Money Gras

01:30 February 02, 2016
By: Kathy Bradshaw

How Fat Tuesday Fattens the Economy

New Orleans definitely has a lot more going for it than plastic beads and Bourbon Street: We've got music, beautiful architecture, some of the best food out there, unique culture and a whole lotta history. But there is no way around the fact that most people can't help but associate our fine city with Mardi Gras. And rightfully so. Even the humblest of hosts wants to be appreciated for pulling off a successful dinner party. And New Orleans is far from humble, and Mardi Gras is clearly no small affair. We put on the largest, most elaborate, exciting, and mind-blowing-est party in the entire world. So naturally everyone here would be a little disappointed if we didn't get a bit of recognition for our event-planning efforts. After all, we throw one heck of a shindig, with countless parades, scores of masked balls, endless private parties, gallons of liquor, and hundreds of thousands of king cakes...for over a million of our closest friends. And we do it every year, over and over for the past 158 years, with very few exceptions. Only a few measly wars and a yellow fever epidemic dared to stand in the way of our festivities. Not even Katrina was enough of a party pooper to rain on our parades. Come hell or high water, the party must go on.

So...business or pleasure? In the case of Mardi Gras, the correct answer is very much both. Sure, we're all out to have a good time-- to dress up in costumes, hang out with friends and family, eat and drink a little more than we ought to, maybe get some cool bling falling from a passing float... It's our chance to be entertained, be happy, and forgo reality for one carefree Tuesday (and for weeks before that as well, if we dare). But let's face it, Mardi Gras is also big business. Really big business. It is a giant purple, green, and gold commercial monster that brings in at least half a billion dollars a year to the city of New Orleans. At approximately 1.5% of New Orleans' total annual income, Mardi Gras is the city's second-largest single money-maker, next to the Super Bowl (when it's held here). Though the city is forking out a few million bucks to get the party started, it is still coming out way ahead. For every dollar spent, approximately $8.45 comes right back into local pockets in one form or another. So where exactly does all this moola changing hands come from, and where does it go?

Due to a poor economy in the late 19th century, Mardi Gras was first marketed as a tourist attraction in the 1870's. New Orleans used its renowned celebration to lure visitors to the city for fun, frivolity and excessive spending. Obviously, it worked. It is a trend that has certainly caught on... today thousands of tourists, most of them practicing a generous open-wallet policy, flock here each year during the period on and around Mardi Gras. This more than doubles the population of New Orleans. If you throw the locals into the festive pandemonium, over a million people make merry at Mardi Gras every year.

 

Lodging

All these happy revelers need a place to lay their party-weary heads. According to one source, there are nearly 37,000 hotel rooms in New Orleans-- close to 90% of which are booked up during the two weeks leading up to Fat Tuesday. And this is despite the fact that the hotels jack up the prices an average of 151% more than their usual rate. (A basic room at the Hotel Monteleone, for instance, goes for $453 with taxes. The same room in December books for $204). It comes as no surprise, therefore, that the hotels are raking in at least 55 million bucks during this period-- nearly three quarters of the combined salary of all the New Orleans Saints. 
 

Money Gras 

Food and Alcohol

Some reports claim that hotel guests spend more than $52 million above and beyond the price of their room. This includes such things as gumbo, beer, hurricanes, pedicab rides down Bourbon Street, and "other services" (which were not specified and I can only assume refer to expenses like getting a mani-pedi in Mardi Gras colors). But of course, the eating and drinking would be the biggest chunk of this large number.

Money Gras

Locals have got to eat too, and they do so plenty during Mardi Gras season. New Orleanians often host parties, entertain guests, need a good selection of parade-watching munchies, or just want that holiday splurge. Studies claim that during Mardi Gras, supermarket sales reach $2.5 million. That's enough for 65 tons of Zapp's chips, over a million bottles of Crystal hot sauce, and 334,538 loaves of po-boy bread. That's a lot of grocery-makin', y'all.

One food item that is a particularly big seller this time of year is of course the illustrious king cake. Local bakeries bake up a combined total of more than 750,000 of these frosted concoctions every Carnival season. Some shops bake as many as 3500 cakes every day, and sell close to 500 of them daily. The person who finds the plastic baby inside has to buy the next king cake, which contains the baby that will force someone else to buy the king cake after that, and so on down the line hundreds of thousands of times, thus further stimulating the economy with every sugary bite.

Money Gras

But Mardi Gras just wouldn't be Mardi Gras without a little something inebriating to wash all that king cake down. With 3,000 bars in New Orleans, beer sales up about 20% this time of year, thousands of potent hurricanes and Hand Grenades being guzzled, and all the many bottles of king cake-flavored vodka, just to name a few libations...Mardi Gras revelers down approximately $3.4 million worth of alcohol. That's enough to buy every resident in the city of Shreveport two rounds at Pat O'Brien's. No wonder some of it ends up recycled on our sidewalks.

Money Gras

Krewes

Next to the tourists, it's probably the 50+ krewes who are the biggest spenders at Carnival time. In fact, since corporate sponsorship of parades is forbidden, the krewes are the real backers of Mardi Gras. They spend over $11 million on everything from putting on the many parades we all enjoy, hosting fancy balls and parties, acquiring the necessary licenses, buying throws, costumes and masks, and a whole array of extraneous expenses. The Krewe of King Arthur once spent $4000 on ladders just to climb onto their floats, and $3000 on fire extinguishers in case things got heated.

It costs big bucks just to be a part of a krewe. Individual members must pay annual dues which can range in the thousands of dollars. Considering there are more than 100,000 krewe members participating in the parades every year, with all the added expenses they must absorb independently of their krewe as a whole, krewe members themselves spend a total of $13 million annually. That's more than the city of New Orleans collected in parking tickets in 2013. Interestingly, it's also more than they devoted to healthcare in 2012.

Money Gras

Costumes

The costume industry is major commerce in New Orleans, and opens up money-making opportunities to a wide range of local businesses beyond your basic costume or mask boutique-- like vintage and thrift stores and wig shops. We all know New Orleanians love an excuse to get dressed up, and they are willing to pay good money to do it. Some stay frugal with homemade costumes or $5 boas, but it is not unusual, especially for krewe members, to drop a quick thousand on extravagant masks and fancy dresses-- even a $50,000 ball gown which, according to one krewe, is only deemed worthy of "mid-range" status.

Money Gras

Throws

Money doesn't grow on trees, but it does apparently fall from parade floats. Each krewe spends anywhere from $800 to $2000 on beads and other throws which they fling at parade watchers. Dan Kelly of Endymion estimates that his krewe alone purchases eight million pounds of plastic a year. But throws today-- subjected to what is sometimes referred to as "bead inflation"--are only getting fancier and more expensive. No one can settle for the ordinary, boring stuff anymore. So krewes are now striving for originality by ordering custom beads, and strands with all the bells and whistles, like light-up and jumbo varieties. Not to mention the non-bead throws, such as doubloons-- which are often minted at a rather steep price, plastic cups printed with krewe emblems, and the coveted and costly high-heeled shoes offered up by the Krewe of Muses. The "Superkrewes" like Bacchus and Endymion "rain" over their faithful parade subjects with 1.5 million plastic cups, 2.5 million doubloons, and 200,000 beads.

Money Gras

Floats

Float-builders like Blaine Kern of Mardi Gras World work year round to create those four-wheeled masterpieces which highlight every Mardi Gras parade. Whether it's making a new float from scratch or recycling and sprucing up an old one, they produce more than 400 floats annually, or roughly one per day. A garden-variety used and refurbished float is a bargain at a mere $10,000. But the fancy-schmancy ones-- which can be as tall as 18 feet and up to fifty feet in length, all blinged out with lights, technology, moving parts, and space for dozens of krewe members and their giant bags of beads and assorted plastic cargo-- can run you more than a (albeit tiny) condo in the French Quarter, or up to $175,000. I'm moving in.

 

Money Gras

City Government

The New Orleans city government naturally has quite a financial burden as well. They spend $1.5 million on police protection and crowd control, $143,000 in emergency medical services, such as stomach-pumping and treatment of trampling injuries, $106,000 to get the city all polished up and looking pretty-- to patch up at least the largest, truck-swallowing potholes and paint over some of the most offensive eyesores. And, they shell out a whopping $824,000 on clean-up and sanitation. Each and every of the more than 80 parades produces at least fifty tons of garbage, for a total of 4,000 tons of debris annually (nearly 18 times the weight of the Statue of Liberty) in the French Quarter and CBD alone. Glad once donated 2,100 boxes of trash bags to the cause. Ash Wednesday, otherwise known as "Trash Wednesday," for obvious reasons, is used as an indicator of how financially lucrative a Mardi Gras has been. In this rare ironic twist, the trashier Bourbon Street is, the better.

Money Gras

Miscellaneous

There are plenty of random expenses as well. Print publications, such as books, magazines, and parade guides cost nearly $500,000 a year. There are music costs, advertising, and the additional staffing required, from surplus street sweepers to bartenders. And of course souvenirs. We mustn't forget the material goodies. Merchandising is a million dollar industry, with Mardi Gras-themed loot in every shape and size: snow globes, rubber duckies, shot glasses, socks, home decor-- since most locals want to decorate for the occasion, king cake-shaped earrings, and even purple, green, and gold lingerie. What about those silly little costs you take for granted, like hand sanitizer to wipe the Bourbon Street off your hands, cans of Red Bull to extend your night, and bottles of Advil for the morning after, or portable grills and coolers for a long, hungry day of parade watching? The list goes on and on...

 

Money Gras


It seems that only New Orleans knows how to tame this half-billion dollar economic beast that is Mardi Gras. Some of us gain from it, and some of us feed it our hard-earned dough...and as locals, the majority of us usually engage in some amount of both earning and spending. But then, recycling and reallocating our doubloons and dinero is the only way to keep the economy-- and the party-- booming. So happy Mardi Gras. Enjoy it. Let the good times roll right alongside the floats. Get out there and have some guilt-free fun... without worrying about over-spending or over-indulging. You've got forty days and forty nights to repent for it afterwards.

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