Short of hosting the national championship college football game, this weekend's one-two punch coupling New Year's Eve festivities with a high-profile, sold-out Allstate Sugar Bowl semifinal game is the next best thing, local hospitality officials say, with hotel rooms in downtown New Orleans already at capacity for Saturday and Sunday nights and edging closer for Monday.
And for the second time in two years, New Orleans will have a prime-time slot in front of millions of TV viewers nationwide as the clock winds down to midnight in the Central Time Zone.
It'll put the Crescent City back in the spotlight just as it kicks off its 300th birthday, starting with a celebration that will offer a beefed-up fireworks show and TV live shots of revelers in the French Quarter and elsewhere at events tied to the Sugar Bowl.
Jackson Square again will serve as the backdrop for “Dick Clark’s New Year’s Rockin’ Eve with Ryan Seacrest,” which will broadcast live from New Orleans once the ball drops in New York's Times Square at midnight there.
It's a coup for local hospitality leaders, who welcome the national exposure to TV viewers at the start of what's certain to be a busy tourism year.
Hotel operators have been busy preparing for the long weekend.
"With Alabama and Clemson, the night those teams were announced, we literally moved to a sold-out date," said Mark Wilson, general manager of the Bourbon Orleans Hotel in the French Quarter, which has almost 220 rooms. "We picked up so many rooms. Alabama is huge. Certainly, we're going to be sold out for Saturday and Sunday, and pretty close to 90 percent on Monday."
Two weeks out, occupancy levels were past 90 percent for Saturday and Sunday and nearly 85 percent for Monday, according to the New Orleans Convention and Visitors Bureau's survey of hotels with nearly 10,800 rooms in the Central Business District, French Quarter and Warehouse District.
Those figures, particularly for Monday, were expected to grow as football fans made last-minute plans for the game.
The Sugar Bowl, which kicks off at 7:45 p.m. Monday at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, will feature No. 1 Clemson and No. 4 Alabama in a playoff semifinal game before the Jan. 8 championship game in Atlanta.
This is the second time that New Orleans has hosted a semifinal game under the new playoff format. Adding to this year's enthusiasm is that Clemson and Alabama have played against each other in the last two title games. The Crimson Tide held off the Tigers, 45-40, in the title game following the 2015 season, but Clemson gained revenge a year later, winning 35-31 with a touchdown in the final moments of the game.
For New Orleans' hospitality sector, it's a much different story from last year's Sugar Bowl, where the relatively low rankings of the No. 7 Oklahoma Sooners and No. 17 Auburn Tigers left thousands of tickets available in the days leading up to the game.
Beyond the appeal of hosting a playoff grudge match, this year's game offers other advantages for the city, which has had to adjust to the up-and-down realities of the new playoff system. This year's game pairs two competitive programs that are both within driving distance of New Orleans — Tuscaloosa is just over four hours away, while Clemson's South Carolina campus is less than a nine-hour drive.
Additionally, the winning team and its fans won't have to travel far for the title game in Atlanta, which in some cases could lead them to decide to attend both games instead of having to choose one or the other.
"It always helps when you have very strong teams that are rivals and they're within driving distance, especially with the price of airfare around that time," said Lior Sekler, vice president of revenue management for HRI Lodging, which operates several local hotels, including the Aloft New Orleans Downtown and the Hyatt Centric French Quarter.
Under the new playoff format, cities bid to host the title game, and the two semifinal games rotate among several cities, with New Orleans in the queue for one of those two games every third year. New Orleans has been awarded the 2020 title game, beating out five other cities and bringing the national championship contest back to the city for the first time since 2012.
This weekend, the city's major hotels, bars and restaurants are certain to stay busy heading into the start of 2018.
Unlike the Super Bowl, which can be counted on to draw a capacity crowd every year, the Sugar Bowl's appeal is directly tied to the match-up, since that dictates how many fans are likely to travel for the game, especially in years when the game is not a semifinal contest.
"With Alabama and Clemson and their recent history with one another, we kind of welcomed the perfect storm," said Jeff Hundley, the Sugar Bowl's chief operating officer. "This will have hotels full and the stadium packed, a lot of enthusiasm, just because the two of them are basically playing the rubber match, each having one once in the past two years."
Other events this weekend include the Allstate Fan Fest, which is free and open to the public and runs from noon to 6 p.m. Saturday and Sunday near Jackson Square.
Both schools are scheduled to hold pep rallies Sunday.
Later that night, “Dick Clark’s New Year’s Rockin’ Eve with Ryan Seacrest 2018” will be broadcasting from New Orleans periodically throughout the night before the city gets its main close-up starting about 11:15 p.m.
Millions of TV viewers nationwide will catch glimpses of the city as the clock winds down to midnight in the Central Time Zone and a fleur-de-lis drops from atop the Jax Brewery.
At midnight, fireworks will illuminate the sky above the Mississippi River, complete with a bright "300" in fireworks that's designed to reflect off the water's surface.
This year, as the city's hospitality sector gears up for months of events marking New Orleans' 300th birthday, officials say the marketing value of having the city on full national display, doing what it does best, is even more significant than usual.
Last year, rainy weather put a damper on expectations, but the New Year's Eve event still provided a national platform for local and state officials to boast about what New Orleans has to offer.
"Officially, we started the tricentennial in November, but this is really, I think, the dramatic sendoff into the new year," Mark Romig, president of the New Orleans Tourism Marketing Corp., said of the New Year's Eve fireworks.