Meeting here is a little like receiving a gift you weren't expecting
Few places in the United States offer a more compelling view into a foreign culture than this one. Except the foreign culture in south-central Louisiana, complete with its own language, food, music and history, isn’t actually foreign. Acadiana, the officially recognized region of 22 Louisiana parishes, is distinctly American, though its roots stretch back to Acadie, now known as Nova Scotia, and before that to France. When approximately 11,500 Acadians were forced out of Canada by the British in 1755, an inhumane act that came to be known as Le Grand Dérangement, many of them eventually made their way to Louisiana, where they were permitted to live in exile by the King of Spain, then in charge of the region. They held on to their language and music, though both were transformed by association with multiple new cultures and ultimately morphed into something wholly unique to this region. Visitors will hear a lot of French in Lafayette, including in traditional Cajun songs.
In spite of the forced displacement Acadians endured, the Cajun people of Louisiana are full of a contagious joy that washes over visitors the moment they arrive. The city’s official unofficial motto, laissez les bons temps rouler, let the good times roll, isn’t just a phrase. It’s at the heart of Cajun culture, and any event here is infused with that spirit. “Whether you’re a regular or just in town for the evening, we’re glad you’re here,” says Frank Beaulieu Randol on his eponymous restaurant’s website. “Sit back and enjoy the best food in the world, or kick up your heels and join in the fun. Surrender yourself to a simpler lifestyle, and the Cajun joie de vivre will steal your heart.”
This year Louisiana celebrates its bicentennial, making it a fine time to gather here. For meeting space, the Lafayette Convention Center offers nearly 100,000 sq. ft. on two levels. The largest space is the theater, which seats 5,967, while a banquet area accommodates 2,380, who can tuck into the highly praised cuisine of onsite Artisan Creative Catering. The center is adjacent to the Cajundome, the city’s landmark and home of the University of Louisiana’s Ragin’ Cajuns basketball team, as well as the annual Cajun Heartland State Fair. The facility has 40,000 sq. ft. of arena floor space and 11 meeting rooms. Arena seating capacity for a general session is 13,000.
The city has more than 5,000 hotel rooms. The Hilton Lafayette offers the most services and amenities in the area. Set on the banks of the Vermilion River near downtown, the 327-room property has 22,000 sq. ft. of meeting space. Its largest room accommodates up to 1,173 theater-style or 800 for a banquet. There’s an executive floor, fitness room and pool, and Wi-Fi is available. Another good choice is the Holiday Inn Lafayette, with 242 guest rooms and 14,000 sq. ft. of space, including 10 meeting rooms and 12,000 sq. ft. for exhibits. One nice amenity: complimentary high-speed Internet. The 290-room Crowne Plaza Lafayette South-Airport provides 21,078 sq. ft. of combined meeting, exhibit and banquet space and 13 meeting rooms.
There’s no question that Lafayette’s greatest asset for meeting planners, however, is the genuine warmth and positive, can-do attitude of both the CVC staff and local residents. That’s abundantly clear in what Angela Cring, executive director of Louisiana Gulf Coast Oil Exposition (LAGCOE), says of her group’s experience in Lafayette hosting nearly 14,000 people from 47 states and 26 countries last October.
“What keeps LAGCOE grounded in Lafayette and people coming back to our event is the hospitality our attendees and exhibitors experience while they are here,” she reflects. “Lafayette is created around a culture of open, welcoming people who just happen to cook some of the greatest food you’ll ever eat. The CVC is committed to making the hospitality and culture that make Lafayette unique accessible to all those who wish to hold events [there]. Hotels and restaurants open their doors with a willingness to flex with the needs of our visitors and the city offers many new impressive properties.”
It all comes down to lagniappe (lahn-yop), a French-Cajun word meaning “a little something extra given as a gift.” That, in a word, is what you get in Lafayette. Every time.
Main image: Acadian Village, courtesy of Lafayette CVB
One reason to meet in Louisiana is the joy of immersion in Cajun ways.
Acadian Village interprets 19th-century Acadian life. Facilities include The Pavilion, a 10,000-square-foot open-air venue accommodating up to 500.
Acadiana Center for the Arts, in the heart of downtown, fuses striking architecture and museum-quality collections. Workshop and meeting spaces add a bright visual component.
At Acadian Cultural Center, part of Jean Lafitte National Historical Park and Preserve, ranger programs focus on Cajun culture and the natural world of the Atchafalaya Basin.
Vermilionville, brings to life Cajun, Creole and Native American histories of this area from 1765–1890. Group activities include cooking classes; the Performance Center has a stage and 2,760 sq. ft. for meeting, eating and dancing.
Vermillionville, courtesy of Lafayette CVB
In Lafayette, the word “play” invariably means music, and that typically includes eating, drinking and dancing. Cajun, Creole and zydeco are rooted in the multinational cultures that define south-central Louisiana, especially French Canadian (which became Cajun) and Creole, a blending of French, Spanish and African heritage. It’s impossible not to get up and move when the accordion and fiddle rev up, making Louisiana music the way to put the fun in functions.
Best bets: The Bayou Boys of Lafayette not only play gotta-dance Cajun and zydeco tunes, on request they will also make traditional gumbo, the quintessential dish of the region, on stage while doing so! And when they’re done, your group can eat what the boys cook up. “We just love what we do, so we’ll play anywhere, anytime,” says band member Chris Foreman, “but we have the most fun with three to 500 because we can be more intimate.” Blue Moon Saloon and Guesthouse is the place for nighttime networking and mixing with locals, a down-home venue sizzling with the sounds of popular bands.
Lafayette isn’t the place to diet. Not to worry. Eat—then dance off the calories.
–Prejean’s Restaurant: In 2010, Prejean’s won a gold medal at the annual Acadiana Culinary Classic for its pork, lamb and wild game. The Bordeaux Room seats up to 45, the Cypress Room up to 70. Prejean’s Cajun Cooking School accommodates groups of 20–60.
–Randol’s Restaurant et Salle de Danse: “We take care of the food we serve in the belief that the food we eat takes care of us. We raise our own crawfish and crabs, and we grow our own herbs,” notes owner Frank Beaulieu Randol. Popular group menu choices include a traditional seafood boil or “boucherie-cochon de lait,” Louisiana’s version of a luau. All food comes with a side of Cajun music and dancing.
–Pont Breaux’s Cajun Restaurant: Group lunch and dinner menus are available. The house specialty is Catfish Pont Breaux: grilled catfish topped with shrimp étoufée, served with jambalaya, fries and bread. Guests dance nightly to live Cajun music.
–Blue Dog Café: Small groups should consider the Blue Dog, a thriving homage to the artwork of Louisianan George Rodrigue, whose famed paintings of blue dogs line the walls. George himself drops in on occasion. The restaurant’s Sunday brunch is repeatedly voted best in town.
Blue Dog Café
–Size: Fourth largest city by population
–Location: Intersection of I-10 and I-49, 35 miles north of the Gulf of Mexico and 135 miles from New Orleans
–Elevation: 36 feet
–Waterway: The Vermilion River runs through it
–Best Place to Buy Louisiana Crafts & Artwork: Sans Souci Gallery
–Best Local Breakfast: Dwyer’s Café
–Best Place for Attendees to Wander: The Village at River Ranch, offering food (try Village Café for lunch), River Spa and fun local shops
–Best Off-site Venue: City Club at River Ranch
–Best Crowd Scene: Downtown Alive!, a vibrant music series March–mid-June and Sept.–Nov.
–Best Festivals: Festival International de Louisiane (April 25–29) and Festivals Acadiens et Creoles (Oct. 12–4)
–Contact: Lafayette Convention & Visitors Commission, Karen Primeaux, Director of Convention Marketing, lafayettetravel.com
–Getting There: Lafayette Regional Airport (LFT) is located about five miles from the convention center. American, Continental and Delta offer nonstop service from their primary hubs: Dallas, Houston and Atlanta, respectively. For info on LFT’s mobile website, enter lftairport.com on your mobile device.
–Who Knew? Researchers at the University of Louisiana in Lafayette have turned alligator fat into biodiesel. Your car might soon be running on…gatordiesel.