Mardi Gras expected to be a hotel bonanza

February 28 2011 | Latest News
Timing of holiday to draw more students

Sunday, February 27, 2011

The Times-Picayune

By Jaquetta White

Business writer

It's sometimes called the Greatest Free Show on Earth, but Mardi Gras is poised to translate into big profits for New Orleans-area hotels this year.

Largely because the season starts so late, Carnival is shaping up to be the biggest in years for the tourism industry, hotel operators say.

"This is the best I've seen," said Fred Sawyers, general manager of the Hilton New Orleans Riverside Hotel, who has been with the hotel for seven years.

The typically warmer weather of March and the greater distance between Mardi Gras and the holiday season have coaxed travelers out of their hometowns, tourism leaders said. The timing this year also put the city on the radar of a large contingent of travelers who might have otherwise skipped Mardi Gras: Spring Break revelers.

"The way that the timing falls this year, it coincides with spring break," said Kelly Schulz, a spokeswoman with the New Orleans Convention and Visitors Bureau.

And while not all schools have spring break during the week of Mardi Gras, an expected 1.7 million students are out that week, including those at Michigan State University, Georgetown, the University of Florida, Temple and Penn State.

At the Hilton New Orleans Riverside, reservations have soared for Lundi Gras and Mardi Gras, two nights that usually draw smaller crowds than the weekend preceding them. Sawyer attributes that weekday uptick to college students who have those days off from school.

"A lot of that has to do with the overlap of spring break," Sawyers said.

Hotels around the city are enjoying an increase in bookings, said Mavis Early, executive director of the Greater New Orleans Hotel and Lodging Association. Occupancy is up throughout the city as compared with Mardi Gras in the two year's preceding Katrina, as well as every year following. The 2004 and 2005 seasons were considered weak years for the tourism industry.

For the Saturday and Sunday nights before this year's Mardi Gras, New Orleans hotels are reporting occupancy of 99 percent and 98 percent, respectively, Early said.

"I think because it's a little later in the year, people have been through winter, and they know the weather is likely to be better here in March as compared with February," Early said. "People have been cooped up all winter; they want to get out and party."

This year's occupancy numbers are comparable to 2010, the biggest celebration since Katrina, but the hotels reached the almost sold-out status about two weeks earlier this year than they did last year, Early said. That likely will result in this year's celebration eclipsing that of a year ago.

The Royal Sonesta on Bourbon Street has been sold out since December, General Manager Alfred Groos said. That's the earliest the hotel has sold out in more than a decade Groos said this year's early success is continuing the momentum begun last year, when the New Orleans hospitality industry benefited from the nationwide attention bestowed on it during the New Orleans Saints' Super Bowl run.

"Journalists didn't write only about the Saints, but about everything else the city had to offer," Groos said. "That huge shot sent out this message that New Orleans is open for business. We noticed an immediate increase in reservations."

Those reservations weren't only for this year's Mardi Gras, but for other events throughout last year, including the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, Groos said.

"We're finding that a lot of the events that we're famous for over the year are selling out in advance," Groos said. "We're looking to sell out every weekend between now and April."

Although, he doesn't know exactly how much larger crowds will be, Groos said he is expecting a 25-percent increase in food and beverage sales at the hotel's bars and restaurants over last year.

Perhaps the biggest contributor to the popularity of Mardi Gras this year will be the thousands of college students expected to eschew the beach in favor of beads this year.

The overlap of Mardi Gras and some schools' spring break has pushed New Orleans into the top 20 destinations for spring break, according to bookings on travel website

"This year, New Orleans is No. 14 on our list," said Marita Hudson Thomas, a spokeswoman for the site. "What's so interesting is last year it didn't even make the list."

Orbitz measures as the spring break travel period from March 1 to April 24. For only the week of March 7, New Orleans is the third-most popular travel destination, Thomas said.

"New Orleans could creep up," Thomas said. "When we start to get closer to the first week of March, you may see some changes."

Hoping to capitalize on the thousands of people -- particularly web savvy college students -- in town next week, the New Orleans Tourism and Marketing Corporation has launched social-media campaigns it hopes will reach millions more, said Nathan Williams, the organization's interactive director.

In addition to having writers update the organization's blog and Twitter feeds in real time with their Carnival experiences, the marketing corporation is also encouraging visitors to "check in" at various places throughout the city as they visit them, using a new Facebook application called New Orleans 50 Favorite Places. The idea is that visitors will post on their Facebook pages the hotels, restaurants, bars, retail stores, galleries and other places they visit while they're in New Orleans. The information will be available for their Facebook friends to see, but also available in a leaderboard format for visitors to the marketing corporation's Facebook page and blog. The people who check in the most will be entered into a contest to win a trip back to New Orleans.

Williams estimates 40,000 check-ins, which could result in 6 million "branding impressions" as the names of those places visited is spread on Facebook news feeds around the world. Ideally, that would result in even more visitors to the city throughout the year.

"We're trying to encourage a viral sharing," Williams said. "That's sort of our core approach with all social media. We put something up on Facebook and people like it, their friends see it and they get exposed to it. We're having a conversation with these folks, and we're trying to engage them."