SEWE signals solid tourist season
Consider it the Punxsutawney Phil of Charleston's tourism season.
If the Southeastern Wildlife Exposition fares well, the city's restaurateurs, hoteliers, boutique owners and festival directors can expect sunny times ahead.
But if the first major event of the visitor season fails to bring tourists out of hibernation, the forecast tends to be rather gloomy, which is exactly what some industry leaders were predicting this year.
"With all the talk of an economic slowdown, we were holding our collective breath, waiting to see if attendees would show up in big numbers. ..." said Jimmy Huggins, president and chief executive officer of SEWE LLC.
But SEWE emerged Feb. 15-17 and refused to cower from the shadow of a potential recession. It didn't hurt that the sun was shining, a rare occurrence on SEWE weekend.
The event attracted an estimated 40,000 people, officials said, up 12.5 percent from last year. The expo's attendance hadn't broken 35,000 in nearly a decade, said Ashley Slane, SEWE's marketing director.
And sales of single-day tickets rose 34 percent over last year, officials said, indicating that more locals turned out.
Those 40,000 people weren't just buying tickets to see dog-jumping competitions and Jack Hanna presentations. They also were doling out cash for lodging, dining, shopping and visiting other area attractions.
Charlestowne Hotels Inc. , which manages 12 hotels and inns in the area, teamed up with SEWE to offer hotel packages to attendees for the first time this year.
Only 12 of the company's 775 hotel rooms were empty over the weekend of the event, said Brian Ross, corporate revenue manager.
"We were worried about the recession initially, but if our peak season, especially on the weekends, is similar to SEWE, we'll be extremely happy," Ross said.
Just as promising, the average rate per lodging room for Charleston County increased $12 over last year to about $118, said Perrin Lawson, deputy director of the Charleston Area Convention and Visitors Bureau.
SEWE also collaborated with the Greater Charleston Restaurant Association in an effort to tie in more local fare, something that has been lacking at the event since the 1980s, said Steve Kish, the association's president and owner of 82 Queen.
"We were definitely busier this year than last, and if that's any indication of our recession, I'm not worried," he said.
David Dumas, owner of M. Dumas & Sons on King Street, said the long-standing clothing boutique saw same-period sales double over last year.
According to a 2006 attendance profile study, the most recent figures available, expo visitors spend an average of more than $40 per day on retail purchases and souvenirs. It also found that they shell out an average of nearly $90 per day on sightseeing, touring and other entertainment, not including food and drink.
The South Carolina Aquarium topped the list of paid attractions attended by SEWE visitors in 2006. This year, despite anticipating a flat turnout, spokeswoman Beth Nathan said, average daily attendance over SEWE weekend was about 1,300, nearly 12 percent better than the average day last year.
They came, they ate, they shopped, and they explored, but if SEWE visitors did anything, they sparked optimism in an industry fearful that a stormy tourist season was inevitable.
"Despite all the bad news about the economy, the expo was not a doom-and-gloom story," Dumas said. "I'm extra surprised at how it turned out."