Southeastern Wildlife Exposition organizers don't want to hear the word "snow" unless it's followed by the word "leopard," but the most wintry weather Charleston has seen in more than a decade fell on the festival's opening night.

Between last Friday night and Saturday morning, 27 inbound flights at Charleston International Airport were canceled, according to the Charleston County Aviation Authority. Those included arrivals from key markets such as Atlanta, Washington, Dallas and Charlotte.

The final tally: Festival attendance dropped by about 50 percent on Friday alone, according to Ashley Slane, SEWE's marketing director. Paid visitors to the event fell about 15 percent for the weekend, which traditionally marks the starting point for Charleston's tourism season.

Last year, Jimmy Huggins, SEWE's expo president and chief executive, alluded to potential changes after refreshment sales fell more than 40 percent and art sales dropped 25 percent. Instead, organizers added events this year, including an evening at the S.C. Aquarium with wildlife expert and TV personality Jack Hanna.

"With the economy still in a slump, we were somewhat anxious about this year's event as it approached, though hopeful we would see better sales than last year," Huggins said Thursday. "But snow? That was a wild card we were not expecting."

Organizers estimate that attendance, including free events and children, totaled about 30,000 people, or 5,000 people below the annual average.

Art sales, which were a problem area in 2009, rose 12 percent this year, despite the smaller crowds. Organizers said souvenir and concession sales stayed about the same from last year and that online ticket sales grew.

Dan Blumenstock, president of the Greater Charleston Hotel and Motel Association, said the snow meant some of the guests at his properties pushed back their arrivals from Friday to Saturday. He also noted that Valentine's Day boosted Sunday room sales.

"We were down from last year, but we were very positive with overall activity and ended up doing better than expected," Blumenstock said. "Imagine if we had the snowstorm and had not had SEWE. It would've been a ghost town in Charleston."

The annual wildlife expo will take place Feb. 18 to 20 next year. Though organizers still must hold wrap-up and planning meetings, they reported a positive response to this year's additional offerings and no plans to scale back in 2011.