So Close, Yet So Far
French Quarter Fest temporarily moves to the fall and plans for a multi-year recovery
Jennifer Gibson Schecter was once a tourist in New Orleans herself and is now proud to call NOLA home. She also writes the Wednesday Tourism Blog on BizNewOrleans.com.
We’re all feeling it – the COVID-19 slog – in which we’re still toiling to maintain safety measures while simultaneously counting the number of our vaccinated “pod” members. It requires a sense of balance to mourn the loved ones and opportunities we have lost in the past year and still dare to anticipate better days ahead. Those who work in the tourism and hospitality industry feel that acutely.
And now it’s springtime in New Orleans, what would normally be “festival season”— if there was not an ongoing global pandemic. While our traditional April events cannot return this month, we dare to look toward the fall for rescheduled, retooled festivals. French Quarter Fest, presented by Chevron, the beloved weekend music, food and culture festival that hires more than 1,500 Louisiana musicians, will hold its 2021 event Sept. 30 – Oct. 3. Festival organizers worked with city officials and public health experts — as well as stakeholders and industry peers — to select the date in accordance with the city’s rebound and anticipated vaccination rates. The 2021 event will have a modified layout and measures in place that adhere to CDC protocols and guidelines.
The impact of festival cancellation on the financial health of the city and organizations like French Quarter Festivals, Inc. (FQFI), which runs French Quarter Fest, will be felt for years. In 2019, an estimated 825,000 people attended French Quarter Fest and created an economic impact of nearly $200 million. The 2020 festival was canceled due to COVID-19.
Emily Madero, president and CEO of FQFI, said the cancellations due to COVID-19 have been a serious threat to the organization. FQFI experienced a 92% loss in its earned income as a result of the pandemic. Madero credits the outpouring of support from partners and fans, as well as generous donations to their Resiliency Campaign and virtual programming, for keeping the nonprofit organization running and allowing it to have a chance to continue its mission.
“It’s not really a surprise, but COVID has shown me that FQFI and its small-but-mighty team can adapt and thrive despite seemingly impossible circumstances. We have continued to remain productive and true to our mission — that’s pretty amazing!” said Madero. “We have learned so much, from best practices for safety and sanitation to adapting to virtual production. The theme is resilience. Our team has learned new skills, become knowledgeable about public health, and forged new relationships to guide us and help us evolve and stay strong during this crisis.”
One of the ways FQFI pivoted during the pandemic was to transition from live event production to virtual. The organization’s first project was a collaboration with the New Orleans Business Alliance to co-host Live from the Porch, a virtual concert that raised money for the Gig Economy Fund. The staff applied lessons learned from that event to produce two more successful virtual events, Seven Days of Satch presented by Chevron, and the Holidays New Orleans Style Virtual Concert Series. They also created a Virtual Village on their website to promote the efforts of their vendors, partners and artists who typically participate during live events.
Event organizers are easing into the “new normal” and advancing preparations for large events as the pandemic tapers off.
Madero said, “We’re communicating regularly with our local public health officials and doing all that we can to research and prepare for additional safety and sanitation measures, but we still have a long way to go before next fall. We’ll roll out a detailed plan that is appropriate for the current environment closer to our event.
“We expect our recovery to be a multi-year effort. Even with the return of live entertainment, FQFI will have to absorb a significant financial loss in order to produce French Quarter Festival in 2021. We know our community craves the celebrations that will bring us back together and our local businesses need us now more than ever. In spite of all of the challenges and uncertainty, this is why we remain committed to bringing back our events as soon as we can safely produce festivals. We rely on the generosity of our sponsors and our fans to keep French Quarter Festival free and to provide competitive wages for the musicians and all of the gig economy workers who bring our events to life.”
Booking for French Quarter Festival is well underway, with the promise of festival favorites as well as debut artists. Madero said to watch for a big reveal this summer. Fans can stay up to date and sign up for the online newsletter at frenchquarterfest.org. After more than a year of being in socially distanced groups of 12 or less, I can’t wait for someone to bump into my back while we’re both waiting in line to buy an oyster Rockefeller poor boy.