2006 NOMCVB Chairman of the Board, Terry Epton Farewell Speech
(delivered at NOMCVB Annual Meeting, Wednesday, December 13, 2006)
Wow, what a year it has been…
I’d like to thank all of the CVB members, CVB Staff and CVB Board Members present today for all of your support over the last year.
In some ways this has been the longest year of my life and in others it seems like the shortest. It’s as though I was just standing here accepting the responsibilities of the Chairmanship a year ago. The most obvious thing that comes to mind is that I have gained so much respect for so many people who I have watched step up during such trying times.
I’ve seen people come together and put aside traditional differences, because under the circumstances, all of our priorities became aligned due to the underlying need to save an industry. I’m talking about the coming together of a group we tagged as the “Hospitality Coalition.” With the support and leadership of Lt. Governor Mitch Landrieu, the CVB, the Tourism Marketing Corporation, the Convention Center, the Restaurant Association, the Hotel and Lodging Association and others all gave up various turf squabbles and differences, to come together and speak with one voice to save the hospitality industry.
They say every cloud no matter how dark has a silver lining and I’ve witnessed that this year on a number of occasions. The most obvious one that comes to mind is when Kitty Ratcliff announced that she was leaving us to go to St. Louis, Missouri. Nikki Nicholson was our silver lining. Nikki was here for us and is the best right person for our VP of Convention Industry Sales. Without those storm clouds, I doubt if we would be as strong as we are today. Nikki has no equal and the staff of this organization has made that clear to me.
I can remember in the weeks and months that followed the storm we purely focused on business retention. We were out trying to re-confirm definite business that was on the books. We had to find other cities where we could relocate groups and conventions that we could not service. Soon after that, sadly we found that other cities were helping themselves too much of the business that was left on the books. I watched sales people here working to book, rebook and rebook again the same pieces of business over and over. How much grit does it take to do that? How much dedication? I can vividly remember sitting with Nikki and Stephen Perry saying, … “There is no such thing as a definite any more.” I remain overwhelmed by the efforts of the staff and leaders of this organization who did what ever it took to fight for what was ours. Now I am happy to say that we have turned the corner. We are booking new business at a pace similar to what we were prior to the storm.
Nikki’s Convention Sales team will book over 750,000 room nights this year. Kim Priez and her small squad of leisure experts will exceed their goals and book over 150,000 room nights this year. That’s great news because it means people are buying New Orleans again! It doesn’t mean that we are out of the woods. These bookings are for the future and we still have many cracks, trenches and canyons left to fill that were created by major city-wide convention cancellations. This presents both a problem and an opportunity for us and we have been healthily diversifying our markets and booking some great new corporate group business that fits nicely in the holes. This brings us new higher yield business that we never had the space for in the past. All in all this is an exciting bit of silver lining we can keep for the future.
Speaking of the silver lining in the dark clouds, we’ve got a brand new Superdome. That never would have happened without the calamity we had to endure. Thanks to Doug Thornton, one of our new board members, and his leadership, they overcame all obstacles to be ready for that all-important Monday Night Foot ball game in September where the Saints beat Atlanta. I remember where I was as I am sure you do. I was in Chicago for the IT&ME trade show and watched the game with a group of people from New Orleans. I remember thinking that every emotional chip in the city was on the table for that game and what would happen if we lost? We Won! How about those Saints? I want to publicly thank Doug for his remarkable leadership. I’ve had the pleasure of working a bit more closely with Doug over the past year and I can say that he is one of the smartest people I’ve ever met.
More silver linings … the New Orleans Convention Center. It would have taken five years to chip away at renovating that place and once it was finished the first parts would need to be renovated all over again. Today, we’ve got a brand new center from stem to stern; it is bigger and better in every way to what it was the day it originally opened. It was under the leadership of Warren Reuther, who refused to fail, that we saw the center finished in record time. Did you happen to notice we had a boat show there last week? It was the first full-building show we’ve welcomed since the storm. Warren gets the job done and he deserves all of our appreciation.
The Superdome is fixed and the Convention Center is fixed; now we are working on the Airport. I am pleased to be serving on a committee to explore and find ways to bring the Airport up to industry standards.
I cannot say enough about the staff and leadership here at the bureau. These guys have been pushing and pulling things up hill now for nearly 16 months. It is important to keep focused on your goal when you are climbing a mountain. But, it is also important to stop once and a while and look back and see how far you have come just for some inspiration. We have come very far in this past year. We had quite a few first. We had our first post-Katrina Mardi Gras and first post-Katrina Jazz Fest. We can do special events like no other city in this town, and I believe we all knew we could pull it off, although, I can remember in the days leading up to Mardi Gras our genuine concerns about hosting this great event so soon after the storm.
Still, we had the big test yet to come. We had to pull off a major city-wide convention – the American Library Association’s meeting in June – to prove we were really open for business. I watched this organization mobilize and form committees and take every possible step to insure success even to the point of leading the entire community in physically picking up litter all over the city, just to put our best post storm damaged foot forward. I have to tell you that the leadership here is incredible. Individuals who run toward problems are rare. They are the true leaders. It is always easier to back away from problems, but the rare individual who will run toward them is a most valuable person. If a company has a couple of such people, they are lucky. This CVB has dozens of such people. That doesn’t happen by accident. It happens by educated recruitment and through great leadership.
I can’t possibly name every person I’d like to right now because I would never remember them all and I’d hate to leave anyone out. So, I will point out some of the leaders who are making a difference, fighting the good fight. Two people who go largely unnoticed outside of the CVB building that make this place go are Steve Moeller, the Vice President of Finance and Administration and Tammie Boteler, the Director of Finance. Steve oversaw the construction of this place and he keeps it running. He also oversees Human Resources among other things. Tammie keeps the books and protects our assets. They are both remarkably professional and they are great people to work with.
We had two important positions open for quite some time in Communications and Public Relations. We kept waiting for the perfect candidates to come along and people were beginning to rumble that we needed to get the positions filled. Saying it was worth the wait would be putting it lightly. What we got were the two most perfect fits on the planet. Our new Vice President of Communications & Public Relations, Kelly Schulz was most recently the Director of Communications for Meeting Professionals International, working in MPI’s International headquarters in Dallas. Kelly is a native of St. Bernard parish and she came home to do the job of her life, to take on the most challenging Public Relations position in the country. She deals everyday with the post Katrina media and is making important progress. With Kelly, it’s a mission, it’s a calling. We are so lucky to have her. Our new Director of Communications and Public Relations is Mary Beth Romig. She comes from the first family of New Orleans Public Relations, the Romig family. Mary Beth too came running toward the problem and the chance to make a difference for the city she loves. She is a bundle of energy. We are blessed to have these two great individuals working on our team.
Before the storm, Stephen Perry had the vision to establish a customer advisory board. That board is made up of some of the most influential players in the meetings and convention planning industry, all major planners. The value of that decision became evident shortly after the storm when we realized that we had a group of New Orleans advocates that truly felt invested in New Orleans. They were part of what happened and they were unselfishly motivated to help us in any way they could. If we had tried to recruit them after the storm it would have appeared that we were seeking cheerleaders to do a very tough job. But, they were in place and wanted to help. One of the first suggestions we acted on before the storm was to hire a customer advocate because the advisory board believed that New Orleans was perceived as difficult to work and negotiate with from the customer’s perspective. The result of that suggestion was that we hired a professional convention planner to become our Vice President of Client Relations, Donna Karl. Donna has done an outstanding job in creating a high touch customer service standard for New Orleans and she is now most involved with the ongoing advisory board efforts. That board was just here for a meeting last week and they all were very positive about the progress we continue to make.
I just mentioned Stephen’s vision and I can truly say that I don’t believe we would be anywhere near where we are today without his leadership, his experience and his willingness to work his way through just about anything. The guy is like a dog with a bone when it comes to fighting for our industry and what we deserve. He is a clear thinking, practical consensus builder. I am sure that the team we have built here is due largely to Stephen’s leadership.
New Orleans will rise again. I know it in my heart because it has risen so many times in the past. We have been beat down before by hurricanes & floods, attacked by the British army, stricken by yellow fever epidemics, great fires, infamous pirates, notorious politicians, everything that could be thrown at us. This city was occupied by union troops during the civil war for years. We have always come back and the city is coming back now on the shoulders of the hospitality industry. We will be better for our trials just as we have been in the past. People just plain love this city and there will always be a New Orleans. The question is how fast we can be fully back and what will it take from each of us.
Two people on the board I feel compelled to mention were both mentors for me through out this year. Mark Sanders is an absolute rock, a straight shooter who says exactly what he is thinking. Al Groos is involved and focused every step of the way. They both lead by example.
Amy Reimer, General Manager of the International House Hotel is our new Chairman for 2007. She has been the Membership Committee Chairman this past year. I believe that keeping 83% of our members during such lean times is a big victory and Amy is due much credit. I am excited about Amy and the unique “tool box” she brings to our board as its 2007 Chairman. Among other things, Amy began her career in this industry as a Sales manager for this organization several years ago. Each Chairman has his or her own way of leading. Al never did it like Mark. I didn’t do it like AL and I am sure Amy won’t do it like me. I am also sure that she will be a great Chairman.
We can and should focus on the job we have ahead of us. But, we also must stop and take the time to appreciate how far we have come. There are many faces missing from this community. Many people left to work elsewhere. We are the survivors; the ones who stuck it out and I believe the ones who will be recognized as responsible for the rebirth of our industry and our city. Congratulations to all of you.
How often in life does a person get a chance to make a real difference?
Well … I can honestly say I gave it my best.