Founded in 2017, HappyBelly Vending (HBV) has quickly grown to one of the go to companies in the live event industry. We had the pleasure of speaking with Gene Huff, owner and founder of HappyBelly Vending, and his leadership team to hear all about the ins and outs of touring, pop-ups, festivals, and running operations for stadium size shows around the country. Let’s get started!
What led you to starting HappyBelly Vending?
Gene: It all started with my friend Chris with Tsurt when he contacted me about starting a vending company. He was the merch company and he needed someone to handle the vending side of things, so he suggested I start up a vending company. I was hesitant because I'd always been a road guy, but I decided to try it out.
Sabroso Festival was my very first HBV event in Dana Point, California. From there, I went on and did all of John Reese’s festivals. Not long after that, Rob at Warner reached out and asked if I could come fill in as a virtual road rep, handling one-off tours of theirs around the country. After that, I figured how to get a business license and just started doing it!
You manage tours for some of the largest companies including Warner Music Group and Bravado. How do you continue to manage the exponential growth?
Gene: I couldn't do any of this without my team. One of the biggest things that I've learned
through my favorite self-help books is 'say yes, don't say no.' I get asked if we can do something and I will say 'yeah let's do it' and we figure it out together as a team.
Gene talked to us a lot about you (his leadership team) but would love to get your own description of your roles at HBV?
John: I am responsible for all of our internal structure and operations within HBV. Finances, legal, insurance and process development. I was hired in as Controller and moved to VP in October of 2022. I guess you can say I’m the guy who keeps the wheel turning, while Gene is the visionary who’s always looking for the next thing and bringing us new business.
Burke: My role as Live Events Director sounds pretty simple and straight up—I oversee all the venues, festivals, and vending staff that HappyBelly services around the country. I also help handle all new venue and festival acquisitions as well as staffing around the country! As one of the first few employees to start working for Gene, I pride myself on striving to be the hardest worker in the room. Whether that’s staffing 100 vendors for a stadium show and leaving no stone unturned in our advance with the artist/venue—or managing 70+ DJs for a 4-day EDM festival I always hope to lead by example with the work I put in. My role is unique and extensive, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. I love this gig!
Emmett: I am the Director of Full-Service Merchandise. My role encompasses pretty much every aspect of tour merch from stem to stern. Me and my team oversee creative, design, production, manufacturing, tour forecasting, budgeting, accounting, shipping logistics, international customs brokering, hiring of vendors and local reps, e-commerce services, and so on. Any and everything that has to do with artist merchandise.
Kevin: My main role is as a member of our very small, yet mighty, Tour Management team. We work with dozens of road reps currently on tour, and we support them in any way they need—any time of day but mostly at night. Having been a road guy with extensive experience working on the Monster Jam Tours has really played a huge part in how I relate with and support our current road reps. Every couple months, I still get to hit the road and cover shows—I’m always most comfortable when I’m in the basement of an arena.
Eric: At HBV, we are all a team in the truest sense. We all help each other with anything and everything, whenever we can. I work in the Tour Management department, where we do everything from staffing tours, setting up one-off shows, training reps, settling shows remotely, and supporting our touring road reps with whatever they may need.
Under The Big Sky Festival
How did you all get started and end up at HBV?
John: I met Gene in 2017 when I was the Tour Manager for Kid Rock. Our dear friend, Tom Husman, had fallen ill and Gene took over the tour. We did a few shows together and just hit it off. I had been moving more toward business management work as Gene’s business continued to grow, and one day in September 2021, he called and said “Hello! So… I need help!” At the time, I had no idea how big of a project this would grow to be!
Burke: I connected with Gene after about 10-12 years of vending shows and seeing Gene on the road with different bands through the years. Eventually, I started to develop a name as trusted local vendor help for road reps coming thru San Diego. This led to working with a few other folks that eventually gave me an official intro to Gene and HappyBelly. We started small, working together at local beer and punk festivals in San Diego and Orange County, with me assisting in the managing of the events we were doing together and the staffing. Everything eventually grew and grew into the amazing relationship we have today!
Emmett: I got to know Gene and the HBV crew while working with them for the 25th Anniversary Warped Tour shows. I was part of the team that oversaw those events and HBV was hired to handle the vending. Fast forward a couple years, and the live event merch world had been floored up by the pandemic. I hadn’t worked much at all in 2020 and had a diminished role for most of 2021, given the absence of touring for much of the year. When tours came back full swing I reached out to Gene as he was looking for help on some projects. I came on in a part time role, helping to manage a couple tours at the end of 2021. By the spring of 2022 we were building our roster, and it was off to the races!
Kevin: I was working for Monster Jam back in 2008 which is when I originally met Gene. He was a road rep on that tour and we worked closely together for several months. I remember going out to Oakland and one night, I pitched in to help Gene and his assistant organize inventory for the show pull. They seemed surprised that I was willing to help them out, and I was like, "yeah, man, that's what I'm here for. Whatever you need me to do, I'm glad to help." Fast forward a few years and we found ourselves on the road again—this time with Mayhem. We worked really well together and at that point, Gene had already started HappyBelly and asked me to join the family. The rest is history.
Eric: I met Gene Huff on a tour I did in 2012. He and I hit it off right away, and have since done countless shows, tours, and food hangs together over the years. When he approached me about coming on board with HBV, I was currently on a tour, and my wife and I also had a second daughter on the way. The timing could not have been more perfect for me and my family. I was happy for the opportunity to get off the road and have more time with my family.
The HappyBelly Vending Team Ready To Set Up At State Farm Stadium
What is one of the most surprising things you learned early on with being a business owner?
Gene: All the details of the business side. As we started doing business for multiple corporations, I had to start invoicing them to keep track and I didn’t know how to make an invoice…so I Google searched "what does an invoice look like?" –And I just started learning. This is just one of many reasons why John and my team are so important. There are so many parts to the business side that if you don't have a team, you just can't keep up.
State Farm Stadium Ready For Metallica With HappyBelly
With running so many large events all over the country, is it ever challenging getting vendors for your events?
Gene: Honestly it hasn't been. It is amazing the network we have. When we have events we reach out to the hundreds of people in our network about upcoming events, locations, and needs. The team shows up and we put on the show! What's great is our network and family continues to grow, that's one of the things I am genuinely happy about is that we have new people every show and getting to be their first show and taste of the live event industry is a great feeling.
For all of you, what are your most memorable events (good or bad)?
Gene: One of my most memorable events would have to be when I met Randy Johnson, the former pitcher for the Seattle Mariner's. I am a huge baseball fan, and he happens to be a huge heavy metal fan, so when I saw him at Ozzfest Meets Knotfest, I offered him any merch he wanted in exchange for a photo together. From that point on, I became his merch buddy and hooked him up with t-shirts from his favorite bands. By the end of that festival, I ended up with the best photo of him and I together and he had the biggest smile on his face. Best moment ever!
John: I’d have to say my most memorable event was when I caught an ACDC show back in 2015 at Ford Field in Detroit. ACDC has always been my favorite go-to for loud rock music. These days, I love all the work we do out west, especially at SoFi Stadium.
Burke: Thinking back over some of the coolest events I’ve done, especially recently, my favorite was a festival in Montana called ‘Under Big Sky’. Our main merch location was in a big barn on a beautiful ranch! Pretty sweet deal!
Emmett: Working with Gene and crew at the Warped Tour 25th Anniversary show in Atlantic City is one of my favorite memories. I was able to witness first-hand not only how competent and hard working his team was, but also how much fun they liked to have. In true HappyBelly fashion, there was a LOT of food and a lot of laughs.
Kevin: It was a stadium show in Mexico. For large events, especially in Mexico, we were always supposed to have an armored car come pick up the cash at the end of the night. On this night, it never showed up so I had to take cash back to the hotel with me in my backpack—hoping nobody would notice or stop me. The next morning, we scheduled the armored car to come to my hotel and when they arrived, I was taken to the back of a stairwell because they don't want to do this sort of hand-off in the lobby—obviously, right? It was just me, the concierge, and two armored security guards, and I was like—”oh, I'm definitely gonna die!” I went to go pick my bag up to pull out the cash and the bag ripped, sending pesos and coins everywhere! At that point, I was like—”oh yeah, now I am definitely going to die!" Everything went smoothly but if you need a good story as to why events should be cashless, this is the one.
Eric: The one that stands out for me is seeing one of my favorite bands in an unusual location. One of the artists I was with for years has an annual cruise. One year, Rancid was booked on that cruise. I know the term is cliche, but Rancid was a "life changing" band for me. They were one of the first punk bands I ever listened to around age 12, and I was in love. Fast forward more than 20 years, I never would have guessed I would get to watch them play in an intimate theater on a ship in the middle of the ocean. That was definitely a special moment for me. I think I tended to take things for granted on the road, but taking a step back to reflect on all the years I had out there really reminds me of how special and unique of a career it is.
Merch set up and ready For Morgan Wallen!
Pop-up events have become quite popular this year and you've run many of them from Blackpink to BTS, Run DMC, and the multi-city event for Ed Sheeran earlier in the summer. Does planning pop-up events differ from tours or festivals?
Gene: The turnaround time is definitely a lot shorter than many tours and festivals, but everything we need to do prior to the event is similar. Staffing, planning of the shipment arrivals, setup, etc. The pop-up events have become more popular, and we've done so many more this year than prior years.
Burke: The challenges pop up stores bring is a lot different than that of a regular show day. So much more importance is placed on the aesthetic of a Pop-up store, and creating an amazing experience for the fans coming through, because there’s no concert at the end—just the merch. The merch is meant to be the cherry on top. Hiring amazing companies like our friends in SLAACK is so vital to these events because they’re the best at what they do. I believe these Rock n Roll and Retail-style pop-ups we’ve been doing the last few years are here to stay, and will only continue to grow because it keeps people thinking about the artists they love—what’s happening with them and what’s coming next.
Kevin: The biggest difference is that the time from finding out to being on-site for the physical event could be just a few days. Being in an industry where last minute changes are very common, we know how to handle these types of events. The workload is just condensed for everything you need to do for a festival into a much shorter time frame.
Merch Setup at Citizens Bank Arena For PINK!
What is one thing (or multiple) about your role that takes longer than many would think or challenges you deal with that people wouldn’t know if they aren’t in the industry?
Burke: Oh this one’s easy! Staffing staffing staffing! We have an incredible team of vendors that work with us all over the country but for most people doing shows is a side hustle and everyone has families so coordinating multiple big events with large amounts of staff all over the place can definitely be a time consuming challenge!
Emmett: I don’t think most industry outsiders really consider everything that goes into live event merch. The amount of planning and coordination it takes for a t-shirt to get into a fans’ hands is crazy when you think about it. It’s a months-long process that involves so many people along the way.
Kevin: Often times, one-off’s come to us when it's pretty much crunch time, and it’s on us to figure out how to get sellers, ship credit card machines, and get the product there in time. But hey—that's what we do! There’s a certain challenge in the shorter turnaround that we all find fun and exciting.
Eric: I think that many people who are not in the industry would be surprised at everything involved in having merchandise at a show. We're essentially setting up stores ground up whether inside or outside the venues, including managing the shipments of product, unloading, etc. And then staffing!
Gene, you've mentioned a few times on reflecting back to your touring days and how appreciative you are of your team and the life you have now. Is there anything specific from your touring days you are referring to?
Gene: While congratulating me on everything with HBV, one of my old colleagues said something that sums it up best and will always stay with me:
“Who knew that that fucking mess that was out on the road with me would have turned out to be the person who you are today.”
He said it a lot nicer than that (haha) but it is a reminder of where I came from. “That fucking mess” (referring to my days prior to getting sober) is what got me here today. When he originally knew me, I was a completely different person. That was the craziest time in my life, before I got sober in 2009. It’s one of those reminders of where you’ve been and where you are now. Since then, I have worked on me and I’m always trying to constantly improve myself and be of help to those around me. For this, I am incredibly grateful.
As your company continues to grow, what advice would give to those who are trying to grow their own business?
Gene: The biggest thing that’s helped HBV as we continue to grow and add new services to the business, has been organization and communication. As simple as it sounds, just being organized and on the same page with everyone else on the team makes a world of difference—from saving time as we are planning tours, events, etc. Being organized and always ensuring everything is being done “by the book” was when I started seeing the most success.
What’s one of your favorite traditions or routines on the road?
Gene: For me, meditation is a routine and sushi is a personal tradition. In addition, one of my favorite and most impactful traditions that I started, though, was attending regular AA meetingsaround the country. Being on the road can be hard, especially if you are a recovering alcoholic. Finding local AA meetings and having a safe place to go and process was a game-changer for me. It’s what helped me become a better human and continue working in this industry that I love.
John: Having grown up near the Great Lakes, I’ve always been an outdoorsy kind of guy. So, when I’m on the road, I’m always looking for ways to get out of the building and into nature. Bonus if there’s a body of water nearby.
Burke: Oh this one is easy—FOOD! FOOD! FOOD! ( lol! ) Our management team travels the country and is a family—our favorite tradition is finding amazing restaurants in the cities we are working in. Our traveling management team has been doing shows together for over a decade now, so finding cool things to do in new cities is the icing on the cake.
HappyBelly also runs venue merch operations, adding multiple venues to your roster in 2023. What has been at top of mind as you continue to grow different areas of your business?
Gene: I want to deliver the best experience possible for our customers, the fans, and our team. I want people coming to the venue, festival, or tour we are running to think "Oh, Gene runs this. We've got nothing to worry about, everything will be great." A lot of venues don’t know how to handle concert merchandise operations. It’s simply that they don't know what they don't know. That’s why we’re there.
You've mentioned fan, customer, and team experience are the most important and top of mind. How do you help promote that culture?
Gene: I brought my little company to atVenu a few years ago because I wanted to be ahead of the game and be able to give my customers the best experience possible, plus my team loves atVenu. I’ve continued to grow my team with people I trust and who have the same mentality of what’s important. I also buy my team sushi when we are on the road every now and then. Good sushi. That doesn't hurt.
Could you talk more about how your AA meeting tradition got started?
Gene: One day a Tour Manager for the Mayhem Festival came into production + asked if there were any AA meetings on this festival. I overheard the question and said “Yes!” and I decided right then that I would find a way to start holding them.
I went to the festival owner and got permission, and then realized I had to figure out and when to make it work for everyone who wanted to join.
At the next stop on the tour, I started putting up signs for “Friends of Bill W” meetings 3 times a day. Nobody showed up the first day. Around 9:30pm that night, I was sitting on my bus when I got a call from production that someone was looking for the meeting.
I immediately hopped on my golf cart and made my way to the production office. I met the person, and we headed over to a dressing room we would use for the meeting. So, three of us walk into this dressing room, and he says, “Everybody out! We need the room for 30 minutes.” And that was our first meeting.
What went from once or twice a week soon became a daily routine for both locals and touring professionals.
To have an AA meeting while Slayer was rocking the house all full volume was pretty epic. People were in there sharing and Slayer was raging in the background. It was such a incredible experience.
It then became more of a tradition when I brought this to every festival tour I worked on. I wanted people to have somewhere to go where they go and to have a safe space. There are people who are still sober today because of these meetings we started.
Punk In Drublic
What has been one of the most surreal parts of working at HBV as the company continues to grow?
Gene: Each person on my team has grown into really owning their area of expertise and making it their own. I brought them on and trusted them to do their thing, and I’m so proud of what they’ve accomplished individually and collectively. We to continue to see the team grow and evolve because of what each of them brings to the table. I wanted HappyBelly to embody the fun side of events and the good people you get to work with.
John: We provide a lot of consistent employment opportunities for tons of touring and local folks, which can be life changing for many, and something seldom found in this business. Coming from the touring world, I understand how things can change quickly and tours get canceled. Here at HBV, we do our best to make sure folks who are hungry for work and opportunity have it. I am immensely proud of all the people who work with us, as that is really what makes HBV what it is.
Burke: I think the rate or speed at which company continues to grow is the most surreal thing about it. Working with great clients and great vendors on the daily is a massive part of our growth. We appreciate and love all the people we work with. Seeing how an old road dog like Gene has evolved and grown with the new world of merch is awesome. He’s inspiring to work for and work with.
Emmett: The rate at which things have been growing is the most surreal part. When I started, there were maybe 2 or 3 other employees. I don’t even know how many there are now! Getting to know everyone and what they bring to Team HBV has been an amazing experience. Everyone has so much to offer and learn from one another. Can’t wait to see where things go next!
Kevin: The trust that our bigger clients have in us. We are so lucky to work with amazing companies like Warner, Bravado, and Sony. The folks we work with have been in the industry for a long time. They fact that they are trusting us with things that are so critical and time-sensitive says a lot about the high quality of service we provide. They know that all they have todo is to pick up the phone or shoot us an email, and they know they’re in good hands.
You have a great team behind you as your company continues to grow. What is the number one piece of advice you would give someone who may be starting their own business or in a similar situation that you were in just a few years ago?
Gene: Honestly? If you create an environment where you love where you work and who you work with, you will figure everything else out.
One last question. What is one of your favorite things about touring and traveling?
Gene: I like to go find where the locals eat—not diners, drive-ins, and dives, but a little bit more upscale—more Anthony Bourdain. I’m a foodie at heart. Sushi is one of my favorite things and when I’m on the road, good sushi just can’t be beat. I think everyone on my team, and even our partners and customers, probably knows me for my love of sushi.
John: It’s a combination of getting to see the smaller towns in America that I wouldn’t normally see and the people we travel with who are our road family.
Emmett: My touring days are long behind me, so I get to live vicariously through all the road reps I’m fortunate enough to work with.
Kevin: I love walking around the smaller train-stop towns, learning about the local history, checking out museums, and enjoying the food scene.
If you want to learn more about HappyBelly Vending and their services click here.