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Welcoming the World - The Government Pledges to Work With Industry to Promote Craft Beer Tourism in BC

Carlos Mendes

With the recent enactment of several amendments to the British Columbia Liquor Control and Licensing Act, the Province has taken an important first step towards implementing a number of the recommendations contained in the “BC Liquor Policy Review Final Report”.  While the Province continues to update the Act’s Regulations and prepare policy statements, it’s important to remember that not all of the Report’s recommendations will require legislative or policy changes before they can be put in place.  The government’s pledge to promote craft beer tourism is one notable example.

Recommendation # 24 of the Report provides that,  “Government should work with industry and tourism associations to develop promotional materials such as maps, apps and brochures on B.C. wineries, breweries and distilleries.” Like many industry observers and advocates, I was really pleased to see this recommendation in the Report.  The current disparity between the infrastructure that supports wine tourism in our province and the limited tools available to promote craft beer tourism is pretty significant, so any efforts by government to close this gap are definitely welcome.  As Don Farion, part owner of Vancouver’s BierCraft restaurants and Bomber Brewing recently told me, “Government at every level is perhaps the most important player in the growth of beer tourism. If provincial and municipal governments begin to see the possibilities and get behind the breweries with support and incentives, then the possibilities are endless.”

The inclusion of Recommendation # 24 in the Report also provides further evidence that the Province is finally beginning to notice the huge economic benefits that BC’s craft brewers bring to the provincial economy.  Indeed, the role that breweries play in driving economic growth was a key message that Ken Beattie, Executive Director of the BC Craft Brewers Guild, brought with him when he and his team met with John Yap, Parliamentary Secretary to the Attorney General and Minister of Justice, during the liquor policy review process last fall.  Along with a number of other recommendations in the Report that could really benefit BC’s craft beer industry and its customers, Recommendation # 24 was originally proposed by the Guild, the industry organization which represents many of the province’s craft brewers.  As Beattie recently told me, “We, along with other industry stakeholders, met with Mr. Yap as part of the liquor [policy] review in September and presented our position on a number of key points that our membership felt needed [to be] addressed in the review. One of our key messages was the role that the BC craft brewing community plays in 34 communities in every corner of our province. The jobs created directly in these communities by a brewery opening have a tremendously positive effect in terms of job creation, spinoff industries and plain old community pride. The fact that this growth has really occurred on its own with no formal support makes the opportunities all the more exciting.”

Indeed, much like the growth of BC’s craft beer industry, despite a lack of government support or the availability of key tools like maps and brochures, the number of tourists visiting our province’s brewery lounges, tasting rooms and tap houses has really exploded over the last few years.  For Anthony Frustagli, part owner of Vancouver’s Parallel 49 Brewing Company and St. Augustine’s Craft Brew House & Kitchen, the steady increase in the number of tourists visiting his establishments has been really noticeable.  “It is definitely a regular occurrence now, and one that is becoming much more frequent” he told me. “The growth is especially evident when we analyze interactions through social media.  When we first opened up, everyone who checked in through the various social [media] sites was local.  Now we regularly see posts and ‘check-ins’ from people from all over Canada and the US, as well as a few from Europeans and South Americans.” The trend has also been noted by Farion in his restaurants and his brewery, which opened earlier this year and has been working hard to keep up with huge demand.  

However, despite the recent gains that craft beer tourism has experienced in our province, there’s still some pretty significant opportunity for improvement.  “Right now it is a fledgling industry which has developed organically without any marketing or formal organizational help,” noted Frustagli,  “There is HUGE potential for growth as evidenced by our Cascadian neighbours down south, especially Portland.” Beattie agrees, and similarly sees Portland as the example for BC’s craft brewers and tourism authorities to emulate, “The obvious example is the success Oregon has realized over the last 25 years, where the beer tourism industry is estimated to contribute over 2.2 billion dollars in revenues annually.  We have an abundance of opportunity to work with tourism boards to create more effective awareness programs. I believe all the [current available] information comes from bloggers and beer enthusiasts who have taken on the cause as a result of their passion for the BC craft brewing community”.  

Few people would have a better sense of the adequacy of the tools and awareness programs available to promote craft beer tourism in BC than Shelley Hayashi.  The National Secretary of Les Clefs d’Or Canada  (the hotel concierge society of Canada) and a concierge at the Pan Pacific hotel in Vancouver, Shelley is extremely active in the local hospitality sector and her opinions on Vancouver’s attractions are highly sought after, both by her hotel’s guests and by her numerous social media followers.   As she noted during our chat, “Craft beer tourism is definitely gaining popularity and we have been getting more and more enquiries from guests on where to go for great locally brewed beer.  We can certainly find our answers from the Internet, but it would be helpful to be able to access all the most current and accurate information on craft beer in one spot, via print or digital media.  For the visitors, I think they prefer to have something to hold and keep, so a map or brochure might be better than an app or a link to a website.” In addition to formal tools like maps and brochures, Hayashi also thinks there are a lot of great opportunities for the industry to work with the tourism and hospitality sector to promote their facilities as tourist destinations: “A hands-on experience would be the best way for any concierge to learn about a new attraction or product.  Perhaps invite the concierges to visit a brewery, learn about the process of beer making, a seminar on the variety and types of local beer, a walking tour of the local craft beer breweries, etc.”  

The need for cooperation between the craft beer industry and the larger tourism and hospitality sector is a reoccurring theme that came up in my discussions.  “Currently, I think that craft beer tourism in Vancouver is in its infancy, much like the majority of the breweries” noted Farion. “I think that as the breweries and lounges mature, so will the tourism market. If we as a group: breweries, distilleries, pubs, restaurants and the government continue to work together, we can grow the market as large as we can imagine.” As BC’s Minister of State for Tourism and Small Business, North Vancouver-Lonsdale MLA Naomi Yamamoto recently told me, “Craft beer tourism is considered a niche market and one that is newly emerging in B.C. as a tourism driver.   It is a similar product to wine tourism, and culinary tourism - both of which have enjoyed great success in B.C. There is more work to be done by both government and the companies and associations that make up the craft brew sector so that we can continue to see it grow.  We think there is a natural fit between craft beer tourism and the many culinary and wine tourism campaigns that are already established in our province.   We expect that as the sector grows and matures that it will find further opportunities to partner with the culinary, wine and city-stay tourism experiences that are well established in the province.”  Although the Minister could not provide any specifics on the implementation of this initiative, she did draw my attention to some of the tools that the Province currently uses to promote craft beer tourism (such as HelloBC.com - which contains a few excellent articles by BC Craft Beer News’ own, Joe Wiebe).  

Like Minister Yamamoto, Ken Beattie also sees a lot of synergies between wine tourism and craft beer tourism, “Can you imagine the tourism potential and boost to the BC economy if the BC craft beer community and BC wineries co-promoted their businesses on equal footing in terms of a tourism infrastructure? The potential to have tourists visit one of 70 plus breweries and over 200 wineries in BC makes our province very attractive. The quality, innovation and creativity of the brewers and winemakers in BC is a story that needs to be told.”  

Like many in the industry, Beattie knows that for BC’s craft beer industry to continue its  impressive recent growth and market performance, the province’s craft brewers can’t lose sight of the thing that brought them all of their success in the first place: making great beer.  “No matter how far we have come in terms of impact in the BC beer market, when you look at the percentage of sales there is still ¾ of the population buying foreign owned beers in BC. This is the potential and the opportunity, and we are confident and focused on continuing to win over the beer drinkers of this province and the tourists with our quality, flavour and creativity.”  

Anthony Frustagli agrees, “I think the most important thing is for Vancouver breweries to continue to produce great beers.  All of the breweries that have opened in the past couple of years have, for the most part, been pumping out excellent, interesting, well-crafted beers in very diverse styles.  Existing breweries need to continue to capture market share, new breweries that will open need to maintain the quality bar that has been set, and everyone will need to push the envelope with their products. Growing and fostering craft beer tourism will help open up other markets to BC brewers.  When people visit the city and try the amazing beer we have to offer, they invariably want to find the beer in their local market when they get home. Having a base of dedicated fans in a new market is essential to success for craft breweries who don’t have the marketing budgets of the big boys, and having a strong craft beer tourism industry will most certainly help develop that.” 

It can be hard to pinpoint any single, determinative factor that has led to the impressive growth and associated economic benefits that craft beer tourism has experienced in cities like Portland and Denver.  Knowledgeable staff in the tourism and hospitality sectors equipped with the latest information and tools is clearly important, as is government support and a local industry committed to producing world-class products.  We all know what BC’s craft brewers are capable of, so I’m optimistic that with the continued momentum building around the Province’s liquor policy review and the lines of communication that it and other initiatives have opened, all of these key factors will soon start falling into place.  The benefits of increased craft beer tourism to the good people who make our beer and to the provincial economy are clear, and with every new brewery opening up across the province, the groundwork is being laid to make BC a craft beer tourism hotspot for many years to come.  

Find my article here on the cover of the July/August edition of BC Craft Beer News.