“Busy, busy,” as sun shines on 2024 French Quarter Festival vendors and downtown businesses

“Busy, busy,” as sun shines on 2024 French Quarter Festival vendors and downtown businesses

The weather was kind to the French Quarter Festival this year, as perfect spring conditions after the midweek storm brought out the crowds.

That was good news for the many downtown businesses and pop-up vendors who rely on the annual event to help fill the the gap in the hospitality calendar between Mardi Gras and the Jazz and Heritage Festival.

“Busy, busy,” said Kidane Ogbamicael, as he sat waiting for customers in the British Plaza hail-cab line at the foot of Poydras Street on Sunday morning, the final day of the four-day festival. He reckoned he’s been ferrying a lot more visitors this year between the airport and downtown hotels compared with last year.

The annual festival, which was started in 1984 to help boost French Quarter businesses after the disruption caused by the World’s Fair that year, extended from three to four days in 2011. Now, it boasts being the largest free music festival in the Gulf South, with 300 performances on 22 stages, mostly in the vicinity of Woldenberg Park.

French Quarter Festival revelers Denise Thomas and Cheryl Riley.

On the culinary front, there were about five dozen food and beverage vendors set up in seven different areas, extending for the first time this year into Spanish Plaza, which the city has been trying to bring to life as an event hub since it spent $7.5 million for a makeover of the space two years ago. The space this year included the Jack Daniel’s stage just in front of the entrance to the Riverwalk shopping mall.

“I would say it has been a big balance between visitors and locals,” said Kip Hollar, who has been managing t-shirt and other souvenir booths at Spanish Plaza and at Jackson Square.

Cheryl Riley and Denise Thomas are locals who said they always come on Sunday, the last day of the festival, when a lot of people go out to enjoy the event after church.

“We come here to eat and to drink and catch whoever is playing, we don’t even bother to get a schedule,” said Riley.


Festival-goers dance under blue skies to the Mahogany Hall All Stars on the French Market Traditional Jazz Stage during French Quarter Fest in New Orleans, Saturday, April 13, 2024. (Photo by Sophia Germer, The Times-Picayune)

It was too early to gauge the full economic impact of the event his year, but French Quarter Festivals Inc., the nonprofit that organizes it, said its surveys estimate that the event generates about $310 million for the local economy. That would put it third behind Mardi Gras and the SuperBowl in terms of economic impact, they said.

The Downtown Development District, which promotes downtown business, estimated that more than 350,000 visitors came to the city for the festival last year and forecast numbers for this year were higher.


Festival-goers walk past the Steamboat Natchez during French Quarter Fest in New Orleans, Saturday, April 13, 2024. (Photo by Sophia Germer, The Times-Picayune)

That would chime with the forecast for hotel occupancy for this year’s event, which New Orleans & Company, the city’s tourism promotion agency, forecast would average about 87% for downtown hotels, which would be better than last year and only just below 2019.

Vicki Bristol, spokesperson for the Four Seasons Hotel, said their 341 hotel rooms were fully booked through the weekend. “The electricity and energy surrounding the building has been high, particularly as there is a lot more right in our backyard,” she said, referring the Spanish Plaza setup on the riverside of the hotel.

Spanish Plaza revival

Four Seasons participated for the first time this year as a food vendor, with its Alon Shaya-fronted restaurant, Miss River, taking a food booth and Shaya himself doing a cooking demonstration at one of the stages during the weekend. The hotel also is included in the “After Dark” program, which festival organizers added last year. The ticketed event, which costs $65 at Four Seasons, starts after the official festival ends at 9 p.m. and will feature B.Lew and the Grits, Preservation Hall singer Brandon Lewis’ jazz-soul combo.

While the overall event was free, there were a range of ticketed upgrades starting with a one-day VIP pass for $149 and rising to $1,200 for the full four days.

Kaya Koban and Anna Lantier, who were working the Messina’s bar concession in the VIP lounge at the Jack Daniel’s stage, said business was “steady” rather than brisk. “This is new here at Spanish Plaza so people are just getting used to it being here,” Koban said.

Inside the Riverwalk mall, Gerald Massey, manager of All Star Elite, a sports clothing shop that fronts onto Spanish Plaza, said business was slower than Lundi Gras, though he said that was partly down to the fact they couldn’t find staff to work for the French Quarter Festival.

Kenneth Spears, who oversees vendors and hospitality at French Quarter Festivals Inc., said they had put a lot of effort into ensuring that the Spanish Plaza space had a range of assets, including a WWL-TV live broadcasting tent.

“I feel like people were starting to understand that it was an extension of the festival,” he said. “The last couple days it felt like we’ve seen record crowds and maybe back to 2019 numbers. Four days of really great weather didn’t hurt.”

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