Meetings groups can take full advantage of New Orleans’ festivals by scheduling a program around one of its many famous celebrations or bringing the festival spirit to their event via the city’s CVB or many destination management companies, or DMCs.

“We now have 135 permitted festivals each year, which equates to a festival every two-and-a-half days, said Rachel Avery, director of convention services and events for the city’s CVB, New Orleans & Company.

“We have festivals large and small that appeal to anyone and everyone. If it crawls, swims and you can dance to it, you can have a festival around it,” she added.

The outsized notoriety New Orleans enjoys as a festival destination can run counter to common meetings and events wisdom, however. Hotel room blocks are sure to be filled far in advance and room rates certain to hit a ceiling during such standout fetes as Mardi Gras and the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival (aka Jazz Fest).

How to Book Around Festivals

“We absolutely do see groups that pay attention to the festival calendar, and we do our best to share with the planners what’s coming ahead of them, behind them and over their dates,” Avery said. “We talk a lot about logistics.

“If it’s a smaller festival that attendees want access to, it’s just sharing a link with them,” she continued. “If it’s larger, like Jazz Fest, we want them to know about the logistics involved; how to get tickets, how to get around, where to catch shuttles and rideshares, and also what to expect after the festival wraps.”

French Quarter Festival in New Orleans, Credit: Zack Smith Photography
French Quarter Festival in New Orleans, Credit: Zack Smith Photography

Here are a few tips for booking meetings and conventions over festivals in New Orleans, provided by New Orleans & Company.

During the Sales/Booking Process:

  • Be prepared for higher rates and lower availability over special events dates.
  • If your shoulder nights fall over the major festival dates, contract more than you normally do.
  • Keep arrival dates in mind for your staff, vendors and anyone else on your team who typically arrives well before your event starts when contracting your shoulder nights. We’ve seen groups come in and start their conference immediately after Mardi Gras (which is typically a slower time) but forget that they need rooms for their vendors to come in early (during the weekend) when rooms are scarce.
  • Schedule your events so they don’t compete with the festival.
  • Keep in mind that Mardi Gras (day) in New Orleans is a holiday. Schools and businesses are closed. The convention center has been “dark” for Mardi Gras (day) in the past. 

Once Your Event Is Contracted:

Mardi Gras:

  • Find out if any of your conference team/VIPs arrive during parades. Major streets are shut down for several hours for 10 days during Carnival.
  • If your guests/staff are arriving during parades, they may be dropped off a few blocks away from their hotel due to street closures. If this presents a major challenge, your local contact (New Orleans & Company, hotelier, etc.) can advise when they should aim to arrive in the city to avoid the street closures.
  • Keep street closures in mind when scheduling shuttles. Your New Orleans & Company contact can assist by offering alternative schedules/routes.
  • You may not be able to provide shuttle access directly to your hotels during parades if they are located on or near the parade route.

[Related Content: Reimagining New Orleans: A Story of the NOPSI Hotel]

Any Festival:

  • Use the festival as a theme for your event (e.g. Mardi Gras masquerade, Jazz Fest-style F&B stations, etc.).
  • Use the festival to promote attendance. Include festival passes as a raffle/reward item for registering early.

Also, meeting planners who worry about attendee attrition from their daytime events should consider a couple more pieces of advice, according to Tara Letort, senior director of group PR and communications for New Orleans & Company:

  • Schedule programs later, knowing things can go into the evening.
  • Thursdays and Fridays are sort of known as “locals’ days,” with less attendance [competing for room block space].

How to Bring New Orleans’ Festival Culture to Your Meeting

Meeting planners who are wary of scheduling their New Orleans meeting or convention around one of the city’s major festivals can still immerse attendees in the city’s signature music, food and culture by bringing the festivities inside their venue.

Sharing its zest for life with visiting groups is a local industry in New Orleans. Local DMCs and New Orleans & Company can help meeting planners organize all manner of uniquely NOLA cultural fun onsite during an event, or even offsite in the form of leading attendees on a Jazz Funeral-style march from the convention center to an offsite location.

The American Alliance of Museums (AAM) seized the opportunity to leverage New Orleans’ cultural assets by setting up a Jazz Fest-themed “Lagniappe Lounge” during its May 19-22, 2019, Annual Meeting & MuseumExpo in the Crescent City.

According to Letort, the AAM leveraged the services of its local committee members to organize the various elements of the program. It also partnered with local DMC BBC Destination Management and New Orleans & Company to bring the city’s festival culture into the New Orleans Ernest N. Morial Convention Center.

French Quarter Festival
Performers Onstage During the French Quarter Festival in New Orleans

The Lounge, located on the show floor, featured the food, music and culture of New Orleans via a variety of raucous performances and demonstrations:

  • Local percussion specialists Bamboula 2000.
  • Guardians of the Flame Mardi Gras Indians, who danced with attendees.
  • Live broadcasts from local jazz radio station WWOZ and performances by jazz trios.
  • Cooking and cocktail demonstrations from the Southern Food and Beverage Museum and the New Orleans School of Cooking Grannies.
  • Shopping opportunities afforded by vendors selling handmade arts, paintings, photography, ceramics and jewelry, among other artisan wares.
  • A charging station for devices.
  • A photo opportunity for attendees to get a photo taken on a Mardi Gras float.
  • A chance to participate in coloring a mural created by local artists and celebrating the AAM Meeting & Expo.

“It was very much festival themed in that it celebrated the food, music and culture of New Orleans right on the show floor,” Letort said, adding that the city’s large number of museums really helped in facilitating the activation. “They really just wanted to have a good showing for the 5,000 museum curators and marketers, which was really good because we got to work with our partner DMCs and see what kind of magic they could create.”

The Lagniappe Lounge
The Lagniappe Lounge, Credit: Tara Letort

To really emphasize the local angle, AAM even hired the person who creates the signage for the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival to create signage for The Lagniappe Lounge.

Letort said the AAM also set up a French Quarter Hospitality Hub at The Historic New Orleans Collection museum.

Whether booking during a major festival or by simply bringing the iconic festival spirit of New Orleans into your meeting or convention, the Crescent City always delivers an experience that is unrivaled in terms of the pure joy of celebrating the good life.

Laissez les bons temps rouler!  

[Related Content: Five Musical Experiences for Groups in New Orleans]

Odd New Orleans Festivals to Pair With Meetings Programs

One glance at the New Orleans festival schedule can make a meeting planner dizzy with the opportunities at hand.

“New Orleans has 135 licensed festivals on the books each year,” said Tara Letort, senior director of group PR and communications for New Orleans & Company, adding that New Orleans festival opportunities go well beyond super-popular events such as Mardi Gras, the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival and the French Quarter Festival.

“There are also those groups that held their meeting during the NOLA Mac N’ Cheese Fest, one of our newest, and maybe the National Fried Chicken Festival, one of the fastest growing.”

The schedule of famous, and somewhat infamous, New Orleans festivals is long and fittingly odd, in tune with the Crescent City. Groups can consider a few of these gems for a silly event activity option that will make memories:

Dirty Linen Night: This summer event celebrates local art galleries a week after White Linen Night and features a procession of visitors and locals down Royal Street in their “dirty linens” worn the week before while attending the more dignified art celebration on Julia Street. Galleries are open to the public to explore. 

Running of the Bulls: Held in July, this spectacle mocks its namesake in Pamploma, Spain, except instead of running from bulls, participants don white clothes with red handkerchiefs and are chased by New Orleans Roller Derby Girls on rollerblades wielding plastic bats. Warehouse District bars welcome the crowds after the day’s craziness is over.

Red Dress Run: Organized by the fun-loving New Orleans Hash House Harriers (self-described as a “drinking club with a running problem”), this annual event on the second day of August costs up to $65 per participant, with proceeds benefitting local nonprofits.

Runners are dressed head-to-toe in red women’s clothing and supplied with beer while they run. What could go wrong?

Krewe of Boo: This free Halloween-themed event parades through the French Quarter before Halloween weekend and features ingeniously designed art floats, all of which are approved by master float builder Brian Kern of Kern Studios, and treats and assorted baubles tossed to the crowd. The Krewe of Boo also accepts new members to ride on the floats every year.

A full list of annual festivals, ranging from art festivals and music festivals to events celebrating food and drink, film, multicultural and the LGBT community, is available at www.neworleans.com/things-to-do/festivals.

The website also filters festivals by season, so planners can narrow down their options to coincide—or not coincide—with their program.

New Hotels and Renovations in New Orleans

  • The New Orleans Museum of Art (NOMA) opened a six-acre expansion of its Sydney and Walda Besthoff Sculpture Garden. Highlights include new sites for sculpture, an outdoor amphitheater and stage, pedestrian bridges and walkways, a new gallery and an outdoor learning area. NOMA is a popular venue for special events, with interior and exterior spaces that can accommodate up to 1,200 guests.
  • Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport delayed its May 2019 opening, moving back the debut of the new $1 billion, 972,000-square-foot facility to fall 2019. The new terminal complex will completely replace the current facility. The new facility will include in-line baggage screening, a consolidated security checkpoint to three concourses and 35 gates, a 2,200-car parking garage and additional concessions.
  • Virgin Hotels New Orleans broke ground in May on its new Warehouse District hotel, with an opening scheduled for 2021. The 14-story, 225-room hotel will feature a rooftop bar, 2,049-square-foot ballroom and flexible meeting space on the second floor, and its brand-specific Commons Club restaurant and lounge.
  • Leblanc + Smith added The Corsair Hotel to its portfolio. The boutique-style hotel offers 15 rooms, including four suites, as well as a restaurant, pool, pool bar and lobby bar. Located uptown on Saint Charles Avenue, the property will offer indoor and outdoor meeting space and is expected to open in fall 2019.
  • Delta Air Lines added new nonstop weekend service to Raleigh-Durham (RDU) June 8, 2019. The service will be on Saturdays and Sundays only.