Famous festivals give planners reason to celebrateAs one of the most popular cities in North America for meetings and conventions, New Orleans might be considered expensive for planners’ purposes. But this isn’t really the case. According to Concur, a business and travel expense management platform, the city isn’t ranked among the 10 most expensive locations in America for business travel. The federal government’s General Services Administration has set 2016 lodging per diems in the Big Easy at a reasonable rate: $153 to $160 for the peak meeting periods of February to April and October to December. This figure is a useful baseline for negotiation by meeting groups from nongovernmental sectors. Even more appealing to event planners is that the city, rich in music, art and other unique cultural entertainment, provides much of it at a minimal cost or even free. This is true not just in New Orleans but also in Louisiana’s capital city, Baton Rouge, and in its northern hub, Shreveport-Bossier. And for venues and events that do come with a price tag, the value of the Bayou experience in these three cities versus the price is clearly a favorable proposition.
Voodoo Experience, New Orleans
New OrleansTravel & Leisure magazine readers voted New Orleans as the Best American City for Festivals in 2015, and there are many opportunities for meeting groups to take advantage of festivals as part of their social activities. Tara Letort, director of group communications for New Orleans Convention & Visitors Bureau, notes that even the granddaddy musical festival, Jazz Fest, doesn’t bump business groups out of downtown properties when it takes place in April and May. “The hotels love having groups in-house around then, especially associations,” Letort says. “Meeting attendees are increasingly being drawn to destinations by great experiences, in addition to strong event programming. It’s obvious how excited attendees are to be here around Jazz Fest.” The two-weekend event takes place at Fair Grounds Race Course, three miles from downtown and the French Quarter. Ticket-holder shuttles run regularly, but planners may consider procuring a private shuttle. There are two more ways that Jazz Fest can enhance meetings. First, because the festival ends at 7 p.m. each night, evening socializing at bars and clubs in the French Quarter and Warehouse-Arts District often includes surprise performances by top-notch musicians. Second, planners can re-enact the festival atmosphere on the show floor or in prefunction and break areas to add energy within the meeting itself. “Many groups will bring in food booths and have musicians perform around almost every corner,” Letort says. “With so many restaurants and musicians as CVB members, it’s easy to arrange.” Combine this with some Mardi Gras-themed elements, such as French Quarter streetscapes featuring exposed brick plus gas lanterns, and a planner could make an event’s atmosphere truly memorable. Festivals of All Kinds Along with Jazz Fest and Mardi Gras celebrations, which take place in February, New Orleans is chock-full of other festivals. The French Quarter Festival precedes Jazz Fest by about 10 days. It’s centered in Jackson Square and riverfront Woldenburg Park, but also offers 23 other music stages throughout the quarter. This four-day event is free of charge and the weather is perfect in mid-April, Letort notes. The Satchmo Summerfest happens over three days in early August. In and around the U.S. Mint building and French Market on the Mississippi riverfront, the festival features a variety of contemporary jazz and brass bands as well as parades and food vendors serving up ribs, red beans and rice, jambalaya, gumbo and more. The three-day Louisiana Seafood Festival takes place in September just three miles from downtown at the City Park Festival Grounds and features lots of music, too. A month later, the three-day Crescent City Blues & BBQ Festival occurs in Lafayette Square Park near several major meeting hotels. Nearly all of these events are free. Even though the three-day Voodoo Experience hard-rock music festival around Halloween requires paid admission, the atmosphere it lends to what’s regarded as “America’s most haunted city” adds interesting texture and themed-event ideas to a meeting. The Christmas New Orleans Style celebration actually starts the third week of November and offers 63 holiday events, with 23 of them at no cost. Holiday choirs, concerts in St. Louis Cathedral, an ice rink built inside Ernest N. Morial Convention Center and a “Snowing on Fulton Street” attraction involving snow machines in the French Quarter are just a few highlights. If a meeting comes to New Orleans when there isn’t a festival going on, groups can simply create their own. For instance, second-line parades allow groups to march through city streets along with jazz bands or high school marching bands and can be facilitated by New Orleans Convention & Visitors Bureau. Group community-service projects may also be accompanied by musicians, so that attendees can give back to the city with their own live New Orleans soundtrack. “Volunteerism by groups is so important to New Orleans,” Letort says.
Live After Five, Baton Rouge
Baton RougeLocated 70 miles northwest of New Orleans is Baton Rouge, the state capital and home to Louisiana State University. These two elements help give the city a diverse demographic that has resulted in numerous entertainment offerings. In the downtown district, Live After Five concert series takes place every Friday during eight weeks in spring and fall. Held in Town Square, the free event draws a few thousand people not only for music, but also the many food and beverage vendors. For meetings that end on a Friday afternoon or Saturday morning, Live After Five would make a dynamic and low-cost final-night event, says Christy Chachere, communications coordinator for Visit Baton Rouge. “Sunday in the Park” concert series is a fun, free and welcoming event that takes over Town Square from 2 to 5 p.m. in the spring and fall. The Baton Rouge Blues Festival, one of the oldest blues festivals in the country, occurs in Town Square during two days in mid-April. Live Music Venues There’s free live music every Friday night at Belle of Baton Rouge Casino & Hotel. The primary downtown venue for private events is The Roux House, where up to to 500 people can be entertained by top local bands, such as the Michael Foster Project (jazz and funk) and After 8 (classic rock, R&B and funk). Or a meeting group can simply show up for the public dueling-piano shows held at The Roux House during the week. Eight miles from downtown in the Perkins Rowe district, Rock ‘n’ Rowe free music series takes place from 6 to 9 p.m. every Thursday during the spring and fall. The College Drive district is home to The Pelican House, which opened in 2014 to offer Creole and Cajun cuisine, plus a huge variety of craft beers and whiskeys. It can accommodate 500 for private events. In Mid-City district, Phil Brady’s Bar & Grill and Radio Bar host groups and feature blues, rock, country, zydeco, Cajun and gospel music.
Crawfish at Mudbug Madness, Shreveport-Bossier
Shreveport-BossierThis region straddles both sides of the Red River, and is a major health care and energy industry hub for the entire state. For the many medical-related meetings and others that come here, there are three major festivals that groups can piggyback on. The first is Mudbug Madness, which occurs the week before Memorial Day. Held seven blocks from Shreveport Convention Center in Festival Plaza, this four-day event “is all about crawfish and live music in a very relaxed atmosphere,” says Melissa Small, communications director for Shreveport-Bossier Convention and Tourist Bureau. “Attendees can eat crawfish by the pound while listening to everything from Cajun and zydeco to blues and jazz on the stages throughout the open-air plaza.”
Red River Arts Festival, Shreveport-BossierThe second is Red River Revel Arts Festival, held over eight days in early October. Attracting more than 120,000 visitors each year, northern Louisiana’s largest festival offers music from more than 40 bands across four stages, more than 100 artist booths and two dozen food stands. It is free to enter except on weekends and after 5:30 p.m. on Tuesday–Friday. A third option is Let the Good Times Roll Festival, which takes place for three days in mid-June. It celebrates African-American art and culture, including soul, gospel and R&B music. Furthermore, with permanent restroom facilities and concession buildings, Festival Plaza can be rented and tented at other times by large meeting groups. Local Music Scene Shreveport-Bossier boasts two hometown musical acts— contemporary jazz band Alter Ego and blues veteran Buddy Flett— who often perform for meeting groups. “[Alter Ego] is excellent with audience interaction,” Small says. “They always get attendees energized and dancing and involved in the performance.” Flett once helped Elvis come to Shreveport to play at Municipal Auditorium in his early days. The auditorium’s acoustics are so good that performers don’t need microphones to be heard throughout the venue, which holds up to 3,000 people. Backstage tours of the historic building can be incorporated into dinners and receptions. For a smaller venue with lots of local flavor, planners can rent Voodoo Cafe: an Art Bar, which has a stage for live music downstairs and a local art gallery upstairs. Lastly, Shreveport Cradle of the Stars is a coach tour led by local music dignitary Johnny Wessler that hits various cultural spots around town.