by Kevin Revolinski
If you’ve been thinking wine tours are a good market for your company, take a look at the possibilities of craft beer. At the end of 2018, the Brewers Association counted 7,450 breweries and brewpubs in the U.S., showing a 13 percent growth from the year before. To put that in perspective, the number of brick-and-mortar (not virtual) wineries numbered about 7,200. And these craft beer fans are on the move: “Beercations” are a popular tourism angle, and beer-travel guidebooks and beer passports are all the rage. But the idea of road-tripping for alcohol comes with the obvious problem: Who’s going to drive?
A number of big markets such as Tampa, Denver and San Francisco are already seeing niche tour companies offering scheduled city tours with three or four brewery visits. But the abundance of new breweries means even a string of small towns down the highway can support a brewery bus route. Most breweries, from the Davids to the Goliaths [or from the giant to the nano], already offer some sort of tour, and sample flights are no longer just for wineries. You just need to get them there.
Who is going on these tours? Able Trek Tours, in the small town of Reedsburg, Wisconsin, reports that client ages primarily fall in the 30s to 50s. But according to Matt Wagner, vice president of operations at Beer Bus Brewing, a brewery with its own tour bus in Tampa, Florida, the age of a typical tour attendee falls in the 25-40 range—Millennials. And while the stereotype is that beer drinkers are predominantly men, he finds women account for about 40 percent of his business. Throw in two more Millennial points: More than half of adults ages 22-37 don’t think cars are worth the trouble, and they crave “experiences.”
How does one approach this market? Reaching clients may be as simple as listing brewery tours as an option on your website. Kobussen Buses near Green Bay, Wisconsin, runs several brewery-focused trips per year, often groups of 30 to 40 people heading 100 miles south to Milwaukee, and yet they’ve never marketed the brewery tour idea specifically. The idea is already out there. Groups call for brewery-focused birthday parties, corporate outings and even family trips. Says sales representative Carrie Prellwitz, “Our customers plan things, and we look over the itinerary, decide about times and hold their hands a little.”
Wendy Moll of Mecan River Brewing in Coloma, Wisconsin, approached Kobussen to run a tour for her small town clientele, visiting five breweries on a Saturday. She worked closely with Kobussen, and after a successful first tour with 56 passengers, she learned a couple things. Five stops were too many, given the distances. “Give yourself time at each place, at least 90 minutes. And don’t have too much time between breweries.”
For more than a decade now, the Madison Homebrewers & Tasters Guild has contracted Able Trek for an annual outing. From Madison they’ve traveled to St. Louis, Cleveland, the Twin Cities and parts of Michigan to seek out as many as six breweries per day over a three-day weekend. The organization creates a specific itinerary and makes the contacts with each location so that Able Trek only has to handle the driving. For the overnight stays, the group pays for the driver’s hotel. This is something most of the small niche services don’t typically offer.
When Don Douglas, the owner of Able Trek, was asked about possible problems with all the drinking, he dismissed the notion. Craft beer lovers like to savor, not guzzle. “We are not a party bus kind of business; we guard against booking groups like that.” Able Trek does allow carry-ons (but not kegs) with only one caution: “We ask people to treat it like their living room.” As with normal tours, they require a security deposit. Most of the time, it is returned in full.
Market the option to corporate event planners, homebrewing clubs and beer social clubs, such as the nationwide chapters of the women-only Barley’s Angels. Able Trek Tours is hosting its own winery/brewery tour for the first time in 2019. Nothing more than their usual ads, mailing lists and social media posts have been sufficient to fill it.
Find the Right Breweries for Your Bus Tour
The Find a Brewery feature on CraftBeer.com, a site dedicated to supporting independent breweries, provides a searchable map of the entire USA, so you can get a good idea how many options you have in your market. Do your research: Some small brewers might not be able or willing to accommodate larger groups. Some charge for tours while others don’t, but most of them would love you to bring a busload of customers. Your bus tour might come with an all-inclusive price worked out between your company and the breweries, but some tour operators have found success keeping it simple by having tour-goers pay for beer and food as they go.