Big N.O. spring may lead to summer slump

NEW ORLEANS (AP) - New Orleans latest tourist event - the annual New Orleans Wine and Food Experience - provided the perfect occasion for tourism officials in the Crescent City to raise a toast to one of their most successful springs ever.

A successful string of events began in the winter, with the Sugar Bowl and BCS championship in January. It kept going in the spring with the NCAA Final Four and other events. Hotel rooms were full, restaurants booked, and gift shops constantly restocking.

New Orleans Navy Week, marking the anniversary of the War of 1812, saw 120,000 people turn out. The New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival had 450,000 in attendance, its highest numbers since 2003.

The arrival of south Louisiana's steamy summer and hurricane season usually turns the steady stream of visitors to a trickle. This year, however, the people who count on tourist dollars hope to avoid the doldrums with big conventions and aggressive marketing.

Beginning in June, there are conventions through September, with such large gatherings as the National Urban League, the Southern Baptists and the U. S. Department of Education.

Kelly Shultz of the New Orleans Convention and Visitors Bureau said 2012 will be the best July for conventions since Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005, and they are anticipating the best August and September in three years.

The city is also hoping to capitalize on the growing popularity of its many festivals.

The Wine and Food Experience, which started out with about 100 people in a hotel ballroom, marked its twentieth year this year, with sold out events staged across the city, typical of the change seen once small festivals drawing mostly residents.

The 2012 French Quarter Festival drew 574,000 people for the four days it ran,

"Festivals are great," said Mark Romig, Chief Executive Officer of the New Orleans Tourism Marketing Corp. "They are held around food, they are held around music, all things that draw people to this area to begin with."

The New Orleans Tourism Marketing Corporation is marketing the festivals this summer. The corporation is hoping to draw those from what Romig refers to as the "Drive Market" - anyone within a one-day drive or a two-hour flight - to attend one of the 15 festivals to be held before Sept. 1.

"It's an easy drive from Texas, Alabama, any of the surrounding states," Romig said. "They see this as a great getaway weekend. And it's still a bargain to visit in the summer."

(Copyright 2012 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)