Ticket Sales and Mad Beer Folks. What Is Going On?

Well, isn’t this all something. The Great American Beer Festival public tickets sold out faster than ever before. Sourfest at Avery Brewing sold out in seconds. Literally seconds. Pretty nuts. In the last few years, I have experienced the dread and sheer terror of pounding F5 in the moments after the tickets go on sale for a festival. Anyone who has attempted and, through some aberrant function of their local internet service–bad luck or shitty timing, failed to get tickets for an event know the sinking feeling of expecting the exuberant tweets and instagram posts from their friends while they are sitting at home missing out. It sucks. That is for sure.

The part that generally follows a ticket pre-sale is telling. Lately, these things have elicited a hefty, electronic bitch-fest. Anyone can tell you, I am not innocent here at all. The fun thing about instant social network access is that it lets us vent and gripe as soon as we get mad. After taking part in some of these online rage sessions, I got to thinking, “What would I do to change things?” I really did not have an answer. For example, do you really want more people at Sourfest? No, not ever. It is awesome just the way it is. Do I want to be forced to show an ID for a ticket purchase I made to get into GABF? No, that is irritating as shit. In my defense, I just want to go to a beerfest with a few friends with no hassle. I suppose that is what everybody wants and that is the reason we are having these issues.

So what is going on? I am going to generalize some of the things that I DO NOT have specific statistics about. (Check out the Brewers Association for all sorts of good facts.) Beer festivals and events are becoming hotter tickets than ever before. That much is obvious. Craft beer is becoming the beverage that more and more new drinkers turn to. The college and newly-post-college are drinking significantly more craft beer than they ever have. Whether this is due to affluence, marketing or otherwise, we old-school craft beer folks are going to have to face the fact that we are not alone in some (increasingly crowded) nerd paradise. Shit, even here at the Wagon, I have to deal with beer experts that were not old enough to give me a ride home when I started drinking decent beer. It happens, and frankly, while sometimes irritating, the kids with disposable incomes have introduced me to quite a few new breweries and drinks.

This, to me is the heart of the matter. Craft beer, like any hobby, comes with its hobbyists. At best, those types can be a bit pretentious. On the extreme end, and I know a lot of them, they are insufferable shitheads. I am sure that I (and a ton of you readers) fall into that scale somewhere. Does it come down to the idea that beer geeks are the cool outsider kids that get pissed when the popular kids start taking on out affectations? As much as I hate to say it, I think this familiar high school analogy just might fit.

After the ticket mess for GABF calmed down a bit, I got in touch with a few breweries and the BA to see what they thought. Admittedly, I started out with a bit of a chip on my shoulder–I had it in my head, like a lot of people, that someone was making a buttload of cash somewhere and that the attendees were just another ticket purchase. That was dumb. Barbara Fusco, Sales and Marketing Director for the Brewers Association started by talking a bit about GABF. This year “…all available tickets were in “purchasing status” (that is, in people’s online carts) within moments of the ticket sale opening.” She went on to mention that an event or series of events like this is comparable to a major concert or sporting event. I can easily make the comparison when it is presented like that. 49,000 spots for something that happens in one place on one weekend a year? In reality, that is not a huge number of tickets for an 8.7 billion dollar industry. The speed of GABF ticket sales has been on a steady increase for years now. According to Fusco, “… the pace of GABF ticket sales has really taken off, accelerating year over year. In 2007, the festival sold out the week of the event, while last year it sold out in only one week. And here we are in 2012, with an unprecedented, blazingly-fast public ticket sell out.” To me, this sets us even further into the line of popular public events and I do not see that demand changing.

The organizers at the GABF are always making changes to ensure the experience gets better, but one area that they have kept somewhat static is attendance, a number around 49,000 “That breaks out to about 10,000 attendees at the Saturday afternoon Members-Only session, and 13,000 attendees per session for the Thursday, Friday and Saturday evening sessions.” An interesting tidbit from Barbara is that “these attendee numbers account for our ticket buyers, the brewers and volunteers pouring at the tables in the festival hall, media in attendance to cover the event, our Brewers Association staff, etc.” So I guess one solution to the problem is yelling at beer bloggers and making them feel sad for trying to act like journalists. (Wait a second! What am I saying? Yell at the volunteers, beer bloggers are cool.)

As far as organization of these events goes, all breweries have similar problems. I spoke with Sharon Halkovics who is the Events and Special Projects Manager at Great Divide. She oversees events that are held at their brewery–notably, the Great Divide Anniversary parties. The foremost thought on an organizers mind is fun and attendee satisfaction. Sharon’s goal is to determine a capacity that will be easy for her available workers to handle. In the case of the Anniversary party, she shoots for 35 to 40 attendees for each employee or volunteer. If that level of service cannot be met, they are willing to admit it and halt an event. In fact, the quarterly beer release parties have been discontinued since the Great Divide brewery just cannot offer enough room. These parties started out with around 70 attendees and at the end, had grown to over 400. Without a doubt, this well illustrates the increase in demand.

We are all going to have a hard time getting tickets. Fact of life. I am going to do my best to stop acting all entitled if I don’t get festival tickets in the future. It really is just a matter of luck and timing. Charlie Berger at Denver Beer Company had some thoughts on the matter that made me feel a bit embarrassed that I had acted like an entitled dick on Twitter. Berger states, “Sometimes events sell out, and when they do, it can certainly lead to the feelings of entitlement that you mentioned.  However that sucks because that stems from an arrogant “I’m better than you” place. I guess my response to that would be, “how do you know?”  Maybe you aren’t geeky enough?  Maybe everyone who got tickets is actually geekier than you.  Or maybe they just had their act together and got tix earlier.  Or maybe they got lucky.  Whatever, sometimes it’s just luck.” Heheh. I… Um… I guess I need to chill out a bit. The guy has a solid point. Beer festivals are planned really just to provide a good time for us. During my inquiries, I asked about the type of person that the breweries want at an event. Is it the new drinker who is not familiar with the brand or a traditional customer? Everyone I spoke to couldn’t give a hard and fast answer and wished that everyone who wanted could attend. It just doesn’t work that way.

Up to this point, I have avoided another big complaint regarding these sales. The secondary market or scalpers became the enemy on the day of GABF sales. At the time of writing, tickets on StubHub are floating around $130-140 a ticket. This chaps a lot of people. I get it. Both Charlie and Sharon mentioned the fact that for breweries, beer festivals are not in place to make money. They are used to get people in to drink beer and build a consumer base. Scalpers, in Charlie’s opinion are lame: “So if there are people out there who buy more tickets than they plan on using just because they think they can turn a profit by reselling, that sucks a lot and is not in the spirit of craft beer festivals.” I cannot help but agree. So what do we do? A ticket seller cannot demand that you do something with an item that you purchased from them so it is up to us to take the profit away. Don’t buy tickets from scalpers. If you are buying from a person, pay face or don’t pay at all. Scalping is effectively legal in most places. Any laws that are in place are really not enforced with any regularity. Some people have made demands that changes take place on the sellers end, but even in the case of ticket lotteries and other fairness-inducing procedures, there are problems. Phish fans are having the same arguments. The accusation is that  because of specialized software tools, scalpers are still getting their share of tickets. True? I don’t know. I can just say again that beer events are joining the top echelon of public events. Others have suggested that they put in place a policy that you need to show an id to prove you purchased the ticket. Irritating at best. I’ve been the holder of tickets before. It is not fun to have to wait for someone who is late while you could be inside drinking that Cigar City sample that you have been coveting. This policy just doesn’t work well. In the case of Sourfest this year, I bought (face-value) tickets from a friend and had she not just happened to be in line with us, we would have had a hell of a hard time convincing the volunteers to let us in. I do not want to risk that type of crap just to keep a few scalpers down.

As far as the number of scalper’s tickets bought and used, there is not a good number out there. I would like to see a ratio of tickets used to those sold. The closest I could get was from Halkovics at Great Divide. At the last Anniversary Party, 98% of tickets were used. Only 32 of the 1500 available tickets were not used. Scalped or otherwise, the demand is there and most folks feel that raising ticket prices is not a fair solution as people are still coming no matter what. Sharon did tell me a story that shows how cool the beer culture can be. She overheard a conversation where a girl who could not attend the event gave away her tickets to some people. No money, no nothing. She wanted the tickets to get used. I am going to think about that the next time I make some unfounded claims on Facebook.

I guess it goes this way. When I started this article, I wanted to find some sort of blame in the big companies that are in charge. Really, what I found out is that it is on us. We need to police the beer culture and make sure that we are all having a good time. The breweries are trying to provide a fun experience, and unfortunately, you are not entitled to an unfair advantage just because you have been drinking craft beer since Fritz Maytag. We have to keep in mind what we are really doing. It is beer for Christ’s sake. It is supposed to engender good feelings and promote friendship. Truly, I hope that we all get tickets to our next big festival and we see nobody that we do not already know. That would be cool but until some cosmic alignment occurs to allow it, I think we are all just subject to the fickle whims of luck.

About Chris Washenberger

What is my favorite drink? Huh... That is a tough one. What do you have? That is probably it.

  • http://twitter.com/nhandberry Nathan Handberry

    Sweet seems like we’ve just been deputized as the beer police! Has a nice ring to it…although it’s still a consolation prize I guess. I tend to think of it like this. Rather than spending $65 apiece (much less scalping prices) with a few of my best friends, we could pool the money (or less) and have a great time.

  • http://twitter.com/DenverHBC Chris Washenberger

    Hey all, I was just reminded that I might have been remiss in not addressing the Ticketmaster SNAFU on the day of the AHA member purchase. This situation really didn’t fit with my other thoughts on this. So I figured I would post a bit of the discussion that my wife and I had.

    We are part of a cool hobby that has DIY roots that go pretty deep. As a rule we have issues with large corporate entities that offer watered-down products or services to force a buck out of us and also make efforts to homogenize a whole industry. Ticketmaster is no different. They are really terrible and their apology was just stupid.

    I think that it is only right to switch away from a ticket vendor that really runs in opposition to the assumed ethos of the craft beer culture. There are other vendors out there and I realize that I can make no claims to service or anything like that but anything is better than Ticketmaster.

  • http://www.facebook.com/rivertranced Chris Jensen

    Well played, Chris. I appreciate your thoughts. I’m in total agreement with the sentiments from you and Charlie about the sense of entitlement I hear from people who get shut out of events/shows/etc. There are definitely some noobs who got tix, but there are also some people who have been to all 30 years of the GABF who were shut out as well. That’s 20 years before my first GABF…so who really deserves a ticket?

    The other thing that I’ve heard a lot of musicians talk about (but nobody in the beer industry mention) is pricing economics. If tickets are going for $130-140/ticket on the open market, then the $60 face value was underpriced. Not that market value is $140, but it’s probably somewhere in between. Maybe BA should charge more for a ticket so they can add more resources for brewers, create more cool events, make it less expensive for breweries to participate, etc. Or, maybe they should just limit the ticket sales to 2 per person.

    • http://twitter.com/DenverHBC Chris Washenberger

      The immediate response is that they do not want to raise the prices. Not just at the GABF either. I cannot say that that won’t be the case in the future but right now ticket prices are going to rise slowly if at all.

  • http://bendandbrew.com/ D.T. Pennington

    “Craft beer, like any hobby, comes with its hobbyists.”

    And like any hobby, most of it’s hobbyists will fly the coop when something else comes along.

    GABF peaked this year. It might be a rough ride next year, but I think coming years the focus will definitely turn to those who are legitimately passionate about craft beer, rather than those looking to just get plowed at a trendy event.

    • PJ

      My hope – and the Wagon will try to aid in this endeavor this GABF – is that the festival itself will become one event at something much bigger. Sure, go Thursday night, but you’ll miss these 3 events. Friday, you might want to show up late, because there’s something awesome happening at 6. Etc etc. Visit Denver is already on this mission with their Denver Beer Week, and hopefully the town as a whole will be more and more amazing as the years go on. I’d love to see hotel room shortage be the issue, not tickets.

      • http://www.facebook.com/colo.beerman Colo BeerMan

        I think I agree. Many serious beer geeks and hobbyists in Colorado may start to skip GABF and just attend the surrounding events, especially as the beers and the experiences that are offered expand dramatically. But for the out-of-towners, GABF is still going to be the central event that makes their trip.

        • http://www.facebook.com/jake.mosher Jake Mosher

          Oh man. This. If I still lived in Denver, and had easy access to everything that goes on at Falling Rock, et al, I’d probably have more fun doing that. More intimate environment (normal-people-to-brewer ratio drastically improved), sometimes even crazier beer than is ever accessible at GABF, and just…a lot of really great things that kinda showcase all the awesome little (and not-so-little) beer places in Denver.

        • http://twitter.com/DenverHBC Chris Washenberger

          I guess I do not like the idea of invalidating the GABF as the “non-beer-geek” thing to do. I will continue to go. It is the focus for me. I agree that there is ample opportunity for other events and we can make Denver a beer destination for that week. I don’t know. It just sucks to shit on GABF after so many years of going.

  • http://twitter.com/capulinflicker Johnathan Valdez

    Craft beer is becoming more and more popular, GABF is like the Super Bowl of craft beer and tickets are only going to get harder and harder to come by. It’s just going to come down to luck of the draw.

    As far as the ticketing snafu goes… I’ve been saying that the BA should release a certain amount of tickets breweries to sell in their tap rooms. It’s easy for scalpers to access tickets on-line but not so much when it comes to those that have to be bought in person. Furthermore, it will promote getting people to visit their local breweries and will help boost tap room sales. By doing so I think you’ll see more people at the festival that are truly passionate about beer and not just there to get shit-housed hammered.

  • http://twitter.com/JinDenver Jason J

    *ahem* I’ll be volunteering, so eff you. 🙂 Without volunteers nobody would pour your beer; the brewery staffs usually bolt (except for the big dogs) within 15 minutes if any even show up to the table you’ve chosen to work. This year the GABF is requiring they be there for at least the first half hour, though, this year.

    Anyway, tickets. I wonder how feasible it would be for an organization as big as the BA and AHA to do something similar to what Louis CK did recently for his upcoming tour. For every show at every venue, they’re monitoring ticket sales on sites like stubhub and craigslist and whatever else is out there — and for any ticket that’s being sold above face value, they’re invalidating the ticket. Sure there are ways around this, but it discourages (in part, if not completely) many people who would buy 20 tickets and sell them at a 200% markup. While you might not stop the computer farms that Dude has set up in his basement that allows him to buy 100 tickets, it’s still a step in the right direction.

    I think it’s a really amazing idea, and don’t see why it wouldn’t work for something like the GABF.

  • http://www.facebook.com/jake.mosher Jake Mosher

    I dig it. Thanks for the different perspective, I was initially jaded at the ticket sales, and have offered a similar solution to the scalping problem. It is a bummer to hear friends talk about how they didn’t get tickets though. I personally can’t complain, as this will be my 4th year volunteering. Feel free to yell at me, I won’t pour you beer 🙂

  • http://twitter.com/DenverHBC Chris Washenberger

    Ah, the comments are rife with assumption.
    Why are you making that assumption? You are falling into that “I must be more rad than everyone here” thing. Believe me, I do it too but most of us are new “fresh meat” drinkers when compared to a lot of dudes there. Why is it more acceptable for you to get fucked-up somewhere? Just because you know more than someone else?

    Disclaimer: I am an insufferable shithead of pretentiousness, I know this but is it right to do to people?

  • moserine

    Just a brief point from someone relatively new to the Denver beer scene (like so many irritating “moved-heres” of my 22-30 age group). I think all this shows is that the market is not nearly saturated for craft beer and craft beer events / festivals. Denver has had a gold rush of local breweries open, but that just means that more of us are likely to drink craft beer–to think of it first when you go to the store to buy a six pack, or go to a concert, or a sporting event. It also means that there is more room for having MORE great events. So, sure, GABF sells out immediately (and I’ve never been able to get a ticket), but that just opens the door for other events.

    There is no specific reason that GABF is ‘superior’–it draws great breweries and great people, but the door is always open for organizers, breweries, business-people, etc. to bring together great people for great events. I’m incredibly bullish on Colorado and especially Denver’s burgeoning beer scene–the sheer volume and variety of breweries in the local area is already a draw for people from all over the country. And I’m not sure some lifetime locals realize just how good that they’ve got it!

    Long post–point being that it’s very exciting to live here, and that selling out ‘big name’ festivals is good news, both for the overall beer scene, and for new ideas and events that can be feasibly supported by the many people interested in quality beer!

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