by Cheryl-Anne Sturken | February 16, 2018

Cheryl-Anne SturkenRendering of the Four Seasons New OrleansMardi Gras may be over in New Orleans, but the city's hotel-building boom is still firing on all cylinders. Several major new projects are scheduled to open in the next two years that will add close to 1,400 rooms to the current total of some 25,000 rooms in the city's French Quarter, Warehouse District and Central Business District. So why is it that there might not be much wiggle room for last-minute group bookings to get a toe in the door?

For one thing, throughout 2018, the Big Easy will celebrate its tricentennial with a series of celebratory events that have been in the planning stages for years, helping to lead a number of influential national and international travel publications -- Conde Nast Traveler, Fodor's, the New York Times and Travel + Leisure, among them -- to name the city to their various "destinations to visit in 2018" lists.

Speaking at the Economic Real Estate Forecast Symposium held at Loyola University this past October, Jeff Anding, vice president of external affairs for the New Orleans Convention and Visitors Bureau, said hotel availability remains a challenge for the city and the bureau, which is always working to grow convention and group meeting business. He added that the CVB's early occupancy projections for 2018 showed that more than two-thirds of the city's hotel space will be filled.

Thus, the city is looking forward to some big group properties opening by 2020. Just this week, plans were unveiled for a 350-room Hard Rock Hotel on the site of the former Woolworth department store in the 1000 block of Canal Street. "As Hard Rock continues to expand globally, our focus will be influential cities with deep musical roots," said Todd Hricko, Hard Rock's head of global hotel development, in a statement announcing the new property.

Finally moving forward is the 336-room Four Seasons New Orleans, which is scheduled to open in 2019 in the former World Trade Center building with 28,000 square feet of meeting space. A lawsuit that had been filed by a Florida-based developer that lost out to the hotel's winning bidder entangled the project in litigation and derailed the original planned 2018 opening.

Also looking toward a ribbon-cutting is the 234-room National WWII Museum's Higgins Hotel & Conference Center. That $66 million project, which will include a 22,000-square-foot conference center, is set to open in late 2019.

There might be more development in the works, if Harrah's gets its way. Days ago, the New Orleans Advocate reported that representatives of Harrah's New Orleans Casino were lobbying state lawmakers for authorization to construct a 340-room hotel adjacent to its existing 450-room downtown hotel and gaming complex. The $340 million project, which Harrah's says will not include casino space, will feature 20,000 square feet of meeting and event space, several restaurants, a nightclub, a gym and a rooftop pool. As an incentive, Harrah's says it will pay for police and fire services for the complex, which is estimated to run about $3.6 million per year.

In 2016, the latest year tallied by the New Orleans CVB, the city hosted a record-breaking 10.45 million visitors, the highest since 2004, which represented a 6.9 percent increase over 2015 and 26 percent over 2010. LIkewise, visitor spend in 2016 was $7.41 billion, a 51 percent increase since 2004.

The takeaway for planners is this: If New Orleans is on your radar, there are some exciting new venue choices to consider, but expect serious competition for space. If visitors keep pouring into this Mississippi River city at the current pace, it's going to need a whole lot more hotels to meet the demand.