A man behind Labor Day festival takes the stage
Nothing bares more truth to the manpower behind the Jazz Aspen Snowmass Labor Day Festival production than the week leading up to the three-day celebration, when the lawns are mowed and watered, the tents are pitched and secured, and a massive, canopied stage emerges within a charming mountain backdrop. It’s during this week when 20 tons of ice, 2,000 cases of beer, 150 cases of wine and approximately 400 bottles of assorted liquors are purchased to entertain a crowd soaring to 25,000, and when beverage managers set their rosters of 50-plus staff to hammer out 36 hours in only three days. Sponsors come on board, purveyors deliver, and a few special people oversee every waking moment to make sure that the festival — in all its bells and whistles — is the most memorable event of the season.
For the past 18 years, Phil McGee has surpassed the role of one of the festival’s most special, dedicating an entire month and 120 hours of work to making sure it is not only a wildly entertaining success each year but flawless to the last note.
Curious to uncover the man who lives out of the back of a semi-trailer for three days, flipping through pages of notes on a clipboard, assigning tasks to a staff of more than 50 and running between tents to deliver ice when it goes dry, I paid Phil a visit to talk about his beginnings with the festival and his road to becoming one of the most influential faces in the history of the Labor Day Festival.
Snowmass Sun: How did you originally get involved with Jazz Aspen?
Phil McGee: It was 1995, and I was managing the conference center in Snowmass at the time. My boss happened to be involved with the festival and asked me if I had any interest in helping out. With a background in the food and beverage industry for quite some time, I agreed to help, and it didn’t take long before I sent my boss back to the conference center to manage while I stayed on site to run the show.
SS: This will be year 18 of you running the show. What is it about the work you do at the festival that keeps you coming back year after year?
PM: The people and experiences I get to enjoy along the way. I wouldn’t be doing this if I didn’t love the industry; I feel naked without food and beverage, it’s so much a part of me and I love the social interaction aspect of it. Close to 80 percent of my staff comes back to work with me for the festival each year, and we have since become one big family because of it.
SS: Do you have a most memorable experience from the festival? Did you ever have a year where something went terribly wrong?
PM: Yes. In 1999 I married my wife during the festival. We tied the knot at the top of Elk Camp in the morning, and invited all of Snowmass Village to join us for a reception at Jazz Aspen. Joe Walsh and Ziggy Marley played that day, and close to 250 friends came to celebrate. Cross your fingers, but I’ve never had a year where something went wrong. While I have had my challenges, luckily I’ve never run out of anything. I give credit to my staff and my managing partner Brian Smith as well, who have always been very helpful in ensuring consistency and success over the years.
SS: How would you say the festival has evolved or changed over the years?
PM: The most noticeable change is its size. Back when I started, the numbers were only at 2,500 — now they are at 25,000. In turn I have grown with it. Now I need more trucks, more ice, more booze, more staff and essentially more organization to make sure everything runs efficiently and is accounted for.
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SS: What are your feelings when it’s all over, and another year is again behind you? Do you have any plans of stepping down from your throne at Labor Day Festival and passing the reins on to someone else?
PM: The feeling I have Sunday night when it’s all over, and I’m standing on the back of the truck raising a beer in the air to toast my staff for another successful year, makes me very proud. It’s a sense of reward and accomplishment for what we’ve worked through together, and it’s something that will always live within me. As of now, I have no plans to retire — this is my life, and I love every bit of it.
If you have a local color or Snowmass business story you’d like to share, email Amanda Charles at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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Riders must transfer buses to get from Aspen to Snowmass this week; uphill travel closes at Aspen Mountain and reopens at Aspen Highlands.