Wine + Food Festival sets records for local attendance, economic impact

Angela Brown serves biscuits at the Wine + Food Festival Gospel Brunch at Liberty Square Sunday March 8, 2015. Grace Beahm/Staff

The Charleston Wine + Food Festival this year drew a record number of locals, a feat that the researcher responsible for the event’s visitor survey attributes to intensified promotion efforts and steep hotel room prices.

Of the 23,500 festival attendees, 16,215 came from within 50 miles of Charleston, according to the report released today. The figure represents a 10 percent increase from 2014.

College of Charleston associate professor Wayne Smith, who authored the report, suspects potential visitors were discouraged by nightly rates that reached $600 at properties such as Charleston Place. “They came down at the last second,” Smith says, but the adjustments may have come too late. Out-of-town guests strayed from downtown hotels in greater numbers than ever before, with 21 percent of visitors arranging lodging through Airbnb or similar rental service. The fallout was also felt in North Charleston, where hotels attracted more festival participants than usual.

“There was more dispersal of people than we ever saw before,” Smith says, adding that the trend is likely beneficial to the area economy.

It’s less beneficial to festival organizers’ egos, since locals are notoriously harsher critics than visitors. “It’s always been that way,” Smith says, explaining that Charleston residents are likely to arrive at a restaurant with expectations based on their previous meals. Without a point of comparison, out-of-towners are easier to impress.

Last year, 91 percent of attendees reported they had a positive experience at the festival. This year, the share of happy guests dropped to 77 percent.

Complaints centered on crowds; a lack of food choices; pricing; communication and wine availability. More than 30 percent of survey respondents suggested non-timed tastings would improve the event; 15 percent of them cited the need for more seating.

“Every time we see staffing changes, we see logistical issues,” says Smith, who oversees the surveys for many local festivals, including Charleston Fashion Week. “That happens every time. I can’t explain why.”

Smith says history shows festival “growing pains” associated with a new leadership team, headed up in this case by executive director Gillian Zettler, are generally resolved within a year.

The festival generated $9.3 million in economic impact. While last year’s economic impact was originally calculated at $9.8 million, Smith says he inadvertently inflated the figure by failing to adjust dollars in the retail sector.

Out-of-town guests spent an average of $964 per person, including $367 on accommodations. On average, local attendees spent $441 each.

When asked an open-ended question about which event they liked best, nearly one-third of survey respondents mentioned the Grand Tasting. The festival’s “atmosphere”; the Culinary Village and the beer garden were also popular.

The 2016 Wine + Food Festival is scheduled for Mar. 2-Mar. 6.