The onset of COVID lockdown in 2020 was an immediate threat to the relevance of the beer world’s many annual events. However, as the brewing community settled into quarantine, craft beer community calendars like the one here at What’s Brewing soon sported a new crop of ‘virtual events’.
As an example of that trend, the BC Craft Brewers Guild is set to present their fourth BC Craft Brewers Conference in early February 2021, and they’ve also decided to go virtual. This prompts the question: how does a virtual conference work, and what’s behind the scenes? For this we had a word with Ken Beattie, Executive Director of the BC Craft Brewers Guild.
Q&A With Ken Beattie
Q. We understand that the 2020 event was moved to February 2021 for reasons that predated the coronavirus, having more to do with booking a new venue…and maybe finding a quiet time of year for your members. Can you tell us more about the original plan and venue for the 2021 event?
After the 2019 conference we knew we had to move our location as the building was scheduled for destruction. Therefore we began to look for a new venue that could offer us a muti-year location for our conference. Also, we are required under the Society act to hold an AGM within 6 months of our year-end, which is December 31st, so it made sense to find a time in the first quarter of 2021.
Our plan was to hold the conference in February in New Westminster at the Anvil Centre. At this moment we are discussing dates to hold the conference there in 2022 as it suits all we require.
Q. As 2020 progressed, it no doubt became clear that the pandemic would not be over by Spring 2021. However, you decided to keep the event going in a virtual format. Can you tell us what it was like to have to wrestle with that decision, and some of the factors in play.
Firstly, one has to acknowledge it is impossible to replicate the in-person experience members and suppliers enjoy at a live in-person event, and so this event will not be the same from a networking perspective. That being said, conferences are not only about sharing a beer and networking; the educational content and the supplier interactions are key elements that drive attendance as well.
We felt it is important to have the relevant material, delivered in an engaging way with opportunities for small group engagement, all available in a way that could be integrated into a productive work week.
The other challenge is to engage the suppliers with the attendees in a meaningful interaction that benefits both interests. Our goal is to align all the sessions by learning tracks, so that all technical training is done in one concentrated half-day period rather than spread out over the week.
We will set up breakout rooms with specific topics directly related to the session themes for the day. For example, one morning will be for brewer’s topics, allowing brewing staff to attend 1/2 day versus checking in throughout the week. Decision-makers will be exposed to the vendors directly related to their topic, and we hope this will encourage members to jump on for their half day.
Q. Are there any particular beer events that have helped you in planning the transition to virtual? Can you tell us a bit about the research behind this and the changes you’ve had to make.
We are working with our creative and social media service supplier, Victoria’s The Number Creative, to work through the process and deliver a virtual conference that will benefit members and suppliers year-round, not just four days in February. I have attended several US-based virtual conferences, as well as the Ontario Craft Brewers Conference, and viewed several different models. They were all somewhat standard in their format. I saw some things we will use and some we will definitely avoid.
We also conducted a focus group with some of last year’s sponsors from various sponsorship levels. After our presentation and their feedback, we reevaluated some elements and tweaked our plan. We feel we are now on the right track to deliver an impactful four days. We are also pleased with the feedback regarding our mandate to increase communication and build stronger relationships between members and suppliers throughout the year by increasing access.
Q. At this point, the calendar of events is still in the works for February’s conference. Can you tell us about some of the presenters and activities you’re working on?
We have identified five educational streams to deliver the content we feel our members will be most interested in hearing about: Brewing Technical, Brewing Logistics, Marketing, Sales/Operations and Finance/Accounting.
We have reached out to the Master Brewers Of Americas Association for help in identifying and arranging content. As well, our board is very active in recommending topics. We are also considering a short member survey to solicit feedback and suggestions.
Q. The craft beer industry was built on in-person experiences at tasting rooms and beer festivals. Your conference has always been a reason for the BC industry to meet together in one place. Do you have concerns that a portion of your membership and audience will overlook or reject a virtual event, and how will you explain the value of meeting this way?
Those concerns were priority number one, but we are all doing things differently compared to a year ago. These are unprecedented times. Though some people may be feeling Zoom fatigue, if we deliver excellent content, relationship-building opportunities and an element of fun through social networking, we are confident they will support this member benefit.
There are a lot of practical benefits to a virtual conference: the ability to fit into regular work, saving time and money on travel, as well as the opportunity to undertake focused and applicable learning without the discretions and limitations of a physical centre.
Q. Tickets are now on sale to the general public. Should someone who is not yet a Guild or industry member consider attending?
We are always happy to see interest shown by those who do not already work directly in the beer community. If you have a business or an idea for a business that is focussed on the beer industry, I suspect you will find value in attending!