Mardi Gras Math

Now that we”re heading in to Mardi Gras season proper, I”m starting to see more articles taking a close look at the tourism situation in New Orleans. For whatever reason, the basic math questions have largely been ignored up to this point. Such as:

If New Orleans had 38,000 hotel rooms before Katrina, how many actual tourist rooms do you now have available when you subtract hotels that are still closed and the rooms being occupied by hotel staff who have no homes, police and other government officials who have no homes, random New Orleanians who have no homes and contractors/relief workers/government people from out of town? The answer for Mardi Gras, it seems, may be 8,000 – 14,000 rooms. If you”ve ever been to New Orleans at Mardi Gras, you know that 100% of the city”s hotel rooms are occupied by tourists then. To get a room at a French Quarter hotel, you”d need to book a year or two in advance.

So a simple answer might be the best-case scenario for Mardi Gras is to get 21% – 36% of normal tourist traffic based on the available hotel rooms.

But let”s do some more math. If 1 million people normally visit New Orleans at Mardi Gras (figuring probably 80% of them come the last weekend of Mardi Gras), that would suggest somewhere around 800,000 tourists are in town from Thursday – Fat Tuesday. If each of those people stayed, on average, two nights in the city, then you”re talking about 266,000 tourists in town on average each day leading up to Mardi Gras.

That would suggest the average occupancy of a hotel room is 7 people during Mardi Gras. That”s about right for the college set, but probably high for normal people. And it suggests New Orleans could accommodate about 56,000 – 98,000 tourists per day this year.

What”s not being factored in, though, is that a whole lot of people who come down for Mardi Gras usually stay with friends rather than in hotels. Or they drive in from Baton Rouge, Lafayette, Biloxi (another issue in itself) and elsewhere within drunk-driving distance. I think it”s more likely that the average hotel occupancy is about 4 and something like 40% of visitors either drive in for the day/night or stay with friends.

Needless to say, there will be a lot fewer people staying with friends this Mardi Gras. And as well-intentioned as the people within driving distance might be, you have to wonder how many of them will want to put up with what”s going to be an enormously difficult trip into and out of the city.

The image of Nagin”s Chocolate City comment, Blanco”s incessant crazy rants and the perception of displaced New Orleanians as freeloaders and criminals may not make some people want to throw a buck at New Orleans this winter, either.

Say they fill the hotels (which they probably will). That”s something like 100,000 – 350,000 people over the main Mardi Gras weekend. I think New Orleans would do well to get 25% of drive-in and other visitors, which might mean another 80,000 people.

So sitting in the middle of the range, would 300,000 visitors be a success this year? That would be about 30% of normal, and considering only about one-third of New Orleans could be considered “normal” right now, it seems about right to me.

I hope New Orleans does great and a ton of people go down. But I”m not sure it”ll go that well, and it”s really, really important that it does.

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