(Photo courtesy of Josh Gottlieb).

The brain behind Beau’s brewery’s Oktoberfest: Q&A with Josh Gottlieb

Two weeks is all that remains before Beau’s brewery’s big blowout event: Oktoberfest. That means it’s crunch time for Josh Gottlieb and his team to make sure the festival goes off without a hitch. Gottlieb took time out of his schedule to sit down with The Review and offered a sneak-peak at what it’s like to be the brains behind Oktoberfest.

The Review (TR): Leading up to Oktoberfest, what’s it like for you? Are you busy trying to gather everything last minute, or is it a high-stress time?

Josh Gottlieb (JG): It’s not that it’s last minute, but it’s definitely a high-stress time. We have so much programming and pieces to the event that when we get to about a month before, everyone’s areas converge and you need all of those final details for thirty area managers or so. Whether it’s the restaurant team or bands or charities, all of their needs are coming together. It’s one of those things where as you’re planning throughout the year, you can space that stuff out and prioritize and make sure everyone has attention, but not all of their needs are immediate. Now that we’re three weeks away from the event, everyone’s needs are important.

 

TR: What are some of the guiding principles that you have to keep in mind in planning the big Beau’s events?

JG: With any of these types of signature events, what we’re trying to do is be able to create the ultimate Beau’s experience in a day or over a weekend. In Oktoberfest’s case, we want to make sure that we have great beer, of course, and have as many different varieties of our beer as possible, but also a lot of great craft beers from other Canadian craft breweries. We have 50-plus guest taps.

We also have a culinary program down at the brewery, we want to have great food at the festival and we actually won a culinary tourism award last year.

Beau’s is a big supporter of independent arts and culture, so that’s the musical component. We want to have great music on the stage that you can enjoy whether you’re there to see those bands or just there to enjoy the festival.

And then, community is a big thing for us, so we want to make sure we’re supporting the community as much as possible, and really trying to use Oktoberfest as a vehicle where we can do fundraising and bring together different community groups to do their own fundraising.

And we want people to have fun, which really is the Beau’s experience. So whether you’re doing the keg tossing or the stein holding, or the sausage eating event, for us it’s really about showcasing who we are as Beau’s and making sure we’re hitting those key points.

TR: We’ve heard your job revolves around two things: planning Oktoberfest and planning St. Paddy’s Day, is that true?

JG: That’s very true. I work all year for three days, which is awesome. I start planning Oktoberfest in January in terms of sourcing talent and negotiating contracts for main stage bands. I want to have that process complete by mid-April or early-May to announce in June. Then it’s on Oktoberfest all the way through to the festival in late September. After that, it’s a good couple months of paperwork and dealing with closing down things for the year.

As Oktoberfest winds down, then I start ramping up for St. Patrick’s. I’m already booking bands for St. Patrick’s party. We have the venue in place and being a cultural day, we need to have those bands booked well in advance. There’s only one St. Patrick’s day and maybe a week’s worth of celebration leading up to it. A lot of Celtic-type bands are playing so you need to book them early or they’re gone. That’s how the cycle goes.

TR: Is booking the bands the most time consuming or most difficult?

JG: I don’t know if it’s either, but it is a lengthy process. St. Patrick’s is a little easier since we’re only booking three bands, for the main stage. It’s when it comes to Oktoberfest, it’s a little different because we’re trying to craft a program of seven or eight bands on the main stage that are going to hit a lot of different criteria and appeal to a lot of different people. Getting that right and balancing the budget is something that becomes a challenge. We’ll get pitched 60-some odd bands over various agencies and we need to distill that down to eight bands.

TR: What are some of those criteria?

JG: So first, Canadian. That’s amazing because we can go to our agents and say we’re looking only for Canadian talent and that eliminates some of the work we have to do.

We view our main demographic from Oktoberfest as 25 to 34-years old and then the secondary demographic is probably 35 to 44, ballpark around there. We want to have three bands that will really connect with the core demographic and bands that people know of. And then, we’ll try and have one band that will connect with the secondary demographic at least.

As we’ve been a brewery for 11 years now, the age group for the Beau’s fan is expanding and getting older as well. We want those people to have something that might be familiar to them.

We’re also trying to find up-and-coming talent and be ahead of the curve on what the trends are and who is buzzing around the showcase festivals. I went to Canadian music week in Toronto and was scouting for 2018 bands, or being able to see live some of the bands that we didn’t take that were pitched to us from agents. That is a really good way to see what bands are emerging so that you can try and have your finger on the pulse and just try and keep an eye on what’s going on in the music industry in general.

We also want to have francophone talent because we are in the centre of a huge francophone community. We also want to have a nice diverse lineup in terms of our performers. So there’s a lot of different things to try and check off within only eight bands.

(Hear the full uncut interview below).

TR: I looked at the lineup earlier today and I know none of them.

JG: Oh crazy, but I bet you would like them all when you come to the event. Outside of all that, I also have a look at how people did at the Juno Awards, how people have done at Polaris Prize. I’ll also look at when albums are coming out. So if people have an album or a single coming out, that might help decide between two bands that are equally as good and appropriate for the festival..

We also kind of start booking from an Indie Rock perspective on the main stage and branch out from there. We have a lot of options in terms of the genre as well, but we want the music to be accessible enough on the main stage so people who don’t know the bands can still go to Oktoberfest and be like, “That sounds good, I want to go check that out.” All of those things go into the booking and the strategy, but first and foremost they have to be a great Canadian band they have to be able to put on a great show for our audience.

TR: Going a little bit more personal, has the music industry and event planning always been things you’ve been interested in? Or is it something you fell into?

JG: It’s definitely not something you can just fall into at this level. I started running shows when I was 15. I was booking punk shows in high school as part of a school project and that went well, so we kept moving forward. When I was done high school and I was starting to think at what college looked like, someone said to me, “You promote shows all the time and you’re working with bands, why don’t you get involved in the music business?” And I said, “Oh, you can do that?”  I took a program for Music Industry Arts that was more on the management and business side and that led to making connections partially through the shows I was doing independently and through people I met at school. I went back to school and took a post-grad program in festival, events and conference management and then from there I’ve just been freelancing in the events industry. I lived in the Toronto area, so I worked on things like Luminato or the Toronto Just for Laughs Festival or community events like Jerk Food Festival. All of those things built up the experience required to come here and be able to work on Oktoberfest.

TR: How has planning events changed over the 20 years you’ve been doing it?

JG: It all comes from the same mentality, so earlier days was: book a venue, find a sound system, find someone to run,  sell pop and chips (because we weren’t old enough to sell booze), book some bands, make a flyer, put the flyers out, (we’re talking before facebook, so you really had to think about the street marketing). And then people come in and someone has to take the money at the door, and you run a show. So really, in that aspect, it’s not different, it’s just bigger.

When we started to get to a point where we saw 300-400 kids coming to our shows every month and we’re starting to develop bands coming out of our scene, then agents started to take notice and sent me bands that are looking to develop in secondary markets. Then you start learning how to deal with agents and management and then you start forming relationships that still help out 10 or 15 years later.

The budgets might be bigger, the talent might be bigger, but the process is fairly similar.

TR: Planning Oktoberfest is so intrinsically linked to the upcoming trends in the music scene, what have been some trends you’ve noticed emerged lately?

JG: It’s interesting because we’re still booking through a specific kind of lens starting from an Indie Rock perspective. I don’t think there are any crazy superstar Canadian bands that are necessarily coming out in the way that you would think of a Tragically Hip or a Blue Rodeo, those quintessential Canadian bands. But. it’s also at a point that the music industry feels like there’s a lot of bands coming out, that there’s still a lot of development.

An example of that is Strumbellas. We had Strumbellas at the festival in 2014; they were opening our Saturday as a fill-in band relatively unknown. In three years, those guys played at the Juno Awards and are a huge Canadian band, so it’s nice to see that bands are still developing.

Some of the bigger bands right now like the Arkells, like Broken Social Scene, or even Metric and A Tribe Called Red, those are some of our top bands right now, which is amazing, but I also think they’re somewhat in their prime. Some of them are on their fourth or fifth album and they don’t seem like they’re slowing down, so you have to wait 20 years to look back and maybe they’ll be our Tragically Hips or Blue Rodeos. It becomes a generational thing.

The Canadian music scene seems like it’s healthy, it’s strong and there’s lots of opportunity in Canada, but I don’t know if there’s been any major trends because we’re really looking at a rock-based thing. I’m not exploring the world of hip hop, I’m not exploring the world of electronic music that much, so I can’t tell you where rock falls against all of those.  

TR: How long have you been at Beau’s?

JG: Two and a half years, thi will be my third Oktoberfest.

TR: How has the event changed over that time?

JG: I think that the year I first started, it was a hybrid year where I was producing it with the previous planner, so it was a lot of “get here and make it happen.” Last year, a lot of the things I wanted to change were behind-the-scenes.

TR: Can you give an example of those behind-the-scenes changes?

JG: I think it’s a lot about staffing, not that we weren’t properly staff, but letting those area managers know that they’re empowered to do certain things without having to worry to come to me. I came into a healthily organized event. We were reevaluating resources, reevaluating things that can be risks, reevaluating how quickly line times move and where our targets are to make sure that people are flowing through the festival without having to wait too long. It’s very much a human resources-type of thing. I think we’re starting to see things roll smoothly behind the scenes (he said this knocking on wood).

I noticed the first year, on Friday the radio in my ear never stopped with people asking questions. And the Saturday it calmed down. Last year, by 8 o’clock, the radio was pretty quiet on the Friday and it’s really only people coming to me for emergencies, otherwise they’re running their areas.

The second you open the gates, you’re letting in the public and we had 20,000 between the two days last year and everyone reacts differently to whatever is in front of them. Everyone thinks in a different way so you need to be able to react to the human element when you’re an event manager and you can’t necessarily plan for that, outside of having security and police to help manage. Giving all the areas the tools they need to run and the empowerment they need from a management perspective, then I’m free throughout the weekend to be able to manage whatever situation arises. I think that’s something the public doesn’t see, but makes their experience when they’re on-site the best it can possibly be.

And this year we have a ferris wheel, and that’s a lot of fun. So we’re always trying to change up what our programming is and think about new and fund things we can do at the event. And just bring some newlife into it every year.

TR: Can you divulge anything for next year?

JG: Let me get this year and we’ll start talking about next year.

 

TR: I forgot to ask you this earlier, but in the years that you’ve been planning events, is there a situation that sticks out to you as one really good moment and one bad problem that you had to deal with on the fly or weren’t sure what to do at the time?

JG: I had a festival organizer who decided that because the headliner had gotten lost on the way over and started late that they weren’t going to pay the artist the balance of the guarantee that night. The artist had come out with their family and whether they’re going to get food, or find accommodation, they don’t have that resource to rely on. I happened to know this artist’s agent from college and he’s calling me and asking what’s going on and I’m saying that I don’t have the power to do anything, and the promoter was nowhere to be seen. That put me in a tough situation because there was nothing I could do to make it better and I didn’t want to jeopardize my own relationships.

Highlight moments, especially when I’m fully in charge of something like Oktoberfest, is just being there and seeing it run. Definitely the first Oktoberfest, once the radio finally calmed down and I was able to have a very small sip of beer—because you have to keep your head about you when you’re an event manager—that was a really nice moment to feel, “We’re here. It’s happening.” It doesn’t matter if it’s an event the size of Oktoberfest or something in a smaller room, with 50 or 100 people, what I love most about it is people are there and having a good time. That’s why I do events.

This year’s Oktoberfest runs September 22 and 23 at the Vankleek Hill Fairgrounds. Tickets are available at the brewery or at beausoktoberfest.ca. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.