April 4 2011 | Latest NewsNew Orleans tourism officials expect one of the strongest springs ever
Sunday, April 03, 2011, 9:00 AM
The Ernest N. Morial Convention Center kicked off April with every one of its 10 halls occupied. In the eight halls lettered A through H are 25,000 attendees of the annual meeting of the American College of Cardiology. Over in halls I and J is The Boat Show and its 8,000 guests.
Chris Granger, The Times-PicayuneEvery one of the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center's 10 halls is occupied this weekend. Both the American College of Cardiology and the Boat Show are occupying space in the facility. On Friday, the cardiology group put the finishing touches on its setup.
It's the first time the entire center has been occupied since last July, when the Delta Sigma Theta Sorority Inc. meeting overlapped with the Helen Brett Enterprises jewelry show.
The traffic at the riverfront facility to start the month reflects an anticipated burst of spring tourism in New Orleans, where festival organizers are projecting record crowds, many hotels are basking in sold-out status and meeting groups have increased their number of attendees.
"The only way that I can characterize it would be that it's robust. The spring is terrific," said Stephen Perry, president of the New Orleans Metropolitan Convention & Visitors Bureau. "You can actually feel it when you're out on the street. There's energy even on weeknights. We've had weekends this year where it's been difficult to find a room."
During the height of the spring season, the months of April and May, 136,310 people will attend events at the convention center that require hotel stays. The 13 events will generate 185,983 room-nights. That compares with 114,800 in attendance last year, a more than 18 percent increase in the number of convention attendees.
Included in this year's figures are two citywide conferences. In addition to the The American College of Cardiology, which will be the city's largest meeting this year, is the American Institute of Architects. That group, which is expected to attract 24,000 guests, will fill the center in mid-May.
"It's a period of sustained growth that we hope will continue," Perry said.
Great year follows good one
Perry said he had been concerned that this year would not compare favorably with 2010, which recorded a spike in traffic on the heels of the New Orleans Saints Super Bowl victory and a robust advertising campaign paid for with a windfall in the form of a $5 million tourism marketing grant from BP following last spring's oil spill.
"One of the real questions was with the strength of last year, what would this year bring and would it be as good," Perry said. "The worry is when you have a year as strong as last year was, if you can keep it going."
Those concerns were toppled earlier this year following a well-attended Mardi Gras celebration, which overlapped with spring break for many colleges around the nation, Perry said.
"We're expecting this year's spring to be equally as strong if not up 3 to 5 percent" in terms of hotel occupancy, Perry said.
Perry said it is an especially good sign that the groups meeting in the city are bringing such large contingents. During the recession, association meetings were poorly attended, meaning that even if the city's convention books were full, the benefits weren't spilling out to restaurants, hotels and other tourism-dependent businesses.
"That was a big problem in 2009. We reversed that, particularly in the later half of 2010," Perry said. "It is carrying through this year."
Conferences, however, are not the only events driving optimism for spring tourism. The weekly lineup of festivals is also expected to draw crowds of visitors.
No longer just for locals
Next weekend's French Quarter Festival, for instance, historically considered a local affair, is expected to draw more visitors than New Orleanians this year, said Marci Schramm, executive director of the French Quarter Festival.
Schramm said last year, the festival saw a shift in the makeup of its attendees, with tourists edging out locals.
According to a study by the University of New Orleans, 54 percent of the attendees to last year's event were visitors, compared with 49 percent in each of the two preceding years. As the visitor-to-local ratio has shifted, the festival also has grown. Last year, an estimated 512,000 people attended, as compared with 441,000 in 2009.
"I think it's completely word of mouth," Schramm said. "French Quarter Fest for so many years was the local secret."
This year, the festival has expanded its footprint, adding an additional day and two new stages. The festival also has brought on a hotel, The Hotel Monteleone, as an official sponsor partly in response to the out-of-town visitor growth, Schramm said.
Festival will jam Julia Street
The much smaller Jammin' on Julia festival put on by the New Orleans arts district is witnessing a similar growth in out-of-town traffic, said Jean Bragg, president of the arts district.
"We think it's going to be a bigger crowd this year," Bragg said last week of the event that took place last night. Bragg said the district was expecting at least 10,000 attendees to the festival, double last year's count. Of that, she said, about 10 percent were expected to drive in specifically to attend.
That means a boom in business at places like Cajun Encounters, a boat tour operator, where the great majority of customers are visitors to New Orleans, said Marica Macenroth, the company's director of marketing and communication.
"It's a great time of year for us. Right now, most of our tours are booked," Macenroth said. "We see the influx in people. We seen an influx in interest."
Adrienne Thomas, director of marketing and public relations for New Orleans Steamboat and Gray Line Tours, said the smaller, more specialized festivals, especially if they are free, actually are good for business because they drive tourists to New Orleans that might not have been in town without having a reason.
"You have a lot of people that come into town early and stay longer," Thomas said. "Anything that grabs people's attention is good for us."
Jaquetta White can be reached at email@example.com or 504.826.3494.