After all New Orleans has been through following Hurricane Katrina, it’s no wonder hospitality community leaders there are so tuned in to giving back.
But one would be hard-pressed to find a more dedicated community member than Michael Smith, general manager of the Hyatt Regency New Orleans, who with his team members rose to the occasion during the cataclysmic hurricane and has set a frantic philanthropic pace following the storm.
The 40-year Hyatt veteran always placed a premium on charitable endeavors, but like with most everything in the Crescent City, Hurricane Katrina is the defining event upon which everything else is measured.
“If you want to talk about service in its purest form, from August 29 to December 15  we were at ground zero—headquarters for everybody and the only hotel at one point that had power,” Smith said.
“Thirty-thousand people that were evacuated from the Superdome had to come through the Hyatt, so we had to facilitate that as well," he continued. "The mayor lived in the hotel and Homeland Security and utility company Entergy also had headquarters in the hotel, along with the National Guard.
“I look back at it and if there was one or three significant events in my life, Katrina was certainly one."
The Hyatt Regency New Orleans officially reopened six years later following a $275 million overhaul, with a charity fete that raised $5.7 million for the decimated Lower Ninth Ward.
“Since then we’ve done a lot,” Smith said. “The generic phrase is ‘It’s the right thing to do,’ but it’s economic development as well. We do all these good things—the largest event now is United Negro College Fund Ball. I’ve chaired that for five years and raised over $8 million for more than 1,100 students.”
Other efforts include underwriting the Human Rights Campaign Gala Dinner for the LGBTQ-rights organization. Additional LGBTQ support includes the sponsorship of an event for the National Gay and Lesbian Chamber of Commerce and a fundraiser for victims of the Pulse nightclub shooting, and hosting the 2018 Pride Prom.
And New Orleanians always like a big, festive party, so the hotel also contributes by becoming “the center of the universe for all things social or gala or fundraisers,” Smith said.
Through Hyatt’s “Higher Purpose” program, employees of the Hyatt Regency New Orleans have donated more than 5,000 hours of community service and aided elementary/middle school KIPP Central City through supplying healthy food and snacks for children to take home on weekends; donated a $10,000 grant scholarship to provide students resources in the disciplines of science, technology, engineering and mathematics; and the donation of chairs, bicycles, books and school supplies.
Other Higher Purpose commitments have been made to 100 Black Men of New Orleans, St. Jude’s, Ronald McDonald House, Habitat for Humanity and donating more than two tons of Mardi Gras beads to local foundations such as the Salvation Army.
Of course, all of Smith’s good works add up to a significant time investment apart from performing his job as general manager.
“Almost every weekend I have something to do until Thanksgiving,” Smith said, “and I’m also probably going to wear a tuxedo five times.”
[Related Content: Read more about those giving back in our industry].