07 May Not Everyone Should Host a Beer Fest – The First Untappd Festival Brings Storm of Controversy
“We made some mistakes operationally.” That was Untappd’s mea culpa for what happened last weekend. We think it goes a bit beyond that. If Virgin Records decided to put on a music festival they’d probably ask the Bonnaroo folks for some advice. If Firestone chose to build and sell a car, they would likely consult GM or Toyota for some dos and don’ts. Neither of these companies is directly related to the endeavor I hypothetically assigned to them, but they do have a big foot in the door and should be able to reach their goal with help.
That apparently didn’t happen in preparation for the first Untappd Beer Festival last Saturday (May 4th) in Charlotte, NC. Either Untappd got very bad advice on several counts or they ignored good advice. Nevertheless, in the end the festival was a veritable “how to” video for messing up a beer event. Walter and I were there for both storms, the one from Mother Nature and the one from the attendees, and this is our report – stick around to the end of this story. We aren’t ranting by any means, but some of the issues were truly amazing and unsettling.
Untappd is the app on most of our phones that allows us to check in and rate individual beers. The company is based in Wilmington, NC, and had revenues of more than $8 million in 2017, according to the Inc. 5000 series. They make money a couple of different ways. One, individual users can donate on a monthly, semi-annual or annual basis to unlock a couple of features on the mobile app or web system like a downloadable beer history and more longer text check-ins. Two, they have a marketing arm that allows venues to post their releases, menus, and specials, and can be used to create special badges on the site which can be earned by users.
So you can see, the enterprise is a essentially a beer drinker’s software company. Millions of people use it daily, and that might have been the start of the problem that culminated in the Untappd Festival. People assumed they knew what they were doing, and it just wasn’t the case. Untappd issued a statement after the festival saying as much, “We learned a lot of lessons. We’re in the software business, so we’re accustomed to getting feedback and processing it to improve. We’ll do the same here.”
Some people will point to the lightning and rain and say that Untappd couldn’t do anything about the weather – and yes, that’s true; they were very quick to point that out themselves. “We can’t control the weather,” Trace Smith (UnTappd COO) said. “I get that it was not fun.” But like a politician pivoting to a “but look what they did” stance, this really misses the point. So many mistakes were made that had little or nothing to do with the weather that it is easy to see why so many attendees were upset and voiced their opinions on social media. If it weren’t for the Kentucky Derby fiasco, this probably would have been one of the major trending stories on Saturday.
Let’s go through the issues that Walter and I observed and heard about, with help from some of the local news outlets providing numbers and additional information (Charlotte Five and Charlotte Agenda). See the social media hubbub here.
Lines: Untappd sold approximately 12,500 tickets for their first attempt at a festival. This was also part of the problem; a smaller festival would have been easier to manage and the issues wouldn’t have been so magnified. The organizers had to know that this number of attendees would mean big lines – they were holding the festival in an NFL stadium for gosh sakes! During a Panthers game at the same stadium, the NFL would have dozens of gates open, but Saturday, the festival had one person checking IDs – one. Walter and I saw this in action as we lined up for the Early Entry session ($65/ticket), but we are sure the VIPs ($200/ticket) had someone check IDs for them as well.
We arrived very early as we were driving in from Columbia, SC and couldn’t really gauge our arrival time, so we got to see much of the set up outside the stadium. Untappd volunteers ran the check-in, while Bank of America Stadium personnel ran the security and ticket taking. The stadium personnel did fine, but the organization on the Untappd side was lacking. As we presented our IDs and got our hand stamped (no wrist band), there was indeed one person doing all the checking. I heard that for the GA session ($50/ticket, started one hour later), the same procedure was used, and we know they were in the same line as us. The ID and bag check was a choke point that led to lines around the entire perimeter of the stadium – some GA ticket holders never got in!
When the storms arrived at 4:45pm, Untappd stopped checking in ticket holders and they were turned away from the gates (this might have been for public safety reasons, but it certainly doesn’t play well). After the storms passed around 6:20pm, most of those people had given up and left the area. Think about your festival experiences – do the larger festivals ever have just a single check in line? No – so this problem falls on Untappd, not the weather.
Cups: The Untappd Festival website stated that attendees would receive a “souvenir sampling glass.” This turned out to be the thinnest, frailest, plastic cup anyone had every seen, one person likened it to a mouthwash cup. It did have the logo on it, but everyone picking one up knew that it was never destined to be a memento of the occasion; it likely wouldn’t make it home alive. They chose polystyrene because it is clearer (the better for seeing your beer), but it is also much more brittle than polypropylene or acrylic.
Also, you can buy these in varying thicknesses, and Untappd seemed to go with the cheapest version they could find, which meant very thin. Some people’s cups cracked almost immediately after they picked them up, but attendees were limited to only one cup. Why, because they had only ordered 15,000 for a potential crowd of 13,000 (with media, brewers, and friends). As the afternoon wore on, more and more cups broke and people had to replace them. The result – the festival ran out of cups and had to start handing out small nacho cheese cups from the stadium concessions for people to sample with. I believe that later on they found some red solo cups.
When the storms came and people were asked to go into the concourses or the tunnel to the tailgating lot, people just stood around or sat holding their glasses and they started to crack in the thousands. At one point, volunteers stopped handing out replacement cups because they knew they still had thousands of people who hadn’t been granted entrance yet. So….this problem also falls on Untappd, not the weather (they did take responsibility for the cup fiasco in a manner of speaking, “That’s on us.”)
Beer Lines: Walter and I were the first two people in one of the ticket scanning lines (after ID, bag check for conformity to stadium policy, and security check), so we got our cups very early and waited in one of four lines to enter the field from the stands. All the booths were set up and people were manning them, but there was an unusual amount of activity going on for the period 10 minutes before the festival started. Some carts were driving around delivering kegs to the booths, and many people were lugging around bags of ice. Really – just before the festival starts? Beer should have been delivered an hour ago. Untappd called it “an issue with the partial brewery set up.” Wow, what a way to try to define the conversation.
The festival evidently had all the kegs delivered to a central location and then they were transported out by the organizers to the booths, but they were way behind. When 3pm came around, we flooded the field to find that half the breweries didn’t have beer! I’m not the professional organizer here (well, I am part of a team that does that), but I’m figuring that one of the major parts of hosting a beer festival is having beer there. Not so on Saturday.
The VIP and Early Entry ticket holders supposedly had an hour of sampling before the GA attendees came in, but since so few people had beer, the lines for those that did got very long, to the tune of 30-50 people deep. The hour for which we paid extra was a complete disaster. Remember that piece I wrote a week ago about beer crowds being so content, easy to please, and happy (here) – not so much here. Attendees were mad, breweries were mad, and the people honking their horns while trying to deliver beer to booths were mad. When it started lightning and everything was shut down, some breweries had just gotten their kegs.
In some parts of the stadium and through the tunnel to the tailgate lot where the rest of the breweries were, the lines were from side to side of the space and started crossing in the middle. It was hard to tell what line you were in and people were breaking through lines as they searched for shorter routes to beer. Delivering beer had nothing to do with the weather, so this problem also falls squarely on Untappd.
Now for the weather: Yes, it rained hard and there was some lightning. We realize that you can’t serve beer outside during an electric storm, but that wasn’t the problem. The issue was that Untappd knew it was coming for four days and managed nothing in the way of a work around. The festival FAQ page stated that it was a rain or shine event, and in the event of rain, the breweries could set up and pour in the covered concourses. This indicates that using the concourses was an option. Why not set up the festival there when they realized Wednesday that it was going to be interrupted by lightning?
The rain and lightning started around 4:30, and announcements were made for everyone to move to the concourses or the tunnel. If you weren’t on the field at the time, these announcements sounded just like Charlie Brown’s teacher, so there was considerable confusion amongst the crowd. About 45 minutes later, security was having trouble keeping people in the covered area and started announcing that beer was being poured on the concourse level – no, it wasn’t. This was just a ploy to get people away from the tunnel entrances.
About an hour into the storm Walter and I had had enough, so we tried to walk around the concourse level to get to the side of the stadium where our car was parked (immediately across the street in a garage). They had blocked the concourse off on both ends, so no one could walk completely around the inside of the stadium. This meant 1) we couldn’t get close to our car and were forced into the storm to get to it, and 2) many VIPs couldn’t get to the VIP lounge. Ouch, $200/ticket and they won’t let you into the space that was specially designed to help you ride out a storm. In total, while the storm wasn’t the festival’s fault, the poor planning and response to it was their own doing.
More minor issues: The above issues weren’t all the factors that led to the dumpster fire that was the Untappd Festival, but they were the major problems. Other things included the lack of merchandise and water (all brewery merch. was sold in the Untappd merchandise tents, and they were limited to one T-shirt design, and there were three water stations that we saw). Many breweries were instructed that they couldn’t hand out stickers because stadium officials didn’t want them stuck on the concourses or seats (they had stickers and some did hand them out). The NFL bag policy called for see through bags or clutch purses of 4.5” x 6.5” maximum. It was on the FAQ, but apparently few people looked through the FAQ. Walter used a one-gallon Zip-Lock with a braided yarn shoulder strap. She was both legal and fashionable.
Untappd did make an effort to save the day. They opened up the booths to pour at about 6:30 and let people on the field just prior to that. The tailgate area started serving just before that, but from what I heard, few people knew about it. Instead of last pour being 7:45pm, they made it 8:45pm, but Walter and I were at The Unknown Brewing Company just five blocks away by that time. We ended up at The Brass Tap to eat and watch the Kentucky Derby and then finished our evening at Wooden Robot Brewery. They were all packed because of the mass abandonment of the festival – we decided not to return when they re-opened because it would have cost us another $12 in parking (the locals all apologized for the festival and made the case well for Charlotte beer).
Overall, we tried about 40 breweries while we were in the festival (of the 176 pouring), so one could say we had a ¼ of a festival. Untappd is currently “working on solutions for the people who never got in and the VIPs and Early Entry people that didn’t get their money’s worth because of Untappd issues rather than the weather.” We’ll see what they do. We guess the take home message is that if you want to try running a festival, start smaller, get good advice and heed it, and take full responsibility for the things that go wrong and which you could have avoided. By the way, the beers from Resident Culture, Birds Fly South, and Amor Artis were outstanding. Wish we had more to recommend.
Update: Untappd has posted on their FB page that if people who had trouble with the cups email their name, address, and the email address associated with their ticket to them, they will send them an Untappd logo pint (hmm, maybe should have used those for the festival?). If you had other problems, you should email them and explain – no defined solution was given.
The best breweries from our entire trip (in Walter’s opinion):
Southern Grist in Nashville, TN OddStory Brewing and Hutton & Smith in Chattanooga, TN Halpatter Brewing in Lake City, FL Blackadder Brewing in Gainseville, FL Ellipsis Brewing in Orlando, FL Reve Brewing in Jacksonville, FL Columbia Craft in Columbia, SC Wooden Robot Brewery in Charlotte, NC Little Fish Brewing in Athens, OH and Branch & Bone Artisan Ales in Dayton, OH. We visited the last three in a row to finish, so it was a good end to a great trip. Our son graduated with a degree in Aerospace Engineering from UCF so now we can truthfully say that our son is a rocket scientist.
banner image credit: WCNC