Matthew Davis has big plans for his native York to become a regional event hub competing with Pittsburgh, Philadelphia and Baltimore. Through his agency, CrocodileDog Marketing, Davis has laid the groundwork by putting York on the map for fellow foodies and beer enthusiasts in Maryland and New York with annual festivals for the last 12 years.
Davis has been running events since before he received his MBA in 2010 from York College and when Taste of Pennsylvania was organized as a fundraiser for the local Sons of the American Legion post. A part-time computer programming instructor and vice president of York Young Professionals, Davis integrates IT with an entrepreneurial edge to organize seasonal festivals that balance York city pride with regional attraction.
For 2020, Davis is setting his sights on a new project to establish a York-based event-organizers’ guild to help start-up groups navigate compliance issues and grant funding. “I want things happening and I want people staying in town for more than just driving in and drinking and leaving,” he said, adding that he plans to continue hosting events like Hibrewnation and Yorktoberfest.
“Events life is growing, and we want to support it as much as we can,” Davis said. “We want to connect the dots between the people who have the experience and the people who need the experience but can also start pushing the people who have it to start thinking in new and different ways.”
Since 2008’s inaugural Taste of Pennsylvania wine and food festival, CrocodileDog Marketing has steadily added to its annual slate of seasonal festivals featuring his penchant for wordplay: Yorktoberfest, Brew Kids on the Block, What the Food Trucks, Rivertown Hops and Beer Garden, and Glen Rock Arts and Brew Fest are all scheduled to return this year.
When Davis announced his intention to move Foodstruck from the York Fairgrounds to Penn Park for Labor Day weekend in 2014, the push back came from vendors and community members — What about the city of York’s open container prohibitions? Isn’t Penn Park known for drugs and danger?
CrocodileDog Marketing had been using the York Fairgrounds after being chosen by the York County Economic Alliance in 2010 to host its “Wine in the City” event, which would later grow into Yorktoberfest. Davis said there weren’t many spaces in the city that offer the parking and space that came with the fairgrounds that attendants could easily access.
Intent on proving the nay-sayers wrong, Davis obtained a mayoral exemption from the city’s open container ordinances and the Labor Day event was back on. “This started us being stronger voices and pushing back against the community,” he said. “That’s one of our big pushes, is to make York an open-container city.”
CrocodileDog Marketing in 2016 launched its own food truck event — “What the Food Trucks” — after Foodstruck officials parted ways. In the last four years of its existence, What the Food Trucks has grown its attendance from approximately 12,000 to 20,000 in 2019, according to CrocodileDog’s report to sponsors.
“It’s the thing I’m most proud of in my entire life, when I stand in the middle of 20,000 people and some massive portion of them are local neighborhood people coming out and having positive memories of their community in this park,” Davis said, adding that What the Food Trucks is one of their most diverse events. “I’ve had multiple people say I come into this and I see York city. I don’t just see a bunch of white hipsters coming into the city to eat a bunch of food out of trucks.”
Philip Given, York’s acting director of economic and community development, said Davis’ team does an “excellent job executing the event,” careful to take into account input from surrounding neighborhood residents.
“At a time when city budgets across the nation are growing thinner and thinner and ‘extras’ like special events become difficult to fund, event organizers like Mr. Davis bring an energy, resources and skills to pull off events like this and put York on the map,” Given said. “The best part is they play well with others in the sandbox. They support event organizers of all backgrounds and events of all sizes by lending their expertise – even if others may view this as helping the competition, these folks recognize that a rising tide lifts all boats.”
For Davis, a web programmer whose undergraduate degree was in information systems development, the challenges entailed by event sponsorship allow him to indulge his passion for design and coding. Eight seasonal festivals each year means eight opportunities to conduct logistical experiments with a dynamic set of variables — digital marketing outreach, ticket sales, attendance, vendors and the typography of a given venue.
“I love the process of taking an idea, giving it constraints and building a prototype idea, theory crafting it, and running it through a bunch of prototypes to come up with a product that works and putting it into practice and saying ‘What can we do better?’” Davis said. “That was what the festivals did over and over again.”
Next on the queue is Hibrewnation on Feb. 8 at the York Expo Center, where it will occupy the entire 60,000-square-foot floorplan. Davis moved to double the amount of space from previous years in order to make room for 15 new brands while staying faithful to fan favorites and festival staples.
The event underwent a marketing re-evaluation for 2020, aimed at attracting beer and spirit drinkers of all levels of experience, Davis said. In past years, he marketed Hibrewnation as the more esoteric beer club, offering more expensive, darker brews, whereas Yorktoberfest consisted of flagship namebrands and Brew Kids on the Block was mostly local makers. That’s when he pivoted the marketing message.
“I realized there was no value in keeping [Hibrewnation] an elite thing,” he said. “There were so many people I was missing that would pay $50 to come out and try this crazy line of beer that knew nothing about beer. I boiled it down to two statements — get started and get geeky,” hence the event’s tag line.
The tickets for Hibrewnation are meticulously priced using years of data to garner a well-rounded group of beer and spirit enthusiasts. “I think there are other festivals where people are just there to get drunk, and I think we do a good job of pricing that out,” said Kate Harmon, public and media relations specialist for CrocodileDog Marketing.
Davis said this year’s goal for Hibrewnation is to grow ticket-sale revenue by 30% and focus on spotlighting more local craft beer and wine makers in the central Pennsylvania region. Eventually, Davis said, the ultimate goal is to make York a regional destination and the seven annual beer and wine festivals a local draw for the area.
“The goal is to turn it into a regional event,” he said. “All the companies are confident that this can be that. We can start marketing out to regular attendees and say, ‘Hey, if you liked this then come out for this other one.’”
With the beer scene exploding in the region, they gear the marketing to commuters traveling to York to visit loved ones or to attend a local event before making it an annual tradition to attend events, Harmon said.
According to CrocodileDog data, 28% of annual attendants come from out of state — 7% from Maryland, 5% from New York and 2% from New Jersey. The top three metro areas represented are Harrisburg-York, Philadelphia and Washington D.C.; and 40% of attendants have an annual income of $30,000-$50,000.
CrocodileDog Marketing wants to mentor other organizations to do the same with the art scene, tourism scene, restaurant scene and other quality of life cultural keystones in York. “We feel very strongly about not just about running events but teaching people to be a part of York County,” Harmon said.
“There are so many times when people are reaching out to me and saying we don’t have this or that for an event,” Harmon said. “I can’t even imagine how many neighborhood orgs that would benefit from having a place to say, ‘Oh, I need lanyards,’ or something.”
In July of 2019, CrocodileDog Marketing purchased Ruins Park in Glen Rock — located 60 minutes from Baltimore and Philadelphia — from Terry Steyer and Cindy Duzanwith to host events and provide a first venue for an up-and-coming event planner in his guild, pending a structural and safety review.
Harmon said they plan to install a retractable awning and bathroom facilities in the former Enterprise Manufacturing Company warehouse.
“We are so pleased to be placing Ruins Park into such good hands,” Steyer and Duzanwith said in their announcement of the transfer. “CrocodileDog has over 10 years of experience in event production, and we’re looking forward to more great events in the future with them at the helm.”
If an organization successfully puts on an event at Ruins Park, Davis said it’s likely that group will rent the 2,000-person venue in the future, and if not, then at least more people gain experience running events.
“It would allow us to support them a bit and it’s getting us more cool stuff happening in York,” he said.