Valley Fest Organizers Raise a Toast to Springfield and the Region
Since launching White Lion Brewing Co. in Springfield last fall, Ray Berry had a feeling that organizing a beer festival would be a good way to showcase his brand, and craft brewing in general. But what has become abundantly clear, with the help of a diverse group of local partners, is that Valley Fest, slated for Aug. 29, is also a celebration of what they consider a city and region on the rise.
When Ray Berry launched White Lion Brewing Co. in Springfield last October, he planned from the start to create a regional beer festival within the first two years. As it turns out, he didn’t want to wait that long.
“I didn’t know whether it would be year one or year two, but with the momentum of the company and awareness of our brand, we felt comfortable enough to bring the fest in year one,” he said.
Specifically, White Lion will present Valley Fest on Aug. 29 in Court Square in downtown Springfield, expecting to draw some 2,000 beer enthusiasts to sample more than 100 different offerings of beer and hard cider made by more than 50 craft brewing companies from throughout the region — and well beyond.
“This is about the city of Springfield, about the region, but it also revolves around craft beer,” Berry told BusinessWest. “Western Massachusetts is starting to see a tremendous amount of momentum around craft beer — new brewhouses, new enterprises, new products on the market.”
White Lion is actually the first one of those brewers based in the City of Homes, and Berry hopes the festival — which will also feature culinary fare from local restaurants, live music, and a home-brewing contest — will create a buzz, so to speak, that raises the profile of the city and region.
“Springfield was a little late to have its own product — White Lion being that — and we thought it was important to showcase White Lion, but also to bring together a cohesive conversation regionally,” he went on. “We didn’t know at the onset that this would be bigger than Western Mass., but we’re covering the spectrum with local, regional, and national brands participating, which is exciting.”
But this isn’t just the story of craft beer, or a day-long, late-summer party. It’s about a number of individuals and businesses coming together to showcase what they call a city on the rise.
The first of those was MGM Springfield, which got on board as the event’s presenting sponsor.
“From the company’s standpoint, showcasing Springfield was obviously important,” said Seth Stratton, MGM Springfield’s vice president and general counsel, noting that the company presented last year’s Downtown Dinner Table event to bring some energy to the casino’s future neighborhood.
“We were all surprised how amazingly successful that event was, and it hammered home to MGM how important it is to bring people downtown,” he added. “If people not used to coming to the city are coming for an event like that, that is a perfect event. We want people to be accustomed to being out in this vibrant city, and making it a destination by showcasing its food and beverage assets, which are a huge part of our business. There’s a synergy between events like this and what our goals are with our project.”
Like Stratton, Nadim Kashouh — owner of Nadim’s Mediterranean Restaurant and Grill downtown — is invested in developments that make Springfield a destination. He’s one of several area restaurateurs to sign on for the event, citing the event’s potential to showcase Springfield and, by extension, its culinary offerings.
“Ray and I have become good friends, and we were interested in being there at this event,” he said. “Springfield is flourishing right now, and we want to be a part of anything that shows that.”
Still, before soliciting sponsors and partners for what would become Valley Fest, Berry first approached Jeff Goulet, who has organized the Worthy Brew Fest in downtown Springfield each spring since 2011.
“We didn’t want our fest to conflict with the other fest, but, rather, to bring a positive impact and awareness of craft beer to Springfield,” Berry said.
Goulet, however, is fully on board — as Valley Fest’s brewery coordinator.
“June was our most successful year by far. It came close to a sellout,” Goulet said. “Our focus has been to have a boutique beer fest, limit it to 1,000 people, with very specialty beers, one-off beers.”
So, when Berry told him about the more wide-open concept of Valley Fest, he felt it was a strong complement to what Worthy Fest has been bringing to the table. He also noted that many of the participating breweries have their own local fan bases, who will then travel to Springfield to take in the festival.
Even after winning Goulet’s support, Berry said a successful event wouldn’t have been possible if not for the support of MGM Springfield. “When they locked in up front as the primary sponsor, that was the key that started the ball rolling.”
Other partners soon followed, all of whom see events like this, as well as Worthy Brew Fest and the second annual Jazz and Roots Festival that landed in Court Square last weekend, as ways to continue the city’s momentum generated by not only MGM Springfield, but a host of new development and business activity downtown.
“Ray came to us and shared his vision for the Valley Fest and asked us to work with him to create the brand narrative,” said Deb Walsh, creative director at TSM Design, which had previously designed the White Lion brand logo, and signed on to create visual and narrative elements to promote the event.
“TSM is very committed to Springfield — and beer,” she said with a laugh. “So we happily joined in and created a look that celebrates the craft, celebrates the location and the history, and emphasizes fun, too, making it an event that people will want to attend.”
Meanwhile, Creative Strategy Agency is developing digital communications and marketing to promote Valley Fest, said President Alfonso Santaniello. Among those efforts is a video introducing the sponsors and vendors and trying to get them to engage with each other well before the event — as well as during it, with the use of the #valleybrewfest hashtag. “This has been a team effort, not just the Valley Fest, but the social site.”
Jill Monson-Bishop, president of Inspired Marketing and Valley Fest’s event planner, said she and other business owners are excited about momentum in the downtown district, whether it’s a company moving into one of the office towers or an event with the promise of becoming an annual attraction.
“As a downtown business owner, I can say these are the sparks of revitalization we’ve all been waiting for. It’s kind of a renaissance,” she said, adding that she was involved with MGM in the Downtown Dinner Table last year. “That reminded me of back in the days of Taste of Springfield, which brought thousands of people to our downtown without blinking or whining.”
She said it was important to make the event about more than beer, however. That’s why Nadim’s will be joining Plan B Burger Bar, Palazzo Café, the Student Prince, and Sheraton Springfield to deliver an array of food, while live music, including dance-party band Orange Crush and rock act Maxxtone, will spice up the Fest, which Monson-Bishop positioned as an age-21+ event that’s friendly and relaxed.
In addition, Mark Stroobandt of Belgium, an internationally acclaimed beer sommelier, will be on hand for a cooking demonstration. Meanwhile, the second of the event’s two sessions will include pourings from 10 home brewers competing for the title of Valley Fest’s Best Home Brewer, a custom tap handle from East Coast Taps, and, of course, bragging rights.
As a way to give back to the community, Berry said a portion of the event’s proceeds will be donated to the American Cancer Society and Dakin Humane Society, two prominent nonprofits.
Susan Alston, director of development and marketing at Dakin, noted that Berry participated in the PAWSCARS in February, Dakin’s largest annual fund-raiser, and they formed a bond over their concern for animals.
“Every year, more than 6,000 of them need medical attention or new parents,” she said. “Our Dakin facility moved downtown in 2009, and we serve thousands of people who adopt our animals every year within a 50-mile radius. We were lucky to be invited to share the proceeds of this event.”
Coming Together at Valley Fest
The partners promoting Valley Fest stressed that many other entities will support the event in different ways, from Ace Taxi providing free service to those who need it to Sheraton Springfield offering reduced room rates for anyone who wants to turn a day of beer sampling into a safe weekend stay downtown.
“This is a community event,” Santaniello said. “We’re all from various backgrounds and specialties, putting on an event with our community. It’s an opportunity to let people see what can be done when we come together for one great event. People need to realize, it doesn’t have to be one person doing things — people and businesses are here to help, and these events just have to find the right people.”
Berry agreed. “The response from the community — and surrounding communities — has been overwhelming,” he said, noting that those sponsors number around 25, including primetime sponsor MassMutual Financial Group and partnering sponsors the Dennis Group and Williams Distributing. “A number of sponsors stepped up early, believing not only in the festival, but in Springfield in general.”
Berry emphasized that Valley Fest is an important showcase not only for White Lion — which has released three beer selections since last fall and has promoted its efforts in venues all over Massachusetts and other New England states — but for a region ready for a stream of good economic news. “People who are complaining are only reading the headlines. They need to dig deeper.”
Kashouh said MGM and other developments downtown have started to create that buzz, which promises to bring new life to the city.
“I know I find myself investing in renovating, putting more money into the restaurant, waiting for the day when MGM opens up. It’s three years out, but I want to be ready. The beer festival, the jazz festival, these things bring people downtown. People are trickling back. It won’t happen overnight; it’s one store at a time, one restaurant at a time. But we believe in Springfield.”
Stratton stressed that the casino project is not the end-all, be-all, but that each new event or company relocation downtown serves as a catalyst for others.
“I think this is a good example,” he went on. “If you look at the sponsor list, it’s a who’s-who of businesses in Springfield. We’re naturally aligned and interested in having people come down and drink beer and have fun; there’s a natural synergy to what we do. For other businesses, it may not be as immediately apparent. But as people see new, exciting things in Springfield, it’ll eventually be a catalyst for the entire business community, not only those who have a natural interest in this event, like we do.”
That’s a refreshing thought indeed. So cheers, Springfield.
Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]