Snowbirds welcomed back to Okaloosa by businesses, merchants at annual Winter Guest Fest

Sierra Rains
Northwest Florida Daily News

OKALOOSA ISLAND — Hundreds of snowbirds flocked to the Destin-Fort Walton Beach Convention Center on Thursday for the 2022 Winter Guest Fest.

For some, it's an annual tradition. Others found their way to the area for the first time this year. But all left with bags full of coupons, gifts and giveaways from a variety of local businesses and merchants who welcomed the winter visitors to the Emerald Coast.

“They’re a critical part of the economy,” said CareySue Beasley, who owns Okaloosa Donuts with her husband, Paul Beasley, and her son, Alex Coleman. “They come not because of the beach as much because they don’t get to enjoy it, so they get to know the area and really contribute to the local economy.

Alex Coleman (center) and CareySue Beasley from Okaloosa Donuts talk with Dan Diamond of Diamond Dan DJ Services during Thursday's Winter Guest Fest at Destin-Fort Walton Beach Convention Center. The annual event brings together wintering snowbirds with local restaurants, resorts, retailers, hotels and other businesses.

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The event provides winter guests a chance to learn about businesses like Beasley’s, which offered them a taste of blueberry cake doughnuts — a favorite among many returning snowbirds.

“They appreciate the classics,” Coleman said. “They’re not into mermaids and unicorns, so it gives us a chance to really kind of step back and just make traditional doughnuts for an environment of people that really appreciate that. They come early, they leave early and they bring good conversation.”

Dressed in comical tourist attire, Lynn Dominique entertains visiting snowbirds Thursday during the Winter Guest Fest at the Destin-Fort Walton Beach Convention Center. The annual event connects wintering snowbirds with local businesses.

Several other vendors were scattered about the convention center, from restaurants and attractions to physicians' practices and window suppliers.

"These aren’t vacationers that are here for a week. These are long-term visitors who are here for two to three months," said Rachelle Graves, director of special events for the Greater Fort Walton Beach Chamber of Commerce. "So we can invite all of our vendors and the community to do a one-day showcase to the snowbirds.”

Sabina Zunguze, who owns Destin Beverage Company, offered guests a taste of her lemonades and teas brewed from ingredients sourced straight from Africa. As a new member of the Chamber of Commerce, it was her first year at the event and a good opportunity to attract year-round business even after snowbirds return home.

Gabrielle Forbish with The Crab Trap serves up a sampling from the restaurant's menu to visiting snowbird Paul Hinshaw during Thursday's Winter Guest Fest at the Destin-Fort Walton Beach Convention Center.

“I work with about 200 women in Africa who process my ingredients. They process them there in Africa, bring it here and then I make all kinds of things,” Zunguze said. “If they like it here, they can still have it at home. I can deliver it to them while they’re here, but I can also ship it to them as they get home.”

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The chamber sponsors the event each year. Although somewhat smaller this year, Graves said the Winter Guest Fest has come a long way from when it began in a Sam’s Club parking lot more than 25 years ago.

“It truly was just an appreciation — come to Sam’s Club, get your big cookie, a drink and thanks for being here,” she said. “It’s grown and grown.”

LPN Cara Riccio with White-Wilson Medical Center's immediate care department talks with visiting snowbirds Rick and Shelly Rice during Thursday's Winter Guest Fest at the Destin-Fort Walton Beach Convention Center.

The event has looked a little different the last two years because of the COVID-19 pandemic. In a normal year, there are upwards of 100 vendors and almost 2,000 snowbirds, but numbers dropped in 2021.

“Last year we had less than 400 snowbirds come to the event. On what we’ll call a normal event we’ll have almost 2,000,” Graves said. “We definitely see the impact that we don’t have as many visitors coming. Some of that’s whatever their state requirements are or family concerns.”

More winter guests arrived in the area this year, but numbers were still a bit below normal, she said. Beasley and Coleman said they have already seen more customers coming into their doughnut shop this winter than in 2021.

“We have a lot of our winter guests back this year. It was about a 70% drop last season due to COVID-19,” Beasley said. “So this year it’s back up. Not quite to previous snowbird levels, but better. The vaccines have really helped with that.”

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Snowbirds Ron Jensen (left) and Phil Andres laugh as Winter Guest Fest emcee Lynn Dominique entertains the crowd during Thursday's Winter Guest Fest at the Destin-Fort Walton Beach Convention Center.

Shane Sailors and her husband were visiting the area from Nebraska for the first time this year. They happened to come across a flyer for the event online and planned to come by as a rainy-day activity.

“We just retired and we have friends who come here every year, so we decided to come down for a couple of weeks and check the area out and see if we’re interested in doing it every year," said Sailors, who added that they are planning to visit again next year.

The Winter Guest Fest also serves as a way for seasoned snowbirds to reconnect. One group of friends from Indiana and Illinois live about 200 miles from each other, but they look forward to the event as a way to reconnect each year.

This is Pat and Sheri Smith’s sixth year visiting from Minnesota. The couple normally stays in the area for about four months and leave before the spring break crowds come in March. Sheri Smith said she fell in love with the area after visiting her sister.

“I had been down here probably 30 years ago and saw the place. It’s pretty. The white sands, the emerald waters, and the food. All the different places to eat,” she said. “He likes to golf. Shopping. There’s just a lot of things to do here.”

Graves said the Chamber of Commerce is looking forward to welcoming the snowbirds back again next year, and hopes to see the event continue to grow.

“It has definitely evolved, and I look forward to it getting bigger and better, whatever that looks like going forward,” she said. “When you’re on vacation, you might remember one or two key things that were spectacular. You want your business to be remembered.”