Late this summer, Kate Levenstien was accomplishing something most food and drinks event planners couldn’t imagine happening in 2020: watching a live event she’d planned happen safely. How did Levenstien manage to successfully host her festival, given the nature of food and beverage events?
At Seltzerland, a walk-through tasting tour of over 30 seltzer brands and 75 flavors, groups of 15 were walking the links at Phalen Park golf course in Minneapolis, wearing masks and staying socially distant from other groups while sipping seltzers, eating at food trucks, and having fun.
The success of Seltzerland is a case study in hosting live tasting events during the coronavirus pandemic — one that illustrates how one might dip one’s toes into socially distanced in-person events. To pull it off, Levenstien and her production company had to adapt quickly, know when to sit tight, be flexible, think outside the box, and adhere to strict safety guidelines. And it’s worked. “The fact that we pulled it off, on our first one,” she said, “was truly the best feeling.” Here are some of her learnings to help others pull off a safe in-person food and drink event.
Step One: Find Large, Outdoor Venues for Social Distancing
Levenstien founded Cannonball Productions in 2013. She made Cannonball’s headline festival, Bacon and Beer, with affordable, accessible, delectable fun in mind: it’s a bacchanal of bacon and craft beer, held in baseball and football stadiums across the country.
Seltzerland had the same goal, with a different main fare. After creating the idea for a hard seltzer festival in late 2019, set in airy, indoor-outdoor spaces across the country, with food trucks and fun interactive activities like ball pits, Cannonball set their first Seltzerland for April in San Jose. Then the pandemic hit, which meant that Levenstien had to postpone all Seltzerland events until July and furlough her team. “That was brutal,” she said.
Late in April, Levenstien was walking with her husband on the golf course that neighbors their home in upstate New York when it hit her. If golf courses reopened, as it seemed they might given the game’s natural social distancing, Levenstien realized she could rent them out, host her event down the fairway, and keep groups separate by giving them specific tee times.
The first step was getting the venues on board. Troon, “the best management company in the business,” helped her find courses in the right market who would be interested in hosting a drinking and food event on their fairways, while they were open for business. Levenstien’s first piece of advice to those looking to host tasting events is to cooperate with local authorities and organizations, and to work directly with venues that are already compliant and have already gained approvals from the city.
She found courses to partner with — Cog Hill in Chicago, Phalen Park in Minneapolis, Colorado National Golf Course in Denver — and secured a PPP loan to bring her team back on. After extensive work to ensure safety and compliance with local and state regulations, including a full-on proof-of-concept run through with 25 family and friends, the first event was ready to go, complete with a COVID-19 compliance plan.
Step two: Follow the guidelines currently in place — but also follow your gut
Most important to her safety planning, she said, was finding the strictest local and state guidelines and following them. For instance, Kate was considering groups of 15 people, but when she found some states were advising groups outdoors of no more than 10 during the peak of the pandemic, she changed her practices to match. She also bulked up on security, with security staff at every hole, and gave them instructions to focus mainly on reminding participants to follow safety rules and precautions. Finally, she knew that her plan would work best during warmer summer weather, and would need to be planned in areas of the country where the coronavirus transmission rate remained low and businesses remained open.
Step three: Create a proof of concept and COVID-19 compliance plan
Levenstien also completed a “practice run” at the same upstate golf course where she and her husband had their “aha” moment for Seltzerland. They and 25 friends and family did a mock run of how seltzer stations would work, whether people wanted to sit or stand, and how walking the golf course would work. They also used the course for photos and videos to demonstrate the event could be put on safely.
Then she created a COVID-19 compliance plan, which was vital for getting local and state-level approval for her events, and for putting them on safely. Levenstien referenced an open-access plan created by CHS Field in St. Paul, Minnesota, which had already used the plan for successful, locally approved events. Levenstien sent hers to all venues, municipalities, and states where she was planning an event, detailing the attendee’s journey from the time they find out about the event through ticket buying, the event itself, and then post-event surveys and contract tracing.
Step four: Execute (and don’t forget to have fun)
The first event was a success. Guests wore masks, and so did brand ambassadors and staff. The groups showed up at their tee times 15 minutes apart, received a temperature check, read a “COVID oath” that the team had created promising safety precautions, were given colored wristbands ensuring they didn’t mix with other groups, and started their seltzer saunter. Frequent signage reminded participants to practice social distancing. Bartenders used single-use cups. At their own pace, participants made their way down the fairways of six holes, stopping at 25 hard seltzer stands for samples.
Kate plans to continue her Seltzerland events, as long as weather allows, into 2021. “The fact is, this is going to go on much longer than anyone could have imagined,” Kate said. “We don’t know when it’s going to end. But we know that we at least have this.”