Last fall, an audible breath was drawn and held as people watched the green circle representing Hurricane Gustav blip across television and computer screens worldwide. Speculation on what New Orleans would become if Gustav made direct landfall ranged from unadulterated doom to tenacious hope — the same hope the city has been known for since flooding from Hurricane Katrina ravaged it three years prior.
The damage ended up being minimal, a blessing for a city that still struggles to achieve normalcy at this late date. As we now find ourselves in the 2009 hurricane season — it runs from June 1 to November 30 — one food-and-beverage operation in particular remains a stronghold that the city’s residents, visitors and developers can sink dollars and teeth into, which is quite a claim since Katrina. In fact, Harrah’s New Orleans stands out in terms of monetary donations, successful revitalization efforts and new economic investment in a city many feared might not survive.
Partying Since 1999
Harrah’s New Orleans opened in 1999 as a casino operation with a plethora of nightlife and dining options planned. But in a city that prides itself on local focus and a world-renowned tradition of hospitality, the arrival of a sizable corporate concept raised some eyebrows.
“I think initially among the local community there was a little concern that a large corporate entity was coming in with a food-and-drink component that would challenge local businesses,” observes Mary Beth Romig, spokesperson for New Orleans Metropolitan Convention and Visitors Bureau, “but it’s proven to be a great spur for local growth.”
Situated near the banks of the Mississippi River, the dome-shaped casino is located directly between the French Quarter and the city’s central business district. Among the 44-plus Harrah’s properties currently operating worldwide, the New Orleans venue is the only one not in a major casino market.
“We have ultimately provided another reason to come to New Orleans,” explains Jim Hoskins, senior vice president and general manager for Harrah’s New Orleans. “It’s always been a great city where people come to party, from all of the major sporting events to Mardi Gras, but at Harrah’s, we are the largest buyer of commercial seat blocks on airlines into New Orleans. We bring 4 million visitors a year through the door at Harrah’s.”
The operation has added economic activity post-Katrina in the form of the 450-room Harrah’s Hotel that opened in September 2006 and the promenade called Fulton Street, which is living up to its intended development as an upscale entertainment district slightly beyond the French Quarter. Harrah’s owns Fulton Street and leases space to shops and other restaurant/bar concepts including Gordon Biersch and Grand Isle.
“Fulton Street just outside the hotel would not have developed into what it is today without the casino and everything that’s a part of it,” says Romig. “Now Fulton Street is a destination for outdoor events and dining, and it’s really added a spark to that area.”
Where to Eat and What to Drink
From the restaurants that open onto Fulton Street with outdoor patios that tempt passersby to grab a table or bar stool to the venues located within the casino, Harrah’s food-and-beverage options are designed to cover a spectrum of price ranges, entertainment options, atmospheres, menu concepts and cuisine styles –– all of which are prepared to handle large crowds. Masquerade, the casino’s nightclub, has a capacity of 1,500; this alone sets Harrah’s apart in a city known for more intimate spaces.
One of the city’s only bottle service venues, Masquerade is located at the heart of the casino. Opened in 2005 and designed by architecture and interior design firm Wimberly Allison Tong & Goo (WATG), the 12,400-square-foot nightclub concept was a little trickier to create and develop than the typical club. The reason: New Orleans is not the typical market.
“New Orleans is such a unique party place; ultra lounges like you might see in Vegas won’t work here,” says Hoskins. “We have tons of neighborhood bars here, so to be successful you have to have some of that culture and sensibility.”
That said, Masquerade does invoke the top-line nightclub elements. Done in what management refers to as “contemporary Vegas style decor,” Masquerade boasts a towering video wall, choreographed dancers, large concert performances and an ultra lounge featuring VIP tables with bottle service and a private bar. Bottle service generates 22 percent of Masquerade’s sales.
Ice Bar, Masquerade’s main bar, is a unique feature in itself: The 32-foot bar is at the base of an ultra-modern, 42-foot media tower displaying a sophisticated lighting show, and the tower is surrounded on all sides by a ring of faux fire. In contrast, the Ice Bar is covered by a layer of ice that keeps patrons’ drinks refreshingly cool. Above, a 53-foot ceiling displays a night-sky-themed mural and fiber optic galaxy to give the space a dramatic outdoor feel.
In addition to the decidedly nightclub setting, Masquerade also taps into the local pulse: Saints games are shown during NFL weekends and the club’s funky vibe speaks to locals, as do $4 Grey Goose Martini specials. A weekly Jazz Happy Hour recently made the events calendar and is posted alongside a DJ concert series that’s bringing national talent to the club, including California video DJ Kris P, DJ Deception from St. Louis and New Orleans resident DJ San-D. The elevated stage, intimate seating and dance floor make it the perfect setting for live music as well, and local musicians are presented regularly.
“We market Masquerade heavily overall,” says Sandie McNamara, vice president of marketing for Harrah’s New Orleans. “Harrah’s New Orleans offers a ‘Friends With Benefits’ card that allows guests to earn points that can be redeemed for different things inside of Masquerade. And, we have our T.I.P. — texting important people — program. Our billboards and advertisements have a number on them, and when guests text that number, they are sent back a code. Then they come to the casino to see if they have a winning code. If a guest received a winning code, he or she is rewarded something … maybe something like $100 off bottle service at Masquerade.”
Beyond Masquerade, Harrah’s guests can enjoy outstanding casino cocktails and dining as well. John Besh’s signature restaurant Besh Steak, which serves upscale cuisine in an atmosphere peppered with Blue Dog paintings by local artist George Rodrigue, is a prime attraction, while renowned chef Philip Chan prepares Asian-fusion and sushi at Bambu with sake cocktails to complement. The Harrah’s Hotel is home to the flagship Ruth’s Chris Steak House location, which settled there in May 2008 after the original location on Broad Street was severely damaged during Hurricane Katrina.
Beyond the Blinking Lights
Masquerade and the dining and drinking venues in the casino are extremely successful for the company overall, contributing a consistent and significant portion of the casino’s total revenue, according to McNamara. Harrah’s management also wanted to capture the visitors and locals strolling the city’s storied street, and so they added the Fulton Street component to the entertainment portfolio.
In developing Fulton Street, Harrah’s worked to connect the city’s past and its passion for all things local with its desire for contemporary concepts by blending big name chains with local New Orleans operations. Fulton Street’s history also strikes a chord with the native citizens: During the 1984 World’s Fair in New Orleans, the street served as an entertainment district. Harrah’s has permanently resurrected that atmosphere with a red-bricked, pedestrian-only promenade lined with an eclectic mix of shops, restaurants and bars. The Harrah’s Hotel serves as its anchor, while recognized brands including Gordon Biersch Brewery, Ruth’s Chris Steak House, 528 bar and Grand Isle restaurant all lure the public ambling by with outdoor dining in warmer weather.
“The big name places like Ruth’s Chris certainly help with the marketing,” McNamara says of Fulton Street’s appeal. “The Fulton Street tenants are included in Harrah’s marketing plan, but they also have their own marketing; it’s sort of shared efficiencies. Grand Isle is locally, privately owned, and we plan to bring lots of different partners to Fulton Street.”
Annual and special event promotions on the promenade are important in drawing traffic to the area. Events such as last year’s Tiki Party during Tales of the Cocktail, the REO Speedwagon concert and the annual Miracle on Fulton Street — running from mid-November to January and featuring “real” snow, strolling costumed characters, local performers and holiday-themed dining — all serve to make Fulton Street a versatile, money-making darling for the company and the city.
“Harrah’s continues to be one of the biggest tourism attractions in New Orleans,” McNamara says. “We keep track of who comes in, and we are second only to Disney World in terms of admissions in the South.”
While perhaps skeptical at first, local hospitality pros now see Harrah’s as a boon to the city and the dining, drinking and entertainment scene. “The jobs and impact to the local economy has been astounding,” says Michael Brewer, currently the self-proclaimed “gunslinger” at Charlie’s Steakhouse and formerly “liquid asset manager” at Commander’s Palace. “Harrah’s investments in hotels, restaurants, bars and gaming have had a huge impact not only in their own properties but in local businesses, as well.
“The gaming element brings tourists from all over the world to New Orleans to experience the thrill of the game and the flavor of New Orleans,” he continues. “Many area restaurants accept vouchers from Harrah’s players that add a constant base to their bottom line, and Harrah’s has embraced the local flavor by opening restaurants such as Besh Steak and Bambu that feature the culinary talents of local chefs. From the Mardi Gras-themed parades on the casino floor to the décor of the casino and nightclub, Harrah’s has become a part of New Orleans lore and flavor.”
A Continuing Comfort
Employing a total of 700 people in food and beverage, Harrah’s has clearly demonstrated a spirit of giving on a citywide and employee level. While the property was shut down in the wake of Hurricane Katrina — it re-opened in February 2006 — the 2,400 employees in the operations department pre-Katrina were still paid full salary; 1,800 returned after the storm.
“Harrah’s Entertainment overall has a policy of total commitment,” McNamara says. “Our commitment is to our guests and employees in the city in which we live.
“If we were going to thrive, we had to work to get the city back on its feet and repair the damaged image perpetuated by the worldwide media coverage of Hurricane Katrina,” she continues. “We worked in conjunction with the New Orleans Tourism Marketing Corp. to get the message out that we were open and ready for business. We delivered this message right into the hands of many of our regional and national customers and offered them vouchers for flights, hotels, dining, shopping, etc. We invested a lot of marketing dollars, but it’s what we knew we had to do.”
That commitment can be seen in charitable contributions of money and time, such as the H.E.R.O. program. The acronym stands for Harrah’s Entertainment Reaching Out, and the program involves groups of employees going into the community and working with Habitat for Humanity to build playgrounds at schools and donate time and money to senior homes. Through the Harrah’s Foundation, the company also has donated $257,000 to the non-profit organization Operation Kids.
Already, the Harrah’s hotel landed on Conde Nast Traveler magazine’s “Top 100 Best Hotels” list in its first year of operation and Masquerade repeatedly takes home “Best Nightclub” accolades in the citywide newspaper polls. Those honors, combined with the large-scale, reputable restaurateurs gravitating toward the remaining open spaces on Fulton Street and the “total commitment” approach Harrah’s takes toward a city that truly needs it, makes Harrah’s one shining example of hope and ongoing development for the Crescent City.
“We see Harrah’s as part of the entertainment fabric of New Orleans,” McNamara says. “We are truly excited for the future.” NCB
Nearly 9,000 employees worked at the four Harrah’s Entertainment casinos closed by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita: Harrah’s New Orleans, Grand Casino Biloxi (Miss.), Grand Casino Gulfport (Miss.) and Harrah’s Lake Charles (La.). Here is a summary of Harrah’s efforts to assist its employees:
- Establishment of the Harrah’s Employee Recovery Fund. The fund was seeded with a $1 million donation from the Harrah’s Foundation and received more than $6.6 million in donations from the Foundation, outside vendors, employees and members of the public. About 6,400 current and former employees received financial assistance from the fund.
- All affected employees were paid their regularly scheduled base pay for 90 days after the storm. Insurance benefits continued during this period as well, and premiums were waived.
- Arrangements were made with Western Union to wire emergency funds to employees unable to access their bank accounts, without charge.
- Affected employees were given first preference for available jobs at all 35 of Harrah’s operating casinos in the United States. Employees relocating into other jobs were eligible for up to $2,500 in relocation assistance. To date, more than 750 employees have relocated to other Harrah’s properties, receiving nearly $1.4 million in relocation assistance.
- Employees relocating to the Las Vegas area were provided with temporary housing (up to several weeks, if necessary) at the Bourbon Street Hotel, free of charge, until the hotel closed on October 17, 2005.