NEW ORLEANS — I have visited New Orleans on several occasions, but this is the first time that I’ve seen Christmas decorations, or for that matter, Santa Claus marching in a jazz funeral. This is also the first time that I encountered weather here that wasn’t as warm as the Cajun cuisine.But more importantly, this is the first time that I’ve set foot in the Crescent City since Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005. With the Clean Show scheduled for the Morial Convention Center June 18-21, I was curious to take a sneak peak at the city. Have things changed in the French Quarter and convention area, where Clean Show attendees are likely to spend most of their time? Will ongoing rebuilding efforts affect their stay? Will the various businesses that attendees patronize be adequately staffed?ON LOCATION“I’ve been to New Orleans, and [the convention area] is in the best shape that I have ever seen,” says John Riddle, president of Riddle & Associates, the Clean Show’s management firm. “But I wondered, ‘How do I sell the show?’ There have been some negative perceptions about the area.“I believed in New Orleans so much that I decided to invite the media here so that they could see things for themselves. I think that the people in the industry will believe what [their media representatives] say, be it good or bad, more than they would believe someone like [CNN reporter] Anderson Cooper and what he continues to say about the city.”Media representatives from several different countries who cover the laundry and drycleaning industries were invited to New Orleans to get an overview on New Orleans and its ability to host a first-rate Clean Show.“I’ve been [to New Orleans] four times since Katrina, and each time the city appeared to get better,” says Roger Cocivera, president and chief executive officer of the Textile Rental Services Association of America (TRSA). Cocivera is also the 2009 chairman of the Clean Executive Committee. “The streets are cleaner, the French Quarter smells better and the people are as friendly as ever.”It took about two years after Katrina for things to really get up and running, admits Christine DeCuir, media services coordinator for the Metropolitan Convention & Visitors Bureau. But it was worth the wait, she adds.“The streets are cleaner, the area smells better, and there are even more restaurants and attractions than before,” she says.DeCuir says that when times were tough, and the businesses were understaffed, there were many people who wanted to make things work again. “People did whatever was necessary. We disguised any shortcomings. Now everything is open and we have a better ‘new’ New Orleans.”TAKING A HITIn these chaotic economic times, cities are dealing with a host of challenging problems. New Orleans, a tourist town, is no exception. The Louisiana Recovery Authority has disbursed about $31.2 million in grants and loans to local businesses. More money is on the way.In addition, New Orleans hasn’t returned to its pre-Hurricane Katrina population, and the rate of people returning to the city has slowed, officials say. Before Katrina, the population was about 478,000. It’s expected to settle in at a bit more than 300,000, according to several sources.The New Orleans Convention and Visitors Bureau has increased its marketing staff, and its urging locals to patronize area restaurants and businesses. It recently put together a Christmas-themed campaign that highlights free concerts, cooking demonstrations, discounted dining and special hotel rates.Convention business will play a key role in the city’s economic recovery. While New Orleans has always been a major convention city, the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina has left officials battling some negative perceptions about the city’s ability to host big shows and events.The city dispelled some of these perceptions by attracting huge crowds to a variety of events, including Mardi Gras and the jazz festival. Sales and hospitality tax receipts were up, and visitation was on pace in 2008 to top 2007 figures. The number of visitors increased from 3.7 million in 2006 to 7.1 million in 2007, according to a University of New Orleans Hospitality Research Center survey. The Morial Convention Center, host of Clean ’09, has undergone $60 million in renovations.UP CLOSEHurricane Katrina was one of this country’s greatest natural disasters. More than 1,500 people perished; a million-and-a-half people were evacuated from in and around New Orleans. Eighty percent of the city suffered water damage to some extent. However, if you come straight from the airport to the convention area, you might not see any of the devastation.The good news is that things have gotten much better, and continue to improve, says Marcelle Finch, a long-time New Orleans tour guide. “Things like a new street cleaning operation have made the city much better,” says Finch. “People actually cheer the cleaning crews,” Finch laughs.So what’s my take? If you’re going to attend the Clean Show, you shouldn’t have any concerns. I’ve been to New Orleans on several occasions. The Big Easy has always been unique, with its quaint bistros, boisterous clubs and historical flavor creating an experience unlike any other. Nothing has changed in this regard.In some ways, things have even improved. It’s true, the city is cleaner and smells better. There are more restaurants and attractions. I also sensed a greater police presence. My informal survey showed that various businesses were fully staffed. All in all, it’s business as usual in the convention area.I would be doing this story an injustice if I didn’t dwell briefly on the city as a whole. I was fortunate enough to visit many different city neighborhoods, which you aren’t likely to see when you attend the Clean Show.When visiting some of the harder-hit areas, especially the Lower 9th Ward, I was struck by the destruction. In these areas, a good number of homes are still abandoned, even while colorful, rebuilt homes are slowly starting to emerge and dot the various blocks.A simple “X” is still present on some of the homes, and it carries a powerful message — the “X” was the mark made by the rescue teams, along with basic information about that particular home and how many people might have died there. Some people have even left the mark up as a reminder of what happened.It’s been said that everything happens at a slow pace in New Orleans, Finch says. “It just takes time to get things done here.” After witnessing various parts of the city, and chatting with a good number of the locals, one should never confuse a laid-back attitude with a lack of caring. I sense a quiet determination to create an even better Big Easy.