Inventive startups are changing the way New Orleans celebrates Mardi Gras

Creative entrepreneurs see plenty of business opportunities in annual Mardi Gras celebrations.
Creative entrepreneurs see plenty of business opportunities in annual Mardi Gras celebrations.
Image: AP Photo/Gerald Herbert
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There’s a classic seasonal song in New Orleans that speaks to a truth about the city’s annual celebrations: “Ain’t No Place to Pee on Mardi Gras Day.” But thanks to a burgeoning class of entrepreneurs who’ve glimpsed business opportunities amidst the festivities, partygoers can now relieve themselves with ease.

New Orleans local Travis Laurendine has come to the rescue with an app that bears a giggle-worthy name: AirPnP. The app is like Airbnb—but for restrooms. Users pay about $5 in exchange for access to a bathroom in the apartment of a nearby “host.” Laurendine tells Quartz that the app solves problems not just for squirmy beer guzzlers, but also for the city and its residents.

“There is a long, sad history of people spending their Mardi Gras in jail because they peed in the wrong place,” he says. New Orleans lacks the infrastructure to meet the bathroom demands brought by Carnival. Locals often suffer the consequences. “Would you rather have a tourist peeing in your front yard?” Laurendine asks. “Or would you rather collect $5 from them to let them pee inside?”

 AirPnP is just one example of a new generation of businesses in New Orleans designed to help revelers save time, plan ahead, and maximize their party-going efficiency. That may seem like a departure from the traditional laissez le bon temps rouler philosophy. But it’s actually a sign of changing times for Mardi Gras, a celebration that continues to grow in tandem with the city’s population growth post-Hurricane Katrina. New Orleans lures in over a million visitors during the Carnival season, filling the city’s hotels to near-100% capacity.

Justin Thibodeaux, a 28-year-old entrepreneur, launched his delivery service Dat King Cake Guy this season. Many of New Orleans’ best purple, green, and gold cakes come from bakeries in far-flung suburbs. For around $10, Thibodeaux saves New Orleanians the trip, delivering the cake of their choice in his maroon minivan.

The business has clearly met a need. In just three weeks of business, Thibodeaux has already delivered over a thousand cakes. He tells Quartz that he expects to deliver or ship 5,000 cakes before Mardi Gras season is over on February 10—which means he could earn $50,000 in four weeks.

The creative, homespun costumes that are a hallmark of the holiday have also served as a springboard for local businesses. Partygoers can make their own get-ups at IDIYA, a “makerspace” that offers sewing machines, fashion advice, and mimosas. Those who are big on ideas but short on time can stop by HowlPop costumes, a pop-up costume shop run by Mo Lappin.

“In New Orleans it’s understood that you don’t wear the same costume two years in a row,” Lyndsey Rabon, a 33-year-old small-business owner, tells Quartz. She recently paid Howlpop $100 to convert an old silver sequined dress she bought from a retired drag queen into an updated 2016 costume, complete with a feathered backpiece and attached pantsuit. The process took only an hour.

“Mardi Gras is primetime for bringing costume visions to life,” Lappin tells Quartz, “and we just try to help people accomplish that.”

Once the celebrations get rolling, partygoers can take advantage of apps like AirPnP and parade trackers like the one created by local TV station WDSU, which keeps people posted on progress—and inevitable interruptions—along the parade route.

“It shows them when the parade is delayed, so they can figure out if they want to run to eat at a restaurant real quick, or let them know when it is time to step outside and watch the parade roll by,” Clint Durrett, the digital media manager for WDSU, tells Quartz.

That’s a big shift from traditional parade-watching tactics. Parades around here often begin in the evening, but onlookers gather their coolers and chairs along the Uptown avenues by noon. They spend the afternoon surrounded by coolers and speakers blasting “Mardi Gras Mambo,” snacking on poboys and Popeyes, washed down with Abita Ambers as the energy builds for the sunset main event.

Yet with visitors and locals trying to navigate a myriad of Mardi Gras events, many feel that planning has become a necessity. And some of these newfangled apps and businesses even benefit the emergency personnel who try to keep Carnival running smoothly.

Durrett tells Quartz that paramedics and the police have said they’re fans of WDSU’s parade-tracking app, using it to plan the logistics of getting around the parade in an emergency. But the app’s primary purpose, he says, is to help partygoers “really manage their time and cater their own Mardi Gras experience.”