Long Line Image by Pop Culture Geek of Flickr.com

Long Line Image by Pop Culture Geek of Flickr.com

aka The Do’s and Don’ts of Throwing a Beer Festival

There’s nothing better than going to a nice beer festival, swilling all kinds of different brews with your pals, meeting new friends and sharing good times with all involved. We here at The Keg Tap have been to several of them over the past few years and they are a great time to be had by all. That is however until you run out of beer or the power goes out or the system breaks down etc. Sound like chaos? You bet. But these stories are not make-believe, these things can and do happen. How to avoid making these same mistakes when you plan to throw a shindig at your place? Plan well ahead and be prepared for the unexpected.

I have been privy to throwing massive parties for thousands of people, I kid you not. My fraternity used to put on a one day music event that at its peak brought in nearly 20,000 people paying admission to see up to 70 bands on four stages. While they have not all gone exactly as planned, and many unexpected problems occurred, we were always prepared to handle situations that would arise. We had police on our payroll, we had EMTs, we brought in friends and family who wanted to help out with running the show. We always made sure that regardless of what may come, we had our bases covered. So many times (and some in recent past) I have heard about the disasters of overachieving rookies or even seasoned professionals trying to throw a party for a certain group of people and being completely overwhelmed and unprepared.  They underestimated the crowd and the need to house proper facilities and supplies to accommodate said audience. All of this leads to potential disaster and a black eye being put on you and your organization.

In no particular order, as they are all disappointing to the organizers and paying customers alike, let’s look back at a few instances, shall we? (This is not meant to disparage these two fine states, as they are but the most recent examples of this.)

Big Brew Beer Festival – Morristown, NJ – Feb 2013

We went to this about two months ago. Many have called this an unmitigated disaster. (You may see those words repeated throughout this article.) I didn’t think it was that bad, but my friends and I were some of the lucky ones. First, the line took forever to get through. We stood out in 35 degree weather for nearly an hour waiting to get our tickets scanned. There were supposed to be five lanes through which ticket holders could enter. I saw only one. What’s worse, the ticket scanning system they were using failed on them. Surely there has to be a backup plan in the chance that technology should fail and become unreliable. Not the case here. We were supposed to have an extra hour for VIP-only access to the beers, plus specialty brews and food in the VIP section. Problem was, by the time all the VIPs got through the door, general admission had already begun. So much for that extra cash you put down for those perks. Worse yet, the bathroom situation was abhorrent. The lines to the john were almost as long as the lines outside, with the people being just as impatient. Hey, when you gotta go, you gotta go. To make matters worse, the bathrooms were located just inside the entrance. The line going to the bathroom was heading straight into the line walking through the doors after gaining admission. Imagine the small talk – “Wow, this looks nice. Can’t wait to try all these beers. Hope you’re having fun.” Response – “Umm, no I’ve been standing in this line for 20 minutes. I gotta pee bad, bro!” My first thought would have been to include porta-potties just outside the venue to serve as a backup to the undersized and overwhelmed bathrooms that the armory had. There was no way they could handle such capacity. Why didn’t the organizers think of this beforehand? This was an epic fail, logistically speaking. To their credit, they did have plenty of good beer flowing and everyone who did get in without a problem got to enjoy the suds, even if many of them didn’t get everything they expected. They did also issue a huge mea culpa to everyone on the website home page after the event and the ensuing debacle made headlines. But was it too little, too late?

Houston Beer Festival – Houston, TX – June 2011

 I love Texas, I really do. It’s my home state and there is plenty of pride there for it. When we do things, we go big or go home. But for an inaugural event, how in God’s name do you sell 20,000 tickets when the maximum capacity is 12,000? Referring to the above instance where long lines were an issue, this sounds like an absolute nightmare. One entrance for that many people? Somehow that just doesn’t sound right. In my own experience, we had several entrances/exits for people to use just for the sake of complying with police directives for public safety. Why not the case here? People were standing for 2 1/2 hours waiting to get in, some suffering from heat exhaustion because of prolonged exposure to the brutal Texas sun. Once they finally did get in, the lines for each beer vendor were long as well. I understand 20-30 people for a big time brewer. I’ve been there, done that. Maybe that’s not so bad, it probably happens in every beer fest you would go to, but here is something that is – People who bought tickets in advance thought they were getting a good deal. They fork over twenty bucks so they can be the first to have tickets to the gig and get a better price than those who wait. Then they find out that the organizers were offering late ticket sales at $12.50 a pop. What? So much for advanced tickets being the way to go. Yay, let’s promote procrastination and slackerdom. Let’s punish those who rush to the proverbial ticket window to buy in before it sells out. Furthermore, let’s see just how many tickets we can sell without considering maximum capacity limits and public safety. I think the icing on the cake though has to be fact that the event was scheduled for 2-10pm. That’s a long time to be drinking and mixing beers. Most of the beerfests I’ve attended were scheduled for half that amount of time. What’s worse is when you run out of beer several hours before the end of the event and you run out of water three hours into it. Does the word disaster come to mind? No wonder this thing got such a bad rap. When the words “Attendees furious” appear in the press, you’re in for a long night.

Austin Beer Festival – Austin, TX – April 2012

This one is another “total disaster” that occured in the Lone Star State, as reported in social media. It pains me to see things like this, especially when we have had events like Fry Street Fair and SXSW (South by Southwest) that have been largely successful through the years. So another beer festival that is scheduled to run 2-10 pm. As much as they tried to distance themselves from their contemporaries in Houston the year before, much of the same results occurred – long lines to get in, long lines to get a souvenir mug or shot glass, long lines for drink tickets. Drink tickets??? Every beer festival I’ve been to has unlimited pours. You pay the door and you drink the rest of the time. Yes, the pours are only two ounces and you have to wait in line for them, but 2+2+2+2+2+2 etc. adds up quickly. And the lines tend to move much quicker when you only pour that much. In all, you get your money’s worth. Charging $7 a ticket for basically a shot of beer is downright ruthless. Most bars charge that much for a pint. And then this one – vendors running out of beer at 3:30, not even two hours into the event. Dude, really? There are people still waiting outside to get in to the gig and you’re out of beer already?

Central Texas Beer Fest – Austin, TX – April 2012

Oh no, not again. Looking at the two above, you can imagine what happened here. Texas isn’t exactly showing itself to be all that great at organizing beer fests, right? Thankfully, the organizer had the foresight to see that the market had already soured on craft beer festivals and this one was cancelled before it even began. He decided that he would rather not throw this party than push out a bad product and further ruin the luster of the craft beer festival idea down south. Here is where the ray of sunshine comes. Too many times people are not prepared for these things and go into them with one arm tied behind their back. At least this guy knew the troubles that potentially lie ahead and spared the people from another disappointment. Props to him for choosing quality over quantity.

Learning From Mistakes

Before I get off my soapbox, I want to recap what we have and address a few key points here –

  1. First, always make sure you have enough water for people. Alcohol dehydrates you. If you don’t have fluids to rehydrate your patrons, they will start dropping like flies. Your public servants are then called in to aid and assist, and anytime the cops or firefighters or paramedics have to come in, the press is usually right on their heels. Best avoid the PR nightmare – stock up on water, Gatorade, etc.
  2. Know your limits. Check with the fire marshal and police to know your crowd size and what the venue capacity is going to be. Don’t sell 1000 tickets for a hall that holds only 500 people before it becomes unsafe. Make sure all your logistics are covered – don’t rely on a men’s room with four toilets and four urinals to handle a crowd of 1000+ beer drinkers. Rent the extra water closets. Reduce the lines and the length of time people wait in them. Trust me, they will thank you for it. Make sure you coordinate with food vendors to offer their products to the attendees. Even if you have water, you need something to soak up that alcohol.
  3. Most importantly – and I cannot stress this enough – have more than enough beer on hand to serve the people paying to drink it. Nothing looks worse for a beer festival than for vendors to say “we’re out of beer” at a beer festival. This doesn’t mean you have to pour it all out, but please have enough to serve everyone. Nothing gives a beer festival a bad name like running out of beer. Stick to your two-ounce pours and make them count. Have enough stored away so that you can access it in the event that you need it.

While I’m certainly no expert when it comes to planning these massive functions, I do have plenty of experience in them and I know what the customer wants. I’ve been on both sides of this coin, as an organizer and an attendee. The profit margin is not where your aim should be. Make sure you provide a fun, safe and healthy experience for all in attendance. Believe me, word of mouth and social media will tell everyone what a great time can be had at one of your events. Just as important, it could be the other way around and any plans you may have for future events are already dead in the water.

Several months ago, I was successful in organizing and producing a successful after-hours beer tasting event for my company during our week-long Oktoberfest commemoration. I was given a budget, crunched some numbers and figured out what I needed for the amount of people in attendance. Got all the goods and made sure I had everything in place when the people came through the door. Thankfully it went off without a hitch. People are still talking about it.

The moral of the story – If you plan it properly, have ample goods for everyone who may need it (beer and water, food, etc.) and do your homework, you too can throw an event that people will be raving about and demanding more of in the future. I’m already brainstorming our next event. Cheers!

If you build it (properly), they will come…




Don’t let this be you. Or your patrons…

Photo by Sander van der Wel of Flickr.com

Photo by Sander van der Wel of Flickr.com