On Nov. 12, Ron Forman, president and CEO of Audubon Nature Institute, will receive the 2015 Ella Brennan Lifetime Achievement in Hospitality Award from New Orleans Wine & Food Experience (NOWFE).
Named for famed restaurateur Ella Brennan, the gala celebration recognizes one individual each year who has made a lifetime commitment to the hospitality industry through extraordinary leadership, personal and professional accomplishments and philanthropic contributions to the community.
In receiving the award, Forman will join a distinguished list of past recipients that includes chef Paul Prudhomme, philanthropist Bill Goldring, chef Leah Chase and Drago and Klara Cvitanovich.
“I know Ella well,” Forman says. “She’s a true legend. I’m honored to have my name even discussed with these names.”
A proud native New Orleanian, Forman says he was first inspired to get out and make a difference in his community through a speech by former mayor Moon Landrieu.
“Moon spoke at my graduation from Tulane, and when he talked about the need for young people to give back, I thought he was speaking right to me,” Forman says. “So I went to work as an administrative analyst for the city.”
Forman’s first task was not a small one – advise the city on whether to close or fix up its ailing zoo.
“At that time things were bad,” he says. “The national press was calling it an ‘animal ghetto,’ but I came back to the mayor and said we not only need to fix it, we need to transform it into a first class facility that could be a tremendous asset to the entire community.”
By the age of 27, Forman was serving as the director of the Audubon Nature Institute. “I think I had the advantage of being young, in that I didn’t know what I couldn’t do,” he says.
“The zoo transformation was like climbing a mountain – inch by inch – but once we got to the top we really started gaining momentum.”
By the early 1980s, the Audubon Zoo had reached its mountaintop, with national – this time positive – recognition and skyrocketing attendance. The following momentum of public, private and governmental support led to the creation of the Audubon Aquarium of the Americas, Woldenberg Riverfront Park, the Audubon Butterfly Garden and Insectarium, and the Audubon Center for Research of Endangered Species.
“After Woldenberg Park we had actually approached Disney to try and get them to come here,” he says. “They declined, but I think it’s a good thing they did. We sat around and thought, ‘Disney creates fake swamps, fake alligators, fake attractions, but here we’re fortunate enough to have the real thing.’”
Under Forman’s care, the Audubon Nature Institute has amassed one of the largest collections of living science in the country.
“Tourism in New Orleans skyrocketed after Katrina, and family tourism has become huge,” he says. “Here, we own the daytime visitor.”
The Audubon Institute’s continued successes include the Audubon Aquarium of the Americas, which opened in 1990 to much fanfare and has since become one of the top aquariums in the country. “In our opening year, the goal was to attract 850,000 visitors,” Forman says. “We didn’t do that. We brought in $2.3 million.”
Forman’s work has also extended past the world of plants and animals into sports.
In his leadership role as chairman of the Louisiana Stadium and Exposition District (LSED), he led renovations to the Mercedes-Benz Superdome and the Smoothie King Center, and has been instrumental in the state negotiations that solidified stable long-term contracts with both of the city’s major sports facilities.
Forman has also led and chaired economic hospitality and cultural organizations such as the New Orleans Convention & Visitors Bureau and the New Orleans Jazz Orchestra.
In all that he does, however, it’s easy to see his passion for the Audubon Institute, which has all 10 of its facilities currently undergoing upgrades. “We’re planning now for the next 40 years,” he says. “And I can tell you, as wonderful as the past 40 have been, the future is going to be even better.”
When Forman takes to the stage to accept his award, he’ll do so with the support of his family, which includes his wife, Sally, three children – Dan, Cassidy and McClain – and three grandchildren. “My kids were born into the zoo,” he laughs. “It’s been a great part of our family life from the beginning. And my wife Sally has been an active partner in everything I do. She’s really paid a major role.”
Forman adds that whenever he gets an award it’s important to him that people know the whole picture.
“Anything I’m able to do is because I’m backed with a tremendous board, tremendous philanthropic and corporate leaders and a huge collection of incredible staff members,” he says. “This is all about a strong team working together to make a difference.”
Tickets to the event are available at NOWFE.com for $150 per person, and proceeds benefit the many local nonprofit organizations that NOWFE supports throughout the year.