Essence Music Festival bright spot for tourism industry this summer

June 28 2009 | Latest News
Essence Music Festival bright spot for tourism industry this summer

Posted by Jaquetta White / The Times-Picayune June 28, 2009 8:00AM

Jennifer Zdon/The Times-PicayuneCharnetta Stenson of New York dances to Mary J. Blige on the main floor of the Essence Music Festival in 2008.

With a stellar musical line-up, aggressive marketing and a bevy of new events, the 15th annual Essence Music Festival is expected to draw crowds larger than last year's despite the recession and the loss of two longtime sponsors, Chevy and Budweiser.

The three-day festival, which begins July 3, is one of the few bright spots on the hospitality industry's summer schedule.

Tickets sales are up almost 50 percent over this time last year, perhaps presaging that this year's festival will be the most heavily attended since Hurricane Katrina, said Michelle Ebanks, president of Essence Communications, the division of Time Inc. that owns the festival.

Ebanks attributes this year's success, in part, to the sense of community the festival fosters among African-Americans, its target audience. In addition to nightly concerts, Essence includes daily empowerment seminars on topics ranging from family to personal finance.

"In times of difficulty, you need to come to the well to be refreshed," Ebanks said. "Essence is that well, allowing people to revitalize, refocus and get filled."

Of course, there was also some strategy involved in boosting sales. Essence announced one of this year's biggest acts, Beyonce, during last year's festival and began selling its best seats in January, months earlier than usual. The company has also been producing a concert series, the Road to Essence Music Festival, in cities throughout the country. Those efforts helped to motivate people not only to buy tickets, but also to buy them earlier, Ebanks said.

The election of the nation's first black president might also have contributed to anticipation of this year's event, Ebanks said.

That tickets have sold faster than usual is welcome news to the local hospitality industry, which considers summer its down time.

"I think that's very encouraging," said Bob Johnson, general manager of the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center-New Orleans, where the Essence empowerment seminars are held. "I thought it was wonderful news, and it encourages us."

This summer has been slower than most for the tourism industry as leisure travelers and convention-goers who normally would brave the heat to party in New Orleans have cut back because of the recession. New Orleans is not unique in that regard.

According Smith Travel Research, hotel occupancy was down 11.5 percent nationwide for the week ending June 20, compared to the same week last year. RevPar, a key lodging benchmark, was down 20.5 percent on average nationwide in the same week. In New Orleans, RevPar was down 5.8 percent for the week ending June 20.

Essence will provide a reprieve from those grim statistics. Citywide hotel occupancy is expected to be in the 90 percent range, higher than last year, when the metro area's hotels were about 80 to 85 percent full.

The Hilton New Orleans Riverside, the city's largest hotel, is sold out this coming Friday and Saturday. The hotel's general manager, Fred Sawyers, attributes the strong demand to the Essence marketing machine and the musical line-up, which in addition to Beyonce includes John Legend, Ne-Yo, Maxwell and Essence perennial Frankie Beverly featuring Maze.

"Once they announced the line-up, we said 'This ought to be good,'" Sawyers said. "Essence is really the bright spot in the summer."

Still, the music festival has not escaped the recession. Two festival sponsors, Chevy and Budweiser, withdrew their commitments this year. The loss of the former was more than expected, Ebanks said, given the automaker's troubles in 2008 and subsequent bankruptcy filing.

"They held on until November, but they couldn't do it," Ebanks said.

Essence is not alone in losing sponsors this year. More than half of the North American companies surveyed by the Chicago sponsorship consulting firm IEG said they planned to spend less on sponsorships in 2009 than they did in 2008. About half said they were looking to get out of their sponsorship contracts even if they were not up for renewal this year.

The New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival took to the Fair Grounds this year without the sponsorship of American International Group, Borders and Southern Comfort. Other festivals have had to be scaled down or canceled altogether.

But Essence has managed not to miss a beat, replacing Chevy with Ford Motor Co. and Budweiser with Coors. Sponsorship revenue is actually up 20 percent this year, Ebanks said.

Ford jumped at the opportunity to sponsor Essence when Chevy pulled out, said Crystal Worthem, the automaker's multicultural marketing manager. Even as automotive sales were down overall last year, Ford's research showed they were up among African-American women, Essence magazine's key audience.

"It was really an easy decision for us," Worthem said. "Our participation in Essence, it's more about being able to get in front of our consumers. We thought it was a prime opportunity."

The company's sponsorship is for one year and will be revisited before next year's festival, Worthem said.

For the 15th anniversary, Essence has set out to create a larger, more modern event, Ebanks said.

The video-enabled stage that debuted during last year's festival is returning this year. That stage replaces the festival's formerly drab presentation, whose main feature -- a gray curtain -- drew criticism from concert-goers and performers alike.

Essence staffers will also take to the Internet more than ever this year. Live video and photo updates and live blogging of the concerts and empowerment seminars will take place on the magazine's Web site. Attendees can sign up to receive mobile alerts when artists are set to hit the stage.

As it did last year, Essence is partnering with CNN, which is also owned by Time Inc. The news network is building a studio inside the convention center for its correspondents. Essence and CNN are again hosting "Reclaiming the Dream," a documentary on the lives of blacks in America.

For the first time in at least five years, Essence also is throwing an official after-party after each night's concert. Essence Encore will be take place at Club Metropolitan with celebrity hosts, including actor Idris Elba and musician MC Lyte.

"We're expanding the footprint," Ebanks said. "We want to surprise and delight."

Jaquetta White can be reached at or 504.826.3494.