On the Job: The party never stops for Nancy Snell
September 5, 2014
Editor's note: "On the Job" is a series that profiles locals and the work they do.
Aspen has a reputation as a party town, and it's safe to say nobody knows how to organize a party like Nancy Snell.
Nancy Snell Events was created in 1992 and has planned and organized more than 100 parties in Aspen since then. It was a stroke of luck that led Snell to end up living in Aspen, and it all started when she decided to run away from home when she was 17.
In 1964, Snell stole her parents' car and drove from Minnesota to Aspen. She drove until she ran out of gas, which happened to be in front of the Hotel Jerome in Aspen.
"I had $1.87 exactly," she said. "I walked across the street to Don Elisha, who was the manager of the Hotel Jerome, and I told him I needed a job — now. I went to work that night as a waitress and have been in Aspen ever since."
Snell worked as a waitress for several Aspen restaurants before opening The Mogul Shop of Aspen, a high-fashion ski apparel shop, at the base of Aspen Mountain in the mid-1970s. Snell ran the shop until it closed in 1992.
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At that point in her life, Snell was without a job for the first time since she arrived in Aspen 28 years earlier. She was dating a gentleman in Denver and decided she was ready for another project in her life.
"I told him I loved him and was ready to get married," Snell said. "I also added that if he wouldn't marry me, I was going to kill him."
His reply was, "Oh, f—!"
Rodney Knutson and Snell were married 20 years ago at their house in Denver. Snell went all-out and planned a spectacular wedding that included having the Denver Symphony play at her neighbor's mansion, which she was renting. After the wedding ceremony, guests walked through a rose garden to return to Snell's home.
"I had musicians playing in all the trees in the garden," she said. "There were musicians sitting in the trees playing violins. People still talk about that wedding."
She was approached by several people to put on similar events in Aspen, so in 1992, Nancy Snell Events was created.
According to Snell, the event industry is a much larger business than most people realize. For a typical job in the Roaring Fork Valley, Snell said you start with your event planner and go from there.
"You have rental companies, the caterers, the florists, the decor companies, the audio/visual people, the facilities," Snell said. "That's just six businesses that make a large part of their living working with organizers of special events. It's a huge business, and it's an industry that people just don't appreciate what goes into it."
Snell often gets asked what it takes to become an event planner. She tells people they need to educate themselves about the business, and then it mostly relies on understanding what each client wants.
She explained that there are three types of clients in the event-planning industry: private/personal parties, weddings and corporate events. Each type will have different needs.
"You have to really listen to your client," Snell said. "You have to understand their vision and their needs. Then the planner adds his or her creativity, taste and knowledge. A good planner never tries to push their style on a client; rather, they need to understand the style of their client."
Word-of-mouth is also critical in the event-planning business. Snell has earned a reputation in Aspen as someone who will deliver exactly what she says she will.
Melissa Wight splits time living in Aspen and Florida and has had Snell put on many events.
"Nancy gets it," Wight said. "Everything is a custom deal to meet her clients' needs."
Wight had gone to several events that Snell planned, was impressed with what she saw and eventually hired her.
"Nancy is a client and a friend," Wight said. "She's fun to be with. It's easy to laugh when Nancy is around. At one event we were having, my daughter, who was 10 at the time, told me she wanted to become an event planner like Nancy. She thought her job was the coolest thing. I can see why: Nancy gets paid to make people happy, and she's very good at it."
Snell said she plans, on average, maybe eight large events a year. She also attends maybe four event-planning conventions a year to educate herself and find new forms of entertainment.
"An event planner's secrets are stock and trade," she said. "I don't want my competition to know what I know. I'm constantly trying to find what's new. In a town like Aspen, you can't repeat acts because it's my job to keep coming up with unique entertainment."
At a recent "Great Gatsby"-themed party in Aspen, Snell brought in a "champagne chandelier" that she said might be the most unique act she's booked. It featured a woman suspended from a chandelier who could maneuver herself with pulleys. The woman could serve champagne while hanging upside down from the chandelier.
Snell said she now works the most with a core of around 400 friends in the Aspen area who have been partying together since the early 1970s.
"The Historical Society is going to start documenting our contribution to Aspen," Snell said. "They're calling us 'The Legends of Aspen.' We're not like the old-timers who had streets named after them. We're a group of friends that starting throwing parties, and now many are annual events. It's amazing our friendships have lasted this long and how many of these parties still occur. I started out as one of the friends, but now I'm Nancy the organizer."
Snell's favorite job she's ever organized was with a client she still won't reveal, but she said that client had a generous account and wanted Snell to turn the Hotel Jerome into a winter wonderland.
"When it comes to pulling off something like that, the key to my success is when my client gives me a budget that allows me to fulfill their dream," she said.
Snell did exactly what her client wanted. On the patio outside the main ballroom, she brought in ice carvers and built a house out of ice. She covered all of the furniture in the hotel with white faux mink and put in a 30-foot-long ice bar. She decorated the ballroom in all white organza and twinkling lights with every table designed to look like a snowball.
"I turned the Antler Bar into an ice-skating rink," she said. "I had professional skating teams come in and perform throughout the night."
Most of Snell's clients are now people who have used her services before, and most all the events she organizes are private.
"I put on events all over the country at my clients' other residences," Snell said.
She always tells her clients that something unexpected will happen during the event but not to worry because she'll handle it.
The craziest thing that Snell had to deal with occurred in Naples, Florida, last winter. On the day of the event, she was giving her client that very warning about expecting something unexpected to happen when she saw a semi pull up and the driver get out with paperwork in his hand. The driver was hauling two large generators for the event.
"All of a sudden, the semi was rolling backwards," she said. "The driver forgot to put the truck in park. The semi was rolling across the client's lawn and ended up in the ocean. I turned to the client and said, 'Here's the unexpected, and this is a first.' Now I'm five hours away from the party, and I have a semi sitting in the ocean. I got a major truck-hauling company to haul the semi out of the ocean. When the guests showed up, nobody was the wiser."
There was also that Hotel Jerome winter-wonderland party. When the cake arrived, it was too big to fit through any entrance at the Jerome.
"We had to cut it in half," she said. "The cake people put it back together, and all was well. Like I said, there's always something that's going to happen."