NEW ORLEANS—Once again, the Essence Festival of Culture took over various venues in downtown New Orleans from June 29 to July 3.
For the first time in its 29-year history, the festival had the full footprint of the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center, roughly over a million square feet of space. This allowed organizers to bring in experiences such as Essence Eats, which had taken place outside of the “campus” in previous years. And, for the first time, the festival presented three Black female headliners—Ms. Lauryn Hill, Missy Elliott, and Megan Thee Stallion—at Caesars Superdome.
Also, instead of only showcasing the Essence Communications brands, which include the magazine and festival, this year, organizers featured the Essence Ventures portfolio of brands including Afropunk and Essence Studios. The festival’s beauty experience, which was formerly known as the Beauty Carnival, was converted into Beautycon; Essence Ventures acquired the beauty event back in 2021.
This year, the popular experience was purposely moved to the back, so that “we could draw everyone through the full footprint,” as opposed to setting it up in the front, as was the case in previous years, explained Essence Ventures' executive vice president of experiential, Michael Barclay. He also noted that the organizers eliminated the VIP beauty experience option in an effort to put “beauty back in the hands of the people. We felt that it was important that everyone was treated as if they were a VIP in the space.”
Barclay, who joined Essence Ventures in 2022 from Mosaic, aims to create a more efficient, strategic, and inclusive approach to the festival. That includes having a dedicated planning team. “I wanted to make sure that we had a team that was constantly and consistently working on the festival, with the goal to be planning the festival five years in advance… so that we can give this brand the dedication and attention that it deserves,” he said.
Although there were more younger attendees this year, thanks to the addition of the Girls United Creator’s House activation (the brand’s Gen Z platform) and Afropunk, Barclay said that “ultimately, what we would like is there to be something for everyone—from kids to moms to the aunties to the grandmothers and grandfathers. … It's really just being more inclusive and serving the entire community and not focusing specifically on one age demo over the other.”
The four-day event, which was produced by Solomon Group, featured dozens of supporting partners, including AT&T, L’Oréal, The Walt Disney Company, and McDonald’s, along with presenting partner Coca-Cola. Hulu also returned as the official streaming destination of the fest, delivering Essence Fest Primetime, a nightly five-hour live show with exclusive virtual content that was available to subscribers.
Barclay said that the festival team plans to continue to expand the virtual offerings since “we're going to run out of real estate in New Orleans,” and that the festival may once again take place over multiple weekends as it has in the past, but nothing definite has been decided yet. The festival will celebrate its 30th anniversary next year.
Keep scrolling to see more from the 2023 Essence Festival of Culture…