Building Consensus: Overseeing the Development of the Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport - Michael Smith
Parallel to the saying, “the eyes are the windows into the soul”, an airport is the window into a city’s soul — for hundreds of thousands of people, it’s the first experience they have of a community. As such, an airport for a major city must make a good impression, especially for a city as vibrant and rich in history and culture as New Orleans. Behind the scenes, the overseer of such a project must successfully manage financing, build consensus among several entities in travel, construction, and government, and fulfill the expectations for an incredible, new airport — and he did.
We’re in conversation with Michael O’Keith Smith, a positive change maker and charismatic community leader with over 40 years in the hospitality industry.
We talked about you being successful in many different areas. A very interesting one you mentioned has to do with your role overseeing the building of the New Orleans airport. Can you share some of the lessons you learned from that undertaking?
“The building of the airport had numerous complexities — at its core, it involved collaborating with the FAA, the city government, the airlines, and the board of the airport. This entailed building a consensus and selling people on a concept or philosophy. Along the way, this involved several steps:
“The first step was the design. Among the numerous talented individuals on our team, we ended up with a world-class designer — Argentinian-American Cesar Pelli. We invested in him because we wanted this airport — in the lingering wake of Hurricane Katrina — to have longevity. Once we got the project designs from Mr. Pelli, we took it back and re-engineered it into our world class airport.
“The second step was selling the design and ideas for creating this airport to all of the stakeholders. The third was exploring the limitations and opportunities within the budget. What made this even more complex is that this budget started out as $525 million, but it ended up being a $1 billion project, thanks to the collaboration with and experiences of the airlines — Southwest, Delta, Jet Blue, and American Airlines all came to us with their expertise and enhanced the project by helping us identify the devil in the details. After we’d developed our comprehensive plan for this airport, we had to have it approved by the mayor. Further, the FAA was involved in having oversight over the project.
“Due to the need for building consensus, we continued reworking, re-engineering, and diving into the details of our plan to make the airport as optimal for the New Orleans as can be. All entities — from governments to airlines to contractors — worked in tandem to continue refining the project. Key skills I utilized in this situation include the abilities to build consensus, communicate and sell the concept, ensure that all stakeholders were happy, organize the contractors, and, most importantly, outline all of the economic generators in place. With a few delays, we opened it in October of 2019 — in 2021, it was awarded the best airport in the United States.
“My work in helping rebuild after Hurricane Katrina prepared me for my role in this airport’s construction — both situations required all the support and concessions we could get in order to finish them successfully. Both were odysseys in the financial aspect, especially financing the former in the wake of a recession. These experiences had me evolve new skill sets I’d never before used in running hotels. I’ve had years of operating primetime, flagship hotels in the heart of D.C., but this airport was different — it had to be iconic.
“I cultivated different skill sets, ranging from financing to ensuring pragmatic operations to even interior design, and I worked with all kinds of entities — from the local, state, and federal government to stakeholders to community members. This allowed me to understand the inner workings of constructing such large projects, and it became natural for me to move from a $300 million brick and mortar project to a $1 billion one. Throughout my life, I’ve found that a key difference between hotel renovations and large-scale construction projects is that projects in the hotel world are the only ones completed on-time and on-budget. In contrast, my takeaway from all these projects is sparing no effort to get things done.”’
Connect with Michael on LinkedIn.