Moving inside Spokane Veterans Memorial Arena helped Brewfest climb into the black. (Courtesy Spokane Brewfest)

There is certainly money to be made by creating events in-house like the Spokane Brewfest or Wichita’s Wingapalooza.

And there are certainly pitfalls.

Keys to success include finding sponsors to cover all the costs from the get-go, being realistic with your expectations, and knowing your contracts and your community.

Reasons to even consider this added work and stress include driving traffic, meeting benchmarks, keeping sponsors happy and staff employed, serving a need in the community and, first and foremost, making money.

The Spokane Brewfest didn’t achieve the last goal until year three, according to Becca Watters, assistant general manager at Spokane Veterans Memorial Arena, who fortunately had been given three years by the board to make it a go. The event, which morphed into a one-day indoor event tied to a nonprofit, netted about $30,000 after this year’s edition Aug. 4. “This is moving in the right direction,” Watters said.

And that was accomplished without sponsors, which will be on board next year, and without a seller’s tent, which will also be new in 2019.

Wingapalooza at Intrust Bank Arena in Wichita, Kan., made about $20,000 in 2015, its first year. That grew to $40,000 in 2018, said Chris Kibler, assistant GM and director of finance for SMG at that venue. Her secret to success is sponsors who cover all costs going in.

At Verizon Arena in North Little Rock, Ark., Wingstock has made $15,000-$20,000 annually from year one, but Jared Willard, director of finance there, had more to say about creating space than creating content, having converted existing space at the 20-year-old arena into a Vibe Room lounge concept that brings about $100,000 annually to the arena (see story, Page 26).

All three spoke about their entrepreneurial spirit during IAVM’s VenueConnect in Toronto in July and during follow-up interviews with VenuesNow.

In Spokane, there had never been a true brewers’ festival, “even though we live in the beer capital of the world, I feel, here in the Northwest,” Watters said.

During planning, they looked to the experts, including Greg Flakus of GF Strategies, who was a consultant the first year. He hooked them up with the Oregon Brewers Festival, the largest craft beer festival in the country, which draws 80,000 people over a five-day period.

The first two years, the event was in the parking lot and the cost of the production included tents and fans, tables and chairs, plus electrical and labor, Watters remembered. 

Attendance over two days was 5,500 in 2016, the inaugural year, which featured a free gate. “Anyone was welcome, but if you wanted to drink beer you had to pay to get the mug and the tokens,” Watters said. “We had a great talent lineup, a great festival experience.”
But it did not make a profit.

In 2017, they were hit by “one of our worst smoke days in our history,” she continued.  The event drew 2,500 people in two days.

On the plus side, they brought in a nonprofit group, Wishing Star Foundation, which allowed them to do many things one cannot do as a for-profit producer.

Concessionaire Centerplate’s contract allows the arena to host a certain number of events without using the concessionaire. “Know your contract with your food providers,” Watters advised.

“We have a longstanding relationship with Centerplate. They are big believers in this event,” Watters said. “The first year, they had their own food stands, but allowed us to bring in food trucks. This year, they only helped us with things like ordering ice.”

The big break came with moving the festival indoors.  That cut out the expense of bringing in “porta johns, tents, tables, pipe and drape, all of that,” Watters said. Being able to focus on the cool experience, lighting the building, using the assets like electricity and restrooms that already existed, and even bringing the food trucks into the arena, changed everything.

“One of the perks we marketed heavily, because August is such a hot month, was air conditioning — beat the heat,” Watters said.

It also became a one-day event, a pattern they will continue in 2019. Next year will also feature sponsors and a sellers’ tent, where attendees are able to buy the product they’ve tasted. Profits will be split with the brewers.

Attendance this year totaled 2,300, all paid. “You had to have a ticket to come into the building — $30 at the door and $25 in advance. Designated-driver tickets  were $5,” Watters said. The price of admission got you a pint glass, 13 tasting tokens (2 ounces each), and access to the bands. Food truck fare was extra. Additional tasting tokens were $1 each. The arena controls all the cash.

Both Watters and Kibler emphasized the need for additional activities. In Spokane, local bands were booked through a local media and lifestyle outlet, The Inlander, which does its own festival each year. The Inlander was a sponsor of sorts, arranging for all the bands and branding the staging. Two stages cost the arena about $3,500.

Spokane also changed its marketing strategy in 2018. For the first two years, it was a mix of digital and traditional advertising and the spend was about $12,000 each year. This year, everything was online with a focus on video, at a cost of $7,000. “We went to brewers who would be at the festival and filmed one-minute video features of each,” Watters said. “We focused on interactive content to get people excited. It worked well.”

Beer was the biggest expense at Brewfest. The arena opens up a registration link in the spring to register to be a part of Brewfest. Participation was limited to 30 brewers this year.

“We buy their beer — working with a nonprofit that’s required,” Watters said. The brewers  deliver the kegs the day before.

“If a keg ran out past 5 p.m., we did not open another keg. There were not many half or even unused barrels this year,” Watters said. The festival ran from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m.

The arena guarantees it will buy two kegs per brewer and asks them to bring a third just in case, based on the number of  ounces per keg and expected attendance numbers. Since most of the tickets were presold this year, it’s simple math.

Sponsorships can be a tricky prospect if you have a deal with a tenant team. That goes back to “know your contracts.” Watters said they will work with the sponsorship coordinators involved with their hockey team regarding next year’s festival.

Product is a major cost for Wingapalooza as well. Kibler remembered that “the first year, we absolutely didn’t want to run out, so we bought $25,000 worth (300 cases) of wings. We were eating wings for the rest of the year. But if you’re doing an all-you-can-eat event, you better not run out.”

The arena purchases the chicken wings, now limited to 15-18 cases, and distributes them to the restaurants to prepare, a process that can take up to three days. On the day of, they check to make sure all the wings come back to the building.

Wingapalooza is held on the arena floor and is limited to 2,000 people, but that increased in 2018 when they expanded into the loading dock area. Brewfest attendance is also capped, in both cases to make ensure a good guest experience.

Admission is $20, which earns purchasers all the wings they can eat.

Kibler said it has to be a good experience all around, requiring tables and chairs so attendees can sit and eat with friends, and multiple entertainment options such as DJs (preferred to live bands for the wings crowd of mostly guys who want good beer-drinking music) and cornhole boards.

“We learned after year one that without seating they came, ate, left,” Kibler said. “When we have the tables, they stay two or three hours, hang out and drink beer.”

The target audience is usually 21- to 45-year-old males and not a lot of kids. Kids are not going to eat $20 worth of wings.

Advertising is key to making sure you make money. Kibler worked with a $3,000 budget. The first two years, they used Groupon, but this year they opted not to and sold out in advance. “It’s important to have the restaurants advertise for you, as well, with a save-the-date approach,” Kibler said. Intrust Bank Arena provides the posters, fliers and table tents and lines up participating restaurants six months in advance so they can market the event. They also trade marketing for sponsorship with a local TV station.

Sponsors cover the cost of the event in total, so tickets and beer sales are profit, Kibler said. “If you don’t have sponsors, you won’t make any money.”

Their biggest score is the wing tray sponsor. The tray has a place for beer, cell phone and wings. Everyone who attends gets a box. “From time to time, we’d have a wing-eating contest, also sponsored,” Kibler said, finding firemen and sheriff’s officers are big hits for these contests.

SMG’s Savor is the arena concessionaire and has three booths at Wingapalooza. “It gives the chef bragging rights and gets the Savor name out there,” Kibler said.

Given the competitive market in which Wichita resides, with Oklahoma City, Tulsa and Kansas City arenas nearby, and because the number of attendees and events is a benchmark for SMG and the city, it behooves arena management to create content and drive traffic, Kibler said.

That’s why she created Wingapalooza and a dodgeball tournament, which also takes place in July.

“It’s to drive more traffic through content,” Kibler said. “We will do one more in the fall, a Taste of Wichita.”

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