NEW ORLEANS – As Carnival builds toward its out-of-control crescendo of Fat Tuesday, Barry Kern and his team of float-builders and artists are already preparing for next year's parades.
One of the biggest free parties in the world fuels a multimillion-dollar industry for the city of New Orleans and the lifeblood of businesses like Kern's studio, which has been operating for more than 50 years and makes or repurposes some 400 floats a year, or roughly a float a day, Kern said.
The Mardi Gras season, which includes weeks of parades, fancy balls and parties leading up to the big day, draws hundreds of thousands of visitors to New Orleans each year, said Kelly Schulz, spokeswoman for the New Orleans Convention and Visitors Bureau. Schulz said a recent study conducted by Tulane University estimated the direct economic impact of Mardi Gras at roughly $144 million.
Some studies estimate the economic impact at more than $500 million, said Arthur Hardy, a Mardi Gras historian.
"There's no way to know for sure because we don't sell tickets," Hardy said. "Mardi Gras started small, in private homes and private balls, and it's evolved into this festival that some estimate produces more than a half-billion dollars a year."
Attendance is also hard to gauge, but every Mardi Gras hotels are full, or close to it, Schultz said.
"The city will be virtually sold out," Schulz said. "Mardi Gras and music, especially on the international scene, are our big sells."
In the weeks leading up to Mardi Gras, more than 100 parades roll into New Orleans and its suburbs. The big parading clubs, like Rex, Zulu, Bacchus, Endymion, Orpheus and Muses, hire Kern's studio to build the floats. Smaller clubs make their own by decorating trailers with everything from paint to crepe paper.
Hardy said more than 100,000 people ride in parades each year, and each rider can spend as much as $2,000 to $3,000 in fees, costumes and throws. Thousands more are spent on king cakes and the grand balls and parties, he said.
"It's a money-maker for the city, but that's not why we do it," Hardy said. "We do it because we like to celebrate. It's a free party we give ourselves and our guests."
There's big money in it. Major parade krewes often spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to have Kern's studio make their floats. Depending on whether the floats are being built from the ground up or repurposed, the price can range anywhere from $10,000 to $100,000.
Kern declines to say just how much revenue his company takes in annually. But over the years the floats have become larger and more ornate, and more expensive.
They can be as high as 18 feet and up to 50 feet long, carry dozens of riders and be wired with electricity for decorative lights and moving parts. Teams of painters, artists and sculptors make props and decorations that will be attached to the floats. Music-themed floats can include props of Louis Armstrong and local favorite Professor Longhair. Some are modeled after characters in Greek mythology, such as the Muses of dance, poetry, music and other arts.
It takes an entire year to prepare enough floats to roll through the streets of New Orleans and its suburbs, Kern said.
"It's a constant process," Kern said. "It's like an assembly line."
With the revelry of Fat Tuesday at hand, Kern's preparation for Mardi Gras 2013 has already begun.
"We already have all the designs for all our major clients for 2013, and we've already got props and things picked out," Kern said. "Literally, the day after Mardi Gras, we're back to work and the process gets started almost immediately."
Besides Mardi Gras, Kern's studio has clients in Japan, Korea and theme parks across the country.
"There are a lot of municipalities all over the world that want to copy what we do here in New Orleans because it drives tourism," Kern said.
Besides float-building, Kern's studio is a tourist attraction. Tour guides take visitors through Mardi Gras World's displays and to see sculptors and artists at work.
"I'm awestruck by some of the props," said Debra Sanders, of North Sioux City, S.D., just after her tour of Mardi Gras World recently. "It was very nice, very entertaining. I enjoyed it."
Paul Thompson, of Cheshire, England, said he was surprised by the quality of the work.
"It was very intricate and very colorful, much more professional than what you would surmise from a once-a-year Carnival," Thompson said. "It's quite amazing."