What's the Matter With the Oregon Brewers Fest?

Each year, poly sci professor Jeff Dense runs the economic figures for the Oregon Brewers Festival (OBF). They're interesting metrics if you're in the tourism biz, but I haven't spent a lot of time studying them. But yesterday, Justin Kendall quoted Dense on a figure I hadn't seen and it is interesting:

Speaking to Brewbound, Dense said the number of unique visitors to this year’s festival dropped to about 49,000 versus 56,000 last year. He added that more local residents skipped this year’s festival and that the number of out-of-town visitors now accounts for about half of all attendees.

Two things catch my eye. First, the attendance drop is substantial. If memory serves, the OBF experienced pretty hot temperatures this year, which may be one cause. But Dense also reports that 2017 was the third year in a row that income declined. [In an email, Dense offers a correction: his study "focuses on the economic impactnot income of the event. This is not a trivial distinction.] This is not a healthy trendline. The second bit of interest--that the percentage out-of-towners continue to rise--also points to a change at the center of the fest. Thirty years ago, the OBF brought the country's breweries to Waterfront Park for locals to experience. Now it is increasingly an event aimed at non-locals who come to sample Oregon beers.

The OBF's response to this news is ... odd. (The OBF is a for-profit event owned and overseen by Art Larrance.) Seeing that the fest attracts fewer people, Larrance is responding by:

  • Eliminating one day. The start will be Thursday in 2018 instead of Wednesday;
  • Cutting the number of breweries in attendance;
  • Getting rid of the rare beer/foreign breweries tent;
  • Shrinking the mug size from 14 to 12 ounces;
  • Reducing the amount of sample pours by an ounce; and effectively
  • Raising the price on both sample pours.

Dense blames fest saturation for driving down attendance at the OBF. That may be one cause, although summer has for many years been festooned with festivals. It may partly just be cyclical--big, perennial events suffer peaks and valleys in attendance and interest. But there may be some more profound problems, and cutting choice seems like a bad way to address them.

The OBF is by nature a giant, amorphous beast that people attend partly for the beer, partly for the party, and partly for the ritual. For decades, that formula has been working fine. But perhaps Art and his team need to do a bit of soul-searching. In the distant past, people went to fests because choice was a problem--one neatly addressed by collecting breweries together. But the greatest challenge for consumers right now is cutting through the overwhelming variety. Consumers want clarity, curation, direction; "amorphous beast" is not a good look for 2017.

No one really knows how Art goes about deciding which breweries will be invited, and he doesn't concern himself with curating the beers on offer. Maybe it's time he did. Arranging breweries by style or location, making sure the fest bristles with buzz beers, and using the architecture of the fest to funnel people to the beers and breweries that they want--these things may draw people back in. These choices probably need to be made in light of the shifting attendance patterns. In any case, cutting choice and raising prices may be a decent short-term fix for the budget, but it will only erode interest.

The OBF will never stop being the kegger by the river, and that's fine. But it seems that it's no longer adequate to only be the kegger by the river.

Updates. Jeff Dense sent along some attendance figures you might find illuminating. These are the number of wristbands distributed over the past three years:

2017: 70,140
2016: 86,500
2015: 74,041

When I asked how much the weather might influence these figures, he wrote, "I would postulate extremes in weather (90+ degrees or rain) adversely effect attendance. This is certainly borne out by analysis of day-by-day attendance figures for the last three years correlated with the above weather metric."

Also see Ezra Johnson-Greenough's comment below about the current structure of the OBF.

Cover photo: Timothy Horn

Jeff Alworth5 Comments