Don't expect this year's Harley Davidson bike rally, kicking off next weekend, to be like last year's tame affair.
Officials predict more bikers will converge on the Grand Strand for the Cruisin' the Coast Spring Bike Rally - not near as many as during its peak years ago, but enough to know there's a rally in town, they said.
"We are back on the upswing," said DeAnna Fryar, who is in charge of the vendors at Barefoot Landing.
Several factors are contributing to the expected uptick: More aggressive marketing - the most advertising since 2009; an improving economy; and, some say most importantly, the repeal of Myrtle Beach's controversial helmet law.
This will be the first spring rally since the S.C. Supreme Court overturned the city's helmet requirement for all riders, part of a package of new rules the city approved in 2008 aimed at toning down the rallies. The actions sparked an outcry from some bikers who said they would not be back to the beach because of it.
City leaders said they had to enact the restrictions because the rallies - which had attracted as many as 500,000 people at the peak - had gotten too big and created traffic, noise and other issues for residents.
The state Supreme Court ruled that the city's helmet requirement was invalid just a couple of weeks after last spring's rally, saying it superseded state law, which only requires helmets for riders under age 21.
"People are ready to come back," said Denise Triece, marketing and event coordinator for Myrtle Beach Harley Davidson. "People are coming back that haven't been in years. They are saying they have missed the beach. ...We are expecting a lot more than last spring."
None of the experts have been able yet to estimate how many bikers might be here for the rally, which kicks off May 13 and runs through May 22.
Occupancy at area lodging properties is on track to be up compared to the same period in 2010, though experts can't pinpoint how much it will increase until the latest reports from the lodging properties are in early next week, said Taylor Damonte of Coastal Carolina University's Clay Brittain Jr. Center for Resort Tourism.
Last year, bookings jumped by more than 20 occupancy points in the two weeks before the rally, he said.
"So it's really hard to call [now how much it will increase]," Damonte said.
Myrtle Beach City Councilman Randal Wallace said he's OK with bikers who behave returning, and isn't worried about the rallies getting too big again.
"We had to get some stuff under control and we did that," he said. "It's not biker month anymore. We've gotten the word out."
Harley Davidson kicked up its promotion of the rally outside the area this year for the first time since 2009, when the dealership pulled back on advertising because of a lack of money fueled by the down economy, Triece said, adding that she won't know how much is spent on advertising until the rally is over.
There are billboards in Florida, ads in biker magazines such as Carolina Chrome and U.S. Rider News, and Triece did live TV interviews about the rally in Cincinnati, she said. The Facebook pages for the local Harley Davidson dealership and the rally also have become more popular in the past year, she said.
Some bikers still will avoid Myrtle Beach because of its actions to tone down the rallies, but most of the feedback Triece and others said they have received indicate that many bikers are over it.
"I think that is starting to be forgotten," said Jamie Keats, owner of Jamin' Leather in Surfside Beach, which has several events during the bike rally, including charity auctions, comedy shows and Ms. Bike Rally contests. "The sentiment isn't there. I don't hear the negativity."
Keats said he also expects more bikers this year, and the boycotts of Myrtle Beach city limits won't be "as conscious as it was."
"Last year was the bottom of the barrel," Keats said. "I really do feel very optimistic."
Bikers will be here for the next three weekends, with the Harley rally the next two weekends and the Atlantic Beach Bikefest set for Memorial Day weekend. Officials with Atlantic Beach weren't available Friday to comment on expected attendance for Bikefest.
After declines in May business because of Myrtle Beach's rules, tourism promoters tried other events to lure visitors. May has become the time for food festivals such as Coastal Uncorked, the Beach Blast Christian Music Festival and Military Appreciation Days on Memorial Day weekend, which this month will include a parade with U.S. Sen. John McCain as grand marshal.
Wallace said he's not sure whether the increased bookings for this May are more from bikers or festivalgoers. The beach can serve both - as long as the rallies don't grow as big as they were, he said, adding that May business is starting to build back up.
"May is going well," Wallace said. "[Bikers] can fit in the mix, too, as long as it's not what it's been."
The Grand Strand would score big from a business standpoint if it could find a way to balance the bike business with the other events, possibly hosting bikers on the north and south ends and the festivals in Myrtle Beach, Damonte said.
"May is a marginal month, there is some potential for family business and some potential for nonfamily," Damonte said. "The trick is to keep them separate so the entire area can benefit from that.
"Ideally we'd like to have all of it, but it's difficult to do."
For now, bike rally officials are focused on the next couple of weeks. All the spots for vendors at Barefoot Landing are taken, with 40 vendors including J&P Cycles on board and about 10 Barefoot Landing tenants planning to set up as well, Fryar said.
"We've had a great response," she said. "Everybody seems like they are ready."
Fryar and others involved with the bike events say this year could be a turning point for the Harley rally, with officials already expecting it to grow even more in 2012.
"It will take time," Fryar said. "But people are open and ready to return."