It takes a lot of volunteers to staff the Food & Wine Classic in Aspen — 650 in fact — and for many of them, the job starts today.
Fortunately for this year’s version of the three-day event, which gets underway Friday, there’s no shortage of people wanting to assist. As is typically the case, just under 1,000 people applied for volunteer spots. The requisite number of volunteers already had been assigned to various work committees as of Thursday. Should some people drop out before the work begins in earnest, there’s a big pool from which to draw, said Food & Wine volunteer manager Jenny Luu.
Luu actually works directly for the Aspen Chamber Resort Association. Food & Wine has a contract with ACRA, which oversees the event’s volunteer program.
“Unfortunately we have to turn away a lot of people, but it’s one of those good problems to have,” Luu said Thursday. “We have a steady wait list because (there are) last-minute dropouts at any time because of kids, or people can’t get off work, family issues, things like that.”
Luu’s job begins in February. She said some volunteers begin their assignments on Monday, but the vast majority don’t start their duties until the first day of the event.
There are different levels of volunteers. Those who work a minimum of 10 hours are rewarded with a one-day pass to the event, which includes access to seminars and grand tastings. Fifteen-hour volunteers get a two-day pass, and 20-hour workers are gifted with a three-day pass. They get “full access” of a sort; those carrying volunteer passes can be denied admission if a seminar first fills up with those who paid for their passes and other types of patrons.
“A volunteer pass can get you into everything … but there is a line hierarchy for seminars,” Luu said.
Volunteer duties vary. Volunteers are assigned to committees that manage specific tasks, which include setting up sites in advance of the seminars, to pouring wine and serving food, to cleanup. The event lists 15 separate seminar locations around town, not including the grand-tasting tents at Wagner Park.
The event can’t survive without local volunteers, and to that end, some type of appreciation is shown to them in addition to the event passes, Luu said. For many years, a post-Food & Wine volunteer party was held at different restaurant locations around town. Last year, no party was held, but volunteers received a gift.
Aspen resident Gail Mason said she worked as a Food & Wine volunteer for 11 years, mostly consecutively, until this year. She said she’s skipping it because some perks have been eliminated.
“I always used to do load out, so I worked on the last day, Sunday,” Mason said. “There always used to be a rule that anything the vendors left behind, we could take. Cutting boards, rags, dishes and plates, knick-knacks, things that were going to be thrown away, the volunteers who worked on closing day could take it, which kept all that stuff out of the landfill.
“Last year, they said, ‘No, volunteers can’t take a thing,’” she said. “I would take the stupid things, the rags, little cutting boards. That’s what made it fun. You never knew what kinds of little treasures you would find to bring home.”
The post-event volunteer party on the Monday after Food & Wine weekend was OK, with various types of “schwag” given away. Sometimes leftover bottles of wine were raffled off, Mason said.
“The party was no big deal, but we enjoyed it,” she said.
But there was no party last year, and no reason was provided. “They gave us a blanket and said, ‘thank you.’ I never opened it,” Mason said.
John Emerick, of Redstone, is a Food & Wine committee chair and has been volunteering for the event for 15 years. He said the perks aren’t what they used to be, but he understands why — vendors and organizers need to keep control of costs.
Volunteers used to leave the event carrying expensive bottles of wine and champagne, some partially full and some unopened. Now, the bottles are counted and everything is tracked, and no one is allowed to carry bottles, full or otherwise, out of the volunteer gate.
“The volunteers have seen a lot of the rules tighten up,” he said. “Prices on everything are going up and it’s a constant fight to put on a great event to make sure you’re only spending the money you need to spend on it.”
Luu said the level of volunteer appreciation can change from year to year. She said plans are usually kept under wraps until a few days before the start of Food & Wine, because some volunteers might bail on their assignments if they found out what the gift is or where the party is being held. This year, a party for volunteers is planned for the evening of June 17 at Shlomo’s, according to Emerick.
“There is a big effort to show an extra piece of appreciation at the end of Food & Wine,” Luu said. “The trade off for volunteering is really the pass and the experience they get. The gift, or the party, is kind of a bonus.”
Luu said the volunteer system has been streamlined over the years to make the job easier for everyone involved. An online system allows volunteer applicants to register; once chosen, they can manage the orientation process online as well. The system was upgraded this year.
Friday was the deadline for all volunteers who already had been assigned to their committees to complete their online orientation. Any volunteers being added this week can complete the orientation before starting their jobs.
She said that every year she counts on the dedication and longevity of volunteers, including committee chairs.
“We have a few volunteer committee chairs who have been on for 35 years,” she said, adding that there are many other volunteers have been involved for more than 20 years.
“I think that’s a testament to the program and the experience that volunteers get, and how lucky we are in Aspen to have this type of opportunity for volunteers,” Luu said. “To have unrestricted access to something like this, just like someone who is paying full price, is pretty amazing.”
Emerick said he enjoys being a committee chair and looks forward to the event every year. He said has learned a lot through his association with Food & Wine, and to him, service to the event and the community at large outweigh other concerns volunteers may have regarding compensation.
The 36th annual Food & Wine Classic in Aspen is sold out and tickets are no longer available to the general public. According to ACRA’s website, consumer passes were priced at $1,600 plus tax for full access to the three-day event. The number of attendees, including consumers, exhibitors, sponsors, media and others — has been capped at 5,000 for more than 20 years.