed McNeill, president the New Orleans Metropolitan Convention and Visitors Bureau. The month is especially pleasant and festive with holiday trimmings in place–and, coincidentally, with enough hotel rooms and convention center space available to accommodate a large conference, McNeill said.

Still sorting through the financial fallout, the convention center officials were unsure of the exact impact on the convention center from a smaller show. Based on last year’s revenues from NBAA, about $1.5 million would be at stake. This year, NBAA’s space requirements increased by about 15 percent, a boost that would have affected the convention center’s revenues as well, said Sabrina Written, communications director. Last fall, NBAA paid about $675,000 in rent, and another $400,000 for such services as electrical hookups, telecommunications and food and beverage.

For the Sullivan Transfer Co., the company handling the majority of the incoming freight for NBAA, the impact was clear. Ted Haefele, director of operations and manager for the company’s New Orleans office, said the show was canceled on the second day of the move when at least half of the freight was already in the convention center. As many as two airplanes and 20 to 30 mockups were in place, he said.

It took a little longer to pack up and ship freight out again because most companies’ movers had left for interim assignments in other parts of the country to make use of their time during the NBAA show, he said. Most of the freight had been shipped back out by noon on Saturday, September 15, he said. The company was working on providing its clients with discounts for freight services, he said. “As a company, we do not want to profit at this time–we’re merely looking to break even.”

The 50 hotels accommodating the record number of expected NBAA attendees were noticeably vacant the week NBAA would have been in town, their restaurants and bars empty, special hospitality events and other services canceled. Like the convention center, many of the large hotels were each facing an estimated $1 million in lost revenue, according to some inside reports. Describing the economic impact on the New Orleans community as “dramatic,” Michael Hickey, president of Greater New Orleans Hotel Motel Association and general manager of the Hyatt Regency New Orleans, said 10,000 rooms across the city had been set aside for NBAA.

“The hotel community’s mood is first and foremost concern about those whose tragedy is far greater than ours. We understand this is an extraordinary situation and we’re trying to look to the future,” Hickey said.

Some rooms that would have been vacant were filled by people stranded in New Orleans when air travel was curtailed, he said, adding that many hotels lowered room rates to double digits so as to not take advantage of anyone’s misfortune.

And while the impact is significant, consideration of personnel layoffs is premature, he said. “We just have to wait and see until the whole transportation system steadies itself,” he said, adding that staff is on reduced work schedules.

At the Hilton New Orleans Riverside Hotel, the NBAA headquarters hotel, the mood was decidedly somber. Eric Janecke, director of marketing, said officials were concentrating on efforts to reschedule the meeting–in an effort to alleviate any financial impact on employees. “Corporations will always go on,” he said. “We’re concerned about the people.” The Hilton had 1,200 of its 1,500-room inventory blocked for NBAA.

“If the conference is able to be rescheduled, we’ll probably be able to recoup much of the losses,” he said before the decision to reschedule was made.

Like the hundreds of exhibitors arriving at NBAA, Fairchild Dornier was already in New Orleans and unpacking freight at the New Orleans Convention Center when news of the terrorist attack in New York began to unfold. Jim Burke, vice president of sales and asset management, said he arrived in New Orleans Monday only slightly in advance of the freight and the initial five company-buildup personnel.

On Tuesday, as news of the terrorist attack began filtering out, two of Fairchild’s aircraft were at the static display at Lakefront Airport and three mockups were on the convention floor. One of the mockups had been flown from Germany specially to New Orleans for NBAA, and the two other mockups were trailered from San Antonio. But while the freight had arrived, only a relative few number of staff was on hand. Five of a 20-member buildup crew were in New Orleans when the news hit, while the show staff of 71 people was scheduled to arrive in New Orleans toward the end of the week.

The 100- by 100-sq-ft-booth was under construction, Burke said. Once it became clear that the NBAA board had postponed the convention, however, the crews did an about-face and began repacking. Mockups were trailered back to San Antonio, but other materials, including the massive booth, are being stored in New Orleans.

Burke estimated that, in addition to the show costs, Fairchild incurred about $50,000 in losses related to flight and labor fees and marketing materials, such as brochures and specialty items, including thousands of giveaway retractable phone cords and hundreds of snap-together models.

Another exhibitor, who asked not to be named, told AIN his company had expended 75 percent of its NBAA convention budget on the canceled event. “We don’t have enough now for the rescheduled convention,” he said.

By Friday, September 14, the Fairchild Dornier equipment was packed up, and Burke turned to plotting his way home to Virginia. Fairchild sent an airplane for him on September 15, and he headed East, also shuttling several NBAA staffers who had been exploring their only other homeward bound options– rental car or chartered bus.