Americans are increasingly booking vacations to follow their love for craft beer, and some enterprising agents are exploring how to participate in the growing trend.
According to travel industry marketing and research firm MMGY, 33% of U.S. adults have participated in a "beverage-focused" vacation experience in the past 12 months, including 38% of Millennials and 33% of GenXers. And in a 2016 survey of more than 1,000 people, more than three-quarters of the respondents, told Travelocity they would like to go on a trip where they visited craft breweries and sampled local beer.
Agents like Irwin Shires, owner and travel consultant at Eagle-I Tours and Travel, in Medina, OH, are connecting with local brewers, craft beer clubs and other entities to consider how they can build a profitable business around grains and hops.
After attending a succession of craft beer conferences, Shires is now looking at producing his first brewery tour to Europe next year. He recently created a separate division of his agency "Craft Beer Journeys" to build and market these trips.
Shires has traveled to Asheville, NC, and England in the past six months to meet with local brewers and travel industry members engaged in beer tourism. He also joined the Ohio Craft Brewers Association so he can attend its quarterly meetings, meet potential "pied piper" tour guides, gain knowledge and do some early marketing to potential clients for his Spring 2018 launch.
"These clubs are great for forming relationships with potential clients, because you are discussing their passion and sharing knowledge about different brews," Shires said.
One Australian contact has been talking with Shires about partnering on beer tourism trips to U.S. breweries for his Australian clients.
Agents also can find potential clients by following beer aficionado groups online. "There are so many Twitter accounts that focus on craft beer, and have a fair amount of followers," said Lynn Fuhler, a former tourism director and author of the Secrets to Successful Events: How to Organize, Promote and Manage Exceptional Events and Festivals.
Agents also should follow craft beer bloggers and research state craft beer guilds, Fuhler said, and consider creating group trips to one of the 900 U.S. craft beer festivals held each year.
Western states are popular for beer tourists
According to a 2016 report produced by Travelocity and the Brewers Association, the top U.S. destinations to visit are in the West and Northwest. The number-one large metropolitan area was the Portland-Vancouver-Beaverton region in Oregon and Washington State, followed by Denver-Aurora, CO, and Seattle-Tacoma-Bellevue, WA.
Among smaller metro areas, Bend, OR, Boulder, CO and Fort Collins-Loveland, CO, were rated highest.
Beer tourism has made enough of an impact to the Tacoma, WA, economy, that two years ago the city began partnering with local breweries to create the South Sound Craft Crawl passport program.
"We kept hearing over and over from visitors about how craft beer played into their experience here, so it made sense to package it into an experience that encourages visitors to try more than one brewery while they're here," said Matt Wakefield, spokesman for the Travel Tacoma + Pierce County tourism office in Tacoma, WA.
The program has grown from 15 to 21 participating breweries, Wakefield said, "and we can't keep brochures in stock. It's one of our most requested materials."
Fuhler thinks destinations like Spokane, Tacoma and Bend are perfect for agents to build programs because they are less traveled to, and will appeal to beer aficionados who consider themselves trailblazers and want to be in the know with lesser known breweries.
"Craft beer trailblazers want to find things before everyone else does. They will be open to exploring and experiencing destinations that others haven't visited yet," she said.
The niche does pose risks
Of course, wherever alcohol is involved, risk follows. Agents like Shires say that developing programs for beer tourism requires good legal advice, and written waivers from participants. If a guest becomes intoxicated and either hurts themselves or others while on a trip, agents need to be protected.
In addition, agents don't want to bring guests who will sour relationships with the breweries through poor behavior. "You definitely run the risk of alienating yourself from the brewers," Shires said. "We have to protect ourselves. Our relationship with our brewers is the core of our product."
Shires believes that offering more expensive, high-end trips will help his business attract more mature, higher-spending clients looking to taste beer. "An investment of $3,500, versus a beer bus at $35, should help weed out potential issues," he said. "You want a client who really wants to be educated."
Destinations recognize the liability as well. For example, Tacoma promotes the city's light rail train and trolleys for transportation between breweries participating in the South Sound Craft Crawl passport program, to avoid drinking and driving.