Behind the Scenes at the Riesling Fest
August 4, 2016
My first day at Dixon Schwabl was August 10, 2015—just about a year ago now. It was the Monday after the seventh annual Riesling & Craft Beer Festival, and I had no idea at the time how significant that was. Amid the haze of first-day nerves and paperwork, new faces and forgetting names, I remember the tone of the events team members.
Exhausted, but proud in their exhaustion, they told story after story of the past three days and the frantic pace they kept from start to finish. Above-average-sized coffees and Diet Cokes in their hands, sneakers on their weary feet, they had earned a casual Monday. Really, they’d earned the day off, but they were there. Back at it.
Over the past year, the reasons for their exhaustion have been on display. This event doesn’t just happen. It’s not a copy/paste or a rinse-and-repeat. It’s brand new every time, because that’s how they treat it. Even after the most successful year in the event’s history, it’s all about making it better.
“We are always looking for ways to enhance the festival each year, whether it be adding more kids’ activities, more breweries or more wineries,” Dixon Schwabl Vice President of Events Kathy Phelps says. “The first priority is to make sure we’re going to make enough for a donation, because that’s why this event exists. That’s Priority No. 1.”
And “Priority No. 1” started months ago, prompting the first spreadsheet needed to keep it all organized as this team of Type-A’s began calling, emailing and following up with businesses and other organizations to sponsor the event. Proceeds from the Riesling Fest go to the YMCA of Canandaigua, as well as the host venue, the New York Wine & Culinary Center.
Even more unique is that Dixon Schwabl is its own client as the presenter of the festival.
“We never wanna fail our clients, but in this case especially, everybody’s looking at us—internally, externally, our vendors and the community,” Special Events Supervisor Jenna Van Thof says. “We wanna make it as smooth as we can.”
That includes a ridiculous attention to detail when it comes to vendors. More spreadsheets, color-coded, updated and shared among the team over the months leading up to now, and constant contact to make sure they know where to go at what time to stay on track.
“It’s so important for us to go down the list and say, ‘OK, we need you there at 9, we need you there at 9:15, when he gets out of there, you come at 10,’ ” Jenna says. “They know what to do when they get there, but if one person is off the timeline then it screws up the next person. They rely on us for that level of organization and coordination.” And it that’s only half of it. “We have numerous community partners: we have electric, garbage, entertainment, sound, water—there are so many moving parts to the festival and you have to make sure it’s all on time.”
The more than 100 volunteers for the two-day event present another logistical challenge. Even more spreadsheets. Spreadsheets for days. Volunteers from the YMCA, Dixon Schwabl and Rochester Young Professionals help pour beer, check IDs, run ice and water, and other event-day activities. They’re signed up, assigned a time and a task, trained and given T-shirts.
“Securing volunteers can be a struggle,” Jenna says. “It’s summertime, they have something going on, but when you work that weekend and you see the number of people who have rallied from Dixon Schwabl, it’s energizing. It’s such an adrenaline rush.”
Kathy says she also gets a boost from watching attendees enjoy everything without a care, without even a thought of the symphony of activity going on around them.
“The community really appreciates it,” Kathy says. “If you look on social media and see the engagement going on, they’re tagging their friends and sharing their stories. Even after it’s over, they’re asking about dates for next year, so it’s nice to know the community looks forward to it.”
Although Kathy and Jenna run point this year, the team is much bigger, with integral support from Erin O’Donnell and Shannon Struzik. Bob Charboneau is the team’s Swiss army knife, doer of all things that need doing. The PR team developed media strategy. The social media team developed ways to leverage Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat. Some guy wrote a blog. It all adds up to a ridiculous level of meticulous.
This will be the eighth year of the Finger Lakes Riesling & Craft Beer Festival and, without fail, something unexpected will happen that will threaten to derail the whole thing. Lack of sleep, midnight emails and troubleshooting are part of the job. The struggle is real, but so are the results. To date, more than $230,000 has been donated to benefit the Canandaigua region, and the festival also puts a well-deserved spotlight on the region’s booming home-grown wine, beer and food industries.
“It’s a nerve-wracking experience from start to finish, but through some level of insanity, we thrive on it,” Kathy says. “There’s not much better than that moment when you realize you actually have a moment—just that moment to appreciate what you and your team built. It’s going to be hectic again this year, and next year, and every year. Sign us up.”