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Large-scale beer festival rolls into High Point on heels of community event

by Jordan Green

jordan@yesweekly.com @JordanGreenYES

Social movers in High Point are looking to craft beer to get the party going in downtown and bring tourism dollars to the city. But two festivals with different visions are jostling uncomfortably for resources and audience share.

Great American Craft Beer Tour-High Point comes to Festival Park at Oak Hollow Lake on the first weekend of November. The Tennessee-based group is locking in an agreement to produce a biannual event for the next five years with incentives from the High Point Convention & Visitors Bureau based on how many overnight visitors they can attract. The promoters pledge to provide ticketed customers with samples from upwards of 150 beers with an emphasis on regional microbrewers.

“We’re trying to do a tour; the goal is 20 to 25 festivals, mostly in the Southeast probably,” said Mark Crowe, one of three partners in Great American Craft Beer Tour. “We live in Nashville, and we have a festival every weekend, so it’s kind of saturated. We want to go to cities that never had one, where people will say, ‘Hey, this is fantastic.’” While the concept is new for High Point, beer festivals have been gaining momentum in f the Triad for several years.

Tim Mabe, the president and CEO of the High Point Convention and Visitors Bureau, said that while the terms of the agreement are still being worked out, it makes sense for his organization to support the event. Funded by hotel/ motel taxes, the convention and visitors bureau’s mission is to promote the hospitality industry, including hotels and restaurants, by attracting overnight and day visitors likely to spend money in High Point beyond the event itself. Mabe said the HPCVB structures around promoters’ ability to bring overnight visitors, as demonstrated by hotel occupancy rates at the time of the events.

“That’s a group that would like… to get some assistance to make this a regional event to bring a large number of folks to High Point,” Mabe said. “Their goal is they would like to one day have as many as 5,000 people come to a microbrewery festival with live music.

“We want them to make a commitment to do it for a few years — it would be hard for most events to reach a goal of 5,000 people — what we would usually ask folks to do is to make a multi-year commitment,” he continued.

The deal has miffed Ryan Saunders, a 25-year-old social entrepreneur, whose many efforts to enliven downtown High Point include Hop Fest, a hybrid community and craft beer festival that he hopes to make an annual event after a successful first run in August at the iconic Mendenhall Transportation Center. Unlike a typical beer festival, which is limited by age to 21 and up, Hop Fest is a family event that in its first incarnation included a children’s activity area set up by the Theatre Arts Gallery. Also unlike a typical beer festival, in which a hefty ticket covers unlimited samples of all the brews on hand, Hop Fest charged a $5 cover and then allowed vendors, mostly local microbreweries such as Natty Greene’s, Liberty and Hoots Roller Bar & Beer Co. to sell by the drink for at a standard rate of $3. Rounding out the offerings, Saunders said his group brought in 40 local arts and craft vendors, five food trucks and a band. Saunders said Hop Fest drew 1,500 people.

Saunders noted that when Mabe took the job at the convention and visitors bureau in 2011, he told the Business Journal that “to make High Point successful, you have to get the foot traffic and things happening downtown. Incentivising an event four miles north of downtown would seem to work against that goal, Saunders argued.

“If the CVB’s true initiative is to bring people into High Point and make High Point a destination that’s appealing to outside visitors, wouldn’t it be better to give them a true representation of High Point?” Saunders asked. “The other event is bringing people to High Point, but what’s going to keep them or get them back? It seems to me that this is a better dollar-for-dollar impact. The larger critical mass of people we have coming downtown, the more shops and restaurants will open, which creates a positive experience for visitors. People coming to Oak Hollow Lake would be more likely to stay at a hotel near the airport or in Greensboro.”

Mabe said he views Hop Fest as a success in that it drew solid attendance and people had fun, but that it was more of a local, community affair than the type of event typically supported by the convention and visitors bureau. To effectively contend, Mabe said, Saunders would have to develop a budget to market Hop Fest outside of High Point.

“I’m totally supportive of downtown revitalization,” Mabe said. “That could only lead to more amenities and restaurants. However, that’s not what we’re charged to expend money on.”

He added that supporting an event such as Hop Fest that is geared towards downtown revitalization fits more closely with the missions of Ignite High Point, the chamber of commerce or even the city of High Point.

Saunders said it’s not fair to pigeonhole Hop Fest as a local event.

“The only way we can grow and expand our reach and to market to more people outside of the Triad is to have more resources for marketing,” he said. “I don’t really think it’s a fair assessment to say Hop Fest can only draw a local crowd when it’s in its first year. When Oktoberfest is happening all over I don’t see why someone would come from Charlotte for something that’s like everything else. Hop Fest is really differentiated compared to events that are being re-created all over the country.

Saunders acknowledged that he didn’t apply for incentives from the convention and visitors bureau before organizing the first Hop Fest, but he plans to do so in advance of next year’s event.

“Ryan’s going to have to create a plan,” Mabe said. “I’m not saying he doesn’t have a plan, but I have not seen such a plan. I know the boys from Tennessee; they’ve got one. If they don’t get the overnight visitors, they don’t get the assistance. The way you get assistance from any visitors bureau is you go to them with a plan. In the adult, grownup world, you have to have plans to show how you’re going to do something. Make a plan. ‘Here’s how we’re going to do it. Here’s who we’re going to bring in. Here’s the day visitors. Here’s the overnight visitors. There’s a way you can help visitors get packages with hotels. Why wouldn’t you want to book a room if you consumed a lot of beer?” David Armstrong, who owns the Brewer’s Kettle, a premium beer store in High Point, said the two festivals should be able to coexist and flourish in their own right. Many of Armstrong’s customers volunteered during Hop Fest, and he plans to work with the Great American Craft Beer Tour. He said Hop Fest is much more than a beer festival, while the Great American Craft Beer Tour has the potential to draw more visitors from outside High Point.

Crowe and his partners from Great American Craft Beer Tour visited the Brewer’s Kettle and told Armstrong they wanted to get in touch with Saunders to explore the possibility of joining forces, but Armstrong said he told them he thought the two festivals should remain separate.

“They never said they wanted to put anybody out of business or be the only game in town,” Armstrong said. “Ryan’s going to have no trouble whatsoever.”

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