With Mardi Gras near, people in the local hospitality industry must be gleefully rubbing their hands together. Their growing anticipation of the city’s signature annual celebration surely is working them into a frenzy, right?

To a degree, yes. Carnival season is a highly anticipated time of year among New Orleans-area hotel, restaurant and entertainment managers. Though it’s a little too early to estimate crowd sizes at Mardi Gras 2010, industry sources seem to expect attendance at least equal to that of 2009 – a pretty good turnout, by most accounts.

So innkeepers and restaurateurs are, indeed, looking forward to a potentially lucrative Carnival season. Somewhat surprisingly, though, many say that while Mardi Gras is the whopper of all local celebrations, some other annual and occasional events nudge out the big party when it comes to filling rooms and tables. The annual Allstate Sugar Bowl, for instance, tops many lists.

Gil Sanchi, general manager of the Marriott New Orleans Hotel on Canal Street, says the room-filling chart-toppers are major sports events that come to town occasionally. “The two really big ones are Super Bowl and (NCAA Men’s) Final Four,” he says. The pro football championship is next scheduled in New Orleans in 2013, and the Men’s Final Four college basketball tournament is slated here in 2012.

Sanchi says those two events not only put heads in beds, as hoteliers like to say, but also generate heavy spending in restaurants, retail and entertainment establishments. He adds that the BCS college football championship game, when it lands in New Orleans, is also a great revenue-generator.

“People get very excited about the big games, and it seems to put them in a spending mood,” Sanchi says. “All of these events are not just good for the hospitality industry, they’re very good for the city too.” He adds that having the New Orleans Saints playing well is a huge public relations bonus.

Right behind the big sports events, Sanchi likes to see big conventions come to town. “Any citywide convention that draws 15,000 or more people affects hotels immensely,” he says, citing as an example the American Society of Hematologists, which convened here in early December.

When it comes to the big events that New Orleans hosts every year, Sanchi ranks Mardi Gras right behind the Sugar Bowl, followed by the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival and the Essence Music Festival.

In addition, he says, the annual French Quarter Festival – which he terms one of the biggest free festivals in the country – has become a strong draw.

Assessments of the impact of major events vary somewhat depending upon the location of an establishment. A Bourbon Street hotel like the Royal Sonesta, for example, gets a huge boost every year from the Carnival crowds who pack the street and the hotel’s balconies for days on end. And French Quarter bars certainly move thousands of gallons of “inventory” during that celebration.

For hotels and restaurants in the Warehouse District, on the other hand, big groups piling into the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center are the real bread-and-butter, though they also get plenty of spillover from major citywide events.
But many restaurant managers roughly agree with Sanchi’s assessment of big-deal happenings.

Wendy Waren, communications vice president for the Greater New Orleans Chapter of the Louisiana Restaurant Association, recently did an informal survey of some of the city’s largest restaurants, and she says the results were nearly unanimous: “The Sugar Bowl is at the top, followed by Mardi Gras.”

Behind them, she says, restaurateurs name the French Quarter Festival and Jazz Fest as the most effective seat-fillers.

What is it about the Sugar Bowl that gives it so much pull? “I think it’s because it’s during a holiday season, and just coming off the December holidays people like to relax and stay in the city a little longer than they might at another time of year,” Waren says. Depending on where visitors are coming from, they might book a five-day stay around the Sugar Bowl rather than spending a more typical three days in the city, she says. “And while they’re here, they have to eat.”

Sandra Shilstone, president and CEO of the New Orleans Tourism and Marketing Corp., says her group has focused heavily in the past several years on festivals as visitor magnets. “They are our greatest ‘natural’ attributes,” she says.

“All of them are free or nearly free, and they promote all that’s authentic about the city, including music, food, ambience and fun.”

Among the festive events, of course, one dominates. “Mardi Gras is our signature event, and it’s a year-round business for our city,” Shilstone says.

Recognizing the power of festivals, the city’s marketers have developed an event calendar that features one or more festivals in almost every month of the year.

“There is a festival for every age group, taste and price point,” Shilstone says.

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