French Quarter Festival and the Impact on the Community

Celebrating 40 years this year, the French Quarter Festival creates thousands of jobs and hundreds of millions of dollars for the city each year – a miraculous feat considering its staff and budget. President & CEO Emily Madero shares how it all happens and the exciting new additions for this year.

This year’s French Quarter Fest will be held April 11-14 and promises to be bigger and better than ever. Boasting an expanded footprint, it will include more than 300 performances across 21 stages, including more than 70 musical debuts. Known almost as much for its food, the festival this year will also feature more than 60 culinary experiences, including 16 new offerings.

In a city known for its festivals — New Orleans hosts more than 130 unique offerings every year — the French Quarter Festival was created as more than just a good time. There was a very specific goal in mind, one that still serves the city when it needs it most.

- Sponsors -

In 1983, as part of the preparations for the 1984 New Orleans World’s Fair, major work was done to repair streets and sidewalks in the French Quarter. The extensive reconstruction kept locals and visitors away from Vieux Carré businesses for months. That same year, to draw people back to the district, the first-ever French Quarter Festival organization was formed.

The first event took place in April 1984.Fewer than 10 stages presented traditional jazz and other New Orleans artists, and only a few hundred people attended, but nonetheless, a tradition was born.

Fast forward to 2023 and, despite some heavy rain, 875,000 attendees flocked to the French Quarter and enjoyed more than 250 musical acts while sampling delicacies from 60-plus local restaurants.

- Partner Content -

Entergy’s Energy Smart Program Brings Cost Conscious Innovation to New Orleans

Offering comprehensive energy efficiency at no cost to the consumer, Entergy’s Energy Smart program incentivizes Entergy New Orleans customers to perform energy-saving upgrades in...

The event is produced by French Quarter Festivals, Inc. (FQFI), whose efforts to drive traffic to the heart of the city have also included putting on the popular Satchmo SummerFest since 2000.

FQFI is led by President & CEO Emily Madero, who took the helm in 2017 after previous work with New Orleans Entrepreneur Week, The Idea Village, and the Campaign for Equity, among others. Biz New Orleans recently spoke with Madero about the growth of the festival, its economic and cultural impacts — and where you put 875,00 extra people in the French Quarter.

What are some major French Quarter Festival milestones over the years?

- Sponsors -

It clearly has evolved from a couple of stages and Richard Simmons bouncing around the French Quarter. We are an independent 501(c)3 nonprofit — we’re not funded or governed by the city. But the founding mission remains really relevant, particularly post-COVID, in terms of celebrating our local culture and music, and doing it in a way that drives economic opportunity for the neighborhood and the businesses.

How did Satchmo SummerFest come about?

After the renaming of the airport in 2000, we had the first Satchmo SummerFest. Louis Armstrong is probably the most famous and world-renowned artist to come from New Orleans and his music continues to stay relevant. That is a much smaller event, but a really important one in terms of our mission and thinking about how we can support those “need times” and also celebrate what makes New Orleans music and culture unique.

August is certainly a down time.

I can’t tell you how many times we have looked into other times of the year when it would be easier to host an event, and more comfortable, but the feedback we’ve gotten from the area businesses is that the city can’t completely shut down between August and September, so that is where we can have the most positive impact.

You don’t just host events in the summer, though, right?

Correct. The founding of Holidays New Orleans Style and the concert series that we did in 1985, very soon after French Quarter Festival, was a milestone. The organization brought back Réveillon, which was a tradition late in the Victorian era that had gone dormant. That was a way to draw visitors and locals to the French Quarter in December, which was a very quiet time of year.

How was FQFI impacted by the pandemic?

We never shut down; we did all sorts of crazy things that we never thought we would have to do, including pivoting to digital performances. We were able to come back in 2021 with Satchmo SummerFest and host that in a safe way, however, and bring back French Quarter Festival post-COVID.

French Quarter Festival was so important to morale, and to the musicians and restaurants we work with. It really reinforced how important our mission is and the impact is. I had bond companies that were doing the ratings for the Superdome calling me, saying “When are you bringing the festival back?” I was super-grateful to retain my full staff and keep us busy, and we remained ready to host as soon as it was going to be safe to do so. That was a tremendous success — to ensure that this nearly 40-year-old organization was able to continue and thrive in spite of really terrible circumstances.

What has contributed most to the growth of the festival?

First and foremost, the fact that we have such incredible native talent, and we’re situated here in New Orleans. French Quarter Festival is the largest family block party that you’ll ever go to. It takes place in a historic neighborhood, and there are no barriers economically — there’s no tickets required so folks can experience it in a very fluid and comfortable way. There are so many different French Quarter Festival experiences, kind of like Mardi Gras, so if you’re into funk and rock and blues and big crowds, we’ve got you covered on the riverfront. Then we’ve got passionate traditional jazz fans that really appreciate the small, intimate street stages along Royal Street. You take an event like Lollapalooza, and those festivals can happen in any big city in the nation. The only place where you’ll be able to experience French Quarter Festival is in New Orleans.

What does it take to put on an event like this?

It takes a very passionate and dedicated team of eight people working on this 12 months out of the year. We are meticulous planners, and it really does take 12 months to be able to navigate the myriad details and stakeholders. It takes communication and support and collaboration, internally with our employees and crew members and partners and sponsors, and with the City of New Orleans and the businesses and the residents of the French Quarter. It is a yearlong effort every year to make it happen.

What is the biggest challenge?

It’s an incredible responsibility to have hundreds of thousands of people out there, and managing the security and making it a joyful, fun event. But in terms of the work to make it happen, it is limited resources and working in a relatively small city, with a small business ecosystem. I think New Orleanians appreciate and are passionate about our music and culture, but I think there’s also this misconception that there are unlimited resources when, in fact, the economics of hosting a massive event, a free event at scale, are sort of upside-down. It takes a tremendous amount of community support and philanthropy to make it happen. That is the biggest hill we climb every year.

How is the festival funded?

The largest contributors are festival sales and sponsorships. When you go to the festival and purchase an Abita beer or a Pepsi, or some of our merchandise, that helps make it all possible. Thirty-six percent of our income is generated by sales onsite. About 54% of our income comes from sponsorships. At a lot of other festivals, you might have a small pyramid of three to six big logos. We have hundreds, and you can participate in everything from [sponsoring]a stage to an individual musician. Donations are another one, very small, about 4%, but it’s something that we are looking to grow. We have a small amount of grants that we write every year — it’s about 1%. Then about 5% comes from “other.” We may have opportunities for contracts, or fee for service. That’s our “hustle” category.

Obviously the economic impact has grown as the festival has grown. Describe the benefits that French Quarter Festival creates economically.

Last year we generated a $313 million economic impact: We work with the UNO Hospitality Research Institute to determine that amount. That has implications for the local GDP in general, and directly contributes to state and local tax dollars. It creates 2,800 jobs for locals every year and generates about $90 million in wages. These numbers are pretty significant considering we have a full-time staff of eight and about a $5 million budget. We work with over 70 local restaurants, many of whom share that, second to Mardi Gras, this is their biggest income-producing time of the year. Then there’s 2,000 musicians that we hire. I think more important than the check we write — although that is very important — is that we showcase not only rising talent but our local legends and musicians on a global stage.

You have about 1,500 volunteers. How important are they to making this happen?

They are critical. It is a massive collaboration to put on this festival with limited resources. Beyond the individual volunteers, we work across all city agencies — NOPD, NOFD, NO EMS, Homeland Security — many agencies come together to make sure that we can host a joyous and safe event. Our volunteers help with everything — they’re at the merchandise and beverage booths, they’re out at the gates and the information booths, they’re taking surveys and serving as an extension of our core team.

How does your background with New Orleans Entrepreneur Week, The Idea Village and the Campaign for Equity play into your current role?

I’m very passionate about New Orleans music and art and culture. But my professional background was a bit unique in terms of this role and this organization’s history, in that I wasn’t coming from an event or hospitality space. I was looking through the lens of nonprofit capacity-building, ecosystem development, thinking about the broader mission and impact.

I have an incredibly talented team, and they are very focused on ensuring that we host beautiful events every year. I’m very involved in that, but even more importantly, building a foundation and revisiting our founding mission, our purpose, in terms of our impact and being thoughtful about how we can deepen and expand.

Our purpose is to uplift New Orleans’ cultural economy and those who create it. It has evolved since its founding, which was more focused on supporting businesses in the French Quarter. I focus on systems-level, and ecosystem-level thinking about our commitments to New Orleans’ cultural economy, and also ensuring that we’re building a New Orleans that is more sustainable and more equitable, certainly from a racial equity standpoint. I really focus on being thoughtful about everything that we do in the organization, from leadership development to financial and programming decisions to strategic partnerships.

What would you say are the biggest lessons you’ve learned since stepping into this role?

It’s complicated (laughs). It’s how much New Orleanians love and appreciate our music and cultural assets and our talent, and how much we take it for granted. We have many organizations that are really dedicated to this, but it feels very fragile and tenuous. Every year is a make-or-break year. What I didn’t realize coming in is how many stakeholders and how massive the communications and collaboration and all the details are to do this in a way where we can accomplish our goals, our guests can have a good time, and the neighborhood and city can benefit from it.

Where do you put 875,000 people in four days?

Luckily, they’re not all there at the same time, and we span the whole French Quarter. That is something that we are thoughtful about. It isn’t necessarily growth for growth’s sake that we’re striving for. We certainly want to maintain the volume of visitors and the economic impact but do that in a way that is thoughtful and in keeping with the city and the neighborhood.

Will there be anything new at the festival this year?

Yes! As New Orleans music is constantly evolving, we want to maintain those traditions that people look forward to every year, but we also want to stretch and grow ourselves, so we have two new stages.

First, we’ll have the Posigen Solar DJ stage in front of the aquarium. This evolved from our entertainment committee’s recognition that this was a slice of New Orleans’ musical talent that we hadn’t fully explored and celebrated.

In addition, since I think the food is at least 50% of what draws people to the festival, this year we will have a culinary stage that will feature chef demos. Chef Kevin Belton will be hosting, and you can learn about how Vance Vaucresson makes his sausage or make yakamein with Miss Linda. There’s going to be a bunch of local chefs talking about the food they’re making at the festival.

We are also going to be expanding into Spanish Plaza this year. That allows us to stretch out a bit on the riverfront. It’s a beautiful location that will have an incredible lineup and more food. We’ve got over 40 venues this year. We’re working with Loyola University, and they’ll have some student ensembles, and we have a stage that features just middle school and high school talent. We’ve also got 16 new food vendors, so you can come try some new delicious foods.

Beyond this year, what plans or goals do you have for the future?

We’ve just written a five-year strategic plan. We’re so busy year over year just making this enormous festival happen, but it’s important to think more broadly. What’s the kind of impact we want to have 10 years down the line? Forty years down the line? How has the city evolved, and the needs of the creative community and the cultural economy changed? How do we generate new income streams so that we can secure the next 40 years of this organization?

We’re also thinking about not only cultural sustainability but environmental sustainability. We’ve reduced our landfill waste by 40 to 56%, from French Quarter Festival to Satchmo. If we can do it at scale for a nonprofit organization with very limited resources, then we are showing other events it’s possible in terms of incorporating composting and recycling, renewable energy, and also serving to educate our community and to improve our community resilience.


Digital Sponsors / Become a Sponsor

Follow the issues, companies and people that matter most to business in New Orleans.

Email Newsletter

Sign up for our email newsletter