A City of Two Tales

Tourists are visiting New Orleans to have fun and help out

By: Cheré Dastugue Coen

Brian Ross had visited New Orleans in 2000 for the Sugar Bowl, staying at Dennis Hilton’s Depot House. After Hurricane Katrina hit the city and caused widespread destruction, Ross wanted to return with the hopes of helping out in New Orleans’ recovery.

“I sat on the idea for a couple of months,” Ross said. “I found the e-mail address for the St. Charles Guest House and got in touch with Dennis. I didn’t really have any plans or know anyone in the area, so I just reached out to him and asked if he knew of anyone who needed help.”

Hilton set up Ross with volunteer work at a Baptist church in the city’s devastated 9th Ward. While Ross spent a long weekend at the Guest House, he helped repair the church’s flood-damaged flooring.

Ross plans to return to New Orleans for more of what is called “voluntourism,” a mix of charity work and sightseeing.

The idea of pairing pleasure in the city’s recovered tourist districts with “giving something back” in the devastated areas is such a hot trend in New Orleans these days, the New Orleans Metropolitan Convention and Visitors Bureau is creating a division to meet the demand. A travel executive is expected to be hired in June to “marry up groups” with visitors, said Kim Priez, vice president of tourism, and information on voluntourism will soon be posted on the bureau’s Web site.

Travel agents are constantly being asked for voluntours, said Priez. Past events have included Southwest Airlines sales professionals teaming up with Second Harvest to pick citrus for those in need in Louisiana.

“We’ve had dentists do teeth by day and party by night,” Priez said.

At the Ritz-Carlton and its parent company, Marriott, inquiries for voluntours are ongoing, said Char Thian Schroeder, director of public relations at the Ritz-Carlton.

Sales teams “are getting amazing site visits,” she said, and the hotel now offers a list of New Orleans-based relief organizations, such as Common Ground Collective, Operation Comeback and the New Orleans Musicians Hurricane Relief Fund.

The Ritz-Carlton, which doesn’t reopen until December, has already arranged volunteer work for visiting companies in 2007.

For instance, 70 city playgrounds were impacted by the Aug. 29 storm. When Playworld Systems Inc. has its meeting in the city next January, it will help rebuild a school playground through KaBOOM!, a nonprofit group dedicated to restoring the nation’s playgrounds.

Other organizations and companies planning volunteer time while meeting at the Ritz-Carlton include the American Academy of Physician Assistants, Investment Company Institute and Texas Roadhouse restaurants.

“It’s clearly something that meeting planners are asking for,” she said.

The Windsor Court Hotel offers a “Meetings That Matter” package, allowing businesses visiting New Orleans on a regular basis to help allocate hotel rooms to Habitat for Humanity. For every 100 room nights booked through Dec. 31, the Windsor will donate an additional five room nights to the charitable organization. The hotel currently donates 10 room nights each month to Habitat.

The Windsor also arranges volunteer work for those visiting the city, ranging from working with Habitat building houses to cleaning neighborhood parks.
The emerging trend has hotels working together and sharing information to better inform visitors, Schroeder added, something not typically found in the city’s hotel industry before Katrina.

“We’re all in this together,” she said.


The New Orleans Metropolitan Convention and Visitors Bureau is offering a special fam tour. “Back to the Big Easy” is designed to encourage travel agents and their families to visit New Orleans and see the city’s progress. The special includes dinner at the Court of Two Sisters in the French Quarter, tours at many of the city’s attractions and a two-night stay for as little as $44 per person, said Kim Priez, vice president of tourism at the Bureau.
“We want to get as many agents to New Orleans as possible,” Priez said, adding that travel industry professionals have the wrong idea about what is and is not up and running in the city.