Golden T-shirts lined Seventh Avenue in Ybor City as people wandered purposefully from place to place, snagging beer samples and appetizers while taking in the Fourth Annual Oktoberfest Pub Crawl.
"This is by far the biggest turnout we've ever had," said Tom Keating, president of the Ybor City Chamber of Commerce, which hosts the event. "We've got almost 500 people, about 100 more than last year."
The crawl, which gave attendees a map and a T-shirt and set them loose on the commercial district, is as much a promotional activity as it is a fundraiser for the chamber.
"We do this specifically to bring in new clientele to our pubs and bars," Keating explained. "It's a modest fundraiser … more of a community event."
That's by design, Keating says, but more and more people are jumping into crafting pub crawls as a full-fledged business, with recurring themes and national brewery co-sponsorships. It's an endeavor that takes business savvy, service industry connections and hard-core marketing skills just to get established. But several pub-crawl organizers agree, even in the best of conditions, the money isn't there yet.
"It's a lot of work. We're a small community representing 400 businesses. It's hard to come in off the street and get bar owners to agree to something like this, if you don't already have the contacts," Keating said.
Cameron Parker, 38, co-owner of Orlando Pub Crawls and Tampa Pub Crawls, said when he started his business eight years ago, he'd only done it because people came to him with requests.
"We hosted a pub crawl for a friend and we had people coming up to us during it asking how could they join and wanting to know if we could do one for them," he said. "That's when we thought, Hey maybe there is an opportunity here."
Orlando Pub Crawls was born, but even after nearly a decade of drawing hundreds to Crazy '80s pub crawls, both Parker and his partner still maintain their day jobs.
"We haven't pursued it as a full-time venture," he said.
But they have branched out, jumping into the Tampa market three years ago and dipping toes in other markets with less success.
Though Parker devotes full work weeks' worth of time to pulling together the minutiae of a pub crawl in the run-up to the event, the moving pieces make him wary of believing in the long-term profitability of the business model.
"I would say to anyone thinking of going into this business they've got to make events that are safe, fun and mutually beneficial to all parties," Parker said.
At Ybor's Oktoberfest, the chamber lined up 20 venues up and down the commercial strip of Seventh Avenue to participate in the proceedings. They weren't all bars. The businesses ranged from dives to pizza joints to steak houses to comedy clubs.
Gold T-shirts served the dual purpose of letting a bartender know you were a part of the bar crawl and letting them know if you'd already collected your free sample. The girls of Coyote Ugly Saloon took the documentation seriously, by scaling the bar to reach down and mark the T-shirts of those who had collected their free samples.
Every stop offered a different Oktoberfest or pumpkin-spiced beer; some took it up a notch and added food. People lined up and down the block in front of Habibi Cafe and Hookah Bar to have their names written in Arabic on the backs of their commemorative shirts. Those who bothered to check out New York New York Pizza walked away with a small slice. People who trekked all the way up to Elmer's Sports Cafe were treated to a buffet of bratwursts, potatoes and pulled pork to go with their tiny cup of Woodchuck Pumpkin.
This pub crawl was free-form — one of the many variations — which allowed participants to choose their own order and go at their own pace during a four-hour window.
Other crawls herd big crowds from one venue to another to keep the large group together. Some of Parker's crawls allow people to go at their own pace, but dictate the order.
The key is knowing your venues and crowd management.
Jon Pello saw other organizations putting together pub crawls and thought it was a great way for his organization, Tampa Bay Tapped, to diversify its offerings.
He'll find out if he was right on Oct. 19, when the Urban Bike Pub Ride & Poker Run hits St. Pete to raise money for the AIDS awareness charity, The Smart Ride.
Pello, 45, a curriculum developer for Verizon Wireless and president of wine appreciation group Tampa Bay Uncorked, said his nonprofit hosts pub crawls and wine tastings to benefit local charities and have fun, not because there is any money in it.
"I don't know if you can make money doing it. I don't see how," Pello said. "I wouldn't attempt to do it as a way to make money. Unless you have a fresh theme every time and great marketing, you still might make money once and then lose on other events. That's kind of the way it goes. It takes the fun out of it, if you're trying to make it a business."
Even organizations with memberships and large community ties find it hard to drum up early ticket sales because of the nature of a pub crawl.
"The hardest part is promoting an event. People are so fickle. They wait until the last minute to decide, 'Hey this looks like fun,' and buy tickets," Pello laughed.
There are several factors that go into putting together a successful for-profit or charity pub crawl, Parker said. First, you've got to get your venues on board. That means negotiating drink specials, freebies and entertainment. Once you've got a lineup, it helps to have sponsorships of alcohol companies and distributors who can add promotional activities to your crawl. Then, once you've mapped your route, you've got to hit social media hard to get the word out and drum up ticket sales to show the bars that their participation will be rewarded with a substantial crowd increase to make whatever loss they take on specials worth the risk.
It's a straightforward formula in theory, but different in practice.
"With the bar and restaurant owners, you've got to know what hours to call them when they're least busy," said Keating of Ybor's chamber. "And even then it's hard to get them to sign on because if it rains or something like that the turnout will be much lower."
In perfect conditions, your theme might not be the great idea you thought it was.
"We did a circus theme and it was not very popular," Parker admitted.
A great pub crawl is a confluence of timeliness, fun and ease of use that gets an organizer repeat customers.
Latanya and Ricardo Ruiz, both 36, turned their backs to the bartender at Game Time so he could mark off the diamond next to his venue name on their shirts.
"Once we saw this event we pre-registered, booked the hotel and got a babysitter," said Latanya, 36, an oncology social worker, who drove over with her husband from Palm Coast, located between St. Augustine and Daytona Beach.
Last year, she was Googling around for something fun to do for a weekend getaway and found the Ybor City Chamber of Commerce's Tapas Trail — a foodie-type restaurant crawl.
"It looked like fun so we came over," she said. "It was great. We met so many people and made friends along the way."
When the chamber put out the notice about Oktoberfest, the Ruizes knew they were coming back to Tampa. They got a hotel room and arrived a day early to ensure they got to drink their fill and enjoy.
"It would be nice if we had these sorts of things where we're from," Ruiz said. "It's a great little weekend getaway for us."