Downtown hotels nearly filled to the brim

February 17 2012 | Latest News
Last year, hotels were giddy with excitement as thousands of students, lured by warmer weather and the freedom of spring break, descended on New Orleans to celebrate Mardi Gras.

Mardi Gras fills New Orleans hotels nearly to the brim

Published: Thursday, February 16, 2012

Jaquetta White, The Times-Picayune By Jaquetta White, The Times-Picayune

Last year, hotels were giddy with excitement as thousands of students, lured by warmer weather and the freedom of spring break, descended on New Orleans to celebrate Mardi Gras. The holiday fell on March 8, right at the start of the spring break period and with a months-long cushion separating it from the December holiday season.

Fat Tuesday is more than two weeks earlier this year, well out of spring break range for most students, but the weekend leading up to this year's Mardi Gras is shaping up to be better than last year's in terms of hotel occupancy. Hotels, specifically those in the French Quarter and elsewhere in the downtown tourism zone, were either sold out or approaching sold out by midweek.

Hotel general managers could not pinpoint one thing that was driving demand, but they are unabashedly happy about it.

"There's been huge demand," said Al Groos, general manager of the Royal Sonesta hotel on Bourbon Street. "I would suspect that you will see a much bigger Mardi Gras."

A citywide survey of hotels completed this week found that 98 percent of the city's hotel rooms were booked for Friday through Sunday, said Mavis Early, executive director of the Greater New Orleans Hotel and Lodging Association. That compares with final occupancy in 2011 of 97 percent today, 99 percent on Saturday and 98 percent on Sunday citywide.

"Many hotels we spoke with (Wednesday and Thursday) expect to sell out for Friday, Saturday and Sunday," Early said. "Several, of course, are (already) sold out on Friday, Saturday and Sunday."

Count the Windsor Court in the latter group. The hotel is sold out for five consecutive nights that began on Wednesday and will conclude Sunday, the property's general manager David Teich said.

"This is blowing away last year," said Teich, who added that the hotel did not sell out on the Wednesday and Thursday before Mardi Gras last year.

Early birds swooped

What's notable about this year is how early in the season many hotels sold out, Groos said, a sign that demand was greater.

"Post-Katrina, we were still selling out, but it was up until the last minute," Groos said. The hotel sold out by late last year for the most popular nights this Carnival season. "We're full Friday through Monday and at 90 percent on Tuesday."

The Saturday and Sunday preceding Fat Tuesday are typically peak occupancy days during Carnival, with most guests checking out on Mardi Gras, Groos said.

The Windsor Court has been sold out for a month, Teich said.

Early bookings were not a trend across the board, however. The Ritz-Carlton New Orleans, for instance, saw room bookings pick up in just the past week.

"We're expecting to fill, however this year we've seen a slower pickup than normal," hotel general manager Russell Miller said. Miller suspects that the addition of thousands of rooms to the city's hotel inventory since last year's Mardi Gras, with the reopening of the Hyatt Regency and the opening of The Saint Hotel next door to The Ritz-Carlton in particular, might have influenced booking patterns. "There's more inventory available, and I'm sure people are shopping and looking for the best rates."

mardi-gras-masks.jpgView full sizeTimes-Picayune archiveTourists get into the Mardi Gras spirit on Decatur Street.

Still, by Wednesday, the Ritz-Carlton was sold out for Saturday night and was 90 percent and 80 percent full for today and Sunday, respectively.

"We're confident Friday and Sunday will fill up," Miller said.

No break, no problem

A year ago, Carnival benefited from coinciding with the spring break of about 1.7 million students at schools including Georgetown and the University of Florida. New Orleans was ranked No. 14 on the list of top spring break destinations by travel website Orbitz in 2011, one year after not making the list at all.

According to a study released earlier this year by Tulane University economics professor Toni Weiss, the direct economic impact of last year's Carnival celebration was $144.1 million. The event had an indirect impact of $300.7 million. The study also found that spending on things like hotel rooms and Carnival balls returned $8.50 in tax revenue to the city for every $1 of city investment on Carnival-related services.

This year, there was no such large pool of ready visitors to attract. But hotel operators say demand has been such that they haven't had to give up much to fill rooms.

The Royal Sonesta, Groos said, was still able to command a four-night minimum stay for most rooms and a five-night minimum for rooms with balconies. Rates are up 10 percent to 15 percent compared with last year.

Similarly, Teich said the Windsor Court was able to demand a "premium rate" for its rooms, which recently underwent a renovation. Teich said the Windsor Court worked hard to sell itself to guests after the renovation.

Not every hotel was as fortunate. Although the Ritz-Carlton was able to hold its rates steady, the hotel did lower its minimum stay requirement from three nights to two nights and saw demand increase as a result, Miller said.

Holiday weekend assist

Miller thinks people celebrating Presidents Day might be boosting hotel room bookings. The Monday holiday extends this weekend, making it more likely that guests will add a day to their trips, Miller said.

"Presidents Day for us typically isn't really a sellout, but because it falls over the Mardi Gras period, it has been a plus for us," Miller said.

One downer this year, however, will likely be the weather. Although most hotels don't stand to lose money on their rooms if rain casts a pall on the merriment, it could depress things like food and beverage sales.

"I think the weather will certainly influence the crowds. If we get good weather, then people tend to be out in the streets," Groos said. "If there's inclement weather, they make alternate plans."

Jaquetta White can be reached at or 504.826.3494.

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