Tuesday, April 2, 2013

A talk with AC beer fest's Jon Henderson

Simply put, it's a monster.

That's what founder Jon Henderson calls the beer festival he's staged annually at Atlantic City's convention center, located at the foot of the toll road that pours hordes of gamblers and conventioneers into the city every year. 

With a boardwalk-like atmosphere that's candy for the senses, the festival looms big, not just in size, but on the calendar, too: Like a cherished holiday, you know it's coming; you get ready. 

And like the ocean that faithfully meets the shore just a few blocks east, the festival rolls in like a tide, with waves of beer fans, whose enthusiasm for craft beer can't be dammed, and an energy that spreads in a lot of directions (i.e. there's 2013 AC Beer Week, April 5-13, and a spinoff festival planned for mid-June in Scranton, Pa.).

It's big. 

Attendance has jumped nearly more than sevenfold since the inaugural year's draw; the floor space needed to stage the fest has swollen more than tenfold. It's one of those events that before the roar of the closing night fades, plans for the next year are under way.

And it's back.

Undeniably the marquee beer festival in New Jersey and arguably one of the biggest on the East Coast, Celebration of the Suds returns to the Atlantic City Convention Center for an eighth year with a trio of sessions spread over Friday and Saturday. The fest promises to unite craft beer fans with their favorite beers and introduce some new brews to the regional beer scene.

First year glass
'95 promo glass; event  wasn't held
Fresh from a business trip to Chicago early last month, Jon took some time to talk with Beer-Stained Letter about the festival's origins and its inaugural event in 2006 (the only year for glass souvenir samplers, and held 11 years after the planned-but-never-held AC Racetrack fest*). Jon also discussed where the event stands today.

BSL: Trace the history of the Atlantic City beer festival, the Celebration of the Suds ... This event goes back to before the current hot streak that craft beer has been enjoying. Back then in New Jersey all we really had was the craft brewers guild festival each June and outside, there was notably TAP New York and Split Rock. So New Jersey presented itself with an opening ...

JH: I attended some of those festivals – and I'm not belittling anyone – but I wasn't really impressed by how they were done. It was more like a cattle call ... Our goal was to be a little more interactive than a lot of the other festivals that were out there, instead of just come to a table and sip some beer, and go beer, beer, beer, beer. We wanted to have more of an experience. Seeing what everyone else was doing, I really thought there was a better way to do it.

BSL: What things did you bring to differentiate your festival?
JH: Part of it was, we didn't want to do an event that was distributor-driven. We wanted the breweries to have a complete buy-in, a say in what they were bringing. 

That was one part. The other component was the food and the entertainment. A lot of it (on the festival circuit) was a few concessionaires that really didn't do any pairings ... there wasn't a huge seminar component at the time, and nobody really educating about beer and how beers were made. So that was another thing we added. We said 'OK, let's create a format for education, an absolute format for discovery.'

BSL: What was that first-year attendance like?
JH: It kind of worked out well. Our first year, I think we saw about 3,800 attendees.

Outside 2007 fest 
BSL: What was it like to even get to that first year? It seems like your festival cleared a trail for future festivals in New Jersey. 
JH: We set the road for craft beer festivals, for beer festivals, to go in the state of New Jersey. If you noticed, the next beer festival that popped up didn't happen for three years after we'd been running our show. I think people thought, 'Hey, this is a great revenue opportunity.' ... Unfortunately, most of them still aren't done right. I'll be very candid and very open about that. 

Sorry, I'm getting off topic ... Paving the way, that's what we're on ... We spent some time with the ABC (state Division of Alcoholic Beverage Control), talked to a lot of breweries, and (reviewed) beverage law as it applies to New Jersey in the year that it took to plan it ... we had one-on-one outreach with the all the breweries. Instead of having a conversation with the distributor, we'd have the conversation with the brewery first, and ask, 'Hey, what would you like to see?' 

We really spent a year getting to know our advertising plan, the breweries themselves, feeling out what kind of experience we can create in Atlantic City. And Atlantic City, it's a huge opportunity for an event like this because we've got so many hotel rooms and transportation options. It was absolutely an opportunity to do this festival, but to also promote how responsible this festival could be done, you know, with the hotels and transportation options and things like that. 

It was really a lot of due diligence: getting to know our brand, getting to know our market, getting to know the customer that we're talking to, and what outlet do we utilize to get our message across. 

Birnam Wood from 2007
BSL: What were some of the challenges in terms of drawing crowds? Because 2006 versus now, even in such a short time frame, we're actually talking about two distinct time periods: When craft beer was growing but still had novelty. But over the past four years, there's this beer awareness; craft beer is exponentially hotter now than back in 2006. 
JH: We've been told this several times by distributors and local retailers, that our festival is very responsible for some of the boom in craft beer in our region. Because we've been doing it for a while, to the point now where we're 24,000 attendees.

Some of the challenges were really in marketing, finding who's that customer that we want to talk to. In our first couple of years we had targeted specifically not the general public, but more of a beer geek, really chased that beer geek following, listened to what that beer geek had to say ... Once that beer geek puts their two cents in, that allows us to educate the general public a little better. 

Taster cup from 2007
BSL: Let's talk about your festival space for a minute. What did you start with and where are you with it now?
JH: We started off with just 30,000 square feet. We are now at 380,000. 

BSL: Quite a jump ...
JH: Yeah, the festival is a monster. It's a million-dollar project. It's funny, I hear people say 'You must make a fortune off these beer festivals.' It's not actually the case. If you look at what goes into these things, our festival costs a little over a million dollars to produce. A lot of these other festivals across the country, if they put $50,000 or $60,000 into their festivals, that's a lot. 

But you have to look at the growth, the growth in the craft beer industry. It's literally a mirror for our festival because of the time frame in which our festival started. Growth in the craft beer industry, growth in awareness has absolutely grown our festival. I think it kind of goes hand in hand. Our festival grows because people know they can come to Atlantic City and discover new beers. 

2011 sand sculpture
BSL: How have the beers that have been served changed since 2006? Is there a wider reach across the country in terms of breweries and styles of beer?
JH: Our floor (space) is sold out. We're completely sold out. We're at like 109 breweries. We've always kind of struggled with some of the international beers. We wanted to be essentially an American craft beer festival. But there's a lot of cool international beers, and we thought, 'You know, it's not a true beer festival unless we're celebrating every aspect ...' 

(But) growth has been tremendous ... we've got the majority of the New Jersey breweries participating, because they know this festival is a good launching point for awareness ... A lot of breweries will use our festival as a launch.

Blue Point at AC fest
BSL: Let's talk about distributors for a minute. How have you seen their craft beer portfolios change?
JH: Their portfolios have grown out of the need for a lot these craft breweries to find their way out in the market. There's a lot of great craft beer out there. The problem is, there's so many that distribution gets tough. The distributors, for the most part, have done a great job of making sure that a lot of the products that we're serving at the festival, that are launching at the festival, hit other areas of markets where somebody with (limited) distribution can't pull off. 

The distributors are absolutely an asset to our show. They can help their brands get set up. They offer support. In a lot of instances distributors even help the guys who are self-distributing get set up and make sure they're comfortable at the festival as well. 

BSL: Among the breweries at the festival, how many have direct representation, have staff at their stations, talking about their beers versus, say, having to rely on someone sent by the distribution company?
JH: Ninety-eight percent. It's a requirement for our festival. I don't want people coming in and pouring beer and not have stock in the company, not have passion for the beer. And that's not to say that some of the distributors don't have passion. But they're not getting a paycheck from the brewery, or they're not the people who are crafting the beer. There's something to be said about that, when they're conveying a message to those who are attending. Nobody's going to talk about how much they love their new IPA other than the people who are responsible for putting it in your mouth.

Boak app debuted at fest
BSL: At a local level, the beer-producing landscape of New Jersey has been reshaped over the past few years. From where you sit, how do you see it, what's been the game-changer?
JH: The change is in some of the laws. It's helped a lot of these guys open and get their ball rolling. What's great is, some of the breweries we have in the state are really creative (people); they're creating some really, really cool product and putting it out there. From our awards from last year (the festival each year has a beer judging), our people's choice award went to Boaks Beer, our best IPA choice was Cape May Brewing. Right out of the gate, there's two award winners from New Jersey. That says something about the quality of beer these guys are putting out.

BSL: Beer festivals can be initiations of sorts for people who are new to craft beer, and that can be a big selling point. With veterans of craft beer, though, it can take a little more to draw them in. How do you keep the event fresh and make it speak to both of those groups of beer enthusiasts?
JH: The trick is in the programming. We've always had a good response from the breweries, our marketing campaign, how we approach the festival, how we approach the beer, you know, some of the different nuances of the festival. At the end of the day, it comes down to programming and entertaining people as well as introducing them to craft beer.

Tuckahoe Brewing
What we do every year is we try to create something fresh. Last year, we started with two big headline (music) acts; we saw that worked well, so we brought three big headliners in this year. On top of that, we're doing multiple cooking demonstrations, cooking with beer; we're doing beer and cigar pairings ... we'll have a variety of seminars ... We're bringing in chocolate infused with beer ... just little bits and pieces that keep people active throughout the festival but have a beer theme. 

BSL: What about Atlantic City itself. Atlantic City has a history of being a bit of a sideshow town, diving horses and dancing tigers, and Miss America on the calmer side of things. It even has a reputation of being a bit of a bare-knuckle town. How much of Atlantic City's flavor is in the festival?
JH: The festival has become one of Atlantic City's biggest and premiere events. There's not another public event in Atlantic City that moves the volume of people throught the city, as well as hotel rooms ... What the festival has seen is a really cool merging of flavor, for a lack of a better term, all of our participating restaurants are Atlantic City-based restaurants ... The city itself has really, really embraced the festival and what it has to offer. 

Turtle Stone crew
If you look at Atlantic City, you know as far as a destination for a beer festival, you can get here by car, you can get by boat, you can get here by air ... by train as well. There are 11,000 hotel room options; you've got taxicabs and jitneys. Once you park your car in Atlantic City, you really don't have to get back in it until you're leaving on Sunday.

The festival has found its home in the Convention Center – there's really no other place big enough to host it – but it's also helped Atlantic City, and it was really the start of Atlantic City showing that lifestyle events are the wave of the future. 

BSL: Let's talk about the festival crowds for a minute. How have you seen the face of the crowds change, so to speak?
JH: I've seen the younger faces, the ones 22 to 28, being a smarter beer crowd. This is what they're growing up with. They're growing up with options, and options are a great thing. They're tasting and understanding what goes into this product a lot better than the guys who drank Pabst and Busch and Bud. 

2012 music
BSL: The younger beer enthusiasts have never had to surrender an allegiance to those old brands before getting into the craft beers. They're flavor-seekers.
JH: Correct. And now what they're doing is finding all beers, and they can relate to all these beers because they're cooler. There's some syngeries between the brands and their lifestyles. (Craft brewers)  have given people such broad options to taste. It's not, 'Do I want regular or light' anymore. Events like this really play to that crowd, because of the options and they're not afraid to experiment with new beers, whereas with my dad, you couldn't get him to try anything but Busch.

BSL: So for the Atlantic City beer festival, how big can this thing get?
JH: I could put 30,000 people in this event every year. But we don't. We try to keep our ticket sales to a normal number so everybody's drinking beer, not waiting long in line; everybody's really taking advantage of all the experiences that are there without being shoulder to shoulder, uncomfortable ...

Each one our sessions will see between 7,500 and 8,000 attendees. We want to make sure that everybody has plenty of elbow room and that it's social. We don't want them packed into the hall. As it is, we use most of the entire Atlantic City Convention Center. 

Scooter fun
We've kicked around adding the Sunday back to the portfolio of the festival. But it's exhausting. Keep in mind it's a brewery-driven event, not distributor. Our breweries are wiped out by Saturday night. You talk to some of the brewery (people), they'll tell you it's cool to serve beer for a couple of hours, but at the end of the day, you're doing sessions with 7,500 to 8,000 people and you're talking and talking and talking about the beer. It's exhausting. 
Jams from yesteryear

BSL: What other ways has the festival extended its reach?
JH:  This year we've launched a kind of beer week, really to extend craft beer and the enjoyment of craft beer and celebrating it throughout the course of the week.

*EDITORS NOTE: Promoters of a March 1995 Philadelphia beer festival, held at a now-gone convention site in University City, had planned to follow up with a festival at Atlantic City Race Course. Alas, for regulatory reasons, the event never got off the ground. The souvenir glasses from the Philly event promo'd the planned AC event.