New Orleans & Company incoming president and CEO Walter Leger's embrace of new age marketing tactics and technology, as well as his political experience, signal changes are coming to the Big Easy.
New Orleans & Company will have a new president and CEO on January 1. Walt Leger III will be replacing Stephen Perry, who has been in the role for 20 years. He wants the destination marketing organization to embrace a more direct-to-consumer strategy and take more risks with emerging technologies.
A lawyer by trade, he served in the Louisiana House of Representatives for 12 years, six of which he was as speaker pro tempore. He joined New Orleans & Company in 2019 as general counsel and as executive vice president of strategic affairs. He was appointed last December by the board to succeed Perry.
In this conversation with Skift, Leger talks about New Orleans’ recovery, his direct-to-consumer marketing strategy, the city’s relationship with international markets, why his legislative experience will be useful in today’s political climate and how New Orleans will be resilient against the next Katrina. The comments have been edited for length and clarity.
Skift: I actually visited New Orleans in February of 2020, when Mardi Gras was just ending. As I was leaving, I remember hearing about Covid as simply the flu. Next thing you know, the world shuts down. What happened to New Orleans after I left?
Walt Leger III: Covid was devastating. To make matters worse, initially the news reports were that New Orleans and that Mardi Gras was sort of a super spreader type event that really kicked this thing off. Those kinds of articles that set us up in an even more difficult position. As it played out, it went everywhere. It was happening to the whole world.
We went from approximately 100,000 employees in the sector down to below 50,000 at the height of Covid, so more than 50 percent unemployed. We lost 80 percent of our revenue for a period of time, which speaks to the dramatic reduction. In 2019, we had roughly $10 billion in direct spending associated with our visitors, and with tourism. That number went down to about $2.5 billion in 2020 so it was dramatic. 2021 began some recovery. Of course we had hiccups with variance and other things that sort of shifted the dynamic from time to time.
Skift: How’s the recovery shaping up?
Leger: Leisure travel has led the way for us in recovery. I would guess that when we get to the end of the year, our visitor numbers are gonna be a little bit lower than 2019 but not significantly and could be close to what they were before the pandemic.
I think employment’s up to around 75,000 maybe the last time I saw it. I think a lot of businesses have adjusted to a little bit lower employment levels because employment hasn’t been the same as we’ve come out of the pandemic.
We’ve had March Madness Final Fours. We’ve had extraordinarily large conferences with American Cancer Research and Society for Human Resources. In fact, our meeting calendar this year is probably among the most robust that we’ve had in the last decade and it’s an extraordinarily positive year for us from a meeting and convention standpoint.
Skift: You’re taking up a position held by someone who held it for 20 years. How are you taking things in a different direction?
Leger: We’re gonna keep selling our most important asset, which is our people and our great city. But how you do that? I think that continues to change. And so our focus is gonna be on working to drive public relations support and third party verifier support for the city in a way that is a little more aggressive than we have in the past. Because I feel that that tells a stronger story that translates more to people than than does traditional commercial or traditional marketing.
I think that people are consuming content in a way that’s that in ways that continue to evolve but in ways that also often involve a telephone or a computer or an iPad or some other digital device and so our creative team’s trying to be really focused on generating new and fresh content at a regular level as opposed to sort of a brand commercial that you try to run on linear TV working more, although we’ve spent plenty of time focused on social media work and more on digital space and are trying to stay engaged in the newest trends like NFTS and Web 3.0 and trying to capitalize on those things.
One of the things that we put into place this year, for example, which I’m really proud of is we developed a great brand campaign. We call it Plus One. New Orleans is throwing the world’s greatest dinner party and we’re inviting you to join us. And it’s essentially a bunch of amazing New Orleanians around a dinner table, just having a great time with each other. But what we also did was we filmed it in virtual reality and so there’s an eight-minute VR component that we’ve attached to it. That’s also running and gives you a little bit deeper dive into some of these individuals and employees, this new technology that’s continuing to emerge. And the reason we wanted to do that was just to sort of highlight the innovation that’s happening in our city.
Skift: What’s a big strategy shift you have planned?
Leger: For a long time international travel sales has really been done through travel professionals, travel agents and those who book travel on behalf of international visitors. I think there’s a lot of space with the technology available today to do more direct-to-consumer marketing internationally and try to work more with international influencers and other social media opportunities to promote our destination so that we can create some demand. I think that in the past, we’ve had to focus our efforts on specific places where you can have the best (return on investment) ROI. I think that we can experiment a little bit more with some direct-to-consumer internationally and hopefully create a new dynamic.
One of the things I envision is New Orleans, the birthplace of jazz and continuing to produce some of the most famous jazz musicians in the world and also spin off music from that genre, our artists are traveling all over the world all the time and so, you know, trying to work closely with them to utilize their social media presence while they’re abroad, and allow them to both sell themselves and for us to amplify them.
And educating people about what New Orleans is. It’s certainly not on the top of every international traveler’s list, but there are many who aspire to it, and we know that many of them come to it through music. And so we’re gonna work really hard to be focused on music, especially internationally. For example, we know that the Japanese are huge supporters and lovers of jazz. And so prior to the pandemic, we had a lot of success in Japan because people really wanted to be here and experience it and in real life and so that hasn’t returned nearly as quickly as we would like as Asia continues to sort of struggle on on international travel, but I’m certain that’ll be back and we’ll be renewing our efforts there, and I’m also hopeful that we can identify some of the top jazz clubs in the world and, and find some direct-to-consumer ways to work with them, to be talking to their clientele and their specific cities and countries and, and creating a draw. A reason, a contest, some other, you know, way of encouraging people to come experience at first-hand. And I think knowing the passion that people have for our city and trying to tap into it will be an interesting challenge internationally but I think it’s very doable and something well worth the effort.
Skift: Everyone knows New Orleans in the U.S., but I didn’t know it had an international reputation as travel destination beyond the Francophone countries.
Leger: Yeah, I mean we’re gonna build upon it. In fact, we’re gonna have to rebuild it. In 2019, we had close to a million international visitors come. New Orleans is the kind of city that for most international visitors, they’re gonna come on their second visit to the United States, not their first. They’re gonna go to New York on their first visit. We understand that.
There are a lot of people who have a lot of connections to our city. Those are mostly, as you referenced, gonna be people from Canada. Many of the people from Louisiana in Louisiana, the Cajuns that are often called, were essentially run out of Canada, and many of them were of French descent, but they were Canadians. And so the relationship we have with Canada is very strong. Not surprisingly, Canada and Mexico are our largest visitor partners since they’re right here in North America.
But the UK follows pretty closely after that. France is also in that mix. Germany is in that mix and Australia more and more has become a major partner of ours, from the international perspective, a little bit further flight, but that was becoming a pretty strong partnership before the pandemic. And we’re gonna look to reestablish that as we move forward. We’ve had some very long-standing partnerships internationally with representatives in each of the countries I just referenced and we’re sort of renewing those right now, because international travel has been so much slower to recover.
I serve on the executive committee for the U.S. Travel Association, and one of our major focuses is trying to resolve some of these delays and visa wait times. So it takes 300-400 days just to get an interview for your visa right now. I mean that alone is slowing down international travel and the pandemic and recovery from the pandemic.
Good example, in December, we have a major event coming in for doctors, the American Society of Hematology. It’s such a significant event both domestically and internationally that Air France is bringing in two direct flights from Paris to bring in attendees for that meeting. And so as a result, New Orleanians are trying to take advantage of the empty plane on the way back at the same time. We will have a nice uptick at the end of the year of doctors, particularly from France, here for the Hematology Conference. One of the things slowing meeting rebirth is international travel too. So we’re going to keep working really hard at the U.S. Travel level to fix some of these visa issues because we need international travel to start up again.
Skift: You’ve worked 12 years as a legislator. How will your legislative experience come in handy in the new role?
Leger: One of the challenging things in the country right now is that there are political issues that tend to affect the decision-making process for where people are going to have meetings. Whether it’s something relative to a social justice issue or something relative to the Dobbs decision with Roe v Wade being overturned, medical groups and others are making decisions based on different political ramifications. And so being able to speak to those things is certainly an asset and being able to talk that through and I think understanding the interaction between politics and businesses is never a bad thing either, because the two are so intertwined.
I’m proud to say that when the hematologists suggested that they had some concerns about the abortion laws in the state of Louisiana that we were able to have their leadership come into our state, sit down with me and with the governor and to actually talk through the issue and have them advocate for the change that they wanted.
They told us if they would have chosen not to go forward with our meeting, they never would have had this opportunity to deeply engage in public policy, and try to make things better. And so, I think we succeeded in what we said we were gonna try to do, which was create a voice for you and a way for you to advocate for the change you want.
This reflects the beauty of travel in general because what travel is ultimately about is about is bringing people together, knocking down barriers, helping people understand one another more and learning about other communities and learning from each other.
And so I hate the fact that in the current environment you have people who are wanting to boycott a venue or boycott a city because of a policy. I mean, I’m just one of those people that thinks you’re just so much better off going and trying to effectuate change than staying away because you disagree with it. I understand what the thought process is and I want to have the impact and send a message. I just think that there’s a stronger way to be proactive about your engagement and not reactive in your engagement.
And so I’m excited about trying to keep building that conversation and helping people to find a path for their voice to be heard because it kind of fuels many of my passions, which is trying to change things for the better but also protecting our city from, you know, any negativity that could come from things outside of our control.
Skift: Given the impact of Katrina and the city’s geographic position, how prepared is the destination for future hurricanes and climate change-related natural disasters?
Leger: We don’t have to go that far back to remember Hurricane Katrina and what that did to the city of New Orleans. That was 2005, I mean, it was a long time ago now but it stays fresh in people’s memories. Those images don’t really go away. And so what, something that I’m really proud of is that in response to Hurricane Katrina. The state of Louisiana created a coastal master plan, a plan for a sustainable coast that basically called for $50 billion to be invested over 50 years to rebuild, preserve and protect the coastline that we currently have.
Now, we’re in a race with, you know, sea levels rising and other things are impacting that. But we’ve been implementing that program for the last several years, and it’s the best program of its kind anywhere in the country and maybe in the world because it’s not a political process. It’s a science driven process. But what’s also happened since Katrina is the the U.S. federal government has invested in partnership with the state $16 billion to build a massive flood protection wall and then another $40 to $50 billion on flood protection and hurricane risk reduction structures around our city. And so last year we got hit by Hurricane Ida which was roughly equivalent in some ways to the size of Katrina and we had a conference in New Orleans, nine days later.
The hurricanes risk reduction system that’s been built here has worked and so we certainly had neighboring communities that suffered a lot last year, and I don’t want to diminish that in any way because our community as a whole, you know, will continue to be subject to those kind of storms in the future, but the risk reduction system that was designed and implemented and built here worked last year. It proved that we’re working towards a positive solution on that.
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Photo credit: New Orleans is getting a new tourism chief who wants a more direct-to-consumer marketing strategy Kristina Volgenau / Unsplash