The largest St. Patrick's Day-themed pub crawl in the world is coming to Savannah.
The inaugural Irish Pub Challenge will be from noon to 8 p.m. March 1 in nine Savannah pubs. The event began in Boston in 2009 as a promotional event put on by Tenon Tours.
Bryan Lewis is the president of Tenon Tours and Shamrock Nation, both based in Boston, which sponsor the event.
"We started it to promote our tour company," he says. "We specialize in travel to Ireland.
"We wanted to raise awareness of Ireland among locals. It was an overnight success.
"That first year, 450 people signed up and it's doubled every year since," Lewis says. "This year, we're expecting 5,000 people."
Over the years, the Boston event has grown to include 31 pubs. The way it works is the teams visit local pubs, where they accumulate points and compete for the champion title and the grand prize: a trip to Ireland.
"We have it down to a science here," Lewis says. "We promote it as a safe, fun event."
When representatives of Visit Savannah went to Boston, the subject of the St. Patrick's Day celebration came up.
"We're already selling apparel there as Shamrock Nation," Lewis says. "We acquired Shamrock Nation in May, so we're running events under that brand name.
"Also, Savannah has its open container law. We think it will be a perfect fit."
A visit to Savannah sealed the deal.
"We went down and set it up," Lewis says. "It's a fun way to celebrate St. Patrick's Day before the big parade."
Lewis noted that Savannah starts celebrating St. Patrick's Day a month early, with several events planned before St. Patrick's Day.
"We wanted to make this different than our event in Boston," he says. "We decided to make it a challenge.
"We separate the entrants into teams," Lewis says. "Each team goes from pub to pub.
"It isn't just focused on drinking all day," he says. "It will run from noon to 8 p.m., so we won't get the unhappy occurrences you get when it runs up to midnight or 1 a.m."
Locals are embracing the idea.
"The feedback has been good," Lewis says. "It's an opportunity for people to celebrate St. Patrick's Day early, because a lot of them are working that day or don't want to get mixed up in the crowds."
"We've been selling tickets every day," Lewis says. "We expect about 400 people and we have nine local pubs."
The participating pubs are Kevin Barry's, Dub's Pub, Molly MacPherson's, The Rail Pub, Moon River Brewing Co., World of Beer, Saddle Bags, JJ Bonerz and Rusty Rudders.
"Each pub will have 50 team members at a time," Lewis says. "We'll end up with 350 to 450 entrants.
"Nine pubs with 50 people at a time is the limit," he says. "If we sell out, that's it."
While the pubs are not required to be strictly Irish pubs, they must meet certain qualifications to participate.
"We try to keep or maintain our integrity," Lewis says. "We don't require them all to be Irish pubs, but they must be more pubby pubs."
Each pub is assigned a team, and entrants will register at their pub.
"We break it down so it's steady and consistent and easily managed. We did it in Boston as a free-for-all one time, but feedback has shown us that everyone wants to be told where to go and when. They have to go to each bar, so there isn't a big surge at any one of them."
Savannah is the second city to be chosen as a location for the pub challenge.
"We were going to add Chicago this year," Lewis says. "But with setting up Savannah, that's going to have to wait."
Included in the $27 cost of admission is an event wristband, team gear and access to the "Munzee" scavenger app, which is used during the challenge to scan QR codes.
There will be no cover charges at any of the pubs for participants, who are eligible for exclusive food and drink specials and 25 percent off Shamrock Nation apparel. In addition, they'll receive an official 2014 Irish Pub Challenge T-shirt and koozie, plus free shamrock beads, hats, boppers and other swag.
"We've done this for about 12,000 people over the past six years," Lewis says. "We've gotten a half dozen complaints in that time, and that was because a bar decided to close an hour early."
Lewis has no doubt the event in Savannah will grow in coming years.
"The reason it doubled here is because it grows organically through word of mouth," he says. "If it grows in Savannah, it could bring in a couple thousand people.
"We will come back next year," Lewis says. "I think once this year is a success, people will start to recognize it and it will become as successful as the one in Boston."