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 extraordinari