When the wait for Great Taste tickets turns ugly

After an all-night wait for tickets, organizers have a lot to learn about planning a bigger event and keeping patrons safe.

After an all-night wait for tickets, organizers have a lot to learn about planning a bigger event and keeping patrons safe. (Photo by Kyle Nabilcy.)

Tickets for Great Taste of the Midwest, one of the premier beer festivals in the country, went on sale at noon this past Sunday, May 5. The question of when to line up for tickets depends on your level of commitment. You can take a chance to get a pair of tickets via a mail-in lottery system. If you want to be a bit more sure you’ll be at the festival in August, you can drive by the breweries that serve as ticket sales sites to see if joining a massive line will still net you a pair of tickets. But the only way to make attending the festival a sure thing is to wait overnight.

This year, the Madison Homebrewers and Tasters Guild (whose volunteer members organize the August festival) made the decision to consolidate the ticket venues for the Great Taste, eliminating smaller outlets in favor of six venues with larger ticket allotments. This allowed MHTG to work “with our partners to arrange for increased amenities,” the group said in announcing the change. The principal amenities in question were the ability to set up an overnight campsite earlier—as early as noon Saturday, in some cases—and encouragement to spend most of the wait in the taproom drinking beer from the host brewery until bar time. At bar time, would-be ticket buyers could retire to their tents to share a nightcap bottle with fellow campers.

My usual venue was one of the fallen this year, so our group decided to give Ale Asylum’s north-side brewery and taproom a shot. It was Ale Asylum’s first year hosting Great Taste ticket-seekers, and there were definitely quirks and glitches that the brewery will hopefully iron out in future years. But my experience made me wonder if the right conversations were taking place ahead of an event at this scale.

Ale Asylum elected to allow ticket-seekers to set up campsites at 8 p.m., and around 100 to 150 capitalized on the opportunity to hang out in the taproom—or to leave and return to their tents later that evening. The overnight wait went off mostly without incident, other than a few people blasting music late into the night.

Morning rolled around. Rather than issuing wristbands and telling those in line to stretch their legs, get some breakfast, and come back after they shook off sleeping on the asphalt all night, Ale Asylum had instead arranged to have food carts, beer, and a Bloody Mary bar available for purchase inside. You would not be issued a wristband until you re-queued up at their door, and for permitting reasons, were strongly encouraged not to leave the brewery once you were inside. (This policy was later softened as it proved impractical.)

All of these decisions created a hangover of Damocles. The brewery was strongly encouraging those interested in tickets to be on the property for a total of about 16 hours, and potentially consuming alcohol most of that time. The actual Great Taste runs for only five hours.

Ale Asylum served food and drinks in a cordoned-off space in the brewery from 8 to 11 a.m. At 11, MHTG volunteers took over. They marshaled the huddled masses back into a single line that stretched back outside, bunching up at the door (at this point, for how long people have waited, there’s a fair amount of anxiety about losing your place in line).

At noon, the line began to move. Slowly. Beer was still available for purchase next to the line, and ticket buyers were shepherded into the taproom. Up until this point, they were banned from the bar area, including the bathrooms. (But there were Porta-Potties. Amenities!)

Murphy’s Law kicks in

A young man who had been seated in the ticket line complaining of lightheadedness lost his balance, fell forward off his seat, smacked his face on the concrete, and started convulsing. The brewery staff and organizers on hand froze. His friends jumped to action, asking for a chair, water, any possible help. A ticket buyer with first-responder training emerged and started checking him for signs of seizure. The man and his friends stepped out of line so he could sit, take a breath, apply pressure to his bleeding nose, and rest while an ambulance was called.

I asked the Ale Asylum point person for the day—a longtime MHTG member—if someone could set aside tickets so the group could feel safe in escorting their friend to medical care. He demurred and said he was working on it.

What followed was an argument between MHTG volunteers running the ticket sales and Ale Asylum staff. Brewery staff tried to explain what was happening while MHTG volunteers claimed that it “wasn’t their problem” if a patron was passed out because he was drunk or intoxicated. The line, the lead MHTG volunteer strongly implied, had to keep moving at all costs.

The MHTG lead directed the group and their sick friend to join the back of the line to get tickets once the medical situation was resolved. I asked if that meant they’d have tickets held for them, since they’d been waiting all night. The organizer responded that MHTG volunteers were perfectly within their right to leave the group without tickets.

“Their guy literally had a seizure and fell face-first on the ground. We’re just trying to give them the benefit of having time to get shit taken care of,” said another attendee in line.

The MHTG lead was unmoved. He also added (and I didn’t capture this part in an audio recording I made of the incident) that it wasn’t his job to “take shit from you,” then impatiently shooed me toward the ticket counter.

Ultimately, the group was waved through (volunteers made each one of them buy their tickets immediately, before heading to the ambulance that was on its way) and Ale Asylum staff provided the group with some food and water to get the man’s blood sugar back up. One of the members of the group posted about the experience on Facebook.

“Big shout out to the people in line No 107-112ish for sticking up for us after our friend had a medical emergency in line and the homebrewers guild tried to deny us tickets for ‘getting out of line’ to get medical treatment for him,” wrote Leah Kutschke, one of the friends of the man who fainted. “Big thanks to you guys and gals for being really awesome and recognizing that human health is more important than beer line protocol!”

The Madison Homebrewers and Tasters Guild posted a statement about the event on the Great Taste Facebook page:

Kudos to our host Ale Asylum. There was a medical situation in their GT Ticket Line this today. Ale Asylum responded promptly and throughly [sic]. Their response was quick and heartfelt. We commend them for their caring actions.

Thank you as well for the patience of those waiting in line at Ale Asylum while the line experienced a delay. The patience and understanding while this situation was attended to is yet another example of folks well working together.

Incidentally, tickets were secured by all involved. We look forward to seeing everyone in August. Great Taste planning continues as we work towards making this year the best yet.

You can listen to our exchange and decide for yourself how heartfelt and compassionate the volunteers were being.

The injured man’s friend, Leah Kutschke, gave Ale Asylum’s staff credit for their handling of the situation, in a later Facebook thread on the Great Taste post:

I second kudos to Ale Asylum — their staff helped quickly and with compassion and care. We have less kind words for the ticket sale staff who were combative with patrons in line who were sticking up for our group after we had to leave the line, and who were much less understanding of the situation and created far more tension than there needed to be by implying the person who needed medical attention would be denied a ticket because he had to leave the line to be treated by paramedics.

This cannot have been the first time something like this has happened in a line, and if you are going to continue to encourage patrons to get in to line 16+ hours before ticket sales start (and encourage them to buy drinks with an extremely limited selection of food options and no free water available after 2am) there will undoubtedly be others who experience dehydration and low blood sugar to the point of losing consciousness as well. We ask that you evaluate your ticket sale/line up procedures to prioritize human safety and wellness.

The reality is sometimes—not every time—a worst-case scenario for a lengthy overnight drinking event will happen. “It’s not my problem” is not an acceptable response.

“They were shaken up and had the right to be upset.”

Hathaway Dilba, co-founder of Ale Asylum, told me on Monday she was able to speak to a member of the group after they’d made it through the line, and said they were generally happy with Ale Asylum’s response but were still upset by how MHTG volunteers had talked to them. “They were shaken up and had the right to be upset,” Dilba says.

That generally tracks with the group’s comments on Facebook about their experience.

Dilba says that all Ale Asylum staff receive training for medical emergencies that come up in their space, both on the brewery floor and in the tap room. That training includes basic first aid, giving the patron space, water, and food as needed, and calling for paramedics immediately. “We’d rather call and be safe,” said Dilba.

That said, in planning this year’s ticket distribution, there was no conversation between Ale Asylum staff and MHTG representatives about a contingency plan for medical emergencies. Ale Asylum runs the venue, amenities, and physical space, but MHTG volunteers handle the actual sale of tickets.

While Ale Asylum staff have clear training on what to do to care for patrons from their end, they don’t have the authority to alter the ticket sale themselves, including having tickets set aside for specific patrons, which seemed to result in the confusion at the time of the medical emergency.

“We let them take control of the situation,” Dilba says.

Madison Homebrewers and Tasters Guild president Fred Swanson says that in 32 years of Great Taste ticket distributions, he’s never handled a single medical emergency, and so emergency response training never seemed necessary for volunteers at each site. Things will definitely change after this year, he said.

“Is it something we’re talking about now? Absolutely,” says Swanson, in reference to the incident at Ale Asylum.

Swanson told me on Monday that future site captains will be specifically directed to leave it to the venue to manage an emergency and err on the side of “safety and speed” by making it clear that if an emergency takes place, attendees should be able to quickly step out of line and take care of their situation. Swanson says they should feel comfortable worrying about beer festival tickets later.

“Extenuating circumstances matter. I don’t care why the seizure happened. We’re not going to split hairs on how you got there. You’ve sat here. You’ve earned the right to get tickets,” says Swanson. “We will make the tickets right.”

“A learning experience”

This year was Ale Asylum’s first as a Great Taste ticket venue, and Dilba concedes that should Ale Asylum host another, she would like to make several changes.Number one on the list is to potentially get permits in place to serve food and drinks outside, rather than on the brewery floor. This would also mean putting in more complete barriers around the lot where ticket buyers camp, with more controlled entrances.

This of course raises new questions, like how to deal with bottle sharing. Dilba recognizes that it’s a big part of beer culture to share and trade beers you find and really love, but acknowledges that it’s a tough practice to formalize, especially in a big, open, outdoor setting.

Swanson concurred. He says that the practice is something attendees of an event like this are going to be invested in, but it’s a practice the guild isn’t interested in either regulating or optimizing for. “It’s like anything—helmets and motorcycles, seatbelts and cars,” says Swanson. “Half of one percent can ruin it for everybody, [but] it’s going to be a thing for a percentage of people.” He said that banning bottle-sharing entirely—which might be necessary depending on how permitting is done for future events—would definitely provoke some blowback from longtime ticket buyers, particularly the ones who like to camp out.

As for safety, Dilba says that outdoor permitting would make it easier to give patrons free movement throughout the brewery and outside, limiting the problems of keeping people contained inside the brewery at various times.

For larger concerts and festivals, with thousands of attendees, the brewery has staffed an EMT on site for the duration of the event, but the ticket distribution has considerably fewers attendees than that. General first aid available from Ale Asylum staff will likely be the approach in the future.  

From MHTG’s perspective, Swanson describes this year’s distribution as a learning experience. Cutting out smaller venues that he says helped build the success of Great Taste was difficult, but a necessary step toward making the ticketing more “event-like.” MHTG had seen some pressure from neighborhood organizations who didn’t appreciate a line of hundreds of people running by their houses in the wee hours of the morning. And the wider range of ticket venues also presented their own safety problems. “It’s not exactly safe to be camping on the side of Highway 151,” Swanson says, referring to one ex-ticket site.

“We tried something different this year,” Swanson adds. “We’re just trying—as a volunteer organization—to keep the energy up for the event, and keep it straightforward.”

Other options, like online ticketing, were on the table, but MHTG ultimately decided that bigger ticket venues was the direction to go in the future. The scale of the event would be driven by the host business by necessity, and ticket sales would be handled by teams of four MHTG volunteers, led by one site captain.

Who is accountable?

When it comes to Ale Asylum’s relationship with MHTG, Dilba stressed that the Guild are great partners and are very supportive of their efforts to turn hosting a ticket sale into a bigger event than in years past.

The problem, based on my conversations with Swanson and Dilba, is that there wasn’t any discussion in the planning process about who could make unilateral decisions if an emergency did come up. With a larger event, it’s not a stretch to imagine that an emergency is more likely to take place, even if it hadn’t been an issue in the past.

In previous years, people definitely have over-imbibed as they bottle-shared in the line. They puke on the sidewalk. They mouth off to other attendees. Swanson says he wishes these things didn’t happen but was unsure how to prevent them entirely, with limited volunteer staff on site. “Can people take personal responsibility for anything that happens to them? I certainly hope so,” says Swanson.

He says that ultimately, responsibility for safety really needs to be an even split between the people waiting in line, the Guild and the venue. That might mean changing how staff and volunteers communicate with people planning on waiting in line. “We want to be encouraging people to pack in food, pack in water, pack in medicines. Everyone should be accountable for that,” says Swanson. “We’re not in a position to be thinking about everything.”  

No one—not the venue, not the homebrewing volunteers, not the ticket purchasers—set out to screw anyone over intentionally. It’s clear that everyone involved is very passionate about capturing the energy and enthusiasm of Madison’s craft beer community. Next year, hopefully, will go smoothly and without incident.

But the point is that things go wrong. And there needs to be a plan in place for when they do.

Respecting the “energy of the community” comes with a burden to be clear about expectations, to ask the questions that an individual event-goer might not think of. Who should be asking what happens if someone is hurt while they camp overnight? Who should be asking what the contingency plan is if extreme weather makes staying outdoors impossible?

At a basic level, when it comes to public events, where does personal responsibility end and institutional responsibility kick in? And what happens when we can’t agree on where the line is?

Added May 8, 2019:

After publication, I was able to reach the man who passed out in the ticket line. He preferred to stay anonymous, so I’ll refer to him as Joe Beerington. “I am incredibly grateful for quick actions and support of my friends, complete strangers, and first responders made on my behalf in a time of need,” says Beerington.

The morning of the sale, he woke up in the Ale Asylum parking lot with food poisoning. “Snacking and nursing two bottles of water clearly weren’t enough to keep me properly hydrated or upright,” he said.

The MHTG volunteers’ reaction to what happened was disappointing, but Beerington was encouraged by what Swanson says the policy will be for a similar situation in the future.

He also echoed Swanson’s call for people who wait overnight to provide for themselves. “I agree on site campers hold a share of responsibility to pack their own food and water to ensure their safety and comfort, like any other camping trip,” he said. “I’m unsure my emergency could have been prevented if the ticket sale event was set up any differently.”    

For his part, Beerington does not seem to be in favor of radically restructuring how the ticketing works either. “A permit allowing the sales of food and drink outdoors certainly would have made the final few hours of waiting a more pleasant experience, but I would be the first to dismiss that idea if it came at the expense of banning personal bottle exchanges.”

Finding the right changes to make that will still please diehard overnight campers will be a challenge, but clearly the community cares deeply about these events being a success in the future.

Correction: This article initially stated that the Great Taste has a mail-in lottery for single tickets; it is in fact for pairs of tickets.

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