New Orleans Displays Its Southern Charm on Tour

lake-pontchartrain.gifOne of the pre-conference tours at the Athletic Business Conference and Expo in New Orleans involved alcohol and brief nudity. Should I explain? Gladly, but keep in mind, this was not a tour of Bourbon Street.

Last Wednesday, I had the pleasure of taking the tour of Pelican Park and Franco's Athletic Club, both in Mandeville, LA, about a 24-mile drive across Lake Pontchartrain (pictured here during our bus trip). Other tours that day were of the University of New Orleans and Tulane University and the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. Even though I didn’t get a chance to take those tours, the Pelican Park and Franco’s tour was the way to go for me.

To prove that Mizzou Tigers are everywhere, our tour guide on the bus trip to Mandeville was Kathy Foley, the director of Pelican Park and a fellow University of Missouri alum and Kansas City native. Female parks and rec directors weren’t the norm in the South when Foley moved there, she said, but she’s made Louisiana her home ever since. She provided great details about the efforts to restore New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. One of her colleagues added insight into Louisiana’s past, such as, "We've had a lot of governors that have gone on to prison."

Foley and her crew handed out pretty elaborate packets of information about Pelican Park, including the park's itemized budget for 2012. One million people go through Pelican Park each year, and the park controls every penny that comes in, Foley said. The park has several baseball and softball fields, soccer fields and one of the few dog parks in the New Orleans area. Pelican Park's motto: Making a difference in children's lives.

Now, here is where the alcohol part comes in to play. After our Pelican Park portion of our tour, the staff handed out daiquiris made fresh from a local drive-through daiquiri stand, a legal Louisiana staple. This was on top of a Cajun lunch. Talk about Southern hospitality! (On a side note, the NBA's New Orleans Hornets are reportedly changing their name to Pelicans after the state bird. Just thought I would throw that in there.)

After heading across the upper-middle class town to Franco's, we were greeted by some of the club's staff at the entrance. Once we made our way up the stairs to the conference room, the same staff members were there to greet us again. (They are very quick there.) The entry is amazing, complete with a waterfall. There is a boutique off to the right and a built-in restaurant ahead. Sandy Franco, co-owner of the club with her husband, Ron, who was out of the country on this day, told us that Franco's focuses on the entire family and listens to what their members want. The Francos have owned the club for 25 years.

Franco's has traditionally not participated in our annual Top 100 Clubs list, but even without knowing the company's revenue numbers, I have to believe that Franco's could very well be a Top 100 club. In addition to the boutique and restaurant, the club has group exercise rooms, a child care center, swimming pools (neat to see those in use in late November), and tennis courts, including hard surface and clay(!) courts. (I would love to play on a clay court one of these days.) The fitness area makes up 20,000 square feet of the 90,000-square-foot club.

Now here is the brief nudity part. We took a tour of the club's spa, including its massage rooms. Many of them were empty, so no embarrassment there, until we were shown the couples massage room, where, lo and behold, a man and a woman were getting a couples massage, bare backs and all. I hope they got a discount that day.

After touring the men's locker room (including more brief nudity), one of the club's members approached me in the lobby. He had heard through the grapevine that I was from Kansas City, and as it turns out, he was from KC, too. I'm telling you, we are everywhere!

With gift bags in hand and a praline waiting for us after we got off the bus, this tour was definitely a Dixieland delight.

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