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.