In 2002, the first Concours d'Elegance motoring festival was a fairly big deal: 2,300 people turned out for a two-day event featuring cars never seen on Hilton Head Island.
But comparing that event to what it's become is like comparing a golf cart to a Rolls Royce.
This year's 10th annual Concours d'Elegance will be held over nine days -- Oct. 28 to Nov. 6 -- and has evolved into the second most lucrative event on the island after the RBC Heritage PGA Tour event.
A GROWING CROWD
Last year's festival attracted 13,000. Even more are expected this year for what has become a sprawling gala of local art, live music -- even a fashion show.
"Our advance-ticket sales are double what they were at this time last year," said Carolyn Vanagel, festival president. "And the average price per transaction is higher than ever."
Attendees from outside the area are fueling the surge, according to research compiled by professor John Salazar and his students at the University of South Carolina Beaufort.
For the past two years, Salazar and about 15 students have manned computerized polling stations at the festival, gathering demographic and geographic data.
"We're definitely seeing an increase in out-of-towners," said Salazar, noting that more than 6,000 of last year's attendees said they live outside Beaufort County and the Savannah area.
Last year's visitors spent about $5.3 million during the festival, about 40 percent of which was for lodging, according to USCB data. This year, visitors are expected to spend nearly $6 million.
In the past decade, event organizers have expanded the scope beyond cars to include trucks, boats, even fire engines -- but this year's entertainment options are unprecedented.
The festival recently announced a partnership with the inaugural Public Art Exhibition, held on the final weekend and showcasing 20 large-scale, outdoor sculptures, most of which will be available for purchase.
Attendees also can take in a "vintage" fashion show, the first of its kind at the festival, on Nov. 5.
Tom Ditzig has been at every Concours d'Elegance and has seen firsthand its development into one of the island's signature events. He recalled feeling overwhelmed by the crowd for the first time at the 2007 festival.
"I remember being on the field, looking around and thinking, 'Where did all these people come from?' " Ditzig said. "By 10 o'clock, it was just a solid wave of people."
As general manager of Hilton Head BMW, Ditzig is involved with one of three companies that have sponsored the event since 2002. Hargray and the Adventure Radio Group were the other sponsors.
Today, Hilton Head BMW is one of the festival's 15 corporate partners -- each paying $30,000 -- in addition to 29 sponsors. The 2002 event had just six sponsors.
"We've stuck in there through some tough times," Ditzig said, "and we're glad to be involved with (Concours d'Elegance) right now."
Follow reporter Grant Martin at twitter.com/LowCoBiz.