Hailing from a similar job in Greenville, Gillian Trimboli-Zettler took the position of executive director at the BB&T Charleston Wine + Food Festival earlier this year and jumped straight into the mix of chefs, volunteers, ticket-holders, and pretty much everyone in the Lowcountry culinary scene. She had a chance to watch the festival unfold this past March, and now she and her team are putting the finishing touches on the events for 2015. In anticipation of the 10th anniversary and the upcoming annual ticket launch party, Eater caught up with Trimboli-Zettler to find out about her first festival and what sort of big plans she has for 2015.
How was the 2014 Charleston Wine + Food Festival?
It was kind of crazy. It was a lot of meet and greet and putting faces with names. I wanted to connect with so many people over the course of those four days. It was baptism by fire. I think it turned out alright for me. I love that this position allows me to connect with so many people. There was a lot of pressure to meet a lot of people in a short amount of time.
Year 10 is a big anniversary. What's going to make year 10 better than year nine?
I think for me, I've been doing a lot of listening. Listening has been key for the past six months. That has meant trying to sit down, in an intimate environment, with a lot of different groups of people and trying to understand how they feel about the festival. Ultimately, it doesn't belong to me or the board, it belongs to Charleston. The first step for me, was to sit down with the chefs. We had a couple of chef think tank meetings, and there were some really interesting opinions and ideas that spawned from that meeting. We've reinstalled and reinvigorated our hotel committee. There's a lot of subgroups participating in the planning this year, and I am really trying to take all those opinions to heart so everyone feels like they own a piece of year 10.
For me, bigger isn't always better, so I'm not on a race to double the attendance numbers. I want us to have really intimate, interesting experiences—things that for locals, who may have eaten in every restaurant here, but now they can experience Jacques Larson's cuisine in a different way over the course of the festival weekend. We really try to put pressure on ourselves and challenge those participating to think outside of the box and bring it to make year 10 special.
Are you bursting at the seams to tell everyone what you've been working on?
Definitely. We've been collaborating with some really interesting groups this year, so there are some of those collaborations that I'm really excited about. I also think the accessibility on a chef front is really exciting, and I'm excited for people to see that. People want those one-on-one interactions and the ability to ask a question or just say hello. We've tried to turn a lot of things on their heads, so people have the opportunity to do that. I love that. I think that one of the things that drew me to Charleston in general was the supreme hospitality that's here and how much pride there is in hospitality. I think for our guests coming in from out of town, I think it's a really cool way for them to interface with that hospitality at it's highest.
There's been a bit of buzz about the blog post declaring the festival was in the red, why do you feel that was important to post?
I think there's a few reasons. I've really been surprised by the number of people that don't realize we're a nonprofit organization. You'll see, in general, that will become, more clearly, a part of our messaging moving forward. A lot of wine and food festivals operate under a 501(c), and a lot of these events are doing really great work for the communities they exist in. Charleston Wine + Food is no different. Over the past 10 years, we've given back over $300,000 to local charitable initiatives. In the past few years, that has been concentrated in local culinary and hospitality scholarships. For a city that is so driven by hospitality, there's a need for people to consider that a career. I think it's unbelievably important to showcase that when the festival does well, it gives us an opportunity to give more back.
Transparency is definitely key. The blog post is the first of many. We want to communicate more year-round and that's important for a myriad of levels. Because we are a new team and it's our 10th anniversary year, I think that when an event can learn to function in a 365 day capacity, you have a lot more power. The blog post just happens to be the first one. People want to know how they can get involved. It wasn't meant to be a sounding of the alarms, but more like, "Hey, do you want to know how you can support this event you really care about?" These are some tangible ways for people with means, or people with a certain skill set, or a business, to help. We're also creating a new website, so the blog is where all our information has to live at this time before the site launches.
What do you want people to know about this year?
There's been a fair amount swirling around with this new team, and for me, I have a lot of confidence with the people in place. What I think is so special, is that the community is so invested in it, and by having the community collaborating during the process of creating guarantees success. I just don't have a doubt in my mind, and maybe that makes me a little utopian, but I believe it. Where we've asked to sit down with some of our partners and talk about ways to reevaluate and make sure that things are meaningful—not just from us to them, but from them to us-—we really have had great feedback across the board. I think it's healthy that all of these things are being reevaluated, so that 10 years from now, we can sit down and talk about how to celebrate year 20.
· Party at The Power House [CHSW+FF]
· Kicking Off 2015 Season of BB&T Charleston Wine + Food [CHSW+FF]