A major draw at the Southeastern Wildlife Exposition is its display of exotic animals, many of which have been rescued and rehabilitated by conservationists. But few visitors at the event this weekend may realize that SEWE has a redemption story of its own.

If you go

What: The Southeastern Wildlife Exposition

When: 9 a.m.-6 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Sunday

Where: Multiple locations, including Marion Square, Brittlebank Park, the Charleston Music Hall and several others.

PRice: $10-$40 for general admission

More info: www.sewe.com

When Jimmy Huggins took the event under his wing in 1987, the annual wildlife extravaganza was on the verge of bankruptcy.

The figures

SEWE's annual budget is $1.6 million-$1.8 million.

Revenue from the 2013 event was $2.15 million, up 20% from 2012.

SEWE received a $150,000 grant from the city of Charleston this year. The grant was funded with accommodations tax revenue.

SEWE was established in 1983 by a group of business owners in Columbia to showcase regional wildlife art and the Southeastern sporting life in Charleston. Although popular in its initial years, the February event had fallen victim to poor financial planning, Huggins said.

Huggins, now president and CEO of SEWE, was a staff coordinator for the event when he discovered it was at risk of going under. Recognizing SEWE's value to the local tourism industry during one of its lull months, he set forth a rescue plan.

First, Huggins helped assemble a group of business people in Charleston who put up $500,000 to get the wildlife event back on its feet.

"We started to run it like a business," Huggins said. "When we bought this event out in '87, there were about 12 shows scattered around the country that were similar to SEWE. We worked very hard to make it the number one of its kind. Consequently, about three or four of those shows are left."

Change of status

Although the group's efforts had been successful under Huggins' leadership, many members left the organization over the decision to transform SEWE into a nonprofit organization. Many of them felt that the public status would loosen their control of the event, Huggins said.

"We decided it should be not-for-profit since the majority of the benefit went to the city, the state and all the conservation groups," he said.

Plus, reorganizing as a nonprofit meant they could apply for public grants.

Huggins partnered for a time with Charleston supermarket executive Joseph T. "Buzzy" Newton, then president of Piggly Wiggly Carolina Co. The two bought out the event and established a board of directors, and SEWE was granted nonprofit status in 1996. Newton is no longer affiliated with the organization.

Now billed as the largest wildlife art and lifestyle event in the United States, SEWE is expected to draw 40,000 visitors and more than 500 exhibitors from far and wide to the Lowcountry this year.

As Huggins predicted when he bought the event nearly three decades ago, it's a boon for Charleston's hospitality and tourism industry.

Huggins expects the annual event to grow substantially in 2016, when the Gaillard Auditorium overhaul and planned hotel projects in the city are completed.

"Conservation and education is what we're all about. But our secondary goal is tourism and economic development for the city and the state. Obviously, they go hand in hand," he said.

Roughly 60 percent of SEWE's attendees are from out of town, according to the Charleston Area Convention and Visitors Bureau. Last year, hotels in downtown Charleston were about 97 percent occupied during SEWE weekend, the CVB reported.

"February is not our busiest month. SEWE is specifically scheduled for our off-season to bring us business at a time when we don't usually have it, and it has certainly done that," said Helen Hill, executive director of the visitors bureau.

Tourist spending during SEWE in 2012 totaled $32.4 million, according to the Charleston Metro Chamber of Commerce. Huggins said the event is "very lucky to have a broad base to market to."

"We promote heavily to the people who will buy art and spend a lot of money in town, who will stay at expensive hotels and eat expensive dinners, et cetera," he said. "But we also market to a day ticket-buyer who is going to buy a T-shirt and go see Dock Dogs."

Dock Dogs, a diving competition for dogs, has become one of SEWE's biggest attractions in recent years. But many other events are clearly targeted to the upscale crowd.

For instance, the decoy auction hosted by Guyette Schmidt & Deeter, a Maryland-based auction house, features hand-carved decoys worth as much as $10,000. The auction, a recent addition to the lineup of events, is expected to attract art collectors from across the country, Huggins said.

Call of the wild

For many wildlife artists and niche artisans, SEWE has become a critical platform for their work. Robert Cumming, for example, has traveled from New Mexico to sell his hand-crafted knives at SEWE since 1998.

"Some of my best customers were developed as a result of exhibiting at SEWE," Cumming said. "They're from all over. One is from Tulsa, Oklahoma, who has been one of my most ardent supporters. Another is a land developer from Myrtle Beach."

The average art buyer at SEWE spent about $190 on art-related purchases in 2012, and art sales were up by 10 percent last year, according to a release from the nonprofit event.

"Art sales have started to come back since the recession," Huggins said. "Hopefully, this year will be another step forward."

For all the work Huggins and his team of coordinators have put forth, he said SEWE is mostly successful because of its locale.

"The appeal is the city of Charleston. People love to come here, and we're just giving them another reason to come," he said. "We know how the city attracts people. It has some of the finest restaurants, hotels, the downtown area. It's what has made the event what it is today."

Reach Abigail Darlington at 937-5906.