Monday, February 18, 2013


Lessons for Beer Event Organizers

The Senpai and I just attended a beer festival that held so much promise, but wound up alienating a large proportion of its ticket holders. The organizers had arranged for an impressive array of breweries to be represented and had done a really nice job supplying different options for food. They even managed to score a very popular cover band to supply the entertainment, but they fell short on some of basic necessities of a beer festival.

Beer festival sample glasses
I'm not going to call out the organizer of the event mentioned above, but those who follow me on Facebook know which event it is and many of you were there. It received so much bad press that other organizers were quick to make sure everyone knew that they had nothing to do with it. I want to avoid pointing the finger since I don't want to dissuade anyone from attending next year. Lessons will be learned and, hopefully, those lessons will be applied. 

The lessons, humbly offered here, will be drawn from many different events I've attended. Some of these were very well done and a few were just awfully organized.

To run a successful beer festival (from the attendees perspective) there are many items that must be considered. These I place into three different categories:
1) NECESSITIES: These are not noticed if they are present, but become a huge negative if lacking in any way. Do them right and no one will say a thing; do them wrong and they will tell everyone, their mothers and, more importantly, everyone they know on social media how bad an event it was.
2) YARDSTICKS: These are items that make up the core of the event and how good these are will determine how the festival stacks up against others. You can't have a beer festival without these things, but there are different levels of success form event to event.
3) BONUSES: Some festivals will have items that make them stand out that you don't see, or even expect, at a beer festival.

We'll start off with the NECESSITIES. If you don't get these correct then you're going to have people demanding their money back and your turnout the next year will plummet, if you're allowed to hold it all.

You DON'T want to see the length of the line behind me
Entry Line Management: If you cannot get people into the venue quickly and efficiently then you're going to have unhappy people when they finally do get in. Waiting over an hour to get inside for an event that only lasts three hours makes one believe that your event is a "rip off" and you will have people demanding their money back.
- Make sure that there are people dedicated to checking IDs and others dedicated to ticket taking and yet others dedicated to handing out sample glasses and any other at-the-door hand-outs.
- Avoid using a small entryway as this will become a bottleneck and no matter how fast your door people are working, the line will come to a crawl. In some venues this is unavoidable. 
- Clear signage as to what to do and where to go helps, even though many people ignore these, those who do read them will help others out.

Event Access: If people can't get to the event then you're going to have issues.
- For an event in a city, make sure your ticket holders know the bus stops and subway stations that are nearby. These are the easy ones to manage. In some cases, the transportation may need to be arranged especially if water taxis are involved.
- But having one out in the suburbs is not so easy, as parking becomes an issue. Many people will take taxis or even party buses, but a large percentage of your ticket holders will drive and if parking becomes scarce they may get creative. This will generate complaints from the neighbors and you may not be able to utilize that venue in the future.

Bathroom Facilities: When people drink, people pee...a lot. Everyone knows that once you "break the seal" that you're going to be heading back to the can every half hour. If the wait for the bathrooms is long, then the event becomes a matter of biological processing each and every beer. Go pee, go get beer, get back on line to pee, repeat. Not my idea of a fun beer festival.
- Consider port-a-potties if possible. Men are not particular about where they pee. If the line is too long, they'll be outside urinating where they shouldn't and you're back to having a problem with your neighbors.
- Many women are more particular, but if their bladder is about to burst they'll use a port-a-potty, but they won't be happy about it. And if they get really drunk, then they'll emulate the guys and pee in public. So try to avoid those embarrassing Facebook photo uploads that will give your event a sordid reputation, but entertain the hell out of the rest of us.

Temperature Control: When alcohol is consumed, the blood distributes more to the surface of the body, making people seem warmer than they are. Add a lot of people to the mix and your crowd will raise the temperature of the venue and the stench of human sweat will overwhelm the senses.
Crowded, but well-ventilated and comfortable
- The size of the place will determine how much body heat will be atmospherically absorbed. If it's cavernous, you don't have too many worries. If it's an intimate setting, be ready to have someone controlling the thermostat. Overheated, drunk people tend to throw up more easily, which will add to the reek. 
- The time of year will also determine what you need to do. A beer festival in the Northeast in February will be a lot different in its thermal needs than one held in Texas in August.

Capacity: None of us naive enough to believe that people organize these events out of the goodness of their hearts. It's a business and they are designed to make everyone money. It's the American way and no one begrudges that. But when the perception is that the profit for the organizer supersedes the experience of the ticket holder, you're going to have problems.

Packed in tightly with lengthy waits for everything
- Overselling an event leads to massive crowds, long lines at the pouring tables and breweries running out of the more popular beers. It also increases the lines at food stands and bathrooms. Oversell your first beer festival and you won't have to worry about it for the next one. People will avoid it and not just those who attended the first one, but everyone that heard them complain about it. Social media is great for advertising your event, but that double-edged sword has a great potential for ruining the next one. 
- Limiting the number of tickets sold goes a long way to developing your reputation. I didn't want to single anyone out, but I feel it necessary to point out that Starfish Productions seems to have the magic formula down for optimal beer festival experience. I have yet to attend one of their events that was overly crowded.

On to the YARDSTICKS. Without these, it's not really a beer festival so everyone assumes these will be there. It all depends on how well you execute these points as to how your event will be received.

Breweries: The amount, quality and assortment of beer purveyors is crucial to a successful beer event.
- Quantity: You need to have enough stations to allow for the maximum number of breweries that the venue can hold and still allow for free space for moving and mingling. If you have a lot of brewery tables, that will equate to shorter lines.
Quality = Unibroue at a fall beer festival
- Quality: Go ahead and only invite macrobeer labels and see what kind of festival-goers you attract. I try not to stereotype but let's face it, you don't see empty craft beer bottles and cans littering the sides of our roads. Craft beer drinkers are more thoughtful and environmentally conscious and less likely to start a brawl. No, I don't have any well-researched statistics to support these, just personal, historical observations. I doubt many reading this will argue the point.
-Assortment: Take into account where the event is occurring and do what you can to invite local breweries, especially those that self-distribute. You're not going to have any issue getting breweries that are represented by big distributors. Invite meaderies and cider labels to get something different in the door. Make sure you've got a good representation from across the country and get some international brands in as well. I know that last one may be difficult, but that's where some of the "big beer" distributors can come in handy. Of course, state laws play a huge role here, but do what you can. 

Food: When people drink they pee, we've established that, but they also eat. Beer pairing has become pretty trendy at some levels and, at others, well-practiced, but it's just a basic need to eat when you drink.
- Quantity: I was once at a beer festival that had over 10,000 attendees and only two booths for food. The line to get something to eat was over an hour. That is unconscionable! Have enough food vendors that no one has to wait on line for more than 5-10 minutes.
- Quality: Make sure your food vendors are reputable. Having local restaurants and caterers present works well for all parties. You can easily research their quality level, they get exposure and the patrons are happy to see food they can trust won't make them ill.
- Assortment: Yes, hot dogs and hamburgers go well with fizzy, yellow beer, but not so well with many of the craft brews. Barbecue is a great partner with craft beer. Have someone selling cheese. Pretzels and hot wings are classic and cheese steaks are always popular. I always like to see a stand selling jerky and I've always been amazed at how many beer geeks are also fans of hot sauces.

Non-Food Vendors: Believe it or not, when people come through the door it's not a beer orgy and then we leave. We need other things to spend our money on and you'll have plenty of vendors willing to buy up tables.
- Don't go so overboard in this category that you lose too much space for beer. People are coming to a beer festival, not a flea market. Make sure your ratio is good and that the non-beer tables don't dominate.
- Your ticket holders are beer people, the vendors should sell only beer-related items or food. I once saw a table selling hunting knives. It's never a good idea to put a buck knife with a 4" blade in the hands of a drunk person in a crowded venue. At another one I saw a table advertising energy-efficient roofing. Use some common sense and KNOW what your vendors are selling. And the most amazing table I ever saw offered face painting. Sure, I wanted to get mine done like Spiderman, but then I remembered that I'm not 8 anymore. 
Some of my glassware collection
- Beer geeks are loyal and like to advertise for their favorite breweries so having items with brewery logos on them works well. Clothing with cute, funny, beer-related sayings are always a hit. And the glassware tables are always crowded, since most beer geeks collect logo glassware.
- Local beer-related organizations, groups, publications, etc. are important to sprinkle about the floor, but if you have too many of them people won't even bother visiting one of them. This category should not represent a large percentage of tables.
- Beer tourism is growing fast and if you can get a local, established beer tourism company on board you will probably see some real interest. And it doesn't have to be global tours; it could simply be a company that offers bus tours of the local breweries.
- Cigars and beer are a marriage made in heaven, albeit a smoky, lung cancer-riddled heaven. The best events I've been at have always had a cigar vendor there.

Swag: Beer geeks love to adorn everything (including themselves) with beer stuff. And it doesn't have to be elaborate or expensive. Look at the people walking around any beer festival and you'll see many with stickers all over their shirts. Luckily the breweries themselves take care of much of this, but see what you can do to put together a goody bag on the way in. Just the bag alone will be appreciated, so that you have something to put all your stickers, pins and pamphlets into.

Layout: It's important to allow for a good flow of traffic and a natural pattern for visiting the tables. If not, you'll get bottlenecks and visitors creating too much counter-traffic. People drinking beer, running into each other or trying to push past each other leads to spillage and possible bad feelings.

Seating: Believe it or not, many events don't think to have places to plop your fat ass and rest your barking dogs. Folding chairs can be problematic, but a bench here and there will keep people from sitting on the beer-soaked floor or on the stage or on the steps outside or on the neighbors' property. 


Many events really do understand what it takes to make their guests happy and go that extra mile. They also understand the craft beer industry and the wants and desires of their hordes of fans. These organizers go that extra mile and deliver on the BONUSES.

Entertainment: Walking around drinking beer is nice, but doing it with good music playing is awesome. Having a live band, especially a fun, lively one can really get things moving. Plus, you get the added entertainment value of watching people who think they can dance when they're drunk. Win-win! And there's nothing wrong (even if it is a tad cliche) to have an oompah band playing at an Oktoberfest. It adds to the ambiance.

VIP Access: People like to feel special and, in some cases, superior to others. In most cases, people are just willing to pay more money for extras.
- Early access to the festival. This is typically one hour before anyone else can get in. 
- Special beer offerings. At one event, they had breweries in the VIP lounge that weren't on the floor. At another, they had special bottles to share that were supplied by the attending breweries. 
- Free food. 'Nuff said!
- Separate food lines. Separate bathrooms. Separate seating area. Not having to wait for basic amenities makes the price well worth it, especially the bathrooms. 

Guest Celebrities: No, I'm not saying that having George Clooney or Megan Fox show up adds any value to a beer festival. Okay, it just might, but that's still borderline ridiculous. I'm talking celebrities of the beer world.
Garrett Oliver, but not with me...his loss
- If you can get the head brewers to man their own tables, that's the shit! That's why Savor is so popular, other than being exceptionally well-run. The only downside is that the line at the Brooklyn Brewery table tends to come to crawl as everyone tries to get a picture with Garrett Oliver.
- Listening to Sam Calagione talk about how he concocted his latest Ancient Ale offering or William Sysak discuss beer pairings or Vinnie Cilurzo bemoan the evils of selling beer on eBay is something special. If you can get beer luminaries to talk at your event, you've scored. 
- Many of today's brewmasters have written books on the subject and then you have home brewing experts who write instructional guides. Having a book signing would not be unwelcome.

Learning: Beer geeks love to learn...we're geeks! Teach us something and we'll walk away fulfilled.
- Home brewing classes are always popular, but be aware that your guests will represent a wide array of skill levels. Make sure that if you only have one class that it's clear if it's for beginners or advanced home brewers. If you think you can run more than one, then vary the skill level.
- Food pairing with beer has become very popular and seminars on how to successfully pull this off will be equally popular. And you don't even need fully cooked meals! Cheese pairings are quite common in this regard.
- And it doesn't have to end there. How to turn your home brewing hobby into a business. What glassware to use with which style. What health benefits beer gives. The classic beers of Germany. The history of the IPA. The effects of Prohibition on brewing methods in the US. And so many other topics. You'll find someone interested.

Charity: I'm not talking about collecting money once people are at the event. Sure, you'll get some donations, but people don't like being badgered to give. However, giving a portion of the ticket price to a charity certainly helps everyone feel better about drinking all day long. It's for a cause. 

Have I ever been to an event that has nailed every one of these elements? Hell no and I never expect to as it's probably impossible. But you can always tell when an organizer has made an effort and when they're just trying to make as much money as possible. 

I have never organized a beer festival, nor would I want that level of responsibility or the stress. Processing the financial end of it is entirely out of my scope and the legwork to get the breweries on board, find a venue and get the marketing done is something I'm just interested in attempting. This overly wordy document is written from the perspective of a festival goer, someone who knows what makes a beer event successful and what can make it miserable. 

1 comment:

  1. Well said sir! I think indoor beer festivals are a huge challenge. Space is just so limited. Sorry to hear the recent one was a wash but Spring is upon us and many beer festivals are a comin!