Following up the tourism whirlwind of 2018
Do you know what 2019 isn’t? It’s not the New Orleans Tricentennial. While that has some event organizers and copy editors relieved (capital T or lowercase t?), it has many in the tourism and hospitality industry curious about what this year will look like for visitation.
We don’t even officially know what 2018 looked like for visitation, and won’t until the study numbers are released in the spring. There was, however, a general feeling of optimism at the end of last year that the numbers will be positive. We were already observing high hotel bookings and increased attendance at some key events.
The 2017 D.K. Shifflet & Associates’ research showed New Orleans welcomed 17.74 million visitors who spent roughly $8.7 billion. Industry leaders such as Stephen Perry, president and CEO of New Orleans & Company, formerly the New Orleans Convention and Visitors Bureau, and Mark Romig, president and CEO of New Orleans Tourism and Marketing Corporation, have frequently referred to our year-over-year visitor growth since 2009 and expect the trajectory to continue. All signs point to the 2018 numbers being impressive and a likely measure of success for the industry.
Now we have 2019, a year of nothing special. Is this what Olympic host cities feel like when the last of the athletes, news crews and fans fly home? We aren’t staring at an empty swimming pool or colossal unused stadium, but this is perhaps akin to the letdown those civic leaders feel after the final medals have been presented.
But that isn’t quite accurate. New Orleans accomplished a lot with the Tricentennial, showcasing our history, vibrancy and modern relevancy as a destination city. That was done not during a few intense weeks of athletic competition and global media coverage; rather, Tricentennial events were spread out over the course of the year. And the Tricentennial was organic. Nearly every local entity used it as a marketing theme in some way, whether it was a small retail shop on Magazine Street calling it out for a $3 discount on purchases, or a restaurant featuring a historically inspired menu. Museums, festivals, lecture series, nonprofit fundraisers, walking tours, art galleries, farmers markets and Mardi Gras parades all seized on a way to interpret the 300th theme and make it relevant for their audiences. Add to that the various radio, TV and print series that ran throughout the year.
Consider what a visitor takes away from that all-encompassing, low-key synergy. Even if they can’t pinpoint the exact experience that most inspired them, they will bring home a sense of wanting more. We already boast a majority of our tourists as repeat visitors — 63 percent in 2017.
We also benefit from the intangible: As a tour guide friend of mine said recently, “You can’t learn New Orleans. You come here, and then you just know her. As long as your ears are open and you stop looking at your phone for a minute, you’ll just know, and then love her.”
Last year offered thousands of events that reminded the nation and the world of New Orleans’ historic contributions to culture at large. We were able to use the anniversary as a citywide platform to share our music, food and traditions in a way that was interesting to the rest of the world without requiring an additional hook to get their attention. Visitors engaged with us as we are now, not just as a 300-year-old city or a community recovering from a storm, but as a dynamic place that creates new stories every day. We will seize on that.
2019 will only be a year of nothing special only if we let it be. Conventions are booked. New cruise ships are scheduled. The new airport terminal will open, and additional airline itineraries are being considered. The Jazz Fest powers that be even saw fit to add a day to the schedule this year to mark the 50th anniversary of one of our premier annual events. We have all the opportunity to create another successful year for the tourism sector.