Craft Brewers Conference: A Survival Guide For First-Time Attendees
MittenBrew sent Jeff Rogers, Brewery Operations Manager at Harmony Brewing Company, to Craft Brewers Conference & BrewExpo America® in Washington, D.C. to document the annual event from the lens of a first-time attendee. What follows is his experience, and a few recommendations to ensuring a successful show for those considering attending. MittenBrew edited some of Jeff’s reflections for clarity because let’s be honest—it’s hard to keep everything straight when you’ve got a beer in one hand and a selfie stick in the other.
- Unless you have absolutely zero agenda for attending, which would seem counterproductive and a disservice to yourself and the brewery you’re representing, plan ahead. Don’t wait until you arrive to make a game plan. You know what your brewery needs better than anyone else, so establish goals for yourself based on those needs, and create a hit list of what you want to accomplish.
- The Craft Brewers Conference website and conference app can be your best friends, if you use them, and especially if you familiarize yourself with them before you go. Seriously, download the app. It’s free.
- After registering for the conference, use your credentials to log in to the Online Planner. Here, you can build and customize your own personal agenda, adding anything you want to see, experience or remember, which you can then sync to your phone’s native calendar. You’ll likely have a few beers on the expo hall floor and after hours, so having your schedule in your pocket already mapped out will help when you get distracted from where you’re supposed to be, with whom, and when.
- Conference-sanctioned brewery tours fill up and educational bootcamps sell out quickly. If any interest you, register ASAP.
- Watch the weather when packing your suitcase, and don’t forget your walking shoes. The first question everyone will ask you is, “Where are you from?” Beat them to the punch, and wear a shirt with your brewery’s logo or home state on it. It creates an easy conversation starter, and it’s free advertising.
- Bring more business cards than you think you’ll need.
Travel and Accommodations
- If you’re not shy about bunking up with someone, share a hotel room, and split the cost. If the hotels closest to the conference book up, and they will, don’t forget about Airbnb options or other hospitality-share programs. If you’ve got friends and family in the conference city, ask to crash on their couch. It’ll save you cash, and leave more money for beer not distributed where you live. But, consider distance to the conference from where you’re staying because taxi, Uber, and Lyft fares will add up quickly. Either way, don’t cheat yourself on a solid night’s sleep.
- Shoot to arrive by mid-day the first day of the conference (the day before the expo floor opens). This will give you time to beat the lines when picking up your credentials, get your bearings in the convention center, and attend the Welcome Reception that evening (which you need your credentials for anyway).
- Do not underestimate the size of this conference and convention floor. There were over 13,000 people in attendance, and 900 vendor booths. It can be a little overwhelming, and you can only do so much at a time. Don’t try to tackle visiting every booth in one day. Stagger your days by breaking up the expo floor into chunks in between any seminars you attend.
- Say this with me: “I’m not the only person on the floor.” Practice self-awareness. You will be surrounded by hundreds of people at any given moment, many of whom are walking with a purpose. Please, don’t stop in the middle of an aisle or major walkway to check your phone or stare off into space. When you do, and someone bumps into you, it’s not their fault. Also, just like the rules of the road, walk on the right.
- Swag. Yes, it’s free. Yes, you can have one. But, if you take it, put it to honest use. Companies pay good money for the stuff they give away. If you know it’s going to end up in the bottom of a drawer or in the garbage when you get home, save that company some money and yourself the hassle of hauling it around for the week.
- Go early, and beat the rush. The expo floor generally tends to be a little quiet in the morning because there’s no shortage of industry parties at night that may or may not influence one’s ability to roll out of bed before noon the morning after. Don’t waste your mornings by getting wasted at night. This shouldn’t be amateur hour. We’re trained professionals.
- Including Sponsored Demonstrations, there were approximately 70 seminars covering 11 different educational tracks. You will miss some. If you’re attending with anyone else from your brewery, don’t all sit in the same seminars—split them up so you can be in two places at once. Compare notes later over beers.
- Don’t let this be an excuse to not attend the seminars, but if you do miss any, their content and presentation slides are pushed out to attendees after the conference. Still, you’ll get valuable insight by sitting in the seminars live. Bring a pen, and take notes (throughout the whole conference). It’ll help you remember the nuances of what you learn, who you meet, and what you talked about. Things will get fuzzy.
- Don’t hog the mic. Engage and ask questions. Don’t let your brewery’s unique anomaly of a problem that’s hyper specific you prevent others from getting their questions answered, too. We all remember that kid in class who raised his hand so he could repeat what the instructor just said, rephrasing it to look smart. Don’t be that guy either.
Eating and Drinking
- There are beer stations everywhere. You don’t have to look or go far to sample an array of beers from all over the U.S. To keep things on the up-and-up on the expo floor, beers were understandably restricted to 2 oz. pours. It might seem cheap at first, but you’ll be thankful for it after three days in, and dozens of samples later.
- You know what the most important meal of the day is. Eat it. It probably changes somewhat with the destination city and venue, but lines for food during peak lunch hours were brutal. Frustratingly long. Plan accordingly. Pack a protein bar or other snack each day to tide you over until you’re able to sit down and enjoy a meal. You’re going to be drinking, so don’t do it on an empty stomach, unless you want to miss the evening festivities and disappoint your colleagues who have to worry about getting you back to the hotel early.
- During the first two days of the expo, there were multiple sponsored hospitality areas with beer, light food, and different activities or games from 2:30 p.m – 5:00 p.m. Conquer whatever essential business you might have before then, and spend these couple hours unwinding, making new connections, and batching whatever you’ve done that day.
When you register for the conference, RSVP for the opening night’s Welcome Reception. This sold out long before the conference, and there’s a reason why. The host venue is usually pretty swanky—this year it was held at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History. Free beer from about 40 different breweries and fancy hors d’oeuvres make this event a no-brainer. However, food had a tendency to run out fast. So, if you go hungry, arrive early. Trim your neck hair, and put on a nice shirt.
- There are sanctioned “official” off-site parties nightly. See the conference program for details on admission (typically complimentary with your conference credentials or via advance guest list sign-up). These will be busy, too. 13,000 people are going to go somewhere after the conference each day, and they’re probably going to go where the beer is free, so expect lines. Be polite when the hosts ask for your name or proof of RSVP. If you have to demand, “Don’t you know who I am?”, the answer is probably “No.”
- There are also dozens of other happy hours, meetups, and hosted parties by different breweries and state guilds. They’re not hard to find, and worth going to. You can do some of your best networking and learning during these informal socials. Talk to attendees, ask what they’re up to and where they’re going. You’ll have no problem finding a party that’s your speed.
After the Conference
- You know all those business cards you collected? Use ‘em. At the very least, send those people a courtesy email thanking them for their time and whatever value they gave you. Your ride or flight home is a great time to draft that correspondence. Hit “Send” on those emails within one week of getting back to work so you’re still fresh in their minds.
- Stay in touch with the people you met, traveled with, and partied next to. Despite the impressive size and attendance of the conference, our industry is still smaller and more intimate than you think. Word travels fast, and so do reputations. Take care of yourself, treat those you meet with respect, and pass along referrals even if they don’t benefit you right away. Karma is a thing, and—if you do it right—the Craft Brewers Conference is the place to share it, and receive it.
We’ll see you next year in Nashville, TN. Cheers!
Photos courtesy of Jeff Rogers, Steph Harding, MittenBrew, and Jason Ley