Capital Carnival

Washington Mardi Gras connects Louisiana business professionals, elected leaders and government officials in the nation’s capital.

Led by The Mystick Krewe of Louisianians, Washington Mardi Gras (WMG) celebrated its 75th anniversary this year, bringing the pageantry, revelry and mystery of Mardi Gras to Washington, D.C. The celebrations, which drew nearly 5,000 attendees, is not only one of the largest annual gatherings (significantly boosting the local economy) in D.C., but it also greatly impacts economic development in Louisiana.

Weeklong Events

Officially held January 25-28 this year (with other events also held earlier in the week), WMG included a collection of independent events, meetings and parties hosted by business and government organizations from across Louisiana. In addition to formal events hosted by The Mystick Krewe of Louisianians—such as the annual Carnival Ball held at the Washington Hilton (with Drew Brees as this year’s king and Camille Elizabeth Morrison as queen) and a small parade of hand-pushed floats—GNO, Inc. also hosted a number of events.

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In fact, Rachel Shields, chief of staff at GNO, Inc., developed the concept for and produced the Louisiana Engage! series of events, on behalf of GNO, Inc. “The second iteration [of the series] took place [this year],” she said. “The series provided a host of benefits for both Louisiana and D.C. stakeholders.”

For example, The Masque social event kicked off WMG with Louisiana entertainment, entrepreneur chefs and Louisiana-branded giveaways, hosted at Union Stage at The Wharf with more than 350 local business and community leaders registered from both Louisiana and D.C. The following day, the Federal Briefing Lunch—a marquee event of the Louisiana Engage! series—featured congressional and executive branch leadership speakers (including Louisiana native, Shalanda D. Young, director of the U.S. Office of Management and Budget) and had more than 300 attendees. Both The Masque and the Federal Briefing Lunch were held in conjunction with GNO, Inc.’s NextGen Council with a focus on bringing in fresh perspectives from young professionals.

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Other elements of Louisiana Engage! included the WMG Survival Kit (a collection of food and hospitality items donated by Louisiana brands), prize giveaways provided by 17 Louisiana businesses (including a grand prize valued at $4,000 from Boudreaux’s Jewelers) and WMG Navigation Tips (a customized guidebook to help new festivalgoers maximize their experience).

“The top priority of the Louisiana Engage! series is to elevate and bring value to Louisianans, our brands and our businesses,” Shields said. “The series brought together hundreds of leaders from across the state to network together, learn together, and establish new relationships and connections. We also engage our D.C. friends and colleagues (as many are Louisiana natives), supporters and partners.”

One such sponsor is Magnolia Strategic Consultants, part of a conglomerate of companies (The Magnolia Companies) that fosters innovation and economic development in the GNO region and across the South. “Magnolia has sponsored and participated in Washington Mardi Gras for many years, so when GNO, Inc. approached The Magnolia Companies with the idea of having two specific events dedicated to the NextGen Council, we jumped on the opportunity to be the title sponsor,” said Katie Kilbert, vice president of business strategy at Magnolia Strategic Consultants.

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Embracing Cultural Exchange

According to Chris Kane, partner at Adams and Reese and board chair at GNO, Inc., WMG is the most productive convention he attends on an annual basis. In addition to 14 formal meetings and an untold number of informal meetings, Kane participated in the Federal Briefing Lunch and several work dinners that mixed advancing a variety of business needs and policy agendas with a more relaxed and Mardi Gras casual environment. 

“We are able to conduct so many meetings in a short period of time, and in a welcoming and relaxed environment,” Kane said. “For the better part of one week, our business, community and political leaders spend time in Washington, D.C., promoting our region. Having a large voice coupled with such a fun environment ensures that our message is being heard.”

As the 75th iteration of the event, WMG drew more than 3,000 attendees from Louisiana (and more than 5,000 attendees in total). “We can expect this tradition to continue, but what I expect from the Louisiana Engage! series is tremendous growth in attendance and participation from WMG veterans and newcomers,” Shields said. “We are nurturing the next generation of WMG-goers.”

In addition to boosting the local economy in D.C., WMG also represents an export of Louisiana culture. For example, Louisiana Engage! welcomed leaders of every culture, geography, industry and age within Louisiana. “The Louisiana Engage! series brings together hundreds of diverse Louisianans and D.C. colleagues to learn from each other and to nurture and build relationships,” Shields says. “And our Federal Briefing Lunch features speakers on critical economic development issues, challenges and priorities—and how to engage in them.”

“While we celebrate the traditional aspects of Mardi Gras, there is much more to the week of events,” Kane added. “Every festival queen from each parish is recognized. There are numerous Louisiana bands who attend from zydeco to brass. And the locals love us, as evidenced by the Mardi Gras beads worn at nearly every major restaurant throughout the District during WMG week.”

Louisiana Engage! also draws on Louisiana talent for events, and Louisiana brands and products for giveaways. For example, The Masque featured a cast of Louisiana providers, including entertainment by DJ Raj Smoove and cuisine by Jambalaya Girl, Friends of Codey’s, Viola’s Heritage Breads, DREAM Kitchen and locally sourced snacks by Box of Care Gift Company. Meanwhile, Louisiana Alive, which took place on Thursday night, also featured Louisiana bands and food from a bevy of Louisiana restaurants.

Until Next Year

Best described as the intersection of business, government and Louisiana’s historic culture, WMG is the largest gathering of Louisiana business professionals, elected leaders and government officials in the nation’s capital. And the event will likely only continue to grow in the future.

“Thousands participate each year for this unique affair that is rich in social interaction and relationship-building among Louisiana’s finest leaders,” Shields said. “In its inaugural year, Louisiana Engage! was developed as a pathway to engage more Louisiana young professionals in Washington Mardi Gras week. However, it was such a successful venture that everyone wanted to participate. In its second year, all participating Louisianans were invited. As well, our D.C. colleagues, congressional staffers and friends were invited to join us for our kick-off event, The Masque.”

What began as a demonstration of the spirit of Mardi Gras has since grown into a celebration of Louisiana, the state’s politics and its people. “We received incredibly positive feedback from both attendees and GNO, Inc. investors,” Kilbert said. “The [Federal Briefing Lunch] has evolved into one of the premier events at Washington Mardi Gras. It’s been truly rewarding to see such enthusiastic responses, and it motivates us to keep raising the bar for future events. We intend to continue our title sponsorship with both the Krewe itself, as well as with GNO, Inc.”


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