MANATEE -- The notion that brides, grooms and their families might travel to Anna Maria Island from California, Maine, Massachusetts, Canada and even Europe to plan their weddings was, perhaps, nothing short of unbridled optimism eight years ago.
That was before Island notables Jack Elka, Ed Chiles, David Teitelbaum and several others had the idea that their remarkable island, and its numerous wedding vendors, should be promoted with specific wedding intent.
The first Anna Maria Island Chamber of Commerce Wedding Festival drew 150, said Deborah Wing, vice president of the Anna Maria Chamber of Commerce and co-chair with Katy Demick of the Festival.
Manatee County provided advertising money for three of the subsequent festivals and merchants came up with the motto "The Beach Wedding Capital of Florida" for marketing.
Then, it began to really take off, said Mark Davis, owner for 25 years of Harrington House Beachfront Bed & Breakfast, 5626 Gulf Drive, Holmes Beach.
The high mark was 800 participants, Wing said.
"I remember the year a couple and their family flew in from England," Davis said. "I was amazed."
The Seventh Annual Anna Maria Island Chamber of Commerce Wedding Festival, now scheduled off season to allow more room accommodations, kicks off Sunday at five host sites on Anna Maria Island and, this year, a crowd of 700 is expected, Wing said.
From 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., brides and their party can check out wedding planners, cake makers, florists, photographers, DJs and other vendors at the five host sites -- Gulf Drive Cafe and Tiki, 900 Gulf Drive N., Bradenton Beach; Tortuga Inn Beach Resort, 1325 Gulf Drive N., Bradenton Beach; Harrington House Beachfront Bed & Breakfast, 5626 Gulf Drive, Holmes Beach; The BeacHhouse Restaurant, 200 Gulf Drive, Bradenton Beach; and Bridge Street Bistro, 111 Gulf Drive S., Bradenton Beach.
Two identical fashion shows are scheduled at 1:30 p.m. and 3 p.m. at Gulf Drive Cafe and Tiki.
The cherry on the sundae at the festival is the Grand Finale Sunset Celebration, which starts at 6 p.m. at Tortuga Inn Beach Resort.
"At the finale, we will have a mock wedding on the beach, and we will be awarding more than $23,000 in gifts," Wing said.
Gifts include one, two or even three overnight stays, deep discounts on photography, florists, transportation, cakes and even discounted or free wedding venues, Wing said.
Interested? A $10 validated ticket is required to enter the drawing.
The brides and their wedding party are asked to visit all five host sites between 11 a.m. and 5 p.m. and obtain a stamp on their ticket for the validation.
"At 6 p.m. they turn their ticket in at the finale and the tickets get put in for the drawings, which include one basket from each host site," Wing said.
The reason the festival has taken off, according to Wing and Davis, is that it allows brides get a good look at sites for their wedding on a gorgeous island while also weighing the talents of roughly 50 vendors, all in one day.
"It's a chance for the brides to see what a wedding in paradise would be like as they explore all the beautiful venues we have not only on the Island, but elsewhere in Manatee County," Wing said. "They can plan their entire wedding in one day while enjoying the Island doing it."
Richard Dymond, Herald reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7072 or contact him via Twitter @ RichardDymond.