Revelry and Revenue

by R. Reese Fuller

Will a shortened Carnival season in New Orleans and a shortage of local hotel rooms impact Acadiana's Mardi Gras?

There are still 1,000 hotels rooms in Lafayette housing evacuees displaced by hurricanes Katrina and Rita. With 20 percent of Lafayette's 5,000 hotel rooms already occupied, Mardi Gras less than two months away and FEMA allowing evacuees to stay in hotels indefinitely, Lafayette Convention and Visitors Commission Director Gerald Breaux is having a hard time gauging the impact of tourism this carnival season. Factor in a possible increase in visitors because of New Orleans' shortened post-Katrina Mardi Gras, and the picture gets murkier. "There are so many 'ifs' right now," Breaux says. "I don't think anybody has a crystal ball. Anybody who tells you exactly what's going on is guessing."

In a 1999 study conducted for LCVC on the economic impact of Mardi Gras in Lafayette, then UL Lafayette Professor Jerome Agrusa estimated that 38 percent of visitors to Lafayette for Mardi Gras were lodging with family or friends, and another 34 percent were staying in hotels. At the time of the study there were approximately 4,000 hotel rooms in Lafayette, filled to 84 percent capacity. (Eighty-five percent of those were Mardi Gras attendees.)

Breaux was recently notified by Lt. Gov. Mitch Landrieu's office that FEMA's short-term lodging program for evacuees would continue indefinitely, leaving fewer beds for tourists. FEMA spokesman James McIntyre would not say whether there is a deadline for transitioning evacuees out of hotels into permanent housing. "We're not talking dates here," he says. "We're working with each case on a case by case basis. We're working with the applicants to ensure that everyone who is eligible for assistance will have assistance in hand and be given time to actually transition from the hotels to a more permanent housing solution." Across the nation, there are an estimated 40,000 hotel rooms still occupied by hurricane evacuees.

Although Mardi Gras in Lafayette is the city's largest annual tourist attraction, the bulk of the economic impact comes from locals, not tourists. Agrusa concluded that most of the revenue comes from the money spent on balls and dinners. There are 40 krewes in Lafayette with an average membership of about 125 members each, totaling roughly 5,000 krewe members in Lafayette. Parading krewe members spent an average of $587 each on the float itself and throws for the parade, for more than $1.1 million pumped into the local economy on parades alone.

Krewe members typically attend at least two balls or dinners apiece, spending an average of $267 on each event, and an additional $418 on clothing. At least $4.76 million was spent on balls and dinners alone. At the end of that festival season, Agrusa estimated that $109.3 million had been spent as a result of Mardi Gras festivities, generating $2.2 million in tax revenue for Lafayette.

And with a new krewe in Lafayette, Krewe of Carnivale en Rio, Lafayette Consolidated Government has designated another weekend preceding Mardi Gras week for the new parade to roll. Krewe member Janice LeBlanc says, "We can hopefully be the event that anchors a second weekend of Mardi Gras tourism in Lafayette and Acadiana."

Breaux agrees. "With the new Mardi Gras parade that has been added on Feb. 18, you have an opportunity to have two weekends for visitor traffic, as opposed to just that one long weekend. I don't know if all the traditional Mardi Gras krewes feel the same way, but for us, I think it's a better marketing opportunity. It's like why Jazz Fest takes place over two weekends." And despite all the best intention and planning, Breaux says there's always one main factor involved ' rain. "A lot of people are weather tourists," he says. "Depending on the weather, they're tourists, and that's understandable. No one's going to stand in a foot of water to catch beads."