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Louisiana Lagniappe in St. Tammany Parish

In Southern Louisiana, lagniappe is that little extra service that goes above and beyond the normal, and the folks in St. Tammany Parish know just how to provide it for meeting planners.

“Every meeting holds its own extra moments, and we always try to give that something extra,” said Tanya Leader, vice president of sales for the St. Tammany Parish Tourist and Convention Commission. “Anytime we are asked, we try to go above and beyond.”

They even promote it at the Northshore Harbor Center, the parish’s convention center, where “lagniappe service everyday” is painted prominently on the lobby wall.

That extra level of service and hospitality is what makes the parish, which stretches along the north shore of Lake Pontchartrain across from New Orleans — thus the marketing moniker “Louisiana Northshore” — attractive for a range of small and midsize, mostly drive-in meetings.

“We do corporate, student, association, sports, religious and fraternal meetings of 350 or less,” said Leader. “You can’t sell what you don’t have, and this is what we can do.”

What they also sell is their location at the convergence of three interstates — I-10, I-12 and I-59 — less than an hour from New Orleans, Baton Rouge and the Mississippi Gulf Coast, which allows “groups to escape from the big city but still have all the amenities.”

It’s only 25 miles across the parish, which includes the towns of Covington, Madisonville, Mandeville, Lacombe and Slidell. New Orleans can be reached by twin bridges on I-10 or by the 24-mile-long Lake Pontchartrain Causeway, the longest continuous over-water bridge in the world.

The maritime-themed Northshore Harbor Center, just off I-10 near Slidell, opened in May 2005. Three months later, Hurricane Katrina hit. The center was relatively unharmed and immediately demonstrated its lagniappe by serving as a shelter for hurricane victims.

Since then, the center has been a versatile meeting facility; its 18,000-square-foot Grand Hall can be configured for anything from trade shows and conventions to high school graduations and Mardi Gras balls and can seat up to 2,000. The Grand Hall can be divided into two large rooms or five meeting rooms of 1,320 square feet each.

The center has a full-service kitchen and “lots of green space” for tented events outside, said sales manager Trey Shields.

The other main meeting facilities are the 28,000-square-foot, multipurpose Castine Center and the five-year-old Fleur de Lis Event Center with its French Quarter-inspired architecture and state-of-the-art audiovisual presentation room.

Covington has several meeting hotels. The largest, the 155-room Clarion Inn Conference Center, recently completed a full renovation. It has four meeting rooms and more than 8,500 square feet of meeting space.

The nearby 137-room Courtyard by Marriott has also been renovated and can hold meetings for up to 200 in its six meeting rooms; its sister property, the Residence Inn by Marriott, has three meeting rooms.


Looking for Big Al

You might not spot Big Al, but tours of the 70,000-acre Honey Island Swamp on St. Tammany’s eastern edge make for a great networking or spousal event. Thirteen-foot-long Big Al is the largest alligator that has been seen in the swamp; most will be in the six- to seven-foot range.

“American alligators are what we have here in Louisiana,” said Bishop Keller, a guide for Cajun Encounters, which has eight 22-passenger boats and one 10-passenger vessel. You will also see turtles, wild pigs, snakes, a wide assortment of waterfowl and fascinating flora such as Spanish moss hanging from cypress trees.

For a chance to hold a baby alligator, stop by Insta-Gator Ranch and Hatchery, the state’s only gator ranch open to the public.