It started more than a decade ago as a culinary event to increase business between the end of October and Thanksgiving and involved the sampling of restaurant fare, wine and attendance at various wine dinners and chef demonstrations.
However, the last three years, it’s morphed into the Highlands Food & Wine Festival – big business with a $550,000 budget – involving all the above as well as celebrity entertainers and various events at multiple venues.
For the first two years, the Chamber of Commerce was at the helm, but this year Highlands Festivals, Inc. – a 501(C)(3) was set up within the chamber to run the Food & Wine Festival.
“Having just completed the event on Sunday, final totals are not yet available but early numbers indicate that the event operated within its budget of $550,000,” said Bob Kieltyka, president of the Chamber of Commerce. “Ticket sales covered approximately $300,000. The balance was covered by sponsors and a grant from the Chamber of Commerce.”
The grant from the Chamber of Commerce is funded through room tax money which it is required to use to promote Highlands.
For the third year, Eleven Events, a full-service event company from Greenville, SC manned the event whose purpose is to introduce people to Highlands while bolstering local business. And from all accounts, the thousands who attended the event had a great time.
Three of this year’s events were set up in K-H Founders Park, but also at The Bascom, on Main Street and at the various shops that participated in the Sip n’ Stroll.
Tickets ranged from the VIP pass to five events for $650, to $125 for the Grand Tasting Thursday night, $125 for the Truckin’ event Friday at The Bascom, $125 for Saturday’s Main Event on Main Street, $55 for the Sip n’ Stroll Friday or Saturday, $150 for Sunday’s Gospel Brunch and $50 for the Generous Pour Saturday night whose proceeds benefitted area food pantries.
Though most businesses – restaurants, lodging establishments and merchants – are “pro” the event because they believe it introduces people to Highlands which means they will likely return, instead of making more money than usual, some actually made less.
“This does nothing for the merchants,” said Bob Mills of Nancys Fancys and The Exchange. “Business is always off during this type of venue. We would love to see it end. However, on the plus side, we would hope the attendees return to Highlands some other time.”
Management at The Spice & Tea Exchange echoed those sentiments. “We had low numbers all weekend. No one was shopping.”
Owner of Main Street Inn & Bistro, Debbie Garner said the event is no longer an event for the local businesses.
“Now it has become a music festival and an outside food truck event taking the people off Main Street. Our occupancy rate has not changed for the weekend, but the restaurant used to get the overflow for dinner from people not going to one of the wine dinners. Now those people are going to the music venues and eating from the outside food trucks,” she said. “This is incredibly frustrating that we allow outsiders to come into town on a weekend to take profits away from the local tax-paying businesses. When this was the Highlands Culinary Event, it was a much more profitable weekend. Sometimes bigger isn’t always better.”
She brought to light a couple of issues. Per the town ordinance, outside food trucks aren’t allowed in Highlands precisely because they take business from local restauranteurs. Also, she noted the strain on infrastructure which Mayor Pat Taylor believes should be subsidized with room tax money.
“I hope the outsiders are paying for the increased cost to the town for the additional services needed to handle this event,” said Garner.
Some merchants said it was unclear if their sales were due to shoppers who came in for the festival or for the long, three-day Veterans Day weekend.
Alan Mayer, owner of The Dry Sink, said it’s likely the event was a plus for the restaurants and lodging.
“We had a busy day Saturday, but technically, it was down from last year’s Saturday,” he said. “But in speaking to customers, I got the feeling that many were coming to Highlands for the first time, so it may lead to better awareness of the town in the long term. The event seems well run and well promoted, so that has to be a plus.”
Harry Bears of Southern Way said his business was definitely up compared to a normal Thursday through Sunday in November.
But Anna Herz of Annawear said November weekends have been getting better and better anyway…so who knows? “However, it seems like a really nice event overall.”
Michelle Bears of The Toy Store and Bags on Main offered mixed observations noting that last year was a prime year for the festival because Veterans Day was observed on Friday, not Monday. She said HFW needs to plan and be mindful of the next two years since it’s likely lots of folks will be staying over Sunday, leaving Monday.
“Last year, three-quarters of Atlanta was off Friday, Saturday and Sunday. This year, and next year Veterans Day will be observed on Monday. When Veterans Day falls Tuesday-Thursday the numbers are way off since folks are off on the 11th and don’t have a three-day weekend either way.”
This year, many merchants opted out of hosting the Sip n’ Stroll where those who buy a ticket get wine and appetizers while in the participating shops.
Bears said they opted out of participating this year due to the price tag it costs merchants to participate. However, at the bag store, she said they do better when they host the Sip n’ Stroll.
“Consequently, the sales on Sip n’ Stroll Saturday reflected quite a downturn there,” she said.
As to who was in town for what, Bears said when she asked customers at checkout it was a mixed bag of Veterans Weekend Warriors and HFW patrons.
When asked their opinion about the festival, most businesses said it was good that it introduced Highlands to new people, but there were negative sides to the event.
“I do not see a benefit in sponsoring the event as it is not locals to a large extent seeing the event,” said one. “I was suspicious in the beginning about who was making out on this. Business wasn’t as good as an October weekend, but I guess for mid-November it was pretty good. I would expect that the customer base was probably not great for the merchants, especially with some limited access.”
That limited access was felt by Highlands Inn and Paoletti Restaurant on the 4th to 5th street block of Main Street.
First the street was blocked off to set up the Main Event, and then once the event was over at 4 p.m., the street stayed blocked until 10 p.m.
“We are pro this event,” said Arthur Paoletti, “but we could have been busier Saturday night but the street was blocked off so people couldn’t get to the restaurant to park.”
Sabrina Hawkins, owner of Highlands Inn on the same stretch echoed Paoletti.
“Saturday nights are our busiest nights but Highlands Inn went down with a few rooms not rented on Saturday night, when we would have otherwise sold out. The walk-ins we would have normally gotten that day were nonexistent, most likely due to guests not being able to access us because of the extended amount of time they kept the street closed,” she said.
Jackie Stevens of Jolies also on the stretch said they believe any event is good for Highlands.
“Getting new visitors helps everyone,” she said. “We had a terrific weekend, but we may not be a good indicator because word is out we are closing and having big sales. Having said that, many people that shopped with us did say they were participating in HFW events.”
Susan Young of Wits End made similar observations.
“Business was good but it’s hard to compare numbers from last year to this year since this event has been ongoing for years. “However, it is a huge boon for Highlands and no doubt we picked up some new customers. I think it is a great event and good for all in this town.”
Another issue was the pre-selling of tickets early on which meant many events were sold out months and months ago.
Hawkins said sold-out events affected her business both at Highlands Inn and Highlands Lodge.
“It’s hard to book rooms if they sell out tickets to certain events very early on. While we were busy, we lost quite a bit of business because people could not get tickets. Our guests book a year in advance and then when they call to get tickets and they are sold out, they end up cancelling their reservations. That happened to about a third of our bookings this year,” said Hawkins. “It looks like in the future, if something cannot be worked out, I’ll be forced to look at buying the tickets up front to resell so that I know I can sell my rooms.”
– Article by Kim Lewicki, Highlands Newspaper; photos by Rachel Lewicki