I’ve never been to the Great American Beer Festival. I’m not sure I’m ever going to go, now. I have mixed feelings about that.
For those of you who have lives that don’t revolve around beer, the kerfuffle du jour in the beer world is that tickets for the Great American Beer Festival in Denver sold out extremely quickly. The Brewer’s Association/ American Homebrewer’s Association (BA / AHA) member’s pre-sale sold out in about two hours, but there were technical issues that kept a lot of legitimate members from being able to purchase tickets. When tickets went on sale to the general public the next day, they sold out in twenty minutes. Two years ago it took almost a week for tickets to sell out.
Except, of course, they didn’t really sell out. As I write this, there are just under 1000 tickets available on StubHub. There are about 50 more tickets listed there today (Friday) than yesterday. I expect there are probably similar numbers available via Craigslist, eBay and any number of other secondary markets. The Brewer’s Association — the sponsors of the Festival — have chosen to throw TicketMaster under the bus for the technical difficulties and have basically just thrown up their hands at the fact that so many folks are flipping their tickets for a profit. And I say “so many” with some reservations. The Brewer’s Association doesn’t release ticket sales numbers. They say 49,000 people attend GABF over the three days, but that includes brewers, staff, press and paid attendees. We have no way of knowing what percentage of tickets are on the secondary market (since a given ticket can be listed in more than one place) and how that compares to other high-profile events. My feeling is that what we’re seeing here isn’t all that large a percentage, but that’s just a guess. The logjam isn’t limited to people wanting to go to the sessions either. Brewers had difficulty getting in. The BA has proposed changes to deal with that issue, so it’s a pretty sure bet we’ll see some changes coming on the ticket purchase side once things settle down this year.
This story resonates with me on several levels. There’s the beer angle, of course. Then there’s the whole festival angle. We work with the Cincy Winter Beerfest organizers to put on the 5B Conference and I’m in awe of all the details that have to be handled simultaneously to get that many people safely in and out of a facility where intoxicating beverages are the entire point of the exercise. Finally, the first job I ever had when I was in high school and college was selling tickets at the Astrodome. I mostly worked Astros games in the summer, but we did football, concerts, prize fights, rodeos, whatever. We had the misfortune of being one of the first facilities in the country to adopt TicketMaster. I’ve played the game of cat-and-mouse with scalpers more times than I can count.
I called Craig Johnson to get some of his insights into the issue. Craig is one of the partners behind the Cincy Winter Beerfest, the Cincy Summer Beerfest on Fountain Square as well as similar events in Columbus and, most recently, Pittsburgh. He’s been to the last five GABFs and has a very strong admiration for how the logistics of the event are handled. One of the first things he stressed is the difference in scale between the festivals he works with and GABF. “We’ll have 350 some-odd beers,” he said, “They have 3,100.” The logistics of getting that much beer into the Denver Convention Center and to the right places at the right time is really quite an accomplishment. “What I don’t understand, though, is why they don’t expand the floor,” he said, “There’s a hall right next to the one they’re in that’s the same size. And downstairs there’s as much space as upstairs.” He stressed that he wasn’t necessarily arguing that the number of brewers needed to increase (though he wasn’t opposed to that, either), but that he thought it was worth spreading the crowd out and, presumably, being able to up the number of tickets being sold. He noted that he didn’t know what that would do to the Brewer’s Association’s cost structure or if the extra space is even an option, given other events in the facility.
Craig also pointed out that the three days of GABF is really expanding into an informal week-long beer holiday in the Denver area. It’s becoming sort of the national homecoming for brewers and beer fans alike and actually going to the festival itself is only part of the appeal of being in Colorado that week. “Everybody ought to go once to see it once,” he said, referring to the GABF itself, “but there’s a lot to do that week that makes the trip worthwhile without ever actually going [to GABF]” He pointed out that the Member’s session on Saturday afternoon was really the only time you’re likely to actually meet a brewer on the floor. “The public sessions are staffed by volunteers who wanted a ticket,” he said, “You’re not going to meet a brewer except at the Member’s session.” It’s relevant to point out here that, as I write this, StubHub lists the fewest available tickets for that session (98) and the highest starting price per ticket ($165 for a $65 face-value ticket that was discounted from $75 for being sold to an BA/AHA member).
There are things that the BA could probably do to cut down on the scalping, but most of those would involve making entry into the hall more difficult (and beer festival patrons aren’t exactly known for their patience. That’s a personal observation on my part, by the way. That’s not something that came up when I was talking to Craig). Economics says the way to deal with the issue is to raise prices. I actually think that would make the scalping issue worse. It’s clear there are folks who fund a portion of their trip by buying the maximum number of tickets allowed, then selling off the excess at a premium. Raising the price will only make that a more attractive option.
In the end I think it comes down to being careful what you wish for. You want craft beer to be popular? Then don’t expect that attending events will be as easy as it was “back in the old days.” The whole festival concept is pretty dicey for me anyway. How much can your palate really handle in a short period of time? Despite my years working large events (or maybe because of them), I’m not a big fan of big crowds. On the other hand, a festival can give you the chance to sample things you may not be able to get regularly. And there’s a “gathering of the tribe” quality that can’t be denied. For good or for ill, GABF is the premier Beer Festival in the US that’s associated with the only beer competition most people have ever heard of. It’s the White Whale right now. Will it still be in three years? Who knows? I think the worst thing the BA could do now is overreact. In every other realm of event planning I’m aware of, a sellout is considered a good thing. There are lots of beer festivals out there. So support local beer. And support local beer festivals.