Snowbird central

Winter Guest Fest draws 1,600 to Convention Center

Savannah Vasquez

OKALOOSA ISLAND — It’s something that is looked forward to every year.

Fifteen minutes before the 8 a.m. opening, a line of snowbirds already snaked outside of the Emerald Coast Convention Center awaiting the opening of Thursday’s Winter Guest Fest.

Organized by the Greater Fort Walton Beach Chamber of Commerce, the 14th annual event welcomes Northwest Florida’s winter visitors and showcases what the area has to offer, said Rachelle Graves, director of events for the chamber.

“As a chamber of commerce, it gives all of our members a chance to get in front of our winter visitors,” Graves said. “We know they will need all of the same amenities here that they need at home, so this gives our members a chance to offer their amenities to the snowbirds.”

The festival attracted 1,500 visitors last year, and this year the number was even higher at 1,600, according to officials.

“It’s fabulous, we love all the freebies,” said Linda Juergens of Minnesota.

“This is one of our big events,” added Juergens’ friend, Audrey Wieland of Wisconsin. “We would miss it if they didn’t have it.”

As for the wares, 74 vendors set up tables throughout the Convention Center to offer discounts, free samples, information and registration for amenities from restaurants and accommodations to entertainment venues and medical clinics.

Wieland said she comes for the free gifts such as pens, mugs, candy and information, and stays for the community.

“It’s like going to the grocery story or the drug store. We see people and catch up with them and their families,” she said.

Rachel Velasquez of ResortQuest by Wyndham Vacation Rentals, a main sponsor, said the festival gives the company a chance to thank its winter customers.

“We are the largest vacation rental company in Northwest Florida,” said Velasquez, marketing manager for ResortQuest. “We think this is a good way to interact with them and show our involvement in the community when our snowbirds come down.”