NEW ORLEANS -- Essence's chief executive officer said she's been asked multiple times whether the Essence Festival of Culture is staying in New Orleans. On Thursday, Caroline Wanga ended any speculation, making the answer to that question very clear.
“The Essence Festival of Culture is never leaving the City of New Orleans,” Wanga said repeatedly during a news conference held to welcome the in-person event back to the city after a forced break of two years due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We are embedded and born together,” Wanga said of the brand's relationship to the city. “We need each other.”
The city's current contract with the festival runs through 2024. Discussions are currently being held regarding a contract extension, said John F. Lawson, deputy press secretary for Mayor LaToya Cantrell’s administration.
Essence Fest started in 1995 as a one-time salute to celebrate the 25th anniversary of Essence magazine. Known as “a party with a purpose,” its original mission was to give back to the community through free seminars designed to enrich women’s lives. Since then, Essence Fest has evolved into the world’s largest celebration of Black women, culture and community, attracting more than 500,000 visitors in past years, officials said.
Before the pandemic hiatus sparked the festival's virtual birth, it had been held in New Orleans every year except in 2006 when it moved to Houston while the Superdome was being repaired following Hurricane Katrina. Its virtual experience has drawn more than 100 million views, organizers have said.
This year, they also noted it will be the first time they're offering a live component and the option to connect virtually. Hulu will be the official streaming platform for the festival, providing select programming, including panel discussions and nightly musical performances. The livestream will run Friday through Sunday from 7 p.m. to 11:59 p.m. CDT.
Cantrell thanked Essence and its corporate partners for returning to the city “to invest in our communities and our neighborhoods.”
“The needs are great and the time is now,” she said.
Since its inception, the festival has been a huge summer economic driver for the city. In past years, it's had a $200 million impact on city revenues and was expected to draw that or more this year, tourism officials said.
Kelly Schulz, a spokeswoman for New Orleans and Company, which tracks hotel occupancy in the French Quarter and central business district, said hotels are expected to be about 90% full Friday and Saturday and around 80% on Sunday, the festival's closing night. The occupancy numbers mirror or are near those reported in 2019, the last time the festival held an in-person event.
“Having the festival return is hugely significant,” Schulz said. “There's been a lot of pent up demand for this in New Orleans, but not just from our hotels. It's coming from our restaurants, our music clubs, the shops, the artists, the tour groups." She added, “We are ecstatic Essence is back on our calendar and excited to have them here."