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Coming Home 

City and State efforts have positioned the Essence Music Festival to join the list of successful events -- like Jazz Fest, Mardi Gras and the Saints home season -- "to return to the city

COVS 7-3-07

By Alison Fensterstock

Ñ Mitch Landrieu photos - can use any music photos in folder.

pair Mitch Landrieu's photo with his pullquote. Can also use the following

(Michael Eric Dyson) A In an inversion of an old song, last year New Orleans knew exactly what it meant to miss Essence Fest. With the Superdome and the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center unavailable for the annual blowout, the powers that be at Essence made the decision to temporarily uproot the festival from its longtime home in New Orleans and transplant it to Houston's Astrodome.

Essence Fest was started in 1995 as a celebration of Essence magazine's 25th anniversary, and over the subsequent 11 years, evolved into one of the preeminent celebrations of contemporary hip-hop and R&B music. It's also a top destination for African-American travelers each summer, drawing nearly 70 percent of its attendance from outside southeastern Louisiana, according to Michelle Ebanks, president of Essence Communications. The economic impact of the festival is estimated at up to $132 million, with more than 200,000 festival attendees providing a much-welcome tourism-based economic shot in the arm for the city during a long, hot, slow summer. And although Houston made a strong bid to keep the event, this week, Essence is coming home.

Largely, Essence's return is the result of more than a year's worth of dedicated effort from Lt. Gov. Mitch Landrieu and the Louisiana Department of Culture, Recreation and Tourism, which forged a coalition of New Orleans tourism-based organizations in 2006 and charged them with bringing Essence back. The department's initiatives for kick-starting the economy based on Louisiana's cultural resources have largely stressed increasing involvement and awareness from supporters outside of the state, and Essence Fest is tailor-made for that attention -- a New Orleans-identified event with a national profile and reach. That last part is more significant now than ever before in the history of New Orleans' tenure as a host and partner for the festival, since shortly before Essence Fest 2005, Essence Communications, Inc., was acquired by Time Warner. With Essence now a member of a media empire with dozens of high-profile publications, hosting the festival wasn't only a serious economic boost and an appropriate cultural fit -- it is a unique chance to put New Orleans and the recovery effort directly in front of, essentially, almost all of the national media at once.

"One of the benefits [of the partnership] is that I've had the opportunity to meet with editors and publishers from every one of the Time Warner publications," Mitch Landrieu says. "And part of our marketing strategy was to use those to highlight our assets."

Landrieu began meetings with Ebanks, Essence Editorial Director Susan L. Taylor and Editor-in-Chief Angela Burt-Murray almost immediately after Essence 2006 ended, both in New Orleans and New York. Landrieu also formed his Essence Host Committee to pool resources and think strategically.

"It was like birthing a baby," laughs Landrieu. "The challenge was whether the festival was going to be economically viable. They went to Houston, and we got the Dome and the Convention Center ready. The state stepped right into the breach and put up $1.3 million to encourage the festival to come back here. The patrons weighed in and said they wanted Essence to come home. And hosting two successful Jazz Fests, two Mardi Gras and the Saints season gave them confidence that we were on our game. And I'm convinced it's going to be a huge success."

Representatives from the New Orleans Metropolitan Convention and Visitors Bureau, the New Orleans Tourism Marketing Corporation, the Louisiana Hotel and Lodging Association and the Department of Culture, Recreation and Tourism comprised what was a de facto host committee on a grand scale, meeting almost weekly over the course of the year to prep for the return of the event that traditionally makes up 75 to 80 percent of hotel bookings over the Fourth of July weekend every year. The fans were on the side of New Orleans -- online message boards heated up after the fest, praising the shows but complaining about Houston's sprawl, saying the show venues were too far from restaurants and clubs, traffic was difficult and Houston's 2 a.m. last call was lamentable, to say the least, for fans who were accustomed to New Orleans' laissez-faire attitude. Fortunately, Essence Fest agreed. In October of 2006, it announced plans to return to New Orleans this year.

"We had two years to think about coming back after obviously, leaving unexpectedly," says Ebanks. "The last thing we wanted to do was not be in the Superdome last year. Our hearts were always with the city of New Orleans and its residents, whose lives were so completely torn apart by the hurricane. The opportunity to come back just warmed our hearts. New Orleans is home. It's where it started. So the opportunity to return to the Convention Center, to the Superdome and to directly contribute to the city of New Orleans has been tremendous."

In early April, the Office of Culture, Recreation and Tourism organized a media roundtable, plus a performance by Allen Toussaint, in New York for about 20 Time Warner magazine editors to brief them on the recovery and encourage them to cover the continuing rebuilding efforts. The editors were also invited to visit New Orleans for the second weekend of Jazz Fest, and several accepted. Susan L. Taylor also visited New Orleans recently at the invitation of the lieutenant governor's office to give the keynote address at a forum on social entrepreneurship in New Orleans, a concept that encourages new efforts in advocacy and volunteerism.

The relationship with Essence is a perfect example of the kind of relationship his office has been working to build, Landrieu says.

"It's an example of having a good plan, good relationships, good leadership and creating win-win situations," Landrieu says. "There is a business side to culture that is a complement to bread-and-butter tourism. It's a strategic plan built on adding value to our raw talent and intellectual capital. Art, music, history, preservation, food ... how do you add value to it?" he asks, citing the tax incentives and credits for the film industry his office put into place as an example and the jobs created by bringing those projects -- and Essence -- to Louisiana. "In order to create partnerships, you have to reach beyond the state's borders to partners who know how to do that."

The Department of Culture, Recreation and Tourism set up yet another side project at Essence, inviting a dozen African-American meeting planners and leaders from all over the country to meet with the Louisiana Legislative Black Caucus and African-American business owners from southeastern Louisiana, for what they term a "familiarization tour" of the re-emergence of black-owned business in the areas affected by Katrina. The festival is also donating a portion of all ticket proceeds to the Children's Defense Fund Freedom Schools of New Orleans.

"Our editor-in-chief [Angela Burt-Murray] made a commitment to cover the ongoing story of the rebuilding efforts in New Orleans," Ebanks said last week. "We've covered New Orleans in every issue since the storm. That's been important to us. Angela organized a group of her counterparts at other Time, Inc. publications to tour New Orleans two months ago as a group," she said. "They will each in their own magazine collaborate to keep the issue of rebuilding top of mind. People, Entertainment Weekly, Fortune -- they were all there in New Orleans, realizing the importance of the story on a national level."

Known as the "party with a purpose," Essence Fest's daytime empowerment seminars serve as the serious, inspirational flip side to the night's parties. Although most of Essence's attendance base is coming from outside of Louisiana, the seminars, themed by day ("Love," "Restoration" and "Power") and with an overall official theme of "Claiming Our City ... Claiming Ourselves" predominantly deal with the aftermath of Katrina. It was announced last week that Democratic Senator Barack Obama, who has been more vocal than most presidential hopefuls about directing federal resources towards New Orleans, will also be addressing festivalgoers from the main stage at the Dome on opening night. Mayor C. Ray Nagin, State Senator Diana Bajoie, former Mayor Marc Morial and Mitch Landrieu are all speaking. Alongside panel discussions, screenings and lectures on everything from spiritually based wealth-building to problems of masculinity in the hip-hop community (that see juxtapositions like MC Lyte speaking on a panel with Cornel West), the empowerment seminars include discussions of post-Katrina New Orleans music, individual hurricane recovery stories, a documentary on New Orleans public schools and an appearance from Chuck D., who's been a vocal supporter of the city post-K.

Ebanks estimates that the festival brings about 600 temporary jobs to New Orleans, where, she says, they hire as many vendors as they can, from car rentals to catering. Festival Productions and AEG Entertainment, which produce the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, are also partnered with Essence Fest. They handle the entire production aspect of the festival and in the past have shared the booking, although this year they'll only be handling New Orleans talent.

The incentive package that the state put together via the host committee gives the festival over a million dollars worth of support, through direct payment and in-kind services like police, fire, sanitation, rent deferrals and marketing and production help, similar to the package the state has given the Jazz Fest and major sporting events. It's also a much more enticing deal than the previous contract, which gave the festival a base fee of about a quarter million dollars from the city and $300,000 from the hospitality industry. The old contract, signed with Mayor Nagin in 2003, was set to expire in 2006 with 2007 being an optional year. The festival had the option to either return or decline if 2006 didn't meet expectations. Since 2006 surely did not -- although in a completely different way than either side had foreseen -- both parties were uncertain whether Essence was contractually bound to return to New Orleans or not. In the end, the deal gives Essence the option to remain through 2009, and if either Essence or the city of New Orleans wants a change, the two sides must consult each other.

"Given that it's our first year back in New Orleans, both partners will have the opportunity to assess, take a look at the performance, and decide whether we go forward," Ebanks says. "The anticipation is to be here for several years, but we'll sit down and evaluate. I don't believe there's any better city to have a festival in than New Orleans."

click to enlarge uthor Michael Eric Dyson will deliver a keynote address and participate in panel discussions during daytime events at the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center.
  • uthor Michael Eric Dyson will deliver a keynote address and participate in panel discussions during daytime events at the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center.
click to enlarge "It's an example of having a good plan, good relationships, good leadership and creating win-win situations. There is a business side to culture that is a complement to bread-and-butter tourism. It's a strategic plan built on adding value to our raw talent and intellectual capital."
  • "It's an example of having a good plan, good relationships, good leadership and creating win-win situations. There is a business side to culture that is a complement to bread-and-butter tourism. It's a strategic plan built on adding value to our raw talent and intellectual capital."
click to enlarge cover_story-15693.jpeg
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