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Essence moves online for 2021, a major blow to tourism industry

It's estimated that people who attend Essence spend $200 million to $300 million in the city each year.

NEW ORLEANS — The Morial Convention Center is a bit of a ghost town these days.

COVID-19 cases have put events on hold.

That means Essence Fest participants won’t crowd the convention center or Superdome in the coming months.

Instead, the festival is going virtual again this year during the last weekend of June and first weekend of July. It's not good news from a financial standpoint.

It's estimated that people who attend Essence spend $200 million to $300 million in the city each year.

But Mark Romig, with New Orleans and Company, the city's convention and visitor's bureau, says going virtual again is the right move right now.

“We look forward to 2022 when we can have the full Essence back here as we expect to happen,” he said.

LaVerne Toombs, who heads up the New Orleans Regional Black Chamber of Commerce, said another year without Essence -- and the lack of the Bayou Classic in the city -- will have direct impacts on Black-owned businesses in particular.

“I'm not saying that all black businesses are relying on the hospitality industry, but a large number of them are,” Toombs said. “And when you have a big entity like an Essence or a Bayou Classic or Mardi Gras, it impacts them in a number of ways.”

With COVID cases still high across the country, the city has strict limits in place on crowd sizes: no more than 10 inside, no more than 25 outside.

Hardly the way to host a festival.

Keith Spera, who covers the music scene for The Times-Picayune and New Orleans Advocate, said Essence's plans to go virtual this year is a smart way to move forward.

“They wanted to get out in front of it early and let the fans know not to make their travel plans for New Orleans because now, in the early part of the year, is when people would start thinking about that,” he said.

The festival will tape some events for the digital broadcast. Some lucky locals will be invited to be in the crowds. And that means at least some spending during a time that might otherwise see none.

“It'll be a cool event for people to watch online, some folks -- some invited guests -- will get to see it in person, so that's a nice kind of splitting the difference between a totally virtual festival and an in-person festival,” he said.

Now, as COVID cases appear to be trending downward, the hope is that the second half of the year will be better, and celebrations such as Jazz Fest will be able to happen.

“We're only going to get there if we do the right things now. I think the decisions we're making now will ensure that we can have a robust economy for everyone going forward,” Romig said.

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