By Frank Dunne, Jr.
To those familiar with Hilton Head Island, South Carolina, no reason needs be given as to why this sun-splashed island by the sea is a glorious place to visit. For the uninitiated, here’s a little secret. Although widely regarded as a summer place, there is so much to enjoy year-round, and for more than a decade, the Hilton Head Island Concours d’Elegance & Motoring Festival has shown many visitors that October and November just might be the best time to be on the Island.
The weather is spectacular, warm, and sunny enough to go to the beach and swim in the ocean, get in a round of golf, or play some tennis. Crowds of summer vacationers have gone home, so there is a greater sense of peace and tranquility. Not to mention accommodations are easier to come by, whether at a high-end luxury resort or a quaint beachside villa.
Having transformed from a weekend event to a week-long festival, the Hilton Head Island Concours d’Elegance & Motoring Festival transcends its car show roots and provides the foundation for a new way to discover and enjoy the Hilton Head Island and greater lowcountry lifestyle.
Only a few decades removed from “Cars on the Creek,” an event formed by local car enthusiasts to benefit the Hilton Head Island Symphony Orchestra, the Hilton Head Island Concours d’Elegance & Motoring Festival quickly rose to become an elite member of approximately 80 U.S. based Concours events along with places like Amelia Island (Florida) and Pebble Beach (California). It first bore the title Concours d’Elegance in 2002, and today, Hilton Head Island’s event attracts some 20,000 attendees from all over the country and overseas.
How it evolved into one of the top shows on the circuit in such a short time is largely due to the vision of a woman named Carolyn Vanagel, who became the event’s president in 2004. After a lengthy and successful recruiting career in Chicago, Vanagel wanted a lifestyle change and moved to Hilton Head Island. “I decided to live here and do something completely different,” she said. “I had been to the Amelia Island Concours, which I guess is about five years older than we are. I’d seen that, and I’d heard about this event, and I had a vision that this could be a very big deal for Hilton Head.”
With that in mind, Vanagel got involved selling sponsorships but she had much bigger ideas in mind. Noting that most of the other U.S.- based Concours events are in larger markets (i.e. Pebble Beach, Detroit, Philadelphia, La Jolla (San Diego), and New York among others), she sensed that in order to be competitive in a crowded field, Hilton Head Island needed to raise its voice and find a way to stand apart from the others.
At first, it wasn’t easy. “I really had to work hard to convince everyone that if you were going to attract people from all over the country to a small market, you had to create an experience. You had to be something different from the other events,” said Vanagel.
Drawing on past experience as a competitive equestrian, Vanagel remembered “dragging” her father around to riding competitions. Aside from cheering on his daughter, he wasn’t particularly interested in those events, so he found other things to do. She remembered how those events were managed, with hospitality tents and other elements to broaden the appeal, and envisioned that for Concours.
Ultimately, Vanagel convinced the powers-that-be that this needed to be bigger than just a car show. It needed to be a lifestyle event. It needed to encompass all that makes Hilton Head Island—and surrounding areas— attractive to not only car buffs, but to everybody.
Organizers expanded the event beyond the shores of Hilton Head Island and beyond the time constraints of a single weekend. The Savannah Speed Classic features racing events for various race car classes, vintage and contemporary. As part of the festivities, spectators can ride along with a professional driver for a hot lap and experience racing for real…well, almost for real. Unfortunately, they don’t let you drive. That would be dangerous.
The Speed Classic occurs on the weekend before activities commence on Hilton Head Island, encouraging visitors to plan a weeklong visit to the area. “There’s so much to do on Hilton Head Island,” said Vicki Head, member of the Hilton Head Island Concours d’Elegance board of directors. “With the Concours d’Elegance as the grand finale to a week’s worth of festivities, it gives visitors time to discover the Island.”
Another big step was to move the Hilton Head Island Concours d’Elegance from Honey Horn Plantation to Port Royal Golf Club. This was a key move, according to Vanagel, in that it brought the event within a short distance from one of the Island’s finest luxury hotels, the Westin Hilton Head Island Resort and Spa, and the beach. “This way, you can spend some time at the show but easily break away and go for some TLC at the Spa or relax on the beach,” said Vanagel. “Did I mention that the weather here in October and November is absolutely beautiful? It’s all about giving people something else to do while they’re here.”
Of course, while on the event grounds, you’ll spend plenty of time taking in the exhibits and hobnobbing with owners of some of the world’s most beautiful, exotic, and exquisitely restored historic automobiles, but you’ll also enjoy a taste of all that Hilton Head Island has to offer and be inspired to explore beyond the festival. Hospitality tents, or cafés, offer samplings of fine cuisine for which Hilton Head Island is so well known, and the Galleria spotlights local vendors of everything from fine jewelry, art, and apparel to cigars and crafts. “A lot of people who come to our event have never been here before, and they’re discovering Hilton Head,” Vanagel said. “They’re feeling the lowcountry vibe for the first time, and it brings them back.”
“There’s so much to do on Hilton Head Island,” said Vicki Head, member of the Hilton Head Island Concours d’Elegance & Motoring Festival board of directors. “With the Concours d’Elegance as the grand finale to a week’s worth of festivities, it gives visitors time to discover the Island.”
To pull off such an event is an enormous task involving the efforts of hundreds of volunteers, vendors, exhibitors, and others. At the heart of it all is Vanagel and her equally passionate staff including Lindsey Harrel, VP of Operations, Sawyer Strelcheck, Assistant VP of Operations, Meredith Kronz, Exhibitor Concierge, Virginia Kavanaugh, Automotive Involvement Specialist, Catherine Builder, Lifestyle Involvement Specialist, and Sara Councilor, Speed Classic Registration Specialist. What do these dedicated ladies have in store for 2018?
“I was not a car person at the time I started with Concours,” explained Vanagel. “I wasn’t a ‘look under the hood’ kind of person. But I had an affinity for cars because my mother had been an artist, and she herself had a great fascination with cars as art. I really picked up on that whole kind of ‘art moves’ concept, and we’ve made that the theme for this year’s show: Art Moves. We’re looking at cars as pieces of sculpture, and we overlay that throughout the event.” With its abundance of creative people, artists, writers, musicians, and numerous art galleries, the Art Moves theme ties in well with the Hilton Head Island and greater lowcountry culture.
Life Series started at Hilton Head and are spreading to Concours events all over the country. This special exhibit, runs concurrent to Saturday’s Car Club Showcase and Concours d’Elegance on Sunday. Examples include “Life in the Movies” which featured the DeLorean from Back to the Future, the Bluesmobile from The Blues Brothers, and Lightning McQueen from Cars. “Kids went crazy over that,” said Vanagel. “We’ve had Life on the Road with unique travel trailers, vintage air-streams and vehicles like that,” she added. “This year it’s Life on the Orient Express. We’ll have European cars from the 1930s and 1940s and people dressed up in period attire.”
Vanagel and her team always strive to expand Hilton Head Concours’s audience and appeal. (For example, although known primarily for automobiles, motorcycle and watercraft exhibits for a number of years, three years ago they added yet another new twist: vintage airplanes.) “We have an incredible party Friday night called Flights and Fancy,” said
Vanagel. “It’s a chance to dress up and enjoy food and wine, music and fashion. People come from all over the country and say it’s the best party on the Island!”
Speaking of parties, your Saturday ticket gets you into a Motoring Festival afterparty following the Car Club Showcase. It’s a happy hour event featuring tastings from local distilleries and music by the Lowcountry Boil Band, a bluegrass mainstay on Hilton Head Island’s robust music scene for years. Also, the South Carolina Yacht Club hosts Autoweek’s “Design Among the Stars” dinner. Here attendees can meet some of the world’s top automotive designers while enjoying scenic harbor settings on the South Carolina coast. Meanwhile these design stars will create impromptu sketches for auction in support of the Driving Young America charitable fund.
Vanagel likes to emphasize Hilton Head Island’s casual nature when comparing and contrasting to other Concours events around the country. “We’re very lowcountry,” she said, referring to the warm, friendly, laid back vibe that is Hilton Head Island’s personality. “People who attend other Concours events come here and find it more relaxing. More and more are saying Hilton Head is their favorite.”
That’s because Vanagel and her crew have cracked the code. The Hilton Head Island Concours d’Elegance & Motoring Festival is more than a car show, it is an event with a sense of place. Come spend the week here and, of course, enjoy the show. But also, take a walk on the beach, a bike ride on the miles of leisure paths, or join a yoga class…on a stand-up paddleboard! Indulge in delicious fresh local shrimp dockside as you take in the sunset or some fine dining at one of many highly regarded local establishments. Visit historic sites dating back to the American Revolution and Civil War, or get to know the indigenous wildlife on a nature preserve tour. The experience will inspire you to come back and just might convince you to stay.