Spoleto wraps up, weather or not

Sharon and Don Cooper of Hilton Head share a toast Sunday at the Spoleto Finale at Middleton Place.

Spoleto organizers are optimistic this year’s festival attendance was good despite several close calls with the weather.

Tropical Storm Andrea threatened to wash out ticket sales Friday and Saturday as it churned north from Florida. As it turned out, the J.D. McPherson concert was moved from The Cistern at the College of Charleston into the basketball arena Friday night, but attendance didn’t seem to suffer. That was the only real effect of the storm, Spoleto marketing director Paula Edwards said Sunday.

“It’s been a great festival,” she said without being more specific. No numbers on actual ticket sales will be available until today or Tuesday, she said.

Rain threatened again Sunday, this time the Spoleto Finale at Middleton Place. The finale is typically the biggest event of the festival, and weather significantly affects attendance.

Sunday’s outlook was dicey in the morning but got better as the day progressed. By late afternoon hundreds were enjoying the green grass and great spreading oaks of the old plantation, and scores more were pouring through the gates.

Sharon and Don Cooper of Hilton Head came to the finale to celebrate his birthday. It was their first finale, and they laid out a white tablecloth with floral centerpiece and glass wine goblets. They were surprised few others did the same.

“I had been told that everybody went all out,” Sharon Cooper said. “I love that, candelabras and everything.”

The finale has become more casual over the years in hopes of attracting more families, Edwards said. Not many years ago, when an orchestra performed by the lake, white tablecloths with floral arrangements were scattered across the lawn. Formal arrangements were few and far between Sunday, although an area for festival sponsors featured tables with flowers, silver catering dishes, and a bar with rows of wine bottles and glasses.

Spoleto organizers believe the festival has been one of the reasons for Charleston’s rising reputation as top tourist destination. Artists and visitors come to Charleston for Spoleto, make plans to come back and spread the word.

“We like to think of ourselves as being on the forefront of that (rise in reputation),” Edwards said. “It’s definitely more than entertainment. It’s a major economic force.”

Downtown hotels and restaurants always do their best business during Spoleto, according to Tripp Hays, director of sales at the Mills House Hotel. But the pattern has been changing as more tourists keep packing the hotels even after Spoleto is over.

“Six or seven years ago, occupancy would slack off after Spoleto,” he said. “Now everybody downtown pretty much does a 90 percent occupancy all the way through to December. Spoleto used to be the time that we would see the season kind of end. Now it continues on.”

Tourists typically browse more than shop, but it seems more visitors have been buying this year, according to Rhett Ramsay Outten, co-owner of Croghan’s Jewel Box, a century-old family business on King Street.

“I think we’re up (in sales) this year, definitely,” she said. “We have a new caliber of tourists. More visitors are buying. We used to sell an occasional souvenir spoon or string or rice beads or something like that. The tourists that are here now want to take a piece of Charleston home with them.”

Reach Dave Munday at 937-5553.