More than 60 vendors will convene on Anna Maria Island this weekend to make their sell to brides-to-be now scouting the area's beaches for a destination wedding.
The fifth annual Strolling Wedding Festival was organized to strengthen an industry that has become one of the area's largest drivers of tourism -- with couples bringing their friends and family to tie the knot in Manatee.
Tourism officials say destination weddings provide a significant economic boon through hotel stays, dining out and visitor shopping. They hope the festival this weekend becomes the catalyst for another robust wedding year ahead.
"It's a huge business and a big segment for us," said Debbie Meihls, executive manager of the Bradenton Area Convention and Visitor's Bureau. "People want to come to a beautiful place like this to get married."
To capture that growing market share, the Anna Maria Island Chamber of Commerce has coined the island as the beach wedding capital of Florida.
Manatee County hosts more than 1,500 total weddings annually. A typical destination wedding will bring about 50 visitors for an average of five days. The largest feeder markets are Canada, Europe, Ohio, Chicago, New York and other areas of Florida.
Those stays not only create millions of dollars in direct economic expenditures, they also lead to future trips for anniversaries, vow renewals and family beach vacations. Weddings also open the door for more retirees to settle here permanently, said David Teitelbaum, president of Anna Maria Island Resorts, which operates four hotels on the island.
"People who come to these weddings usually have never been here before so they're introduced to the island in a way that's so romantic and beautiful," Teitelbaum said. "So
we get a lot of repeat customers."
Vacations stemming from some type of wedding represent one third of Teitelbaum's total business.
Tourism officials are working to build on that number by marketing Anna Maria weddings on the visitor's bureau Web page, mobile app and advertisements in major metro newspapers like the Boston Globe and New York Times.
The festival on Anna Maria on Saturday and Sunday will feature more than 60 vendors at eight locations scattered along the seven-mile island.
Participants can visit the merchants at their own pace or use the complementary trolley and limo service.
Organizers are expecting at least between 300 to 500 people to attend the event, with some wedding festivals in years past drawing upwards of 800.
An estimated 22 percent of festival attendees in 2011 stayed overnight, while another 11 percent booked a wedding the day of the event, according to the Anna Maria chamber.
"The whole idea is to feature this area as a wedding destination to brides," said Deborah Wing, chamber vice president and event chair. "We like for them to come here and see for themselves everything we have to offer ... Just about everybody that has a business, whether it's directly wedding related or not, is positively affected."
Josh Salman, Herald business writer, can be reached at 941-745-7095. Follow him on Twitter @JoshSalman.