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Despite disaster, RIMS to meet in New Orleans

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Despite disaster, RIMS to meet in New Orleans

NEW ORLEANS—Despite one organization's cancellation of several conferences in New Orleans next spring due to airline service concerns, the Big Easy is prepared to accommodate risk managers and their 2007 conference, assert risk management and city convention representatives.

Risk managers and exhibitors planning to attend the Risk & Insurance Management Society Inc.'s annual conference, scheduled next April 29-May 3, should have no trouble arranging flights and hotel rooms, say officials with RIMS and the New Orleans Metropolitan Convention & Visitors Bureau.

And RIMS President Michael Liebowitz praised the city's efforts to safeguard conference attendees around the convention center, nearby hotels and the city's famed French Quarter.

But while the number of violent criminal acts in New Orleans is lower than in previous years, the incident rates per resident continue to exceed national averages and have deteriorated this year, crime statistics show (see box, page 19).

Whole sections of New Orleans were destroyed when Hurricane Katrina, the most destructive hurricane in U.S. history, swept through the city in August 2005 and triggered massive flooding.

Mr. Liebowitz, director of risk management for Bridgeport Hospital & Healthcare Services Inc. in Bridgeport, Conn., stressed that RIMS "needs to reach out to the people of New Orleans" as they rebuild the city. "Abandoning them would do a disservice to the city and the people of New Orleans."

RIMS has strong conference ties to the city. In 1963, New Orleans hosted the first annual RIMS conference, which has returned there five times since then.

The city is trying to rebuild with a much smaller population--an estimated 200,000 now compared to 485,000 before the storm.

That raises various service issues for conference planners.

A key concern is airline service.

With 108 daily flights between New Orleans and 32 cities, airline service is at 70% of its pre-Katrina level, a convention bureau spokeswoman said.

But that was insufficient for conference planners at Microsoft Corp. of Redmond, Wash. Microsoft has canceled three conferences it had planned to hold in New Orleans within weeks of each other, starting in May 2007. The events were expected to draw all together 30,000 attendees, a Microsoft spokesman said.

Although the groups would not have converged on the city simultaneously, Microsoft was concerned whether airline service for overseas travelers would be adequate, the spokesman said. While he could not say exactly how many international travelers were expected, he said it was "a significant number" but less than half of the expected attendees.

The 17,000 attendees, including exhibitors, who participated in the American Library Assn.'s annual conference in New Orleans June 22-28 had no problems arranging flights, said Deidre Irwin Ross, director of conference services for the Chicago-based association.

For the 25,000 to 30,000 attendees expected at the National Assn. of Realtors conference in New Orleans Nov. 10-13., arranging air travel "hasn't seemed to be the problem we thought it might be," said Doug Orr, director of convention marketing and communications for the Chicago-based organization.

Mr. Liebowitz said airlines have assured RIMS that they will be able to handle the air travel volume generated by RIMS conference attendees. The conference is expected to draw between 10,000 and 13,000 attendees, including exhibitors, he said.

If it does, conference attendance next spring would at least equal the event's 2004 and 2005 attendance and could double the weak 2006 draw (BI, May 8).

The convention bureau also is working with airlines to tailor their service to accommodate travelers for specific conferences, the spokeswoman said.

The Microsoft spokesman said no other issues, such as hotel room availability, played into the company's decision to pull out of New Orleans.

New Orleans has about 28,000 hotel rooms, 10,000 fewer than before Hurricane Katrina, the convention bureau spokeswoman said.

But hotel room availability was no problem during the ALA conference, Ms. Ross said. For its peak night, the organization was able to block the 7,600 rooms it needed, she said.

The NAR reserved the 8,500 rooms it requested for its anticipated peak night next month and has added more since then with "no trouble," Mr. Orr said.

RIMS already has blocked the 6,620 rooms it needs for its peak night, Mr. Liebowitz said.

As New Orleans has tried to rebuild over the past 14 months, Mr. Liebowitz and RIMS personnel have visited the city to gauge its progress. Mr. Liebowitz said he has felt safe around the convention center, the nearby hotels and the French Quarter.

During a visit in January, "I walked the streets late at night and felt very secure," he said.

Since Katrina, the number of violent crimes in the city has fallen, but the rate of violent crimes per 100,000 inhabitants has deteriorated significantly from levels that already had exceeded national averages, according to figures from the U.S. Department of Justice and the New Orleans Police Department.

But Mr. Liebowitz said, "There are no problems" in the areas where conference attendees will be concentrated. He said the city has assured him that the French Quarter police precinct, which includes the convention center and nearby hotels, is fully staffed and the number of police personnel per resident far exceeds the pre-Katrina ratio because of the city's smaller population.

A convention bureau spokes- woman agreed with that assessment, but she and the police department could not provide figures on police staffing.

The June deployment of National Guard and state police troops to patrol the neighborhoods devastated by the hurricane has allowed the city police department to beef up its patrols elsewhere, including crime "hot spots" outside of the business district, the convention bureau spokeswoman said.

The city and RIMS also have developed separate disaster management plans for the show.

"New Orleans is as safe now as it was pre-Katrina for conference attendees," Mr. Liebowitz said.

Ms. Ross said that conference attendees reported "no incidents at all" during the ALA conference.

Meanwhile, $60 million of renovations at the RIMS show site--the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center--should be completed next month, a convention bureau spokeswoman said. Every surface of the "brand new" center has been replaced with no loss of floor space, she said.

The center was heavily damaged when thousands of New Orleans residents took refuge there after Katrina struck.