Saturday,  June 25, 2022  6:52 pm

On Location: Hot gumbo & tourism recovery at Travel South USA’s Int’l Showcase in NOLA

On Location: Hot gumbo & tourism recovery at Travel South USA’s Int’l Showcase in NOLA
PAX was in New Orleans, Louisiana this week to cover Travel South USA's 2021 International Showcase. (Pax Global Media)
Michael Pihach

Michael Pihach is an award-winning journalist with a keen interest in digital storytelling. In addition to PAX, Michael has also written for CBC Life, Ryerson University Magazine, IN Magazine, and Michael joins PAX after years of working at popular Canadian television shows, such as Steven and Chris, The Goods and The Marilyn Denis Show.

If you’re looking for a way to break the ice with a Louisiana local, ask them how they cook their gumbo.

The hearty stew, typically made with a flavourful stock, thickener, meat or shellfish, and the Creole "holy trinity" ― onions, celery and bell peppers – isn’t just the official state dish of Louisiana.

It’s personal.

“Everyone has a different way of making it,” says René Brunet, a local tour guide and flamboyantly-fun instructor at the New Orleans School of Cooking, where the “fun, food and folklore” of New Orleans unfolds in kitchen classrooms located in the heart of the city’s historic French Quarter.

In the world of gumbo, some people use tomatoes, some don’t. Some use chicken, others may use sausage.

“After Christmas, half of Louisiana will make a turkey gumbo,” says Brunet, who returned home to his native city of New Orleans eight years ago following an illustrious career working as a TV meteorologist, and running his own restaurant, in Montreal, QC.

René Brunet, a tour guide instructor at the New Orleans School of Cooking. (Pax Global Media)

Brunet – whose love for cooking dates back to when he was “old enough to see over the edge of the kitchen counter” at his grandmother’s house – zipped around a fully-stocked kitchen, speaking in both English and French with vibrant eccentricity, as he taught our group – a band of nearly two dozen international journalists in town for Travel South USA’s annual showcase – the basics for one of the night’s menu items: Cajun gumbo, chock-full of chicken and sausage.

(But, ask him what his favourite gumbo is and, with eyes lit up, he’ll tell you all about the “original Creole” variety with okra and seafood).

“Did you know we eat six meals a day?” Brunet interjected, explaining the Louisiana way as he divided us into groups, assigning some to a station for preparing bread pudding (our divine dessert for later) while enthusiastically showing the rest of us how to prepare a roux (pronounced “roo”), an emulsion that begins with melted lard and flour.

René Brunet prepares shrimp at the New Orleans School of Cooking. (Pax Global Media)

We peered over a stovetop, sipping on local wine and beer, as the liquid thickened. “Go low, go slow,” Brunet cooed, referring to the proper heat and method for preparing a good roux.

The final presentation was a parade of crawfish bread (like bruschetta, but done the New Orleans way), the aforementioned gumbo (a giant pot’s worth that could feed an entire neighbourhood), barbecue shrimp and cheese grits (using big, shelly shrimp almost as wide as three human fingers) and that omg-worthy pudding to end it all.

The South was hot 

The must-do dining experience, backed by Brunet’s gift of the gab and flare for entertaining, was a feast for the senses, with culinary nods to (and lessons about) Louisiana’s Cajun-French and European-African-Caribbean-Hispanic Creole histories, one bite at a time.

It was also an authentic snapshot of what to expect when travelling through the southern United States: unrivalled hospitality, a cast of friendly characters with a story to tell and, well, a damn good meal.

And expect lots of live music along the way.

These were reoccurring themes this week as Louisiana, alongside 11 other U.S. states, participated in Travel South USA’s International Showcase from Nov. 29 to Dec. 3. 

The conference involved more than 500 travel pros – from tourism boards to suppliers to buyers to journalists – who met with the collective goal of driving more business to the southern U.S.

The marketplace floor at Travel South USA’s International Showcase. (Pax Global Media)

PAX was in Louisiana this week – starting with a pre-conference FAM that toured through Lafayette, Baton Rouge and Northshore, ending in The Big Easy  – to cover the lively event, which took place at the New Orleans Hyatt Regency hotel.

A lot has changed since Travel South USA’s last conference in 2019 in St. Louis, Missouri.

The COVID-19 pandemic hit the U.S. region hard, like all destinations, destroying a portfolio of impressive tourism growth.

Between 2007 and 2019, international travel to the southern U.S. grew 61 per cent into an $8.8 billion-dollar industry, as Liz Bittner, president and CEO for Travel South USA, shared in her opening remarks on Tuesday (Nov. 30).

In 2020, when COVID hit, business dropped 82 per cent. “It fell off a cliff,” Bittner said, noting the 109,000 tourism jobs that were also lost once international travel stopped.

Liz Bittner, president and CEO for Travel South USA. (Pax Global Media)

But “the South was hot, not just weather wise,” Bittner went on to say, as domestic tourism thrived, and Americans “rediscovered what is great about the Southern U.S.” 

Some of those great qualities – from the live blues music of Mississippi to the bourbon of Kentucky to the hiking trails of North and South Carolina – are what make the U.S. South special, and the travel trade, Bittner said, will play a key role in getting tourism back to what it once was.

“We are the people that can bring international travel back. The world is depending on us to do that,” Bittner said, addressing a ballroom of delegates. “Let’s make plans.”

“There will be a post-pandemic world”

Travel South USA promotes travel to and within its member states of Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia, and West Virginia.

"This is a chance for us to pull our money together, as 12 states, and compete on an international level," said Mike Prejean, who recently retired from his role as international manager at the Louisiana Office of Tourism.   From left: Chris Thompson, president & CEO, Brand USA;  Paul Hassenstab, director, Europe, Middle East & India, Delta Air Lines; Doug Bourgeois, assistant secretary, Louisiana Office of Tourism. (Pax Global Media)

Brand USA supports these regions with initiatives that tell the unique stories of Americans, as seen in its “United Stories” campaign, with a focus on inviting the world to discover it all for themselves.

Chris Thompson, president and CEO of Brand USA, said locals are the “best ambassadors” for welcoming tourists back in a pandemic-era world. 

“They’re the best people to tell the stories about why a location is so special,” Thompson said on Tuesday. 

Thompson said Brand USA’s recovery strategy is focused on proving that the U.S. is ready for international tourists, letting the world know they’re welcome, and turning travel consideration into actual bookings. 

From left: Craig Ray, director of tourism, Mississippi Development Authority; Chris Thompson, president & CEO, Brand USA. (Pax Global Media)

As for COVID-19: “We’re trying to find a way for it to go from being a pandemic to an endemic,” Thompson said. 

“We’re all looking at the same health information and we should be able to get to the same spot,” he said, “but the political manoeuvring on how we’re going to get [there]…is going to make it a rough transition. But we’re looking forward to that.”

“There will be a post-pandemic world.”

New Orleans takes things in stride

An err of caution guided the tone of the conference, which unfolded in the shadow of the newly-discovered Omicron COVID-19 variant, which, this week, was detected in several countries around the world – the United States included. 

“Yes, we have a new variant. Thank god it’s not called Delta, but that’s a whole other story,” quipped Paul Hassenstab, director, Europe, Middle East and India at Delta Air Lines, on Tuesday.

Health and safety protocols were in effect at Travel South’s event as delegates were required to show proof of vaccination or a negative COVID-19 PCR/antigen test to participate.

Travel South USA’s International Showcase was from Nov. 29 to Dec. 3. (Pax Global Media)

Mask wearing was invited (attendees were given a choice to comply) and everyone had to complete a daily health pass survey for monitoring purposes.

Restaurants and venues in New Orleans, notably, all require proof of vaccination or a negative COVID-19 test result.  

The city’s vaccination rate is improving and ranks high relative to the rest of Louisiana, as almost 75 per cent of citizens, as of Dec. 2, have received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, with 63 per cent being fully vaccinated.

When Gov. John Bel Edwards of Louisiana lifted the state's indoor mask mandate in October, giving the mayors of local parishes the authority to determine their own rules, Mayor of New Orleans LaToya Cantrell took a conservative approach and kept some protocols in place.

The New Orleans French Quarter. (Pax Global Media)

This approach, Mary Beth Romig Haskins, associate vice-president of communications at New Orleans & Company, the city’s destination marketing organization, speaks to the city’s ability to continue cultural events, such as Mardi Gras and the French Quarter jazz festival, safely.

“She’s not going to let them happen if the data doesn’t show that we can do them safely,” Romig Haskins told PAX.

Mardi Gras – a big-time Carnival that takes place not only in New Orleans, but also all throughout Louisiana in the weeks leading up to the big day – is, indeed, a go for March 1, 2022, in New Orleans.

From left: Maria Manzella, director of tourism, New Orleans & Company; Tim Macdonell, CEO, Elite Sports Tours Inc.; Joanne Scalamogna, Access Marketing, Canadian representative for Louisiana Office of Tourism; Lise Seprus, Senior Discovery Tours. (Pax Global Media)

“There might be some adjustments that some locals won’t like, but if we’re going to have Mardi Gras, people will have to get used to things like a shortened parade route,” Romig Haskins said.

On the festivals front, you could say New Orleans completed a test run in October when it held its annual “Krewe of Boo” Halloween Parade. 

“We’re back in business, taking things in stride,” Maria Manzella, director of tourism at New Orleans & Company, told PAX on Tuesday night at the opening party at the Sazerac House, a lofty historic building in New Orleans that reopened in 2019 that offers immersive cocktail experiences over several floors while doubling as a micro distillery.

From left: Joanne Scalamogna, Access Marketing, Canadian representative for Louisiana Office of Tourism, Mike Prejean. (Pax Global Media)

New Orleans didn’t pause tourism completely during the pandemic as a line of new hotels opened – notably, the Kimpton Hotel Fontenot, a 202-room boutique hotel in the Central Business District, the One11 Hotel in the French Quarter, a new Virgin Hotel and a Four Seasons.

With Travel South USA’s showcase, “I think everybody is now able to see what we’ve gained about being conservative in our approach,” Manzella said.

“This event is an example of how we are managing the pandemic and being able to come out on the other side.”

The Sazerac House. (Pax Global Media)

The sun shines in Louisiana

In the state of Louisiana, it will be up to the mayors of each parish to decide on which festivals return, and when, as COVID-19 evolves.

“The state doesn’t spike in the same way,” Jennifer Berthelot, director of communications at the Louisiana Office of Tourism, told PAX, referring to COVID-19 case counts. “Some places do great, some not so great.”

During COVID, the Louisiana Office of Tourism was engaged with the Canadian trade, holding virtual events, like an online Mardi Gras celebration last February and a “road tour” over Zoom that explored unique communities.

READ MORE: Cajun culture, live music, Black history: PAX takes a virtual tour through Louisiana

The history of Louisiana is also rich in ghost stories, which was showcased at a virtual Haunted Louisiana” event in October. 

In 2022, the Louisiana Office of Tourism will return to Canada with an in-person event – the details of which will be released soon.

Of Louisiana Office of Tourism: Top, left - Jennifer Berthelot, director of communications; bottom, right - Joanne Scalamogna, Access Marketing, Canadian representative, took trade on a virtual road trip.

Louisiana’s tourism recovery, Berthelot said, is focused on “re-introducing happiness into your life.”

It falls under what’s called the “Sunshine Plan,” which is an ode to the famous tune "You Are My Sunshine" by Jimmie H. Davis (a former governor of Louisiana) which is also the state’s official song.

This jingle is celebrated by Louisiana Tourism for being the “second most-recognized song in the world, next to Happy Birthday,” and singer Lauren Daigle sang an updated version in a Louisiana tourism recovery ad that launched last year.  

Louisiana’s tag line is “Feed Your Soul,” – a warm and fuzzy invitation to discover the state’s eclectic music, food, culture, and history – but it’s message during COVID is that “Louisiana Is A Trip,” focusing on road trips that are “far from the ordinary.”  

“People, right now, feel safe in their car, away from crowds, and everybody wants a more authentic trip anyway, so the ‘travel like a local aspect’ has resonated well,” said Berthelot, noting that the campaign will be extended internationally.

“I feel very strongly that we’re on the right path,” she said.

Live music at "Jazz Brunch" at Palmettos On The Bayou. (Pax Global Media)

Other things to look forward to include the Louisiana Music Trail, a re-developed African American Heritage Trail, and the newly-launched Louisiana Civil Rights Trail, which, using markers placed in historic locations throughout the state, honours the Civil Rights activists of the ’50s and ’60s who “strategized, organized, preached, marched, boycotted, stood up, sat down, and sang for change.”

“It wasn’t hard to find those heroes and occurrences that happened,” said Billy Nungesser, Lieutenant Governor of the state of Louisiana. "We have so much history and so many heroes who started the Civil Rights March here in Louisiana.”

The Louisiana Civil Rights Trail. (Supplied)

Mr. Nungesser, a cheerleader for Louisiana tourism, is excited about “opening our doors to the world” as the pandemic situation improves.

READ MORE: Louisiana's role in civil rights movement explored on Louisiana Civil Rights Trail

“I think, as time goes on, the people who didn’t get vaccinated will feel more comfortable and those numbers will get to where it won’t be a concern,” Mr. Nungesser told PAX at Travel South’s annual Honours Night on Monday (Nov. 29) at Houmas House, a plantation site near New Orleans.

“We want to get people here and make them feel safe and welcome.”

If anyone knows how to unroll a fashionable welcome mat, it’s Mr. Nungesser. The Lieutenant Governor, that Monday night, was seen wearing a royal blue suit that, at first glance, appeared to have a pinstripe pattern.

However, as PAX took a closer look, the pinstripe was actually tiny printed text that read “Louisiana Feed Your Soul.”

Billy Nungesser, Lieutenant Governor of the state of Louisiana, presents his custom "Louisiana Feed Your Soul" suit. (Pax Global Media)

“I am most proud of the way we treat people,” Mr. Nungesser said, sharing a story he once heard about some local Cajuns inviting a Canadian tourist into their backyard to eat crawfish (without either party really knowing each other).

“When you leave Louisiana, you leave with a friend for life,” Nungesser said. “That’s why people keep coming back.”

Stay tuned for more of PAX’s on-location coverage from Louisiana and Travel South USA’s International Showcase.

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