Today was supposed to be the big day

Sunday, January 27, 2002

NEW ORLEANS

Bob and Betty Washington, decked out in long strings of Mardi Gras beads, happily sipped bloody marys on Pat O'Brien's courtyard, lulled by the warm sun and the sound of the fountain at the famous French Quarter bar.

"It's the perfect way to treat a hangover," Bob Washington said. "We're gathering strength for the weekend."

It's not quite the weekend they were expecting when they first planned the trip, however. Back then, they were looking forward to Super Bowl weekend.

"We made our reservations when we thought the Super Bowl would be here," Betty Washington said. "We thought we'd be trying to crash parties and get tickets. But this way, we get some Mardi Gras action and can make the Super Bowl parties at home."

High rollers in limousines and football fans in team colors were supposed to flood into New Orleans this weekend. But the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks pushed the game back seven days -- to the weekend when the first major Carnival parades were to roll. Although Mardi Gras is Feb. 12, many parades start 10-to-12 days earlier.

This town isn't big enough to handle two such major events in one weekend. So the Carnival parades were moved up a week.

Tourists were not the only ones affected by the switch.

Like the Mardi Gras parade clubs, the National Automobile Dealers Association had to move its convention ahead one week to accommodate the Super Bowl.

The NFL paid the car dealers $7.5 million, contributed $500,000 to a NADA charity, and produced about $5 million in public service announcements designed to "humanize" the people that sell automobiles, according to NADA spokesman David Hyatt.

The swap also involved scrambling to trade 16,000 hotel rooms between the NFL and NADA.

"Everything worked out really well with the NFL," Hyatt said. "Their cooperation was outstanding. We lost about 40 exhibitors with the swap, but we signed more than that back and our attendance this weekend is higher than any other time we've held our convention in New Orleans."

Switching dates for the parades was also costly to the league. The league paid $5,000 to each of the 11 parade clubs that moved from Feb. 3 to this weekend.

All the chaos could have one benefit for the procrastinating tourist: There are still hotel rooms to be had in New Orleans.

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