The Food and Wine Classic in Aspen may be the biggest party in town this weekend, but it is far from the only one. These days it takes a well-organized calendar and a hearty liver to travel the party circuit during the four-day period that stretches from Thursday through today. While there are plenty of locals who piggyback on the festivities and the merriment, the majority of these events are actually big business and each have their own specific objective.
Industry insiders can’t pin down an exact date for the explosion of “off-campus” parties in the Food & Wine Classic’s 31-year history, but the general consensus is that the phenomenon really took off about five years ago as marketers became more sophisticated. With the advent of social media, everything has become a message and there are so many more ways that people absorb advertising now, said Christina Grdovic, the publisher of Food & Wine magazine.
“You can’t just come here and throw your logo on something and think that’s going to do anything,” said Grdovic.
Marketers, Grdovic said, have figured out that those who enjoy the food and wine lifestyle typically make good customers for high-end products. Grdovic cites research that shows these same customers are people who care about their homes, are early adopters of new products and often influence their friends to purchase the same products, be it a high-end car or a new vintage of wine.
The average ski bum is likely to tell his friends about the killer party he attended — or, gasp, snuck into — however, in marketing parlance these are no longer parties but “event actuations.” The dictionary provides no clue as to the meaning of this business-school newspeak, but the simplest explanation is they are parties with a purpose that quite likely involve an extensive ad budget.
One of the most coveted events of the weekend is the Wines From Spain party, which is held every year on Thursday night before the Food & Wine Classic officially opens its doors. The organization is funded by the Spanish trade commission and has been a part of Food & Wine for 21 years, according to Wines From Spain Executive Director Katrin Naelapaa. The organization maintains a strong presence every year at the main event in the Grand Tasting Pavilion, and Naelapaa points to a direct correlation between the sales of Spanish wines and the growth of her group’s involvement with the festival.
As for the party, she views it as a way to supplement their marketing efforts in the tent. For the past nine years Spanish chef José Andrés has been a marquee figure at the party, which has grown from a small get-together at the Baldwin Gallery to a massive undertaking hosted at a private home. Naelapaa said the party is a way for her organization reach the A-list of industry reps as well as the media when the key players in the market are concentrated in a few square miles for the weekend. They would never achieve a similar turnout from the same crowd if they tried such an event in New York City, she said.
On Friday night Patron Spirits hosted the Patron Mojito Lab at Above the Salt and The Wild Fig restaurants. Pam Dzierzanowski is the director of events for Patron Spirits, and the creative event was her brainchild. Similar to Naelapaa, she cited the ability to strategically target a captive audience where she could make her brand shine.
Attendees at the event traveled through a maze of Patron-branded cocktails and an igloo serving hot chocolate spiked with tequila and topped with tequila infused whipped cream. The pièce de résistance was the mojito lab where guests were greeted with a labcoat, chose their own tequila and fresh ingredients, and then had their concoction mixed by a bartender. Then they proceeded to receive a personalized engraved muddler, followed by a photo shoot to document the night’s festivities.
The majority of the guests were industry insiders and national accounts chosen by Dzierzanowski. Patron also has a presence in the Food & Wine tent, but because it is carefully orchestrated with the various elements controlled by event organizers, Dzierzanowski said the party allowed her to showcase the brand and bring it alive under her own terms. In the end, she said she is “just trying to wow everybody.”
Not everyone who has an event actuation has a table at Food & Wine, Grdovic acknowledged. Naelapaa from Wines of Spain has strong feelings about guerilla marketers that attempt to ride on the coattails of others.
“The rest of us have paid our dues and deserve to be here,” she said.
Considering the amount of money that companies invest in the weekend, this sentiment is understandable. But smaller companies often are able to use their marketing tactics to build their brand and eventually take part in the weekend officially. One of these companies is Denver-based Infinite Monkey Theorem. For the past two years the wine company sponsored a party at the Smuggler Mine, which was the perfect way to market their canned wine to the outdoor-Colorado lifestyle crowd, according to the company’s founder Ben Parsons. The party resulted in national media attention, including an article in the New York Times.
As the company has grown, Parsons made a strategic decision to cancel this year’s party and instead invest in a table in the grand tasting tent at Food & Wine. He said the reason to go into the tent is the trade aspect of the business: To get in front of the right people and make a connection to get his product into new states. Plus, he felt they needed to find a way to do something that is fun and new.
“How many times can you throw the same party and have it still be cool?” said Parsons.
Grdovic thinks of Food & Wine as the “mothership” and views the companies and products that flock to Aspen for the weekend as potential new relationships.
“If they’re here, they want to be a part it,” she said.
One company that is here and that wants to be part of “it” in a big way is Woody Creek Distillers. The Basalt-based company launched last year and is positioning itself as a maker of world-class spirits, according to part-owner Mark Kleckner. Their marketing strategy for this weekend involves a table in the tent for the grand tasting plus private tastings at Justice Snow’s restaurant throughout the weekend. Additionally, the company is co-sponsoring the Aspen Peak magazine party on Saturday night.
Kleckner views the weekend as an opportunity to get in front of the national press and key players in the food and alcohol business. The events at Justice Snows as well as the party sponsorships allow Woody Creek to get in front of its consumers, in addition to potential distributors at the tent.
The events also indirectly benefit local wine and liquor stores, because guests often ask where they can purchase the product while it is being poured at the party.
“It’s great that they do these parties, it helps us,” said Jason Sterner, part owner of Hopkins Avenue liquor store Of Grape and Grain.
All of the companies interviewed by the Aspen Daily News for this story declined to share how much their events cost, but Kleckner said they are making a six-figure investment in this weekend.
Alcohol may be the common denominator at all of the parties throughout the weekend, but it is not always the driving force behind the event. For two years in a row the Dancing Bear has hosted its “Wine & Dine Under The Stars” party on its rooftop lounge. Amy Anderson, chief marketing officer for Timbers Resorts, identifies three distinct goals for their event: Exposing the property to the local community, especially to brokers and vendors; prospecting for new potential owners; and giving current owners a way to interact.
Local magazines Aspen Peak, Aspen Magazine and Aspen Sojourner also host events during the weekend as a way to interact with their clients and advertisers.
“Our target audience is absolutely captive in this town over the next three days,” said Erin Lentz, the editor of Aspen Peak.
Lentz explains that their target audience is a crowd that relishes the finer things in life. Their curated invite list results in an exclusive party that includes current and potential advertisers and those who have their finger on the pulse of the food and wine industry, which is especially important since the magazine devotes considerable ink to the dining scene.
This sentiment is seconded by Nancy Mayer, the publisher at Aspen Sojourner, which partners with scotch maker Glenfiddich to sponsor several events at Jimmy’s restaurant. Mayer views her events as a great partnership with a major advertiser, as well as a way to say thank you to friends of the magazine.
Beyond the gluttony and excess of the numerous events, two local nonprofits also made a move to capitalize on this weekend’s festivities, albeit with more altruistic motives. On Thursday night, Mountain Rescue Aspen hosted what it hopes becomes an annual fundraiser at the Sky Hotel. A $25 donation at the door granted access to a night filled with alcohol and food, all of which was donated and organized with the help of local event planners Bluebird Productions.
Bluebird also helped to organize a private dinner and fundraiser for Challenge Aspen, featuring award-winning chef Andrew Carmellini. The intimate dinner was limited to 50 guests and was held at a private home with a suggested donation of $750. The event was timed with Food & Wine because so many Aspen second-home owners are in town for the festival, according to Catherine Rohrstaff, the business development and special events manager at Challenge Aspen.
With the onslaught of events, it’s hard to know the real reason behind the myriad parties happening throughout the weekend, and after a few drinks most attendees don’t really care. However, there were at least two get-togethers this weekend that could be classified as simply old-fashioned parties.
Late Thursday night The Little Nell threw an “Oysters, Caviar, Bubbles and Bitters” party for a select group of chefs, sommeliers and friends that get together every year, said Sabato Sagaria, the food and beverage director at the hotel. The annual party has a different theme each year, with the invitation-only guest list providing a way to roll out the red carpet to a group of peers that will spend the weekend slaving away. Plus, Sagaria said he has the honor of giving his friends their first hangover of the weekend.
And for those who think wine is a serious venture, they missed that Magnum P.I. party that Jon Chaplin threw on Friday afternoon. With a cheeky nod to the ’80s television series, guests were asked to dress in their best Magnum P.I. get-up, and entry was granted with a magnum of wine. Chaplin is the owner of Brazos Wine Imports, and the majority of his guests were in the wine industry and simply gathered to celebrate drinking good wine.
Gary Plumley is part-owner of Grape & Grain and one of the founders of the Food & Wine Classic. These days he isn’t as active with the festival, but he appreciates the energy he feels as he walks down the street and recognizes the weekend has become quite a scene.
“Everybody loves a party,” he said.