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Wine + Food's Gillian Zettler on collaboration, staff changes, and her days as an a cappella singer

Who's the Boss?

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Gillian Zettler beat out some 500 applicants to take over the coveted role of Charleston Wine + Food Festival executive director in 2014. Flash forward 13 months later, and Zettler, who moved to Charleston from Greenville, is about to dive into her first year manning the event with an almost entirely festival-rookie staff. Surprisingly, she's calm, cool, and collected. But then this isn't the 32-year-old's first spin around a tasting tent. Zettler previously led Greenville's Euphoria. And while she knows the critical eyes of Charleston are upon her, she's got her game face on.

City Paper: Remind me how you got into event planning?

Gillian Zettler: I worked in radio after college which was totally happenstance. A really good friend of mine, Jamie DeMent got me into it. We went to Clemson together and did a cappella there. This was pre-Glee, pre-Pitch Perfect, all of that. She worked at Entercom and moved to Charleston to Apex here. She said, "You should interview for this gig," because I was the consummate planner, promoter in college. I got the job and took a really hard right in my career. It was a lot about events, promotions, working with the sales team. It's funny how you draw parallels later in your career. Working with musicians sometimes feels like working with chefs.

CP: From there you ended up at the Greenville's Children's Museum of the Upstate, right?

GZ: Yes. It's one of the largest children's museums in the entire country square footage wise. But it was a grounds-up operation. When I started there was literally no playbook. We started in hard hats, designing our event handbook. I was in charge of selling venue spaces, doing the black-tie galas, and development events. There were a lot of hats to be worn. And actually I sold one of the event spaces to Euphoria Greenville. That's how I connected there.

CP: Did they poach you?

GZ: Well, when I see something that I want, I definitely go after it. I remember saying to Euphoria founder Carl Sobocinski the night of an event, "When are you going to steal me for something? Because I think I'd be great at this." Consequently, two months later their director resigned. I threw my hat in the ring.

CP: That's ballsy.

GZ: I feel like there are opportunities and you just try to seize them. I'm a firm believer that things happen for a reason. Even interviewing for the Charleston job, I knew it would be an unbelievably coveted position. These jobs are few and far between. For an event person, it's a dream job in one of the most beautiful places on the planet. My approach was if it's meant to be, it will be.

CP: Was there anything, once you got to Charleston, that really shocked you?

GZ: What drew me to the job, going through the interview process, it was so interesting to see how passionate people are about the festival. One of the biggest differences between Greenville and Charleston is Charleston is such a an event-driven community. They have very high expectations about what people produce whether it's SEWE, Spoleto, or the Wine + Food Festival. They will put you through the ringer. They want you to do right by these wonderful events that have been created.

CP: Having just observed last year's festival, what was your take away?

GZ: Hmm, that's a good question.

CP: I would have thought it must have felt a bit weird to watch.

GZ: It was a little bit of a double-edged sword. I'm an in-the-trenches type of person, but at that stage, as anyone in the event world knows, everything had been planned and done. So it was a little bit of a bizarre observation mode, but in hindsight it's one I'm super thankful for. I was able to do a lot of note taking seeing the lay of the land.

CP: Did you have anyone who acted as a mentor or took you under their wing to introduce you to the people you need to know?

GZ: The person that comes to mind who really extended a hand was Kevin Johnson at The Grocery. It's not news to anybody at this point that we had a pretty significant staff change. Kevin, at a very crucial point, said, "Anything you need, anything that I can do." He rounded up the troops for chef think-tank meetings. Kevin was extremely instrumental in making sure that we got a large amount of the players in the same room.

In my mind, this event is bigger than any one person. It always has been, it always will be. I get it. People are interested and wanted to know about me and the new team and I get it. But I feel like if you're an event person that's doing your job the right way, then you don't give a lick about being in the forefront of anything. It's just not my style. I don't care about pats on the back and accolades. It may sound really cliché, but the joy is people who show up and have a good time. I don't care if they know who the heck I am.

CP: So this is the tenth anniversary, what do you want this year to showcase?

GZ: I'm such a fan of collaboration. When people collaborate, the best things happen. Look at musicians. When they collaborate, the audience gets excited, and when chefs collaborate, the audience gets excited. We really looked for opportunities to connect people together. It's so much more of a fun process when they get to do that. I went to the Gibbes on the Street event, and one thing that I noticed that I loved about the way that event was set up, with the way the chefs were stationed, they were able to chat with one another as they're expediting the food. It's one thing to ask them all to participate and push out something fabulous to eat, but I think you get a different experience when they get to connect with one another. I think there will be a sense of collaboration. And trying to create some more intimate experiences. The event is a tough thing to balance when it's grown to a certain size to make it still intimate. That was a challenging thing to work through and they'll feel that especially in the culinary village.

CP: What events are you especially looking forward to?

GZ: The Cross Culture BBQ at Royal American. I love that event for a lot of reasons. It's a venue that's never been used. I love that the space is gritty and different. They do some really cool cocktails and food in there. Chefs and pitmasters are working together to bend the rules of barbecue, and some of the menus we're getting back just look amazing.

I'm also super excited about On the Rocks and Roll at Memminger. That's a really music centric event. Marc Broussard is the headliner. He's played the New Orleans Jazz Fest. He's so soulful. He'll appeal to a huge demographic of people. We have one of our partners for that event is Phillip Nappi who is a gorgeous designer based out of Nashville. They're going to outfit some places within Memminger.

CP: You added a tool on the website this year so that guests could find tickets under $100. Was that in response to complaints about the price?

GZ: I think one of the big misconceptions with the festival is that you lay out this ticket price and you get in there and then get hit up for other things. I think a lot of people don't realize that it's all-inclusive. I would challenge any 20- or 30-something that, hey, you go to a ball game, you go to a concert and buy a few beers and buy a few small plates, it adds up. But with the festival, your investment might be heavier on the front end, but then you get to relax and have a good time.

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