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5 things I learned volunteering at a beer fest

5 things I learned volunteering at a beer fest

For three days, and for the first time, I got to experience a beer fest from a unique perspective: without a drink in my hand. I had the pleasure of volunteering at the 8th annual Wine, Beer and Food Festival (#MIWBF15) at DeVos Place in Grand Rapids, MI, Nov. 19-21, 2015. For anyone who might be considering volunteering at a similar event: do it! And, for anyone who never has, here are five take-aways that have given me a deeper appreciation for the beautiful chaos that are beer festivals.

It takes an army

Based on my experience in the bar/restaurant industry and passion for the craft beer scene, the incredibly good people of ShowSpan, the event management and production company who hosts the festival, entrusted me with being the Volunteer Coordinator for Beer City Station. My role was to be responsible for training all beer/cider/mead pourers in hospitality and educating them in responsible alcohol service. But, I was just one of many who had to come together to pull off an event that brought approximately 20,000 attendees to downtown over three days.

ShowSpan’s salaried staff are true professionals. The had an a dedicated roster of company veterans who (wo)manned the show office - a hub where employees, venue personnel, volunteers and guests intersected constantly and at random. If you entered the office and were wearing a name tag or maroon vest, you could guarantee that someone would pull or push you to a task that needed immediate attention. And, every time, challenges were tackled with a smile. We all worked in tandem toward the same goal: a smooth, successful event with the expectation of impeccable guest satisfaction. From there, they deployed an army.

In the Vineyard, the wine hall, Ferris State University provided over 100 volunteers each day to pour vino. In Beer City Station, I was also responsible for over 100 pourers - a different batch of 100 pourers per day. In order to keep every table and beverage station flowing smoothly, there were runners responsible for maintaining the non-glamorous details: restocking ice, refreshing water and dump buckets, collecting accumulated drink tickets and taking out garbage. And, for the more guest-sensitive issues, bottles, cans and kegs had to be continuously restocked.

Everyone roamed. We all roamed, non-stop, proactively looking for anything that needed an extra set of hands. We juggled multiple concurrent requests of varying degrees of priority. We were a high-fiving team who squeaked the oil into the machine. As soon as the doors opened, we didn’t stop moving until last call. And then, everyone tore down, cleaned and prepped for the next day.

Not all volunteers are created equal

I was immediately slapped with the reality that just because I love beer and was responsible for overseeing the beer hall that it didn’t mean the volunteers I was armed with were as passionate. Because this festival was not exclusively a beer-only event, the pool of volunteers was broad and filled with wild cards. 

Thursday and Friday night were challenging. The majority of volunteers were either under 21 or had little to no hospitality experience. I only had limited time for a crash course to teach them about alcohol service, so instilling in them the basics of hospitality was key. I tried to emphasize eye contact, a warm smile and a sincere, welcoming tone - any of which could’ve bought them enough time to adjust to just about any unfamiliar interaction where their own personal confidence might have been lacking. At the very least, I needed their commitment, which I got from all, but one.

I had one girl Thursday night who demanded a 45-minute break in a four-hour shift. I know that may sound trivial, but little things add up. After I clarified it was to be only a quick, 15-20-minute break, she went MIA for over an hour. I had to 1) apologize to the brewery who she left stranded, 2) scramble to fill her spot and 3) have an awkward conversation with her when she magically reappeared at her convenience. Then, she lied to my face about being gone for as long as she had been. I would’ve sent her packing, but she arrived on a bus with other volunteers, so I was stuck with her. It was clear that she didn’t care about being there. I’m still wondering about what would’ve compelled her to volunteer and then half-ass it. Since they weren’t getting paid in cash, although compensated with festival amenities, I’m trying to figure out what drives someone to just throw in the towel and leave everyone else who’s relying on you stranded.

Friday was smoother, and Saturday was standout. I only worked the first half of Saturday so I could return later as a guest. Fortunately, all the volunteers in Beer City Station for the festival’s busiest day were from Grand Valley State University’s hospitality program. I orientated two groups of approximately 50 students each in less than thirty minutes. Their nonverbal cues and eye contact thankfully assured me I wasn’t speaking a foreign language.

During the education session I prepared, I had one student who asserted herself as a leader. Without being prompted, I watched her disseminate my information to those around her as she started to assign her student colleagues into groups of mixed competency. She was automatically pairing stronger students with those who needed additional support. Keegan L. is a leader. She absolutely rocked. She was compassionate when I needed her help relocating a young man to a less busy station because the poor guy was the only one who struggled with the strength needed to open a beer bottle and uncork a bottle of mead. She knew her classmates’ strengths and weaknesses and was able to navigate me through to exactly who I needed to pull from where when I needed a specific set of skills or attributes somewhere else. The first thing she said to me when I honed in on her was: “My job is to make yours easier.” She did, and I thank her for it.

Marketing matters

Face time with brand reps is essential

One thing that totally surprised me was the fact that not every brewery (cidery, meadery, etc.) represented themselves with a brand stakeholder. Not having a knowledgeable advocate on site to adequately educate the volunteers responsible for distributing your product or to engage with guests is a huge miss. There’s such an opportunity to convert the qualified audience to fans by simply having a personal conversation with them.

Since this festival isn’t focused on beer exclusively, there tends to be a wider audience who could benefit from more education and information about what they’re sampling. This is the time to sell your brand. If nothing else, a general enthusiasm about what’s being poured goes miles.

Where brand reps weren’t present, I encouraged volunteers to read everything at their disposal about what they were pouring. Whether it was the labels, the printed collateral advertising the selection or taking the extra initiative to Google it, uninformed guests benefited from any recommendations suggested to them.

I was stopped and totally caught off guard by an older woman who had one mission: sample as many authentic Hefeweizens as possible. She was disappointed that a couple booths she visited couldn’t accurately speak to the style she was seeking out. I tried to cushion her experience by explaining the varied fluency of the volunteers. Granted, she seemed to think every brewery should have offered a Hefeweizen. She was a little confused when I had to break the news that not every brewery was going to have one, but still - she just wanted to have an informed conversation. I did offer a couple books and online resources for her to reference in her personal pursuits. After creating some transparency, she was much more vulnerable and willing to just go with the natural flow of the event. Nonetheless, if those breweries she visited would’ve had a dedicated rep present, they would’ve had more of a chance to suggest a comparable style or at least gain valuable insight into a realistic snapshot of the expanding craft consumer demo. This one, in particular, women in their 50s.

Own the space

Unless negotiated, while likely at a much higher investment to participate, all brands were given a standard 10’x10’ booth footprint to promote their product. By default, every brand was given equal tools: an 8’ banquet table covered in a maroon linen tablecloth, two bus tubs filled with ice for product, one dump bucket, one pitcher of water for rinsing glasses and a bottle opener. How they utilized these materials and activated their space was entirely on them.

Quality beer on the inside of the bottle or can is sought after for its substance, but sometimes all it takes to get new visitors through the door is having a good-looking door. Especially for some of the beers that were present that were new to local distribution or might not have had the name brand recognition as West Michigan’s well known players, their 10’x10’ booth space was their most valuable asset.

People want to feel welcomed and at home. Giving them a sample of what it would feel like to drink at your brick-and-mortar location is almost as important as the sample poured in their glass if not more at events like this. Brewery Ferment from Traverse City did just that. They dressed up their quaint footprint to both highlight their beer and showcase their homemade clothing and jewelry for sale. Their space was warm with hospitality and buzzed like the tiniest market. Dustin, Head of Fermentology, and Kirsten, Merchandise Creator, spent more time out in front of their table talking to passersby proudly sharing their love for what they both made than hidden behind it buried in their smartphones. Ferment’s passion spoke for itself, guests listened and drank it all up.

The breweries and cideries who had stakeholders present all weekend and created an environment that matched their brand nailed it. Hats off to all those who invested the time to send their people to represent. It showed, and I know it paid off. They were the booths who retained guests longer, who poured more and demanded my attention with regularity because they were cruising through their own product whereas some some other bottles and cans were left lonely sitting in melting ice.

Amateurs are greedy

There are two types of people at festivals like this: those who are there to indulge in the vast selection of craft beverages, socialize with like-minded enthusiasts and hopefully find their new favorite craft, and those who cash in on the complimentary tote bags.

Upon entry into the venue, all guests are given their choice of logoed sampling glassware - a 4 oz. straight sided glass for beer or a 5 oz. stemmed wine glass. Guests were welcome to switch out their glass throughout the evening for the other style if/when they strolled from the Vineyard and Beer City Station. The catch was, however, and guests were informed as such when they picked up their choice of glass, that only one glass per person was given out at a time.

It was only that second type of person who had a problem with this policy. The festival had to purchase more than twice the amount of glassware this year due to the unexpected amount that “left” the venue last year. And, now I know why.

I watched dozens of amateurs sneak through the crowds hovering over the tray table stations positioned throughout the show floor waiting for exiting guests to part with their glasses. They were stockpiling them the same way I try to hoard as much shrimp as I can get my hands on at a cocktail party. And, although they’re always generous with their marketing souvenirs, Stella Artois was a sitting duck because they gift their signature Chalices, a nearly 12-oz. vessel begging to be taken home. Granted, they send you away with a healthy pour of their Belgian pilsner, but as soon as it catches on that “that booth over there is giving away free beer glasses,” the mob goes wild.

By the end of the night, volunteers even had to run block on the tables that distributed the festival sampling glassware because departing tipsy guests made for extra sticky fingers. I lost count of the number of black tote bags that were trying to be inconspicuously hauled out of the venue weighted down with clinking glassware. The rest of the crowd, the first type of people, were busy back in Beer City Station, fully satisfied with their one sampling glass.

There’s no sign of slowing down

I think the first year I attended this festival was 2010, a few months after I moved to Grand Rapids. I remember the craft beer “hall” being just a narrow hallway, normally just a side-street entryway lobby to the convention center. It was tucked all the way in the back of the show floor with a few booths privileged enough to spill out into the main wine arena. It was almost as if the Wine & Food Festival, as I believe it was still named at that time, was embarrassed of beer or the crowd endowed with beards.

It was 2013 (or maybe last year?) that the demand for more real estate caused the festival to move all the craft beer and cider to its own floor. The intent might’ve looked good on paper and I know for a fact that it was done with honest intention, but it failed. Everything was tightly zig-zagged along the Z-shaped mezzanine walkway. Entry was accessible by a supervised escalator ride where security personnel could only permit based on safe capacity at the top. Two people down, two people up. For the slightest moment, the feeling of exclusivity while waiting in line was I’m sure what the festival was going for, but that backfired almost immediately. People were thirsty, and simply didn’t want to wait with an empty glass in hand. Once to the top, to where the room temperature has risen, everyone just bottlenecked and sweated their way through. It was uncomfortable and everyone knew it.

However, I supported the festival’s attempt and applaud them for giving it a shot. They knew it didn’t work. They listened to guest feedback, and the expansion this year of craft beer and cider (and mead) to its own full-size hall demonstrated that they are willing to invest the attention, space and resources that the industry has earned.

This year, Cider Row had about 19 booths in Beer City Station. Beer accounted for about 70. There were a half-dozen restaurants and eateries and two beer-centric merchandise companies. When I showed up for my first shift on the first day of the festival Thursday afternoon, I was impressed. I was excited to see the demand for craft beer and cider take shape into its own identity as part of this event. I was proud to volunteer and contribute to this year’s success, and am enthusiastic about returning in 2016 - whether as a volunteer again, if they’ll have me, or at the very least a guest who now more deeply appreciates its intricacies.

Editor’s note since published: The Brewers Association reported in press release December 2, “As of the end of November, there are now 4,144 breweries in the country, topping the historic high of 4,131 breweries in 1873.” Obviously, this is news to be celebrated, and further promises that Beer City Station, beer festivals alike and the dynamic culture supporting them should continue to overflow with an abundance of character that makes this scene worth enjoying more year over year.

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