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Prepping a GABF Like No Other and Facing Sharp Criticism, Leaner, “Scrappy” BA Presses Forward

Normally one of the biggest beer events of the year, drawing some 60K attendees to the Denver Convention Center in recent years, this weekend’s 2020 Great American Beer Festival will be far from “normal.” This year’s fest is a “stripped down, bare-bones” version of what it’s been, explained Ann Obenchain, marketing director of the event’s host, the Brewers Assn, in a recent conversation with Craft Brew News. As managing the competition took precedence, the virtual version of the festival, running this Fri and Sat evening, will generate just 3% of the revenue of an in-person event, Ann shared. Recall, with both the in-person GABF and its other major events, the Craft Brewers Conference/World Beer Cup and SAVOR canceled, the BA lost almost 70% of its annual revs for 2020. It reduced staff by 40% and made other difficult cuts. 

Attendees of this year’s virtual GABF can buy a $20 passport providing access to digital live-streamed content on the Brewing Network, plus discounts and offers at over 1,100 US breweries in all 50 states. That’s a larger group of participating breweries than the 800 or so that pour at an in-person fest. Just over half of the breweries participating this yr have not poured at a GABF before, while just under half sold under 1,000 bbls last yr. Passport discounts run thru Sun the 18th, and “people are still purchasing them every day,” Ann told CBN last wk. So final attendance is “still a moving target.” But even with passport prices at less than a quarter of the usual ticket price and no need to travel to attend, Ann’s confident the final number is still “going to be a small percentage of our normal attendance.” 

Keeping Up with Changing Environment; Competition Takes Precedence  “We’re adapting to the environment as the environment is changing,” Ann said, explaining the strategic shifts the BA has had to make essentially all year long. The org canceled this year’s Craft Brewers Festival and World Beer Cup in March and then “explored several contingency plans for the [GABF] festival, including shifting the event to December, reducing the festival size and number of attendees,” and more. Taking appropriate “COVID-19 precautions” put into question just about every aspect of the fest, from lines and glassware to volunteers, security and travel. 

An April survey indicated that “nearly 70% of 670 respondents expressed certainty in participating in the 2020 competition,” but “high uncertainty” about the festival, Ann shared. An executive order from Colo’s governor in May made use of the convention center “infeasible,” causing the BA to cancel an in-person fest the same day. Since the org recognized “how much winning a GABF or World Beer Cup medal can mean to our breweries,” its “first priority” became “how to pull off the competition,” Ann told us, while “driving business to the participating breweries.” 

“For the competition, there were many seismic shifts to navigate,” including who could and would judge, when, where and how. In the end, about 1,700 breweries entered beer to be judged, “down slightly from about 2,200 in 2019,” Ann told Denver 9 News recently. The number of entries held relatively stable at around 9,000. Over 120 judges from 25 states traveled to the BA’s warehouse to judge over 3 wks. Typically it takes 300 judges 3 days. Not more than 35 judges at a time worked in smaller widely-separated groups, each judge 6-ft apart with a face shield. Friday evening, the BA will award 273 medals during a live-streamed ceremony on the Brewing Network. Unlike the steady (and often slow) procession of winners during a usual GABF awards ceremony, this year’s will finish in under 2 hrs and feature pre-recorded segments, musicians, behind-the-scenes looks, and commercials, creating an experience more akin to the big televised awards shows, Ann explained. 

Shoestring Budget and Grassroots Efforts; Staff, Grants, Mktg Support Cuts  The severe loss of revenue “also means a very slim budget for marketing” GABF this yr, Ann explained. So the BA is “relying on the grassroots groundswell” developing from partnerships with regional convention and visitor bureaus, like in Denver, San Diego, Anaheim, Seattle and San Antonio. Thankfully, “they continue to be strong partners with us,” Ann said, “getting people to get out and support the businesses in those cities.” The org enlisted some influencers, partnered with and did some paid regional advertising on Untappd and social. Just as it made this yr’s mktg program “as simple and as turnkey for everybody” as possible, it created the passport and virtual event to also be “ridiculously as simple as possible.” It’s a “real pared down, very simple program this year,” with two evenings of live-streamed programming, a big chunk of that Friday’s awards ceremony. 

Again, the near 70% revenue loss for the year led the BA to make some very difficult cuts, including some key, public- and brewer-facing staff members and programs. Among them, Julia Herz, craft beer program director and one of most prominent public voices for craft over the last many years, Acacia Coast, state guild coordinator, and the org’s ambassador program, offering up experts in areas of safety, quality, diversity & inclusion and more to speak at industry events coast to coast. The BA is still “remaining actively involved” in the soon-to-be-national #BeersToThat mktg campaign in support of the whole beer category, announced at NBWA virtual conference early this month, Ann shared, aiming “to ensure the voice of craft beer is included” in that effort. But it is “not making a financial investment.” It also recently put on hold its two grant programs. Recipients of 2020 diversity and inclusion event grants had already been announced, but will not receive funds, tho the org will give preference to those folks for 2021 grants. The BA’s 2021 craft beer research and service grants will pause until 2022. 

Org Under Fire; Looking Forward  The loss of funding for diversity & inclusion grants is a particularly tough blow as the BA has come under fire by some industry members who feel the org’s efforts to create a more inclusive and equitable industry are lacking or who even deem its actions and practices to be actively racist. Such a charge “weighs heavy on our hearts and our heads,” Ann shared with CBN, and is a major reason “why we have started with the virtual town hall.” While the BA has been a voice for the industry for many years, some critics believe it doesn’t always have open ears, especially during this period of heightened awareness on racial inequity in particular. The BA is hoping to listen more during a quarterly virtual town hall series which began in September, when it shared its new Code of Conduct and complaint process with members. 

So far, “feedback...has been generally positive from our members,” Ann told us. Others have critiqued the proposed process as not tough enough on bad brewer-actors. Still others have told the BA “‘you shouldn’t be focusing on this,’ kind of ‘stay in your lane,’” she said. Over the summer, the org “promoted Black is Beautiful,” the collaboration beer spearheaded by Texas’ Weathered Souls Brewing, and “we’ve lost members over that, because they don’t agree with us,” Ann said. Other brewers publicly pulled support of the org for the opposite reason. She recognizes that “not everybody’s going to agree with us on either side,” but maintains that “we have nothing but positive intent.” The BA’s “been working on equity and fairness” for over a decade, she noted before reminding CBN of the org’s commitment to continuing that work. 

Programming during this weekend’s virtual GABF will bring additional attention to brewers who focus closely on inclusive and equitable business practices thru a series of “Brewing for Change” discussions. In-person events in the past have included industry speakers and live discussion, but this yr it’s a major component of the virtual event. Starting next wk, the BA will “build a list of ‘to do’s’ for next year,” Ann said, beginning in earnest the planning process for 2021’s GABF. But she sees the possibility that “there may always be a virtual component to the festivals moving forward.” Tho by no means the same organization it was at the start of 2020, “the BA is not going anywhere,” Ann insisted. “We’re scrappy fighters just like the breweries” the org represents, she said: “we know how to be lean as well.” That’s inhibited its ability to be as responsive as some would like it to be as well as its capacity to build the 1st virtual GABF in as grand a scale as the usual in-person festival. But the show must go on.

Publishing Info

  • Year: 2020
  • Volume: 11
  • Issue #: 98
Read 272 times Last modified on 10/15/2020
More in this category: « Craft Faces Racism

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 Craft Update 2021

By Beer Marketer’s Insights
Presented by Chris Shepard & David Steinman,
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March 3, 2021 - Part 1
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