Food, Wine and Music festival winds up in red

Fe Domenech said she’s selling her Pebble Bay home to pay off the remaining $41,000 of the debt she incurred in creating, organizing and operating the inaugural Vero Beach Food, Wine and Music event in February.

Not so she can skip town.

Nor is she planning to run away from her commitment to the six local charities named as the event’s beneficiaries, none of which received even a fraction of the hoped-for proceeds they were to share.

To the contrary, Domenech said last week she plans to stay here and make the fledgling, four-day festival even better next year –  by changing the date to avoid Presidents Day weekend, adjusting her advertising strategies to reach more of her target audience, and benefiting from not being a new, unknown event on the local philanthropic community’s already-crowded winter calendar.

She said she passionately believes the event will overcome its growing pains and eventually become an established island happening, and she won’t allow herself to be discouraged by the first-year losses, which, she added, forced her to reach into her own pocket.

She said she emptied her savings account – all $25,000 – to cover expenses.

“I put up my own money, everything I had saved,” said Domenech, who seven years ago moved from Miami to Vero Beach, where The Event Firm International, the boutique events-planning company she launched in 2006, is now based.

“I’m in the red, but the fact that I lost money is just part of the process,” she added. “I’m not doing this to make a profit. Not only did I not take a salary, but I put my own work on hold to make this happen because I love Vero Beach and I believe this will be a great thing for our community.”

With the help of sponsorships, Domenech raised enough cash to bring in celebrity chefs Graham Elliott, Shaun O’Neale, Alex Thomopoulos and Christi Ferretti, as well as vocalist Matteo Bocelli, son of acclaimed Italian singer-songwriter Andrea Bocelli.

And the event drew positive reviews.

So what went wrong?

“Our costs were about where I thought they’d be, but we didn’t raise anywhere near what I thought we would,” Domenech said, admitting that her initial projections were overly optimistic for putting on a first-time event of such magnitude in Vero Beach.

“We fell more than $100,000 short of our sponsorship goals, and our ticket sales were less than half of what we had hoped they’d be,” she added. “So we lost a lot more money than I thought we would.

“But we had a good event: The sponsors were happy, and I thought the charities were happy, too.”

Most of them were.

Representatives from the local HALO Rescue no-kill animal shelter, Indian River Lagoon National Estuary Program, Hibiscus Children’s Center and American Cancer Society all praised Domenech’s efforts, congratulated her on getting the event started, encouraged her to look beyond the poor first-year financials and expressed their continued support.

The directors of the other two charities, however, said they were so disappointed with Domenech’s failure to deliver any money – and disillusioned by the experience – that they probably would not continue their affiliation with the event.

“I probably won’t do it again, if they even do it again next year,” said Tony Zorbaugh, executive director of The Source, a Christian outreach ministry that serves the poor and homeless in the Vero Beach area.

“We put in a lot of time and staffing, and we haven’t seen anything,” he continued. “She spun this as a three-year commitment, saying it would take that long to see any real money, but a percentage of the ticket sales was supposed to go to the charities. That hasn’t happened.

“I don’t know what happened, but a lot of this doesn’t make sense,” he added. “It wasn’t a good experience.”

Annabel Robertson, executive director of United Against Poverty’s Vero Beach campus, said her organization, like the other charities, helped promote the event and supported it by providing volunteers.

For that contribution, she received no money – only a thank-you email.

“As a nonprofit executive, you’re accountable to your volunteer board, and I need to report back to them and explain what happened,” Robertson said. “So I’m seeking an understanding, one way or another, and I have a staff member working on it.

“But this has put us all in a difficult position with our boards.”

Robertson said she was never told there would be no proceeds this year –  that it would be three years before she saw any money – and her organization almost certainly will not participate in the event next year.

Domenech, though, said she was up-front about the slim chances of the event making enough money in its first year to share proceeds with the six charities.

“I was very, very candid in my meetings with the charities,” she said. “I told them I didn’t know what the returns would be – because it’s a first-year event – but that their involvement would give their organizations exposure and they’d be proud of being a part of what we’re doing.”

She said she explained that it might be three years before the event gained enough traction in the community to write substantial checks to the charities, from whom she requested only “minimal support.”

She said “everyone I spoke to afterwards was really happy,” and that she followed up with two emails –  one on March 1 to thank the charities for their participation, another on March 8 to share a financial report on the festival.

That’s why she was stunned to learn that a couple of the charities were questioning her handling of the event.

“I’m hurt and upset to hear this,” Domenech said. “I tried to do right, do something good for the community, even putting in my own money.

“Now this?”

For the record: Theresa Woodson, senior marketing manager for the American Cancer Society’s Treasure Coast chapter, said Domenech never misled her and that it would be wrong to criticize her well-intended efforts.

“She was truthful with us,” Woodson said. “She told us she didn’t know what to expect the first year. All she promised was that if we came on board for the first year, she’d give us the opportunity to stay on for the first three years.

“Fe took on a lot,” she added. “The end result was not the same as her initial vision, but you have to start somewhere. Anytime anyone is willing to put that kind of energy into a project to further a mission, I’m very appreciative of that. And I think we saw a glimmer of what this event can be.

“I’m certainly not going to criticize someone for trying.”

Domenech admits to some miscalculations, including the inability to get discount rates at local hotels during Vero Beach’s busy season, particularly on a holiday weekend, and relying too heavily on the Internet and social media to promote the event.

“That type of advertising works well from Stuart south, but not as much here,” she said. “Too many people I spoke with afterwards said, ‘Bocelli was here? We didn’t know . . .’ So we’ll change that for next year.”

She also admits to being warned by friends and peers who knew it would be difficult for her to create from scratch, organize and manage a large, multi-faceted, four-day event in such a small town.

“A lot of people thought I was nuts to do it, because it was too big and would require too much work,” Domenech said. “But over the past seven years, I heard from different charities that told me there were too many events going on every year, that the same doors get knocked on, that it’s always the same conversation but in a different form.

“So, as someone who has been planning and doing events my whole life, I wanted to do something different – something where we could help several charities without having to do multiple events and it would be a win-win for everybody,” she added.

“That’s how I came up with this concept.”

Domenech said she spoke with others who had organized similar events and was told that it would take three to five years to get firmly established in the community and generate significant revenues.

“They told me: The first year you lose your shirt,” she said. “Then you spend the second year trying to make up for the first year. By the third year, though, you’re breaking even and maybe getting some revenue to share.

“The fourth and fifth years, you’re established,” she added. “The sponsors know what they’re getting. It’s easier to get the chefs and entertainment, and you get them for free or at a lower rate because they want the exposure.

“And you’re able to give significant money to the charities, so everybody is happy.”

Despite the dismal financial numbers from February’s event – despite losing her life savings and having to put her home on the market to pay off her debts – Domenech said her vision and commitment haven’t changed.

But her address might.

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