The Price of Success – Reflections on Last Week’s GABF Rollout

Anyone who watches and enjoys pop culture knows that success and popularity can sometimes come with a brutal price. Actors and musicians who’ve struggled for years in the shadows can finally break through, only to find themselves beset with massive demands from their newly admiring fans and vulnerable to all kinds of criticisms as they negotiate their lives in the spotlight. ..That’s kind of how we look at the GABF.

GABFAs so many of you know, The Great American Beer Festival is one of craft beer’s biggest and most popular events – but it wasn’t always that way. The first GABF started in 1982 and was created by a nuclear engineer, Charlie Papazian. It took place in Boulder, Colorado, and only 22 breweries participated and 800 people attended. Two years later the festival moved down to Denver, where it hoped to reach more people, and never looked back. By 2009, the GABF had 457 breweries participating and almost 50,000 fans attending. It had gotten so big that it was forced to expand into a hall one-third larger than the previous year!

Flash-forward to today: the GABF is one of the world’s biggest and most watched craft beer events – and like famous movie and rock stars, it has a dedicated fanbase willing to cut it to its knees for any perceived misstep. As we’ve alluded to above, success can sometimes be unforgiving…

Brewers Association-LogoThe GABF is presented by the Brewers Association (BA) and it falls on them now to manage this colossal beast. And with interest from brewers hoping to participate and fans demanding tickets at an all-time high, they’ve got their hands full. Managing the rollout of an event on this scale while keeping both brewers and fans happy can be a minefield and the BA has done an admirable job of keeping the madness at bay. But for some, you can never do enough…

So on to some of last week’s criticisms. Probably the biggest complaints we heard from both brewers and fans this year involved issues of access.

Brewers want better access to be able to participate and compete at the GABF. And because this event is not just a festival but also a competition, the number of brewers that can attend each year is necessarily capped and relates directly to the number of beers designated to be judged and the number of judges available to do just that. This year’s industry signup closed in just two hours, leading to a wait list of 300+ brewers still hoping to participate.Complicating this year’s registration were reports of server issues, something that has become quite common with events as in-demand as the GABF is.

Last week, Brewers Association Event Director Nancy Johnson informed members through the Brewers Association Forum of the changes coming to the 2014 Great American Beer Festival signup process. These changes will aim to alleviate some of this year’s problems, including extending the brewer registration period and increasing the number of brewers that can participate in the competition as well as the number of beers that will be judged.

Photos ©Jason E. Kaplan and/or ©Brewers AssociationAnd fans want fair and problem-free access to tickets. Unfortunately, there will always be fans disappointed when tickets run out and nothing can be done about that. Just about every event that we know of has necessary capacity limitsand that’s not going to change. When the public ticket sale went online last Wednesday, it sold out in a record-breaking twenty minutes!

But unlike last year, where online glitches and system overload were the more prevalent complaints, this year’s story also included complaints of scalping. Shortly after the public sale closed, tickets started showing up on StubHub and an hour after the sale closed, there were hundreds available for resale.

The fact that GABF is now seeing significant aftermarket sales of its tickets is hardly a shocker – frankly we’re surprised we’ve not seen this happen sooner. When an event becomes as popular as the GABF has become, fans will pay a premium for access. And when fans are willing to pay a premium, aftermarket sellers thrive. So unless and until this event moves into paperless ticketing, as some rock festivals are attempting to do, scalping will continue to plague it to some degree.

The bottom line is that when an event becomes as popular and successful as the GABF has, you’re going to have problems and the Brewers Association is actively committed to addressing them. Will the online ticketing process ever be problem-free? Frankly, with ticket demand at unprecedented levels, we doubt it. Clearly, the Brewers Association wants the best for the GABF and for its fans, and we think you’ll continue to see them fine-tuning things as part of an ongoing process to make the process as fair and painless as humanly possible.

Will brewers continue to complain when they’re unable to secure a seat at the table in the future? Even with 2014’s proposed changes, we promise you that some will.

And will the public ever accept that tickets are not unlimited, that the GABF will never be able to accommodate everyone, and that they may have missed their opportunity to attend?    

Probably not….

But that’s just the price of success.

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