This weekend marks the unofficial opening of tourism season, according to hospitality industry officials, and the Hilton Head Island Wine and Food Festival should provide a strong start.
Expected record crowds and the festival's confluence with St. Patrick's Day celebrations have organizers, business owners and resort representatives excited about what they call the beginning of Hilton Head Island's most prosperous six months.
"It's kind of the coming-out-of-the-cold party," wine festival director Julie Musselman said. "Everyone reconnects before they start going to the beach and getting ready for the Heritage."
Ticket sales are more brisk than for last year's festival, with Friday's grand tasting and VIP passes for Saturday's public tasting already sold out, Musselman said.
Nearly 4,500 people attended the weeklong event in 2013; that number will be topped this year, said Musselman, who expects 2,500 to 3,000 attendees at Saturday's $45-a-ticket tasting at the Coastal Discovery Museum. Thirty tents with more than 400 wines will be available at the tasting, she said.
Tom Hines, South Carolina manager for Napa Valley, Calif.-based Trinchero Family Estates winery, said his outlet will go through about 100 cases, at 12 bottles a case, of merlot, pinot noir, chardonnay and other wines this week.
"We've come a long way from the parking lot at the Marriott, where we started 29 years ago," Musselman said of the festival.
She credits the festival's improved marketing campaign -- especially in nearby markets, such as Augusta, Ga., Atlanta and Charleston -- for drawing out-of-towners to the event.
Those out-of-towners are bringing the bulk of business to the Omni Hilton Head Oceanfront Resort this weekend, said director of sales and marketing Warren Woodard. The hotel is booked Friday and Saturday, with 75 percent, or 250 rooms, occupied by patrons from within driving distance. Many of them are heading to the festival, he said. The Omni partnered with festival organizers to offer packages with rooms and festival tickets.
This weekend is the first on the calendar in which leisure begins to trump business travel in the area.
"It really gets the ball rolling for leisure travel," he said. "After this, you get into spring breaks and then the summer."
At Beach Properties of Hilton Head, 314 of the 350 housing rentals in Sea Pines, Palmetto Dunes and the Forest Beach area are booked for the weekend, according to sales and marketing manager Meg Park.
Some are there for wine-tasting, while others, mostly families, want to catch Sunday's St. Patrick's Day Parade on the island. An estimated 25,000 people will attend the event, which begins at 3 p.m. on Pope Avenue, parade organizer Kim Capin said.
"This is a different parade than one people can find up north," Park said. "It's warmer."
Follow reporter Dan Burley at twitter.com/IPBG_Dan.