Screenshot of a TV advertisement from the national Concierge campaign.

New Orleans & Company, the city’s tourism marketing agency, pulled its national advertising campaign last week in light of the recent surge in COVID-19 infections, which has resulted in record numbers of hospitalizations and threatened to overwhelm the state’s health care system. 

Kelly Schulz, a spokeswoman for New Orleans & Company — the publicly-funded, privately-managed tourism marketer formerly known as the New Orleans Convention and Visitors Bureau — told The Lens that the group decided early last week to pause its national “Concierge” ad campaign. The Concierge ads feature New Orleans actor Wendell Pierce and include the tagline, “When you’re ready to come back, we’re ready to host.”

“We missed you,” Pierce says in one of the ads. “We missed doing what we do best: taking care of friends, old and new.” 

The campaign was unveiled in the spring, when the state was seeing a sustained decrease in daily cases and months before the latest surge. 

Schulz said the campaign would be on hold until at least “later in September.”

But the group has not pulled all of its TV ads, Schulz said, only the Concierge campaign, which is directed at a national audience. It will continue with two other campaigns targeted at metro-area and regional viewers: one for local attractions and another for “COOLinary New Orleans,” an annual promotion that includes set-price menus at participating restaurants across the city, intended to encourage locals to dine out during the summer tourism slump. Those ads are running in the New Orleans area, Baton Rouge, Shreveport, Monroe, Alexandria, Lafayette and Jackson, Mississippi. 

New Orleans’ tourism and hospitality industry was struck particularly hard by the pandemic and the related business and travel restrictions. And there was widespread hope that this fall would see tourism return to pre-pandemic levels. 

But the state’s fourth surge in COVID cases, hospitalizations and deaths — primarily caused by the highly contagious delta variant and the state’s low vaccination rate — has spurred a string of cancelations of major tourism events in the next couple months, including Jazz Fest and the French Quarter Festival.

Meanwhile, mitigation measures have returned. The city reinstated an indoor mask mandate late last month. Days later, Gov. John Bel Edwards issued a statewide mandate. And last week, New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell announced that proof of vaccination or a recent negative COVID test will be required to enter restaurants, bars and entertainment venues beginning Monday, Aug. 16. 

“National polls told us that traveler sentiment is decreasing and some people are reluctant to travel due to delta all over the country,” Schulz said. “So we made a strategic decision to pause advertising so that we are getting the best return on every dollar invested. Also the shift was made because we were not planning to advertise in October, when the city was scheduled to be full with Jazz Fest and other events, but now we need to work to drive October visitation.”

New Orleans & Company also recently announced that a multimillion-dollar campaign targeted at conventions and business travelers is in the works. 

The Lens asked Schulz if New Orleans & Company’s decision to pause the campaign was just based on reserving advertising dollars for October, or whether the agency was also concerned about the potential that tourists, particularly unvaccinated tourists, could increase the spread of the virus in the New Orleans area.

“It is not accurate to report that our decision was based on tourists coming from areas of the country with low vaccination rates,” she said. “It was paused because of the low vaccination rates here in Louisiana and the spike of local infections. And to ensure that we get the best value on every advertising dollar.”

Deana Ivey, Chief Marketing Officer for the Nashville Convention and Visitors Corporation, said that agency is following a similar strategy. That city’s tourism market is close in size to New Orleans’, with about 16 million visitors in 2019 according to an NCVC estimate, compared to just under 20 million estimated tourists in New Orleans that year, according to a study commissioned by New Orleans & Company.

And like Louisiana and much of the rest of the South — where vaccination rates are below the national average — Tennessee has seen alarming increases in COVID infections and hospitalizations over the past month. 

“We’ve actually done kind of the same thing,” Ivey said last week. “We are not advertising right now. We’ve pulled back. We had a discussion this morning about stalling everything for the month of August and then taking another look at it. And that’s been the process over the last 18 months to be honest. So many times we have started and stopped and started and stopped. Because that’s what’s happened with the virus.”

Ivey said that there was a need to be “sensitive to both sides,” the struggling tourism business community and the broader Nashville community that remains worried about how the virus is spreading in the city.

“We don’t want to go out and be insensitive and say, ‘Hey, go out and travel’ when people are concerned about traveling and concerned about infections.”

Michael Isaac Stein

Michael Isaac Stein covers New Orleans' cultural economy and local government for The Lens. Before joining the staff, he freelanced for The Lens as well as The Intercept, CityLab, The New Republic, and...