Born to crawl

Some call Reno the 'Pub Crawl Capital of the Nation.' It only makes cents.

The Zombie Crawl, one of numerous Reno bar crawls.

The Zombie Crawl, one of numerous Reno bar crawls.


Cara O’Keefe—who once punished her daughter by showing up to her school dressed as Wonder Woman—loves a good costume. She’s a 43-year-old mother of three who runs a chocolate-tasting-party business in Carson City. A few years ago, the downturn in the economy prompted O’Keefe and her friends to look for spendthrift ways to enjoy girls’ night out. They decided to try a pub crawl.

“Even if you are on a tight budget you can afford a $5 cup and a $2 drink,” O’Keefe says, referencing the commemorative cups and drink specials crawl participants receive. “I also like to have fun and thought it was the perfect excuse to wear a costume, and people won’t look at you funny.”

What’s a pub crawl? Anyone who’s been around Reno for a month or two knows, but essentially, it’s organized bar-hopping, often done by people dressed in themed costumes. It’s by no means a modern concept. References to pub crawls can be found dating back to the 19th century.

In recent decades, though, pub crawls have become increasingly prevalent the world over. But with a total of eight annual costumed crawls—each drawing between 1,200 and 15,000 participants—it’s little wonder some people have gone so far as to dub Reno the “pub crawl capital” of the nation. And with the implications that pub crawls hold for Reno’s government, its people and its local businesses, the designation doesn’t actually seem too far afield.

With O’Keefe’s collection of skillfully constructed costumes, it’s doubtful anyone would ever think she got into the hobby to save money. In addition to having gone all out for a costume based on the Silk Spectre character from DC Comics’ limited series Watchmen, for the annual Superhero Crawl, O’Keefe has also put together vampire, pirate, leprechaun and zombie getups to make even the craftiest of costumers envious.

Behind the masks

With an anticipated total attendance of between 30,000 and 40,000 people in 2014, the pub crawls are not just a good time. They're also good for business, especially for the 20 to 50 bars that register in them regularly.

Mikkel Dybvig is co-owner of 3rd Street Blues. He and his business partner, Tim McLean, have been taking part in the crawls for several years now. Dybvig and McLean pay a $250 fee for each crawl they register the bar in. The fee nets them a spot on the map provided to crawl participants and also the official designation as one of the crawl’s several “start bars.”

According to Dybvig, being a registered bar on the crawls can make the difference between a good night and the best night of the year, as was the case with this year’s Saint Patrick’s Day inspired Leprechaun Crawl.

“It would have been bigger than a normal Saturday, but it wouldn’t have been nearly as big as it was, because of the organization that the people at Let’s Do Things put together,” Dybvig says.

“The people” are the husband and wife team behind seven of Reno’s themed crawls, Ed and Heidi Adkins. The Adkins pair is responsible for organizing and promoting the pub crawls. Dybvig is not alone in crediting them for making a real difference in business. At the Waterfall on Second Street, owner Jordan Slotnick and his bar manager, West Muller, report that the themed crawls account for roughly 10 percent of their total yearly profits. The extra revenue, they say, allows them to reinvest money in the business.

“If it wasn’t for Ed, I wouldn’t be getting my new floors, my new bathrooms, my new furniture, my new remodel for the bar,” Muller says.

Ed Adkins probably bought a few things with the fruits of his labor, too. He recalls the friend who years ago told him about a guy who made his living by organizing pub crawls. “Wouldn’t that be great?” wondered Adkins, who has long run events but never thought he’d be able to do it full-time. Little did he know, a party he would throw to celebrate his own birthday would lead him into a career.

“I love Halloween. It’s my favorite holiday, you know,” Adkins says. “I love zombies a lot, so I thought let’s just have a zombie bar crawl. It just all made sense. It really was just to celebrate my birthday.”

Adkins recalls worrying that no one would show up. He put together a last-minute zombie costume from a suit he purchased at Savers. Mostly, though, he remembers being happily surprised when the first zombie crawl—his birthday celebration—drew a few hundred participants who traveled the darkened city streets together from bar to bar.

“The trek from Red Rock to Strega was the best because it really looked like a zombie horde, you know, making it down the street,” Adkins says.

Today, Adkins and his wife work together out of an office in Midtown. What started as a birthday celebration has indeed become a full-time business. In recent years, the Adkinses have begun looking for ways to diversify the pub crawl, adding costume contests, 5k fun runs, Red Carpet events, and—most recently—encouraging bars to offer specials like nonalcoholic drinks and food.

Why do you think they call them crawls?

Christine Adams is a marketing consultant who partners with Join Together Northern Nevada, nonprofit organization that works to address substance abuse issues in Washoe County by providing information, assessments and grant funding for prevention and treatment programs.

Adams is also a member JTNN’s Environmental Strategies Committee and says the themed pub crawls have been on the Committee’s radar for quite some time. When a promotional slogan used for the 2011 Zombie Crawl caught their attention, Adams and her fellow committee members decided it was time to take action.

“Their tagline said, ’Dead is no reason to quit drinking,’” Adams says, adding that the slogan was offensive to some and especially to those who’ve lost loved ones in drunk-driving accidents.

Adams and her colleagues decided to conduct what they call an environmental scan during the 2011 Santa Crawl, which took place a few months later. The scan involved taking two 18-year-old men dressed in Santa costumes to the event to see how many bars they were able to enter. While no citations were issued during the scan, Adams reports that only 44 percent of the bars turned the two underage men away. “And that was the point where we decided that, yes, in fact, there is a problem. Aside from minors being able to get into bars, there were also other environmental issues,” Adams says. “We saw people puking on the street. We saw a woman get hit by a car. We saw somebody with their eyes rolling back in their head passing out outside of the Freight House District. I mean, it was just pretty much mayhem.”

After the scan was completed, Adams and her colleagues applied to receive a Sober Truth on Preventing Underage Drinking Act Grant through The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, an agency within the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. The grant abstract explains their motivation for applying:

“JTNN would like to intervene with the Reno based pub-crawls in order to make alcohol less accessible to underage persons at these events. … In Reno, the crawls began in 2008, with current estimates suggesting recent crawls may include up to 7,000 or more participants. It is estimated the majority of these participants are younger than 25, with many likely being underage.”

The grant application was accepted. Today, the resulting compliance check program run in cooperation with the Reno Police Department’s Regional Street Enforcement Team is in year two of four.

Old enough to crawl

Detective Sgt. Ron Chalmers supervises the RPD's Regional Street Enforcement Team, which is responsible for conducting the STOP Grant compliance checks during pub crawls. The checks, Chalmers says, are conducted similarly to an environmental scan, using volunteer underage decoys. These individuals are then sent out, usually in groups of two, to see if they can gain access to bars using their real IDs. Afterward, the police notify the bars that were scanned and write citations for bars that fail.

“We’re trying to work in cooperation with the bars,” Chalmers says. “We want to see those events succeed, you know. They’re fantastic events for downtown Reno. They bring a lot of people here. They just need to be done properly.”

The numbers from recent compliance checks suggest this method is successful. During the 2013 Santa Crawl, 94 percent of the bars targeted turned away the underage decoys sent to them by the police.

However, not everyone agrees that the compliance checks foster responsibility or that the pub crawls are a draw for underage drinkers in the first place.

At 3rd Street Blues, Dybvig says underage drinkers have never been a problem for his bar.

“The only people that we ever have a problem with at the door are the sting operations bringing minors in,” Dybvig says. “Those are the minors that we see on crawl nights, but we also, in general, cater to an older crowd than most of the other bars.”

Adkins echoes the sentiment, saying that while he is glad someone is addressing potential issues like underage and binge drinking, he doesn’t believe the compliance checks actually indicate whether or not the crawls are a draw for underage drinkers.

“If anything, what the stings tell us is that if you are highly trained, and you are part of a team of people, you can make it through a small percentage of the doors,” Adkins says. “They don’t really tell us whether there was a problem beforehand.”

According to Chalmers—who says he has actually been accused of starting a fight outside of one bar to allow his team’s decoys to sneak inside—the notion that compliance checks are carried out in deceitful way is a misguided one.

“Quite frankly, I became very offended and tired of being accused of trying to cheat when these places were failing all on their own,” Chalmers says.

And as for the decoys, Chalmers explains, they are not highly trained. They are volunteers, often family members of RPD employees, and they’re told never to give a false age. Instead, if asked their ages, they reply with, “old enough.”

The fees and citations associated with failing a compliance check can be hefty. Individual servers can face fines of up to $500 for serving a minor, and bar owners face a first-time fee of $250. And the costs only go up from there, with a third compliance check failure placing a bar at risk of being forced to close its doors.

Recently, however, Chalmers and Adams have implemented a new element to the compliance check program. Chalmers was able to come to an agreement with the city whereby fines and citations for bars that fail will be waived provided the bar owner invests in a digital ID scanning device. Adams was able to secure grant funding in order to offer businesses a $350 reimbursement for the purchase of a scanner. The total savings in fees and waivers comes in at a little more than a $1,000—roughly the price of one scanning device.

“So, at this point, we’re saying rather than pay the city of Reno your hard earned money, reinvest in your business,” Adams says. “Buy the scanner, and make sure you don’t fail another compliance check.”

At the Waterfall, Slotnick—who purchased his ID scanner before the program was implemented—says he believes using these devices can make a real difference when it comes to catching underage drinkers before they make it through the doors.

“We do check everybody’s ID through a digital ID scanner,” says Slotnick. “We got in trouble a few years back, and because I’m not necessarily down there, and I’m not the one bartending, I wanted to give them the tools that they needed in order to reduce the risk as much as possible for me as a business owner while also maintaining consistent service.”

Reno: A city to crawl home to

Alexis Hill is the special events program manager for the city of Reno. It is her job to act as the go-between for event promoters and city staff. Hill works closely with the RPD’s Traffic and Special Events Unit, the Reno Fire Department, and the city’s public works department. They refer to themselves collectively as “special events rock stars.” In recent months, Hill says, they’ve made significant changes in the way the events are managed, including a substantial increase in the number of police officers patrolling the crawls.

“We like these events. We think these are good for the community,” Hill says. “Our job is to make the city of Reno an awesome place to live and a fun place to visit. So, the safety precautions that are put in to place and the additional staffing is just to keep it that way.”

Lt. Rob VanDiest, the officer in charge of the Traffic and Special Events Division of the RPD, echoes Hill’s sentiments—adding that he enjoys working the Zombie Crawl because he appreciates the unique costumes.

However, some people have reacted negatively to the increased police presence at the crawls. VanDiest recalls hearing people refer to the 2013 Santa Crawl, for which there were a total of 73 police officers on duty—an increase of 30 from the previous year—as “the cop crawl.”

“It was believed by some that if you put twice as many police officers out there, you’re looking to make twice as many arrests and get people out of there, which—again—is not our goal,” VanDiest says. “The only goal of my division, special events, is to make an event safe. If I can make it safe and make zero arrests, believe me, I’m all for that because that’s just less paperwork for my guys.”

The Vampire Crawl will take place on May 9. In prior years, this crawl has occurred in February. The new date was welcome news for O’Keefe and her friends.

“We did the vampire crawl last year, and it was so cold that we were going to skip it this year,” O’Keefe says, but now that the crawl has been rescheduled, O’Keefe says she and her friends will attend. With costumes ready to go, the only thing they need now is a driver. “We always have a designated driver, and, if something happens that we think we won’t have a desi, then we make a reservation at Silver Legacy or one of those places—close by and they always offer specials for the night of the crawls.”