SEWE performance promises strong tourist season

Charleston metal artist John Donehue Jr. explains a sculpture to Mary O’Connell of Raleigh on the last day of the Southeastern Wildlife Exposition. Buy this photo

If reports from this weekend’s Southeastern Wildlife Exposition are any indication, Charleston is off to a strong start for the spring tourist season.

Actual numbers for ticket sales won’t be available until later this week, but organizers, exhibitors, visitors and restaurant owners were unanimously optimistic they may have witnessed the biggest crowds in the festival’s 30-year history.

“Things look really good so far for 2013,” SEWE Executive Director John Powell said late Sunday afternoon. “Just by eyeballing the lines at Brittlebank and the crowd size at Marion Square and the volume we’ve had here at Charleston Place, it looks like we beat last year. Walking up and down King Street, it looked like businesses were doing well. I know many of the hotels were full.”

The performance bodes well for other events that draw crowds to Charleston in the spring, such as BB&T Charleston Wine + Food Festival, Charleston Fashion Week, Family Circle Cup tennis tournament, Cooper River Bridge Run, Flowertown Festival and Piccolo and Spoleto festivals.

“We use Southeastern Wildlife as the barometer for how the year is going to be, and we’re just thrilled it’s been so successful,” said Helen Hill, executive director of the Charleston Area Convention & Visitors Bureau.

Advance ticket sales for the Wine + Food Festival and Fashion Week already are up significantly over last year, she said.

Hotel reservations also are up over last year, partly because more groups and conventions are starting to come back to Charleston after the cutbacks during the recession.

“It hasn’t been like that the last few years,” she said. “It’s awfully encouraging to see.”

Crowds were heavy at Marion Square this weekend, other than when it rained and people moved to the inside exhibits until the weather cleared.

“It was a great year, great crowds,” Ducks Unlimited Regional Director James Meadows said as he packed up Sunday, “the biggest I think we’ve ever seen.”

Area chairman Mark Hartley agreed.

“We had our big oyster roast on Friday night, and the crowd was big as we’ve ever had, and the money that they spent broke a record,” he said, pointing out that the money helps preserves wetlands from development.

Area restaurants were generally packed all weekend, according to reports from those trying to get a seat and from owners.

Steve Kish, co-owner of 82 Queen, said his crowds were the biggest he could remember.

John Keener of the Charleston Crab House said his business was jammed all weekend.

Steve Carroll, who owns Red’s Icehouse on Shem Creek in Mount Pleasant and Bohicket Marina on Kiawah Island, also said the crowds this year were bigger than any he remembered.

Kathy Britszius, executive director of the Greater Charleston Restaurant Association, said she heard nothing but optimistic reports from restaurant owners this weekend.

“The crowds were tremendous,” she said. “I think we’re off to a great start (for the tourist season).”

The mood also was upbeat inside Charleston Place, where a $60,000 bronze sculpture of three turkeys greeted visitors to the ballroom where the featured painter and sculptor were on hand with other artists.

Acacia Lohman of Charleston has been coming to SEWE every year since 2002 and always takes home the featured bird poster. She said the crowds were bigger than she had ever seen.

“It seems like every year they are growing more and more,” she said.

Reach Dave Munday at 937-5553 or twitter.com/dmunday.

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