Most of the docents from Savannah's Davenport House who arrived in old town Bluffton last week were touring the site for the first time, according to executive director Jamie Credle.
"Some of our people have lived in the area for 20 years and have never visited, except to go to the outlets or passing through on their way to the beach," Credle said.
The Heyward House Historic Center, which organized the walking tour that led to the docents' discovery, is working to change the perception of Bluffton as only a spot on U.S. 278 -- one busload of tourists at a time.
The Bluffton Historical Preservation Society staff who operate the welcome center have led 496 walking tours since August, nearly tripling last year's total of 166.
Starting this fall, Heyward House has hired new staff to help with tours, extended its hours and put on more events, according to executive director Maureen Richards.
Many of the travelers have booked the walking tours of Bluffton's historic district through Groupon, where the Heyward House recently began advertising, Richards said.
Most of the welcome center's new services were made possible because of extra accommodations tax money awarded by Bluffton Town Council.
The center, which draws its budget from donations, grants, gift shops sales, tours and membership dues, received more than $33,000 from the town last quarter.
It typically receives $25,000 a quarter.
Councilman Fred Hamilton, who recommended giving more money to the Heyward House, said the staff's efforts have not gone unnoticed.
"We have learned to appreciate what the Heyward House is doing in terms of bringing recognition to our town," Hamilton said. "They highlight some of the historical significance of Bluffton, and they've accomplished bringing people in to stay and shop and dine."
Potter Jacob Preston, who owns a studio in old town Bluffton, said the Heyward House has tapped into a growing market: cultural and heritage tourism.
"These people have disposable income and they want to go around and visit places," Preston said. "They want to see art. They want to see architecture. They want to learn about history, and how the intersection of all those cultural features manifests itself in communities.
"Bluffton just happens to have everything."
Staff at the Heyward House hope to build on this fall's success with strategic advertising and a full schedule of winter events.
The historic house, only one of eight surviving antebellum homes in Bluffton, is featured in a full-page ad in December's U.S. Airways in-flight magazine. Richards has also bought a full-year half-page advertisement in "101 Things to do on Hilton Head Island."
She is optimistic the ads will keep the momentum going, especially because the airport in Charlotte is a major hub for U.S. Airways and December's air traffic is the heaviest of the year.
"That should create a nice rush of travelers to our area," Richards said.
The Bluffton Historical Preservation Society is partnering with other organizations to offer tours during the four-day Civil War Sesquicentennial Celebration held at the Coastal Discovery Museum in December.
The house is also hosting a Lowcountry Christmas Gala Dinner on Dec. 9 to raise money for restoration projects.
Follow reporter Allison Stice at twitter.com/BlufftonBlogIP.