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The Williamsburg Harvest Celebration is kicking off Wednesday after more than a year of planning and preparations.
The idea for a multi-day culinary festival first came about when Patrick Duffeler, former chief executive officer of the Williamsburg Winery, commented to Greater Williamsburg Chamber & Tourism Alliance President Karen Riordan that he has always hoped to see the creation of such an event in this area.
“Really all the credit goes to [Duffeler],” Riordan said. “At one of our first meetings in 2014 he mentioned he had dreamed of having a culinary festival here, so that’s really where the idea first came from.”
Such an event was all the more appealing to the Alliance when viewed in light of the growing national trend of enthusiasm for unique, locally oriented food experiences.
“Some of the other cities in our competitive set – Charleston, Savannah – were having great success with these sorts of events,” Riordan said.
Ultimately five founding members – the three localities, the Alliance and the Williamsburg Winery – were brought to the table to begin planning the Harvest Celebration, which was conceived as a way to take advantage of both an industry and a time of year that had not previously been highlighted.
One of Riordan’s major interests since coming on board the Alliance in 2014 has been raising the profile of the Historic Triangle outside of the traditional summer tourist season.
“I want to keep making sure outside visitors understand we have a lot going on here at all times of the year,” Riordan said.
Early November traditionally represents a lull between Williamsburg Fall Arts and the beginning of the holiday season, making it a natural fit for a new major event.
The timing also syncs up with two culinary-themed statewide tourist initiatives: Virginia Oyster Month and Virginia Wine Harvest Month.
These factors, coupled with the desire to put more effort into promoting the area’s culinary offerings, added up to an opportunity for a new major community-wide undertaking.
“We don’t do a lot to focus on the culinary. We focus on the history, we focus on how beautiful this place is, but we also have a lot of great restaurants and we don’t promote them enough,” Riordan said.
Looking at the success of food and wine festivals in places like Charleston, the five founding organizations decided they wanted to dive in head-first with a five-day celebration of more than 30 events, but they knew they would benefit from the guidance of someone with expertise in this particular type of event planning to pull it off.
Cindy McGann, the festival’s executive director, is owner and founder of her own event planning business and has experience putting on similar celebrations in other localities. Robin Carson, retired executive vice president at Kingsmill Resort, joined McGann in working out the logistics of the event.
With the appropriate manpower in place, the localities began reaching out to area restaurants, wineries and breweries to gauge interest in participation.
“It took us a little while at first to get people to understand our model,” Riordan said. “We came up with the brand – the umbrella – and beyond that [restaurants and chefs] have total freedom to create whatever kind of event they want.”
That flexibility has led to a great deal of variety among the offerings that made the cut for the festival, which include a late-night speakeasy at the Trellis, several different tapas crawls in varied locations, an extensive wine-pairing dinner at Café Provencal and a community chowder festival at Jamestown Beach.
While the food-industry experts were left to plan their own events, the people behind the Harvest Celebration have helped them market their happenings through the Harvest Celebration website and by encouraging area lodging establishments to offer packages for certain events and overnight accommodations.
While initiatives like the lodging push were done with out-of-town guests in mind, Riordan believes that when the final analysis is done the numbers will reveal significant participation from locals as well as tourists.
“One of the reasons locals will like this is they have a reason to go try a restaurant they’ve always meant to check out,” Riordan said. “”I think our locals are going to take advantage of this, and we’ll have a nice balance between locals who love food and out-of-towners.”
The philanthropy angle may also be a draw for locals. Harvest Celebration planners have all agreed to support several local food-related nonprofits, including FISH and Meals on Wheels, with some of the event’s proceeds.
“People can enjoy a great meal, a nice glass of wine and know part of their ticket is going to something good,” Riordan said.
Riordan also anticipates that if things go well this year, the Harvest Celebration will become an annual event and will potentially grow to span an entire week.
“People are hungry for these kind of food experiences,” Riordan said, laughing at her unintentional play on words. “We’ve seen places like Richmond have huge success with culinary events, and we think there is room in the economy for Richmond to continue to do well and for Williamsburg to take a piece of that.”