Festive Weekend Before Mardi Gras Has French Quarter Businesses Smiling

Monday, February 19th 2007, 6:18 am
By: News On 6

NEW ORLEANS (AP) _ The final weekend leading up to Mardi Gras has been a boon for hotels, restaurants and bars, with business generally brisker than last year, the first Carnival since Hurricane Katrina devastated the city.

``The weekend was surprisingly busy,'' said Earl Bernhardt, co-owner of two bars and a blues club in the French Quarter. ``The crowd is bigger and they're spending a lot of money.''

Merchants, hotel operators and others felt the crowd would exceed the 700,000 the New Orleans Convention and Visitors Bureau said visited the city during the same time period last year.

``It was an excellent weekend,'' said Michael Valentino, managing partner of three French Quarter hotels. He said, ``There is clearly more demand this year. It's feeling more like our normal Mardi Gras pressure.''

More than 95 percent of the city's total available rooms were reserved for Mardi Gras weekend, said Fred Sawyers, president of the Greater New Orleans Hotel & Lodging Association and general manager of the New Orleans Hilton.

That's up from 92 percent occupancy for the first weekend of Carnival, Feb. 10-11, he said.

The city was eager to stage its annual pre-Lenten celebration last year to show tourists that they could return.

The first Carnival since Hurricane Katrina was scaled down _ 68 daily flights into the city, 42 parades rolled and 600 restaurants open, according to the New Orleans Tourism Marketing Corporation. Of the 20,000 hotel rooms habitable last year, only 13,000 were available to visitors. The rest were taken by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, volunteers and contractors.

This year there are 30,000 hotel rooms, 1,648 restaurants open, 110 daily flights and 50 major parades, according to the marketing corporation.

One of the lingering problems for restaurants and bars is the lack of employees. Since Hurricane Katrina scattered the city's residents, many places have scrambled to get workers.

At Pat O'Brien's, the famous Quarter bar and patio that is home to the rum drink the Hurricane, visitors did not seem to mind the shortage, said Shelly Waguespack, vice president of administration.

``People seem to understand,'' she said. ``It's a happy group. They aren't complaining.''