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Southern Wine & Spirits' Lee Brian Schrager

"Every year we look to get better. We do not want to be the biggest, but we do strive to be the best."


When the South Beach Wine & Food festival began three years ago, one of the goals was to create awareness for the School of Beverage Management at FIU. Another was to showcase Miami as a destination for great food and wine. Lee Brian Schrager accomplished this goal and continues to strive to improve this event each year.

Title: Director of Special Events
What he plans: The South Beach Wine & Food Festival, a three-day, celebrity-studded celebration of food, wine and spirits to benefit the School of Hospitality & Tourism Management Teaching Restaurant and the Southern Wine & Spirits Beverage Management Center at FIU.
Staff: Three full-time employees and interns
How long he's been at Southern Wine & Spirits: Five years
Where he grew up: Manhattan
Where he lives now: South Florida
Career Path: "I went to school at the Culinary Institute of America (CIA) and Florida International University (FIU), so I am a chef, but I've always been in the event planning business. I was a catering director, did convention services and logistics and was the food and beverage director for the Intercontinental Hotel in Miami. I've owned nightclubs and restaurants on the beach."
How he came to Southern Wine & Spirits: "In all my previous positions I dealt with Southern, so when the time was right, it seemed the next natural step."

How has the festival changed from year one until now?
"Every year we look to get better. We do not want to be the biggest, but we do strive to be the best. Each year we want to have even better seminars, more local talent and celebrity chefs, more wine makers, more sponsors and naturally, we want to bring in more money. So far, we have succeeded in doing that and we need to keep that momentum going."

What is your budget?
"This year we are looking at $750, 000, which Southern Wine & Spirits bankrolls until the money from sponsorships and ticket sales comes in."

Who are some of the sponsors you've secured for 2004?
"This year we brought in Target and the Food Network, which are huge. But there are so many more including American Express, American Airlines, Moet & Chandon, Wine Spectator, the Loews Miami Beach hotel, Burdines, Bank of America, Beringer Blass Wine Estates, the Miami Herald, illy, the city of Miami Beach and that's just a few.

How do you choose your sponsors?
"Sponsors come from years of cultivating relationships. We look for the right opportunities and then go after them."

Why has the festival grown so much in such a short time?
"First and foremost, need. When we started the South Beach Wine & Food festival there wasn't anything else here like it. Plus, who doesn't love food and wine? We capitalize on local talent and supplement with national talent. I try to capture things I want to see, chef's I want to meet and then find the right mix of superstars plus upcoming stars."

It must be quite challenging to make the festival better every year. What's the draw for this year?
"We learn every year that we do this. We try to be on the cutting edge. The chefs we have are the supermodels of the food world. We have rising stars, including Giada De Laurentiis, who I believe to be this year's 'it girl.' Willie Nelson will be performing and there are so many great events such as seminars, food and wine pairings, a golf tournament, late night parties and of course, the Grand Tasting. We also try to involve the local community as much as possible."

How long does it take to plan an event this big?
"One full year. We start planning for the following year immediately, literally, the day after the current festival is over."

What do you think attendees expect from the festival?
"They expect to sample the greatest wines and spirits, taste the great cuisine of local chefs, share the wisdom of national chefs."

Where do you get your ideas and inspiration for the planning of this annual event?
"From friends in the industry. From Southern Wine & Spirits. Everything for the festival is built around our product so inspiration is everywhere I turn."

Despite the poor economy over the past few years, the festival has grown and prospered. Why is that?
"It's South Beach in March! South Florida has the right weather, we have great food, wine, excellent chefs, what else can I say?

What is the most challenging aspect of planning the festival?
"Once we dream it, making it happen."

What is the most rewarding aspect of planning the festival?
"The recognition it gives to the school. The goal was to increase awareness and I believe that is what we're doing. I love interacting with the chefs and wine makers, as well as working with the students. Seeing the looks on their faces is priceless."

What is your definition of a successful event?
"In the case of the wine and food fest, when the awareness is raised and national attention is bestowed upon the school of hospitality and all of our brands, that is when I consider the event a success."

What are the most important elements of a great event?
"Making the event look flawless is most important. There's always some kind of a glitch, but not allowing the sponsors, chefs and attendees to know about it is most important."

What is the worst experience you have had planning the festival so far?
"There are always weather concerns since the Grand Tasting is in a tent on the beach, but, I think it has to be when we lost Alice Waters. We were honoring here and we took the utmost precautions to make sure everything was perfect. We sent a car to pick her up from the airport and she couldn't find the car, the driver couldn't find her and eventually it all worked out, but our honoree was wandering about lost. It was scary."

Are there any precautions you can take to prevent problems?
"All you can do is try your hardest. I am not a magician, I am only an event planner."

What are you seeing in the way of event style in Florida?
"It's looking for cutting edge and delivering the finest. It's all about attention to detail; that is event planning. It's knowing what you want to do, who your customer is and what they need and then delivering."

Shari Lynn Rothstein

Posted 03.04.04

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