In 2011, a little-known event was scheduled in downtown St. Cloud, MN, called the St. Cloud Craft Beer Expo. Held at Rivers Edge Convention Center, the event featured 40 different breweries and was met with such a massive response organizers had to turn away nearly 500 patrons at the door. A move that could have proved bad for business had the opposite effect and thus the Craft Beer Tour was born, a brand with a cult-like following now six events strong across the state of Minnesota.
Just the Beginning
In 2011, craft beer's star was just beginning to rise. At that time, Minnesota was already home to some well-known and well-established breweries bearing the names of Summit Brewing, August Schell Brewing Company, Lake Superior Brewing Company, and Surly. An article was published in the New York Times called "A Midwest Beer Tour to Cure the Winter Blues" on February 4th, 2011, just weeks after the inaugural Craft Beer Tour debuted in St. Cloud.
That article showed the rest of the country what Minnesotans and Midwesterners already knew: something special was brewing — literally — within our borders, and a quiet craft resurgence was about to happen. Leighton Events would be an instrumental part of that reawakening, introducing thousands and thousands of people to the power of a well-designed event celebrating all things craft.
Craft Beer Tour Brand
Cole Erie is the Beverage Events Director at Leighton Events. As a self-proclaimed hop head, Cole's love and appreciation for craft beer, the independent breweries, and fanatic community of support behind the movement are all things that make his job one that most would kill to have.
In 2014, Leighton Events took ownership over the St. Cloud Craft Beer Expo and rebranded it as Craft Beer Tour, or CBT with former Leighton Events director Christian Medford at the helm. At the time, St. Cloud was the event's sole location and single event but Cole and others behind the effort knew growth was imminent and looked at the brand for its potential as a whole. Craft Beer Tour alluded to the fact that there would be more to the experience than a solo city; fans would just need to wait to experience the CBT goodness in different areas of the state.
The idea was to establish St. Cloud as CBT's home and spend time developing the event into a powerhouse after a few years of iterating on every aspect of it from booking exhibitors to partnering with sponsors and perfecting the layout and organization of the event layout. Cole was building a machine.
He worked tirelessly on creating an event that could easily be replicated in other markets. That way, he and his team at Leighton Events could "plug and play", knowing all aspects of Craft Beer Tour inside and out down to the tiniest of details, like the breweries' nuances for booth setup to the positioning of garbage cans and water stations.
His work paid off. In 2019, Craft Beer Tour will grace six separate markets and is indeed a tour of its own with just as many fans loyal to the brand as individual breweries boast. It's become a well-known event and a continual advocate for the state of craft in Minnesota, North Dakota, and Wisconsin.
The Craft Beer Tour schedule includes:
- St. Cloud in January
- Fergus Falls in March
- Winona in June
- Detroit Lakes in August
- St. Cloud Craft Beer + Ciderfest in September
- Grand Forks, ND, in September
Marketing the Machine
It's taken years for Cole's machine to operate the way it does today; it's also taken a killer, intensive marketing strategy to necessitate its growth and success in infiltrating other markets.
He said, "It is definitely not something that happened overnight. Moving into a brand new market, at first event marketing can feel transactional. The main goal is to sell tickets and secondary, getting the community on that learning curve of who we are and what we do at our events. After about year two, the event becomes well established within the community and it becomes more of a must-do or an event where people come from out of town specifically to come back to this place and attend this event.
After year two, the event becomes more established and it definitely gets that more of a town festival feel or a must-do event. We see people marking this on their calendar a full year out, people coming from out of town to come to this event. This is when it switches from transactional to more relational and the branding aspect of just continuing to do what we've already shown the community we can do."
Event Marketing Strategy
Cole continued, "We have a marketing strategy that we follow for all our events. Primarily we use two advertising mediums: radio advertising and Facebook marketing."
In the second half of 2018, one of the Leighton Events team goals was accomplished: redesigning the Craft Beer Tour website and re-branding the events to all have a cohesive look and feel to foster continuity and brand recognition in the marketplace.
Erie said, "When these events really started to explode, we found that it was going to be a magnitude of work to run multiple websites and multiple Facebook pages. We then decided to go ahead and make the shift to craftbeertours.com, the consolidated website. Then, we also decided to do the same with our Facebook Pages. Instead of having a different Facebook Page for each event, we thought it would be better for the brand, Craft Beer Tours and also for our attendees to have one Facebook Page. This way, they wouldn't have to like multiple Facebook Pages and could see that our event was more than just one event in their area, that they were happening throughout the year, and all across the state."
Cole continued, "I'm really excited about the launch of our brand new website craftbeertours.com. This has been a really great way to show brand continuity across all six of our different events on one landing page, and you'll see that all of our logos have a very similar look and feel, and also are secondary branding elements.
The look and the feel of the program, the posters, the banners at the event — you'll see that we use certain elements like hop cones, a little fist-the-taster mug, in all different markets where we do the Craft Beer Tours. After you've been to just even two events, you'll clearly see these are put on by the same company, and that there is continuity throughout."
Utilizing Radio for Event Marketing
Craft beer is something for everyone; the industry is vast and caters to a wide-range of people. Cole summed it up best as a tribe of people. "We're marketing to more or less a tribe of people. It's not necessarily a zeroed-in demographic of men or women or a very particular age group. We found that the craft beer drinker is someone who enjoys trying new things, experiencing new places, and traveling. We see men and women aged 21 all the way to 70 years plus at our events. It is a tribe of craft beer drinkers rather than a certain demographic."
Knowing that to be true, how does Craft Beer Tour market itself and reach that tribe, that broad demographic? By reaching people where they are: radio.
Cole explained, "The primary marketing mediums that we use to promote the Craft Beer Tours is traditional AM/FM radio and Facebook marketing. We run an eight-week campaign leading up to each event on the radio, and we also do boosted Facebook ads, starting at about that same eight to 10 weeks out. We promote different sponsors and different swag elements and highlight different areas of the events throughout our marketing campaign leading up to the event. We say a lot of similar things across the different mediums, so you can hear the same message coming both through the Facebook Page, through the radio ads, and in certain circumstances on our Instagram page or possibly a billboard."
Humanizing the Craft Beer Tour Brand
Erie continued, "It's important to talk to your customer from multiple different advertising mediums and have a cohesive brand across all. It creates an extremely effective, multi-medium advertising strategy.
Effective marketing takes touching all of your potential attendees or customers, on the different avenues they use every day. For us, that's your local DJs talking to listeners and doing Craft Beer Tour ticket giveaways in the morning. Historically, radio station on-air promotions were the evolution of how CBT events partnered with radio. Now in all of our markets, we have radio station ticket giveaways leading up to each event. It's one of the ways the radio stations can tie home that our company, Leighton Broadcasting/Leighton Events, is the machine behind the upcoming party we are throwing. It becomes a full circle marketing strategy by not only doing promotions leading up to the event, with the on-air ticket giveaways, but also having the radio stations doing live remotes on site at the actual events as well."
Hype, Hops, & Headliners
Radio and social media marketing has been absolutely instrumental in developing the Craft Beer Tour brand into what it is today. Those mediums have proved invaluable for generating awareness, promoting buzz, and maintaining a loyal fan base as CBT has expanded across markets. But anyone who promotes or organizes annual events knows it's not enough. Awareness isn't the same as delight and the two strategies are different when it comes to reaching a customer or attendee and keeping them engaged in a lifetime cycle.
Cole shared his strategy for engagement. "One of my favorite aspects of our marketing strategy is that leading up to the event, we always partner with the local independent breweries from the most immediate area of the event venue. We ask them to record a video to invite their followers to come see them at our event. Lately, as these events continue to grow and get bigger, the video invites have started to inolve more creative aspects and become more elaborate with the people, props, vehicles and more. In 2019 at the St. Cloud Craft Beer Tour, we had a really fun series of video invites between our local breweries in St. Cloud, Beaver Island Brewing Company and Bad Habit Brewing Company."
Other fan engagement methods include:
- Untapped app — uploading the Craft Beer Tour beer menu and promoting the event ... the app has over eight million users
- Snapchat — creating custom CBT filters and partnering with local businesses to include a co-branding effect
- Live video — ticket giveaways, prize packages, and brewery insider info
Proving Marketing ROI
Craft Beer Tour is a business and company just like anything else and growth and revenue and proving ROI is a part of Cole's vernacular just as it is other radio clients. Besides the obvious growth of CBT, how else is he measuring success and monitoring brand effectiveness?
He said, "How do you measure success? It's a great question and there are many ways to do so. The easiest is probably to look at the gross revenue year over year, number of attendees, and number of tickets sold year over year. We comparing these with a lazer focus on what we changed in our marketing strategy. If we're keeping a similar marketing strategy, which we do every year for the radio and Facebook campaign, we are always continuously improving."
a One-Day party
There's more than the bottom line when measuring the success of CBT. After all, there's beer and good times involved in Cole's brand.
He added, "The other way to measure success is by the looks on people's faces — and one joking thing that I like to say is that we show up in these towns and throw a one-day party. It's pretty amazing that these events are the magnitude that they are. It takes a lot of facilitation to get all of these breweries at the same place, at the same time, for this relatively short event (each CBT is only four hours long.) It's pretty amazing to see all of those months and weeks of marketing pay off and come to fruition with all the attendees showing up at the event."
As Cole said, the success of Craft Beer Tour wasn't an overnight phenomenon. Many of our Leighton Broadcasting clients mistakenly think if they "turn on" a new valve of advertising or branding on behalf of their companies, they'll reap instant rewards. Few things in life are that spontaneous, but what radio as part of a multi-advertising platform approach does for brands is plant the seed or light the ember. It takes time to build great things — it always does.
Minnesota's craft beer industry knows that to be all too true. Before prohibition, there were nearly 300 active breweries in the state. The industry was all but eradicated in the U.S., having just 89 breweries and brewpubs in operation 40 years ago. Today, the U.S. boasts more than 7,000 independent breweries across the country, with 170 at home in Minnesota.
Come see a few of them at the Craft Beer Tour in your corner of the state.