Essence Festival filled hotel rooms in New Orleans this weekend

Posted on: July 6 2010
Hotels in the city were at about 98 to 99 percent full for Friday and Saturday

July 04, 2010
Masako Hirsch, The Times-Picayune

No oil spill or hurricane can keep the crowds from coming to the 16th annual Essence Festival. Organizers expect this year’s festival, which closes today, to have brought in crowds comparable to last year’s numbers, which were thought to be the largest since Hurricane Katrina.

The festival, which for the first time ran for four days instead of three, kicked off its 16th year Thursday.

Michelle Ebanks, president of Essence Communications, the division of Time Inc. that owns the festival, said exact figures would not be available until Monday morning, but said she believed it was a strong year for the festival.

“Last year would be a tough number to beat,” she said. “I believe we will come very close to those numbers.”

This year, however, was an anomaly, Ebanks said, with the added attention to the Gulf Coast from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill and the National Education Association convention in town at the same time, which has brought in additional visitors to the area.

“Many folks who wanted to come here weren’t able to find accommodation,” because of the NEA convention, Ebanks said.

Even so, Ebanks said the Empowerment Seminar Series at the Convention Center is growing and nightly music at the Superdome will feature such acts as Mary J. Blige, Alicia Keys and, for the first time, Janet Jackson.

“The festival itself has a reputation for delivering the leading artists of the world,” Ebanks said.

There is also increased participation from sponsors like Coors and new sponsors like Olay and Tide. Coca Cola also recently signed on to a multi-year sponsorship of the festival.

“This is a festival our sponsors and partners can really get behind,” Ebanks said.

In addition, a fourth day was added to the festival for the first time this year. A Healthy Living Fair was held Thursday in partnership with the U.S. Army.

“It was important for us to offer more health programming that the audience could benefit from,” Ebanks said.

New Orleans Multicultural Tourism Network President Toni Rice said Essence Festival helps bring in visitors during what would otherwise be a slow time for the city.

“It completely anchors the summer. Without Essence, we’d be empty,” she said. “It is a major component of the tourism industry.”

Yet with both the NEA convention and Essence Festival in town, the city is “extremely full” with visitors, Rice said.

“You probably couldn’t get a hotel between here and Baton Rouge. It’s sold out pretty much everywhere,” she said. Although, she added, hotels to Covington would probably be a better estimate.

Rice said she had heard of very few instances where visitors cancelled their trips to the city either because of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill or Hurricane Alex.

“There have been a small number of cancellations,” but not enough for it to become an issue, she said.

Hotels in the city were at about 98 to 99 percent full for Friday and Saturday, with some completely booked, said Mavis Early of the Greater New Orleans Hotel and Lodging Association. This was up from about 97 percent last year, although she noted that the convention also probably had a role in bringing up numbers.

Tommy Morel, director of sales and marketing for Starwood Properties, which owns and manages the Sheraton New Orleans Hotel and both W hotels in the city, said the hotels were sold out Friday through today. He said this was similar to last year.

“It’s about the same for us,” he said. “It’s just that we were sold out for a lot longer.”

Rooms sold out almost six months ago, Morel said.

Although some businesses may have a problem with having two major events during the same weekend -- which may place pressure on hotel stock and possible inconvenience for visitors who want to be closer to their activities -- Morel said it is futile to question why it happened.

“A lot of people want to second guess why we booked (the NEA conference and Essence Fest the same weekend) but there were so many variables,” he said.

Jennifer Day, director of communications at the New Orleans Metropolitan Convention & Visitors Bureau, which books conventions for the city, said in a statement Thursday that the two events would bring in business to the city.

“It’s the CVB’s mission to book as much business as possible every day of the year, and typically we do try to avoid such overlap but having a sold out weekend means that everyone from hotels to restaurateurs, retailers, the city is going to have a good weekend,” Day said.

Although official events for Essence Festival take place at the Superdome and the Convention Center, other venues also host events in conjunction with it each year.

Republic New Orleans hosted events Friday and Saturday, and will close the festival weekend the Late Show White Party, which will feature Hornets’ star Chris Paul and other names from the NFL and NBA.

Robert LeBlanc, owner of Republic, said this was the first year they had booked an event for every night of the festival.

With having such figures as NFL player Dwayne Wade come for the festival, LeBlanc said he thinks the Essence Festival is becoming a more high-profile and international event.

“It just seems like there are a lot more corporate events and the caliber of celebrities has increased,” he said.

Ebanks said Essence has become the number one festival for R&B and pop music.

“The more people come, the more it grows in reputation,” she said.