The Impact of COVID on Beer Tourism

By: Becky Garrison

As expected, brewery tours were among those hospitality offerings impacted by the ongoing global pandemic. While some experimented with online offerings, others simply closed shop or halted operations intermittently.

  For example, prior to COVID, Abil Bradshaw regularly gave tours of the Seattle-based Pike Brewing Company. Also, the brewery engaged Savor Seattle, a local tour provider, who gave tours daily. However, during COVID, Bradshaw moved to Spokane. Also, Savor Seattle ceased operations. While Pike remains understaffed and not in a position to offer tours, founder Charles Finkel can meet for a special tour at the brewery if given adequate notice. 

  Following are examples from a range of brewery tour operators regarding how they pivoted their operations during the past few years, as well as any plans they have for the future.

City Brew Tours, Portland, OR 

  At the end of 2019, City Brew Tours, a tour operator with operations in over 16 cities, had just taken over the operation of Brewvana Portland Brewery Tours. In this capacity, they operated the Original Portland Brew Tour and the Pacific Northwest is Best Tour, as well as private tours. Their Original Tour ran five hours long, visited four of their brewery affiliates and included a meal and beer pairing. The Pacific Northwest is Best tour is a shorter tour at  3 1/2 hours, with three stops and a craft beer pretzel snack.

  Like many other businesses in the hospitality industry, they stopped running their tours in March 2020 with no idea how long they would have to suspend operations. Also, they were unable to provide adequate employment for their beer guides and full-time staff. Chad Brodsky, the founder & CEO of CBT Group, LLC, reflects on this period of time. “There was no workaround and no safe solution to resume in-person tours during the worst of COVID-19. It took 15 months before we could slowly reopen brew tours in Portland, and even then, we had to take every precaution possible, including the limited number of guests, mask mandates, proof of vaccination and strict sanitation protocols.

  During the shuttering of their brew tours, they pivoted to virtual experiences under the brand Unboxed Experiences. Also, they repurposed Brewvana to be a beer lifestyle brand that offered a beer of the month club that explored a new beer city every month along with beer-making kits. This enabled them to bring their full-time staff back. Also, they were able to utilize some of their beer guides in leading online events, such as beer-making at home, beer and cheese pairings and ice cream float experiences.

  Since resuming operations in the summer of 2021, they’ve been able to reintroduce the two tours they were running before COVID-19. However, at times they had to temporarily suspend one or both of their Portland public tours due to the lingering issues brought about by the rise of COVID variants.

  According to Brodsky, staffing and finding reliable tour vans remain the biggest lingering challenges of COVID-19. He noted, “Our hiring process includes multiple steps and trial runs to ensure that new guides can safely lead a tour and are comfortable with the responsibility. The process takes time, and when potential hires decided it wasn’t for them, it would set us back and affect our ability to operate regular tour schedules. Plus, with a country-wide vehicle shortage, it took a long time to secure another passenger van to run more tours.”

Seattle Brewery Walking Tours, Seattle, WA

  Pre-COVID, Tim Lorang offered walking tours of breweries mostly in Seattle’s Ballard or Georgetown neighborhoods. These tours consisted of visiting three breweries for a guided beer tasting of four beers at each brewery. During this tour, he would talk about the beers and beer styles, along with the history of beers and focus on why Seattle was at the forefront of the craft brewing renaissance.

  Once COVID hit, he experienced a 69 percent reduction in his tours in 2020. Lorang experimented with designing webinars and making guides for beer tastings. However, he found this venture became problematic because he could not deliver beer samples to consumers, as he lacked the needed licenses required to send beer through the mail. Also, most breweries had a much more limited supply of beer on stock, and it proved tricky for him to come to a given brewery so he could film his segments. 

  In 2021, his numbers went up 340 percent from the previous year once breweries opened to the public. While Seattle was still not open to tourism, Lorang found that locals within the greater Seattle area booked his tours as they were desperate to go outside and socialize.

  As a number of breweries closed or changed hands, Lorang found he needed to reestablish a number of connections with breweries, hotel concierges, and other businesses that catered to the tourist trade, as many individuals were no longer working in the hospitality industry. Initially, he was limited to hosting tours outside with breweries, only allowing five people per table. Along those lines, the influx of customers wishing to explore the breweries, especially during the weekends, made it difficult at times to find space to host his tour group. During this time, proof of vaccination was a requirement to go on a tour.

  In reflecting on why he remains in business when so many other tour operators have closed shop, Lorang notes that one of the key reasons he survived is that he is a solo entrepreneur. “I don’t have a lot of overhead. I don’t have a van. I don’t have a lot of employees. I’m semi-retired. This is just a passion for me.”

Pedal Bike Tours, Portland, OR

  Since 2008, Pedal Bike Tours has combined two of Portland’s favorite activities by offering pub crawls on a bike. A typical three-hour bike tour would travel five miles and feature a tour of three breweries with a taster tray of six beers offered at each brewery. During the tour, the guide would talk about the history of the microbrewery movement in Portland.

  During COVID, they had no business in 2020, though they could resume business as usual in 2020 with only one of the breweries they frequented remaining closed. They gathered outside where there were no COVID requirements other than the occasional need to mask to go inside the brewery. Also, during this time period, they ceased doing scenic van tours in the Columbia Gorge area after losing their van. 

  At present, they are back to full operations. They do not plan on resuming van tours, choosing instead to focus on their cycling tours. Moving forward, they just added electric bikes, though the tours will not expand the distance they cover. At present, their biggest challenge remains the price of tours, as they had to raise their prices due to the cost of beer.

BeerQuest Walking Tours, Portland, OR

  Pre COVID, they offered a brewery tour and haunted pub tour and would average five to seven public tours a week. In addition, they offered private corporate tours. Once COVID hit, their sales were down by 80 percent. They had to shut down their brewery tour altogether after two of their partners went out of business. Also, those partners who remained open reduced their hours and days of operations. 

  Since COVID hit, their private tour business with corporate clients remains non-existent. Also, they struggle to find employees and remain low-staffed. At present, they offer three or four public tours per week. In particular, they could offer a lower-priced shorter version of their haunted pub tour, which appears to work better for their customers. 

Santa Rosa Beer Passport, Santa Rosa, CA

  In 2016, Visit Santa Rosa created the Santa Rosa Beer Passport as a way to explore and celebrate the world-class craft beer scene in Santa Rosa. While Sonoma County is best known for producing world-class wine, a band of brewery brothers and sisters began pioneering the production of artfully crafted local beers. As a result, this city evolved into a mecca for microbrew maniacs.

  Based on the massive popularity of Russian River Brewing Company’s annual two-week February release of Pliny the Younger, Visit Santa Rosa launched FeBREWary. This venture was a way to promote Santa Rosa’s brewing heritage, showcase artisan producers in the craft beer industry, educate the greater public and unite those who make local beer with those who love it during an otherwise slow time for tourism in Santa Rosa.

  Participation in the self-directed Beer Passport program is simple. At their leisure, craft brew lovers can take their passports to each of the participating 14 breweries and receive a stamp. After collecting at least 11 brewery stamps during the entire month of FeBREWary, participants receive a custom-designed, commemorative oversized Santa Rosa Beer Passport bottle opener medal and lanyard.

  This model proved to be a low-cost way to introduce visitors to the local brewery scene and a tool to inform potential consumers of the changing developments.

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