Businesses married to the wedding industry courted hundreds of brides and grooms and their entourages during the two-day Island Wedding Festival.
The Anna Maria Island Chamber of Commerce this year expanded the festival from a Sunday afternoon to a weekend event, with executive administrative assistant Deb Wing coordinating the event.
The goal was to provide festivalgoers with more time to see the Island, including an overnight stay.
Transforming the event — in its fourth year — into a vacation made sense for festivalgoers and local business owners, who saw more diners and lodgers than in prior years.
On Feb. 26, festivalgoers registered at the chamber office in Holmes Beach and then visited vendors at various locations before a party under the Seminole-inspired chickee hut at the Gulf Drive Cafe in Bradenton Beach.
On Feb. 27, festivalgoers continued their Island travels to connect with more than 70 vendors at 14 locations.
In Bradenton Beach, festivalgoers brunched at the BeachHouse Restaurant and visited the Historic Bridge Street Pier and resorts, including the Tortuga Inn.
In Holmes Beach, festivalgoers watched fashion shows at Acqua Aveda, toured the amenities at the Harrington House Beachfront Bed and Breakfast, browsed a reception at the Artists’ Guild Gallery and sampled items from the catering menus of MartiniVille, Matt and Dom’s Custom Cakes, Chapel Cakes and Mattison’s Restaurants.
In Anna Maria, some festivalgoers hung out at the Anna Maria Island Community Center, where they found a “groom zone” that featured big screen televisions, games and Budweiser, as well as wedding vendors.
The festival ended with a mock wedding, reception and prize giveaway at Anna Maria’s Sandbar Restaurant, where weddings occur almost as frequently as dolphin sightings.
Festivalgoers traveled the Island in complimentary limousines, aboard trolleys, in their vehicles and even by bike, golf cart and foot.
Beverly Slimer and Jared Lussier, who stayed overnight at the Tortuga Inn in Bradenton Beach, are preparing for a spring 2012 wedding and attended the festival.
“We’ve been together four years,” Lussier said. “We really wanted a beach wedding.”
“I’m getting a lot of ideas,” said Slimer, the winner of a three-night stay in the resort’s annual wedding contest. “Everything we are looking for is right here.”
Some of the ideas came from Melissa and Chris Varga, who married at the Sandbar Restaurant in the past year. The couple attended a previous Island Wedding Festival and returned this year to talk up a ceremony in Florida’s “Beach Wedding Capital.”
“I did a lot of research,” Melissa Varga said of her wedding planning.
“Anna Maria Island is a special little place for us,” Chris Varga said. He said the couple had discussed a destination wedding, including possibly one in Mexico. They visited Anna Maria Island often and one day on the beach, an idea clicked.
“We love this place so much,” Melissa Varga said. “It found us. It was meant to be.”
Organizers, as The Islander went to press, still were evaluating festival attendance. More than 800 people were expected.