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Katrina-battered hotel finally ready to reopen

Hyatt Regency New Orleans

The Hyatt Regency New Orleans was slammed by Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

Photos of the Hurricane Katrina-battered Hyatt Regency New Orleans still have the power to shock: smashed windows, ragged curtains flapping in the wind, an American flag at the entrance blowing in shreds.

Now, in just a few short weeks, a glamorous and completely rebuilt Hyatt Regency New Orleans will reopen following a $275 million, multi-year renovation. The 32-story hotel, which throws open its doors Oct. 19, will offer nearly 1,200 guest rooms, 200,000 square feet of meeting space and a number of ambitious restaurants operating under the eye of an internationally known chef, Eric Damidot. The hotel anchors a busy sports and entertainment district and is just blocks from the historic French Quarter.

“We’re bigger and better than ever,” said Michael Smith, general manager both now and at the time of the hurricane, and a leader of the renovation. “This hotel has gone through a complete transformation.”

They’ve opted for a clean, contemporary look for the hotel and its interiors, Smith said. Previously, the hotel was a classic dark, 1970s boxy structure. They’ve flooded it with natural light and used plenty of marble and brass to light up its spaces, he said.

“When it comes to New Orleans, hotels sometimes get stuck into a category, the antebellum look,” he said. They pursued a more sophisticated, modern look, one they believe appeals to the majority of travelers, he said.

It seems to be working; they’ve already competed for and won several conventions that also had considered Las Vegas, Smith said.

Kelly Schulz, vice president of communications for the New Orleans Convention and Visitor’s Bureau, said the redone Hyatt Regency is important on several levels for the city, where tourism is a $5 billion-a-year business. First is emotionally, because images of the storm-struck hotel had become almost iconic of the hurricane’s devastation to much of the world. Tourism is based to large extent on image and perception, and the new hotel replaces those scenes in the public’s mind, Schulz said.

“This hotel is going to be absolutely spectacular and utterly different than it was before,” she said. “We say they’re better than the day they opened. The experience of going there is so much better than in the past.”

The new Hyatt Regency’s meeting space, now the biggest in New Orleans, also fills a major niche for the city in attracting conventions and meetings that couldn’t find enough space before in the city, Schulz said.

“We will be hosting some pretty big sporting events, such as the Super Bowl in 2013, and the Hyatt Regency is positioned there right next to the Superdome,” she said. “This will help us attract not just conventions but big sporting events. The main thing is ... its ability to bring in additional convention business.”

Smith remembers those dreadful days following Hurricane Katrina: broken glass everywhere, emergency responders in the lobby around the clock, a line of exhausted evacuees trudging across his second floor as they evacuated the Super Dome next door via a connecting hallway. Those memories are being superseded by images of gorgeous ballrooms and elegant restaurants, he said.

“I’ve been on this project for a long time — it’s been an odyssey for me,” Smith said. “I can also tell you this is a labor of love.”

August 29, 2005: NBC's Carl Quintanilla reports from an alley in Downtown New Orleans, where he was within view of several blown out windows at the Hyatt Hotel.

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