Sunday, 11 February 2018

Wake up and smell the coffee

By David Edgar - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,
Despite the furore and controversy surrounding the somewhat radical proposals put forward by CAMRA's much vaunted "Revitalisation Project", one important issue seems to have been glossed over.

It's actually more than important it's vital to the very survival of CAMRA as a campaigning organisation; certainly in the medium to long term. The issue is being glossed over, swept under the carpet if you like, and yet it really is the "elephant in the room".

Before I reveal all, I want to mention that I wrote about this subject last year, in a post entitled "It's more than just a numbers game", but at a time when CAMRA under its current CEO, Tim Page remain obsessed with chasing ever increasing membership figures, they remain oblivious to the fact that the vast majority of new recruits are just armchair members.

These are folk content to pay their subscriptions, enjoy free or reduced entry to CAMRA beer festivals (which is probably where most of them joined anyway) and take full advantage of the Wetherspoon's vouchers - almost certainly the reason why many of them signed up in the first place.

Beer festivals don't just run themselves, but take one hell of a lot of organising. Finding sufficient members willing to volunteer and offer their services to allow festivals to happen has been a problem for many years, but more recently has been exacerbated by an increasingly ageing active membership pool, and the problem here is the numbers in this pool is in free-fall as people either become incapacitated, or shuffle off this mortal coil altogether.

When I, and many of my contemporaries first signed up, CAMRA was very much a young person's organisation, with much of the membership either in their twenties or early thirties. Nowadays you will be lucky to find any active members under 50, and in many branches the age is more likely to be 60!

If this ageing issue was just affecting CAMRA-run beer festivals it wouldn't be too much of a problem, but far more seriously if the affect it will have on another main activity of CAMRA's. and that is collecting and collating information for the group's best selling publication, the annual Good Beer Guide.

I somewhat doubt as to whether regular users of the Guide, let alone casual users, appreciate the amount of legwork put in by ordinary branch members in ensuring the publication not only appears each year, but is as accurate and as up to date as a publication of this kind can be; especially when you consider the groundwork is carried out solely by volunteers.

Getting feedback from people out in the field is difficult enough; a good case in point being the exchange of comments between myself and a member from neighbouring North East Sussex branch, which pointed out I was the only person to have submitted beer scores for the Bull at Ticehurst, in over a year.

Performing this action is the easy part, and is something that less active members could easily do, if they could be bothered. What happens next is where the real work begins, and if anything it becomes harder as the process progresses.

Based on information received from NBSS scores, feedback from members, observations and findings from branch pub-crawls or rural outings, plus of course the previous year's entries, branches will draw up a short list of likely candidates for the following year's Guide. Volunteers will then be sought to go out and survey the pubs on the shortlist (in West Kent branch, we ask that members who recommend a specific pub, actually take the time to go back and revisit the establishment in question and fill out a proper survey form).

Anyone who has filled one out of these wretched forms will know just what a pain they can be. At one time the Guide was typeset directly from these forms, so they were supposed to be "machine readable". Filling in each square on the form in BLOCK CAPITALS was one of the most tiresome tasks known to man; I should know as I've still got the scars to prove it!

For some strange reason CAMRA still insists on these rather antiquated forms, even though entries are now made electronically onto the GBG database, by each branch. But here lies another problem; much of the information on the survey forms is incomplete inaccurate, or sometimes both.

The individuals tasked with inputting the information often have to recheck; a frustrating and time-consuming process. Even worse are the pub descriptions; often  written by people lacking a basic knowledge of English grammar, or indeed English itself. A friend who has been carrying out this thankless, and unpaid task for several years, showed me an example, written totally without punctuation of any description. As all the text was written in block capitals, my friend spent a frustrating afternoon trying to decipher this garbage and in the end had to re-write the piece himself.

Such occurrences are not uncommon, but I wonder whether CAMRA realise, let alone appreciate the effort put in by a small, but dedicated group of individuals in order to get their flagship publication ready for the printers.

The number of volunteers willing to give up their evenings or weekends, to act as unpaid typesetters, is already in short supply, and in my own branch one of them is now saying, quite understandably, that due to work commitments, he can no longer spare the time needed for this task.

So returning for a while to CAMRA's proposals to transform itself into an all-embracing organisation for anyone who appreciates good beer, regardless of the methods of processing and dispense. If these ideas are adopted by the Campaign as a whole, can we expect to see a surge in new members all willing to get off their backsides and get out there doing some legwork?

I think we all know the answer, but rather like our current government in relation to an impending major constitutional change, CAMRA's current leadership have their heads buried firmly in the sand. I would like to use the same analogy between those running the country, and the top people within the Campaign for Real Ale, and say to them "Be very careful what you wish for", as lurking somewhere in the background, and often hiding just beneath the surface, will be the Law of Unintended Consequences, known in more general parlance, as the "Law of Sod"!

To end, the Good Beer Guide won’t disappear overnight of course, but it will slowly become less and less relevant. Without up to date, and accurate information, which only local CAMRA branches can really provide, the Guide will lose its cutting edge and its unique selling point will become increasingly diluted.

CAMRA cannot ignore this truth for much longer, even though it likes to pretend everything’s fine and the sun won’t be setting on their flagship publication any time soon. I can only speak for my own branch, where I know we are having difficulty in keeping tabs on all of our pubs, but I’m certain there are other branches in a similar, or possibly worse position.

So stop chasing membership numbers and recognise there is a real problem within the Campaign, otherwise no amount of tinkering with aims and objectives will save the organisation from a slow and lingering decline.


Russtovich said...

I guess quality over quantity, ever the way, eh?
(seems to be the same for the number of pumps in pubs for example) ;)

Sigh, don't envy you lot over there trying to get this sorted out. I think part of the problem is the competition from new technologies (just my two cents). Heck, I could see WhatPub or Trip Advisor or some such putting in a section for rating real ales on their sites.

New blood is all very well, but it's not much good if it's not pumped to where it's needed.

All the more reason to enjoy places like the Bull while you can.


PS - "will know just what a pan they can be."

Pain methinks. ;)

Paul Bailey said...

CAMRA’s newish CEO, (he’s been in the job for just over two years now), is ex-military with a background of working in the charity sector. It’s definitely all about raising funds and numbers in that field, and the two go hand-in-hand.

Perhaps I’m being a little hard on him, but I do wonder whether he truly appreciates the work carried out at grass-roots level, just to make sure beer festivals happen and the Good Beer Guide appears each year.

The dreaded “revitalisation” project started off with the best of intentions, but could well end up as a Great British Compromise i.e. the worst of both worlds, rather than the best. A little like a camel being an animal designed by a committee!

We shall see, but the worse case scenario is the exercise ends up splitting the Campaign down the middle. There’s been enough division and disharmony in the country as a whole following the political stunt attempted by the previous Prime Minister, without us needing any more, but hey-ho, welcome to modern Britain.

Finally Russ thanks, as always, for spotting the inevitable typo. It will be duly corrected this evening.

Stono said...

well What Pub does let you add beer scores, you login and enter the data and I presume it ends up somewhere for your local branch to use, but on the basis I only added 12 all of last year,and only because I had a splurge just before GBG selection time came around, vs just under the 1000 I happily rated on Untappd, still shows it feels a lot of faff, even if its a million times better than a bit of paper.

but I think you are right about how its the member volunteers who do the legwork, be they organising a beer festival which is a thankless task, distributing campaign literature, beer guide scoring and checking are the heart of CAMRA, CAMRA isnt HQ or the CEO or the NE, its the members who volunteer their time and campaign and thats something I always noted the previous CEO was always at pains to highlight, CAMRAs success was down to the members, not some ethereal governing body running the show.

and I do fear the way things may turn out youll end up with an organisation no different to a number of nationwide organisations, where membership is just about a quarterly direct debit, a sticker to put in your car, magazine and discount admissions.

Ian Worden said...

I think Stono's last paragraph is right except that you already have this situation. I didn't get to the local branch AGM this year but the landlord of the venue told me later that some 30-40 people attended which is about the same as we got in the 80s and 90s when I was 'active'. I don't know how many pubs are left in the area but it used to be nearly 1000 and it is just impossible for the small active membership to keep tabs on every one. We did bring in a rule which meant that a pub had to have a minimum of four votes to go forward for the GBG but that could be circumvented if a group of four visited on the same night so effectively the pub could go in on the strength of one visit. Being East London & City, the City part got much better coverage because more people visited/worked there, but some of the more remote parts (Dagenham Dock, anyone?) hardly ever featured on people's itineraries.

The good news is that the branch seems to have had a couple of large scale changes in active membership since the 90s so there is some 'new blood' coming along, but probably not in the numbers that are really needed.

I haven't bought the GBG for years because I usually travel to places that I or friends already know and we are happy with a couple of reliable beers rather than a bank of handpumps. Otherwise, a check in the internet gives much more up to date information on local pubs in any area. The GBG available now is probably based on surveys from around 15 months ago and a lot can change in that time.

Paul Bailey said...

Like many others Stono, I much preferred Mike Benner as CAMRA CEO, but he was poached by SIBA, who obviously knew they were onto a good thing.

We had a similar conversation at work the other day, regarding membership numbers and the National Trust. Their problem seems to be too many Life Members, qualifying for free admission to NT properties, and not enough ordinary visitors, turning up at the gates of the stately pile, and handing over their cash.

Ian, West Kent branch don’t have much difficulty in attracting volunteers to work at our festival, (possibly due to the free beer). It’s GBG surveying and even NBSS scores which seems to be the problem.

I agree that the majority of the information in each year’s GBG, is out of date, but it’s probably more current than other guides; particularly the pay for entry ones.

For the record, the last GBG I bought was five years ago. I have the free GBG App on my phone, but don’t tend to use it much, relying instead on Whatpub.

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