NEW ORLEANS - Later this month, nearly 20,000 delegates of the American Library Association will arrive here for the first citywide convention since Hurricane Katrina.

"It's not a matter of choice - they've got to get it right," said Steven Hacker, president of the Dallas-based International Association for Exhibition Management.

And if New Orleans should falter, other major U.S. cities, including Dallas, could be poised to win a share of the Crescent City's convention bounty.

Since Hurricane Katrina, some cities have attempted to walk a delicate line between helping New Orleans out and poaching its business, offering their vacant convention centers and hotel rooms to displaced meetings and associations.

Much of the convention business that was supposed to go to New Orleans scattered across the country to cities including Las Vegas, Chicago, and Orlando, Fla.

Dallas also took on some Katrina-related business, hosting about 65,000 conventioneers staying at various hotels while attending conferences and 100,000 more in smaller, hotel-based events.

Immediately after Hurricane Katrina, Dallas tourism officials offered to swap dates with New Orleans for groups that had bookings in both cities.

The offer translated into little swapped business due to the difficulty in coordinating calendars, but it yielded some needed visibility, said Phillip Jones, chief executive of the Dallas Convention & Visitors Bureau.

"We're not trying to swoop in and take business from New Orleans," Mr. Jones said. "We've made it known that if we have space, we'll try to accommodate groups, but only after they've made a decision to relocate."

For the library convention, New Orleans tourism officials have invited meeting planners and journalists from around the country to see that the city is ready for business again.

It's a message that's been difficult to convey since images of the disaster from last August are still so fresh and some sections of the city, including much of the lower Ninth Ward, remain uninhabitable.

Recent research showed that about 44 percent of people still think New Orleans has flooded streets, even though the water was pumped out within days of the giant storm.

"All the things that visitors came to New Orleans for are still here," said J. Stephen Perry, chief executive of the New Orleans Metropolitan Convention & Visitors Bureau. "The damage was to the outlying areas, not the French Quarter."

The convention center, where thousands of evacuees were stranded without food or water, needed extensive repairs. And hundreds of hotel rooms were under contract by the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

As a result, New Orleans is expected to host less than half of the convention business it had on the books this year and about 75 percent of its calendar for 2007.

Many of those who work in the tourism industry here acknowledge that all eyes will be on New Orleans for the library association convention that begins June 22.

"That convention center is the factory of New Orleans, and we need it back up and running," said Melvin Rodrigue, general manager of the 101-year-old Galatoire's Restaurant on Bourbon Street.

Mardi Gras and Jazz fest were "great psychological wins, but this convention business is the shot in the arm we really need, and we're ready for it," Mr. Rodrigue said.

In the French Quarter, "Help Wanted" signs fill the windows of restaurants and shops. Some eateries have cut back hours or eliminated lunch service to have enough staff for the crucial dinner operations.

"We're making sure there aren't any disincentives to coming to New Orleans," Mr. Perry said. "We haven't lost a single meeting based on insurance."

About 110 daily flights have resumed at Louis Armstrong International Airport, down from 164 before the storm. Many airport shops remain shuttered, and the flight information displays are half empty.

Questions about quality of service, costs and accessibility aside, some meeting planners aren't sure what the psychological legacy of Katrina will be for visitors.

"They did that in Florida, but they'll ultimately come back," said Deborah Sexton, chief executive of the Chicago-based Professional Convention Management Association.

The experiences of visitors in the city's first post-Katrina conventions will be key, Mr. Hacker said: Will they "feel empowered and uplifted, or will it be a downer?"

Both Ms. Sexton and Mr. Hacker are optimistic about the city's ability to return and have already booked their next available conventions there.

During her recent sales meeting in the city, Atlanta resident Sylvia Brewer was surprised at how normal the French Quarter looked. But the warm attention from local residents left her with the biggest impression.

"Everyone is so gracious and really seem to be glad we're here," she said. "It makes me want to make a concerted effort to come back just because of that."

But finding available space for a group of its size proved difficult. After getting encouraging reports from a site inspection in November, the group opted to stay.

"We just thought, 'What if every other conference bails on the city?' " said Leslie Burger, the association's president-elect. "We bring $20 million in economic impact, and we made a decision that we would help New Orleans get back on its feet again."

Stories about the city's progress were posted on its conference Web site, along with information to allay concerns over health issues. The group set up volunteer events for members to help in the rebuilding effort.

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