Saturday 16 November 2013

Beer festivals - campaign or commerce?

2014 marks something of a landmark for CAMRA Liverpool and Districts: they are finally putting some of their beer festival tickets on line. I've written about this a few times in recent years, particularly here, provoking quite a hostile reaction from a couple of members of that branch. In addition to some flak aimed at me, Doug Macadam, the chair of my own CAMRA branch (Southport and West Lancs), was harangued while working at the Liverpool beer festival and, for some reason, Ken and Carol Worthington of Wigan branch, friends of mine, were questioned too. All a gross overreaction: it was only me shouting my mouth off.

However, much as I'd like to think this blog is highly influential, I feel that Liverpool's move to on-line ticketing has less to do with anything I wrote and more to do with the festivals being run by Liverpool Organic Brewery and others in the city, all of whom effortlessly put their tickets on line. For some reason, CAMRA are still having their sales day, although this time it will involve queueing in the Augustus John pub near the cathedral rather than in the freezing cold outside the crypt, but on-line sales do mean that if you live further afield you have a chance of getting a ticket.

Which brings me to the question of price. Liverpool CAMRA will charge £7 a session. This is comparable to the Liverpool Organic Brewery's charging of £7 a session for their festival in the Old Christ Church in Waterloo and £8 for their festival in St George's Hall and their festival in the Black-E next month. I appreciate that these venues don't come cheap, and the success of these festivals suggests that there are enough people around able and willing to pay such prices.

Perhaps we should remind ourselves why we have beer festivals. In their current form, they were invented by CAMRA in the 1970s as a way of campaigning, the idea was to show people that the range and - sometimes - quality of real ale could be much better than what they were used to locally. CAMRA's job has changed but is still necessary, as every year a new generation of drinkers upon reaching 18 is subjected to expensive advertising campaigns for the latest fad drink: it was alcopops for a while, but now it seems to be fruit or pear ciders. Some say CAMRA's work is done because real ale has been saved, but no situation is static: vast drinks corporations will always try to steer young drinkers towards high profit, mass-produced and easily handled products. They do this because real ale has a lower profit margin and is less easy to look after.

I am unsure how festivals charging £7 or £8 fit in to the campaigning ethic. Liverpool Organic Brewery can rightly point out that they are a business, not a campaign, but CAMRA can't say the same. Look at these other CAMRA festival prices as a contrast:
  • Manchester (300+ real ales) next January: entry £2 to £5; CAMRA members free on 2 out the 4 days.
  • Wigan (70+ real ales) last March: entry £1 to £3; CAMRA members free at all times.
  • Southport (50+ real ales) last month: entry £3; CAMRA members free at all times.
While it is generally true that the majority of people at festivals are already committed real drinkers, even though most of them aren't CAMRA members, I wonder whether the high admission prices being charged by all festivals in Liverpool will discourage those who might want just to find out about real ale and cider; will these festivals increasingly cater only for the converted? In my opinion, they will. Having to buy tickets in advance increases the tendency of the festivals to become drinking extravaganzas for the knowledgeable, seeing that most ordinary drinkers, whether they drink real ale or not, don't usually plan their drinking sessions weeks or months in advance. The three festivals listed above don't have advance tickets and, with lower admission charges, are more likely to cater for those who decide, perhaps at the last minute, "Come on, let's go and see what this beer festival's all about."

But I don't want to be too churlish: Liverpool CAMRA has after 2 or 3 years of "looking into" on-line tickets finally taken the plunge. It wasn't so bad after all, was it?

Having said all that, it is a well-run festival in a great venue, and it's not my intention to discourage anyone from going. I am simply reflecting upon what I see as a shift away from campaigning.


  1. A tricky one Nev, given the high rental cost of certain venues, particularly large city-centre ones. However, I agree with your argument that advanced ticketing and high admission prices discourage spontaneity and can lead to a festival full of beer connoiseurs rather than ordinary drinkers.

    This is not what CAMRA is, or should be about. As you correctly point out we need to get our message across, and we will not achieve this if we just preach to the already converted. This also is why I believe the £12 on-the-door admission charge to GBBF is way too high, although I'm sure people on the organising committee will give 101 reasons why it has to be set at this level.

    Perhaps CAMRA has lost sight of why beer festivals were set up in the first place. I hope not, but whilst I fully realise they have to be successful commercially, this success should not be at the expense of attracting and encouraging drinkers of all sorts into trying real ale, sometimes for the first time.

  2. The three festivals listed above don't have advance tickets

    Indeed. As a Manchester ale drinker (and it's not that far away) I've actually never heard of advance ticket sales for beer festivals, or of prices nudging double figures - the sole exception being the odd newfangled 'craft' event like IMBC. I'm afraid Liverpool CAMRA are getting this one wrong.

  3. CAMRA festivals long ago ceased to be about campaigning and all to do with swelling the collective bank balance. Remember the days when CAMRA members got in for free? At one time, any profit was seen as an achievement. Now the commercial aims take top priority.

  4. What if CAMRA had a moratorium on beer festivals for a year or so? How much better it would be if all these CAMRA members volunteered to help their local pubs run festivals. Then all the money would go straight into the pubs. At the moment the money goes to CAMRA and the pubs in the vicinity lose trade for a week. But CAMRA send them some beer mats saying they want to help them....

    1. Nice idea anonymous, but somehow I can't see the big-wigs at St Albans signing up to it. Tyson is right in that CAMRA has gone down the corporate, big-business route, probably because it has had to in order to have been successful, so I can't see them killing off the goose that laid the golden egg, any time soon.

      Pub festivals are definitely more inclusive, and a much better way to introduce drinkers to the delights of real ale. They are also not restrained by dogma, so could offer beers served by non-CAMRA approved methods (craft or foreign beers for example).

    2. Why would anyone want to volunteer to work in a pub for free?

    3. If they already volunteer at a CAMRA festival, then what would be wrong with putting their time and energy into volunteering at a pub event instead? Years ago there was room for both, but there are now hundreds of CAMRA festivals taking custom from pubs, it doesn't seem right when pubs are still closing.

    4. currently they volunteer for a campaign they are a member of and those funds might arguably be said to support something they think benefits them. Maybe reducing subs, funding things they want.

      work in a pub for free? Pubs have paid staff.

    5. They wouldn't necessarily have to work in the pub, but instead of organising CAMRA events in non-pubs, they could help pubs organise multi-pub village beer festivals or City of Ale events like the ones I mentioned. That way real ale gets promoted and pubs get supported.

    6. but if the work has commercial value then the individual can choose to give that to whoever they please and may be inclined to give it to campaigns they support, charities they think have merit but profit making commercial enterprises?

      Sounds like IDS making the scroungers stack shelves in poundland for nowt.

  5. It is always tricky this one. Costs have to be covered and risk of losses minimised. The wider campaign needs money too.

    In Manchester we aim to make the cost as reasonable as possible but we also need to support camaigning locally and nationally.

    Tricky as I said, but of course none of us know how Liverpool sets out and prioritises things, nor what the overheads are.

    Of course when you are guaranteed a sellout, changing may be difficult.

  6. I think the only statement I'd challenge from all of this was by Anon, who asserted about CAMRA beer festivals that "At the moment the money goes to CAMRA and the pubs in the vicinity lose trade for a week."

    This isn't true. Plenty of out of town real ale drinkers roll up for a session at the festival and then explore the local real ale pubs. Licensees I've spoken to usually report an increase in trade.

    1. Yes, the pubs within walking distance benefit but the rest of the pubs in the surrounding area lose out. Every pound spent at a CAMRA (or any other organisation) Beer Festival is a pound not spent in a pub.

    2. I'd like to see less CAMRA beers festivals and a lot more events like Norwich City of Ale; Whittlesey Straw Bear; Well and Valley, etc where the beer festivals take place in PUBS! :)

    3. Anon says, "but the rest of the pubs in the surrounding area lose out."

      Your evidence please. In support of my point, I have spoken to many licensees and none has ever told me that a CAMRA beer festival has caused them to lose out.

    4. Many publicans of country pubs in our area have complained. During the week of the festival they do not see any of their regulars as they are all at the beer festival. As I said, the only pubs that benefit are those within walking distance of the festival. The majority of beer festival customers at our local festival are regular real ale drinkers, so a pub somewhere is missing them and their money!

  7. That should be not Well and! Bloomin' predictive text!

  8. Let's all be thankful they've adopted online sales!

    I don't mind the £7 ticket price so much, and it's surely a quite sensible business plan for events which are regularly sold out? It makes the Liverpool Beer Festival expensive, but I'm pretty sure Leeds is £6.50? In a sense, I don't mind CAMRA making money as it's an event I thoroughly enjoy. Card holders get a couple of quid in beer tokens too?

    I'm also not 100% sure that high prices put off 'new drinkers'.. The Waterloo LOB festival seems to attract a very 'new drinker' crowd, with a lot of locals trying it out. The St. Georges hall crowd also seemed very young on the day I was there, but the most positive example was the Liverpool Craft Beer Expo.. No shortage of new drinkers, and no shortage of people paying top dollar for the event (£8.60 tickets? If I remember.)

    The last few years has seen an enormous burst of beer festivals around Liverpool - from 1 or 2 a year to at least 6! And this increase in festivals will attract new drinkers just from the media buzz that surrounds 'craft beer' (whatever that is) at the minute.

    I'm just happy to have so many options.

  9. You can't budget for a loss, I suspect CAMRA need to budget for a surplus and different venues have different costs. Also you want to manage numbers and price is one tool.

    However when I'm not trolling as cooking lager, I have a bit to do with the beard club.

    I'd say for many in CAMRA beer festivals are a money making exercise and little else with members essentially being exploited. CAMRA even sell their volunteer labour on by providing volunteers to 3rd party do's for a price.

    It's a mugs game to be a volunteer, unfortunately.

  10. Reply to Anon:
    City of Ale events: CAMRA Liverpool & Districts Branch did run a Liverpool Real Ale Pubs Festival which ran for two months. They were unable to get it together this year through no fault of their own.
    I know quite a few CAMRA members who regularly volunteer to work at non-CAMRA beer festivals.

  11. im a little late to this party....
    im the head brewer for lob,the festivals we put on are commercial enterprises, we have to chargethe entrance fee to cover expenses(they are many and varied!) ive found theres a good many new faces at each event, i have had many people telling me what a good time theyre having at our events, quite often its their first beer festival. They'll consider real ale at the pub next time they see it, which can only be good for everyone......

    and cookie our wonderful volunteers do get a renumeration package offered, many refuse it and volunteer time and time again, a lot of them say its fun. we hold them in high regard because without them staging these festivals would be an impossible task

    regards critch

    1. As I hope you appreciate, Critch, I wasn't having a pop at LOB and its festivals. The concerns I expressed related to CAMRA and whether it is diluting its campaigning role too much.


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