In a city that leaps from one big public event to another with aplomb, hotel operators must stay at the top of their game. Hospitality, after all, is their business, and along with the service and congeniality that go into creating a good visitor experience, comfortable surroundings are of the utmost importance.

New Orleans hotels have been addressing the latter need with a vengeance. Several have recently completed extensive renovations, and others are showing off brand new digs in time for a spring event season that brings such favorites as the French Quarter Festival and the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival.

“We’re very fortunate that the city has become such a draw again – New Orleans is just hot right now,” Tod Chambers, president of the Greater New Orleans Hotel & Lodging Association, says.

To stay on top of rising demand, some of the city’s largest hotels have spent many millions on makeovers to improve the looks and feels of their interiors. The venerable Hilton New Orleans Riverside invested more than $60 million over several years into a facelift for the 1,600-room hotel. The latest round of work is upgrading guest rooms and meeting spaces, and overhauling the hotel’s health club.

Over on Canal Street, the towering Sheraton New Orleans has a $45 million renovation under way. The nearby Windsor Court Hotel has mounted a $22 million effort that will replace most furniture and create a spa on the fourth floor. Even the still-young Ritz-Carlton New Orleans is freshening up, as is the New Orleans Marriott.

In the French Quarter, multimillion-dollar improvements at the Royal Sonesta Hotel New Orleans and the Bourbon Orleans Hotel follow on the heels of a makeover at the Hotel Monteleone that, among other things, reshaped the stately Royal Street icon’s Carousel Bar.
Chambers, general manager of The Roosevelt New Orleans hotel, says the renovation surge is partly cyclical, but also is driven by the anticipation of increasing visitor numbers.

“We’ve been outpacing the national economy in terms of hotel demand, and part of that is because we’re growing back into who we were before Hurricane Katrina,” he says.

The 2005 storm and its aftermath temporarily devastated local tourism and produced long-term closures of such major properties as The Roosevelt (formerly the Fairmont Hotel) and the Hyatt Regency New Orleans.

The Roosevelt reopened in 2009 under the Waldorf Astoria brand after an extensive renovation restored the downtown landmark that has become a favorite locals’ haunt. “The connection this hotel has with locals made the ramp-up of our business much quicker than it would have been otherwise,” Chambers says.

More recently, the Hyatt re-opened its doors last fall after a $270 million redo gave it the feel of a completely new hotel. With 1,200 guest rooms, large meeting spaces and splashy restaurants, the hotel is fast becoming an integral part of the growing entertainment district surrounding the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.

Chambers says that even with such large hotels coming back on line, New Orleans is showing it can fill the rooms, as evidenced by Mardi Gras 2012. “Mardi Gras was terrific for the city, and demand was very strong,” he says.

He attributes the strength in part to “pent-up demand” by visitors who delayed coming to New Orleans until they felt the city had fully recovered from its Hurricane Katrina wounds.

Smith Travel Research, which collects hotel data from around the country, reported that average occupancy at New Orleans-area hotels in January was almost 7 percent higher than in January 2011. Bolstered by the Allstate Sugar Bowl, an NFL playoff game and the BCS National Championship game, revenue per available room in January jumped by more than 30 percent from a year earlier.

With an average occupancy of 60 percent and daily room rate of $145, local hotels easily topped the national averages of 49 percent occupancy and $100 room rate in January, the research firm reported.

The improving numbers and anticipation of events such as the recent NCAA Men’s Final Four and next year’s Super Bowl in New Orleans have kept competition alive among local hotels.

European hotelier Klaus Ortlieb, for example, has renovated the former Hotel Le Cirque on Lee Circle into the sleek Hotel Modern. The former Saint Louis Hotel in the French Quarter re-opened late last year as the Hotel Mazarin, an upscale boutique in the portfolio of the New Orleans Hotel Collection.

In the midst of all the spiffing up, yet another operator has gotten involved. A total renovation of a historic building on Canal Street created the new 166-room Saint Hotel, developed by David Wyant Sr. A $45 million investment shaped the eight-story boutique, which is located next to the Ritz-Carlton.

With some 37,000 hotel rooms in the metropolitan area, keeping all the inventory occupied is no small challenge, and tourism marketers may have to keep scrambling to sustain the momentum the city currently enjoys. But Chambers is confident of the prospects.

“People want to be here and be involved in the city,” he says. “Demand is returning at a great pace.”

Back-to-back festivals of music and food should help. Chambers notes that while the French Quarter Festival, in its infancy, had little impact on local hotels, it has grown into a big draw for leisure travelers in April.

The weekend event also serves as something of a warmup to the annual blockbuster Jazz Fest. With tens of thousands of music lovers likely to head this way during the last weekend of April and the first weekend of May, local hoteliers can’t help being excited about the coming of spring in New Orleans.

New Orleans Biz: Spiffing Up - Hospitality
Saint Hotel

Fresh Start
Many New Orleans hotels have recently begun or completed substantial improvements to their properties. Here are some highlights of activity finished or under way.

Bourbon Orleans Hotel
717 Orleans St.
$17 million renovation includes new bedding, carpeting, furniture and flat-screen TVs in 190 guest rooms.

Hilton New Orleans Riverside
2 Poydras St.
Latest $20 million phase of renovation replaces carpets, window treatments and lighting, and upgrades health club.

Hotel Le Marais (formerly St. Ann Marie Antoinette)
717 Conti St.
$8 million renovation replaced air conditioning system, roof and furniture, added a wine bar and updated the 66 guest rooms.

Hotel Mazarin (formerly Saint Louis Hotel)
730 Bienville St.
Upgrades of 102 guest rooms and public spaces.

Hotel Modern (formerly Hotel Le Cirque)
936 St. Charles Ave.
$12 million purchase and renovation of building, including 135 guest rooms, bathrooms and first-floor lounge.

Hyatt Regency New Orleans
601 Loyola Ave.
$270 million bottom-up renovation restored 1,200 guest rooms, enlarged meeting spaces, created new restaurants, including Restaurant Borgne.

Ritz Carlton New Orleans
921 Canal St.
$9 million renovation to upgrade layout and design of 49 suites, to include new furnishings and lighting.

Royal Sonesta New Orleans
300 Bourbon St.
$16 million of improvements to 480 guest rooms and suites and construction of new Restaurant R’evolution.

Saint Hotel
931 Canal St.
$45 million purchase and renovation of the Audubon Building into a 166-room hotel with restaurant, bar and rooftop lounge.

Sheraton New Orleans
500 Canal St.
$45 million in improvements to guest rooms and lobby.

W French Quarter
316 Chartres St.
$10 million renovation includes a new restaurant and bar.

Windsor Court Hotel
300 Gravier St.
$22 million restoration redesigned 316 guest rooms and suites, refurbished a club level lounge, refreshed Grill Room restaurant and Polo Club Lounge, pool area and meeting spaces, added lobby bar and a spa.