Sugar Bowl holds hopes for New Orleans tourism

Published 11:17 pm Thursday, January 1, 2009

When the Sugar Bowl fans began arriving en masse, their presence heralded by their team colors, artist Reggie Ford did something he said he hadn’t done on a Wednesday all year: he set up shop along a main promenade in the French Quarter — and began to capitalize.

“It’s so busy,” he said, keeping an eye on a woman and young girl trying to decide which print to buy as others walked by. “This is prime real estate.”

Many New Orleans-area businesses and artists that rely on tourists hope Friday night’s Alabama-Utah game gets 2009 off to a good start and provides a much-needed lift after a year that began with great promise but wound up rocked by another hurricane and consumer jitters.

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Hotels are reporting “average” occupany for a Sugar Bowl, which a good sign given the national recession, said Mavis Early, executive director of the Greater New Orleans Hotel and Lodging Association.

While she couldn’t say how fully the city was booked, tens of thousands of fans are expected.

“I think you can say, it’s a good time for the tourism industry and … there will be a good economic impact,” she said.

Kelly Teal hopes so, especially after a holiday shopping season that was only “kind of OK,” for the store where she works, Purse Fetish.

This week, business has been “good, really good,” she said, with shoppers favoring the sunglasses and purses on sale. “People are buying. They’re nice.”

Tourism officials, while voicing optimism about 2009, are waiting to see if the sluggish economy prompts businesses to send fewer attendees to conventions or keep other travelers at home. One possible indicator will come next month, when the city hosts one of its first major tourist events of the year, Mardi Gras.

All this comes with many small businesses not yet recovered from Hurricane Katrina, which hit in August 2005. Momentum generated early in 2008 — when the city successfully hosted a series of high-profile events, including the national college football championship, NBA All-Star game and perennial favorite Jazz Fest — was stalled when the city was ordered evacuated over the typically busy Labor Day weekend for Hurricane Gustav. A light fall convention schedule didn’t help.

“We knew going in it would be a challenging season for us,” said Mary Beth Romig, a spokeswoman for the New Orleans’ convention and visitors’ bureau. “But, on the flip side, for 2009, we are ahead of the curve.”

At least seven conventions have already been booked for June and July — typically slow months for the city’s bread-and-butter tourism industry because of the hot, sticky weather. That’s in a period when perhaps two conventions, in addition to the Essence music festival, is considered nice going.

Mark Wilson, a spokesman for the French Quarter Business Association, doesn’t know if some businesses will be able to hang on that long. But he’s optimistic overall and thinks the Sugar Bowl will be a great lead-in to ’09.

His message to business owners: “Tighten your belt. Offer good customer service. Hunker down. And I think we’ll be OK.”

Officials are branding the city as a great value — a place where, when you’re promised good food and music, you get it — and hope the exposure of a nationally televised college football game will accomplish the same things as an advertising campaign.

Marilyn and Peggy Stone didn’t think twice about making the trip from Salt Lake City when they heard their alma mater, Utah, would be playing in the Sugar Bowl. But they were sensitive to the cost: They didn’t take a big vacation last year, cut back on Christmas spending and saved money by taking the train instead of flying, even though it took two days to get here.

While in New Orleans, they didn’t plan anything extravagant; a tour was the expected highlight before the game. On Wednesday morning, they sat in Jackson Square in shirt-sleeves, watching the milling tourists and enjoying weather that was chilly by local standards but downright balmy to them.

Pam Bell, an Alabama fan from Grayson, Ga., said the trip and game were her Christmas present.

“I’m killing time until the football game,” she said, as she and her husband, Steve, strolled past T-shirt shops, cafes and boutiques along Decatur Street.