Friday, 12 June 2015

This is about me, not you

Curmudgeon has written a post about beer festivals, including the question of whether a festival should hold beers back for the later sessions, or put them all at once and let the later sessions have fewer. He points out that increasingly festivals incline to the latter, but read the post for his full reasoning. One thing he said caught my attention: "... it has to be recognised that a beer festival is run in the interest of the customers, not for the convenience of the staff." As a principle, I agree, but how far does this translate to practice?

As a former civil servant, I could claim to have been a professional bureaucrat, but I've noticed that amateur and volunteer organisations often love to create red tape - it seems there are loads of wannabe civil servants out there, and CAMRA is no exception. Compare the traditional festival experience to a pub.

  1. Walk into pub.
  2. Order drink at bar.
  3. Hand over cash and begin to drink.
  1. Enter festival hall.
  2. Queue at admissions desk to pay entry.
  3. Sign in, giving name and home town (CAMRA members only).
  4. Queue for beer tokens.
  5. Queue for glass.
  6. Order drink at bar.
  7. Pay by token and begin to drink.
Whenever I asked why we got members to sign in, I was told it was interesting to see where people had come from: in other words, we had an additional queue to satisfy people's curiosity. Most festivals have in more recent years tried to make the admissions process more user friendly, but other strange practices remain:
  • Although CAMRA succeeded in its campaign for all day opening in pubs 27 years ago, some of its festivals still close in the afternoon.
  • Festivals have separate counters for glass and beer token refunds.
  • Festivals are increasingly moving to having half pint glasses only. 
I have asked about opening hours, and was told that the staff needed a break to clear up for the evening session. Perhaps, but CAMRA didn't accept this argument when the pub industry used it. In reality, it is to justify having two separate admissions charges in a single day. Either way, it's for the convenience of the festival.

The separate refund counters are more convenient for the festival, but not for the public.

Half pints: a couple of reasons for this. Some staff are over-generous when serving half pints in pint glasses or giving tasters. I have to say that, although I've worked at festivals since the mid-1980s, I've never known any kind of instruction about the financial importance of serving a correct half measure in a pint glass, nor about not giving too much away in tasters. I have wondered whether some volunteers think the beer is free. The solution is to instruct them and keep an eye on them, correcting any mistakes, not to eliminate pint glasses.

The other is that customers are more likely to keep half pint glasses rather than pints, so that the festival isn't left with unsold stock. At a festival, most drinkers probably have half pints anyway, but there are some who prefer pints. Unsold stock is not the concern of the drinker, so it seems unreasonable that punters should be dictated to in terms of the quantities they can buy their drinks for this reason. Try that in a pub!

Non-CAMRA festivals are even worse: as well as dictating the size of the glass, they insist you buy and keep it. They also don't refund unsold beer tokens. 

Often there is a good reason for a practice: festivals have to have admission charges, deposits on glasses and beer tokens, although a few festival organisers disagree and operate cash bars; inevitably all these can cause certain delays, which are acceptable as long as they're unavoidable. It isn't right when a festival determines its processes for its own benefit and convenience. Festivals and pubs aren't the same thing, but organisers should try to replicate the pub experience as far as is practicable.

I have deliberately not named any festivals as all the points I have made refer to more than one.


  1. Here's my experience of the last festival I went to:

    1. Walk up the CAMRA half of the stairs into the hall, flashing CAMRA card at a volunteer as I go
    2. Put money down for a glass (I went for a rather nice stemmed lined half-pint)
    3. Put money down for beer.

    Stage 3 in your list does sound particularly ridiculous, but stages 2 and 4 can sometimes be dispensed with too.

  2. I think I can guess which festival Phil is talking about ;-)

    Very often there is a lot of "we've always done it that way" about beer festivals, not helped by the people running them not being particularly commercially-minded.

  3. Despite being a member for ten years I've never carried my card with me so never paid a member's admission price and consequently have never had to "sign in". If it bothers you that much, forego the presumably very small admission price reduction!

    In terms of the half pint glasses only thing, I've never seen it. I've also never been to a CAMRA beer fest where they don't just operate cash bars. Off the top of my head I've only been to all the London ones, Snorbans, Peterborough, Cambridge and Oxford though. Maybe it's different in the north.

    I think you have to be fair and remember the people running these things are volunteers, often of advanced years and usually ex trade unionists and the like. So they're bound to be a bit inflexible. I'm pleased they do what they do though. CAMRA beer festivals for all their faults are far better than commercial attempts at the same. That Craft Beer Rising thing was like hell on earth. I was there as an exhibitor with Portobello (I'm an investor in it) but felt it was terrible for customers.

  4. That's the way I think it should be, Phil.

    I've come across all of these things at various festivals, although I've not come across signing in for a while. I'm not complaining from a personal point of view - I'm usually working so most of this doesn't apply to me anyway. As for the members' reduction: in Southport and Wigan, you get in free if you show your card, which can be the price of a pint; whether that's a small reduction is a matter of opinion.

    My own experiences - not just in CAMRA - don't support the suggestion that being older, a volunteer or even an ex-trade unionist make you more inflexible. Lack of imagination, self-importance and obstinacy might though.

  5. A well written article, as always Nev, and one which I agree with most of the points you raise. However, there are a few issues which I wish to comment on; the strangest one being CAMRA members being asked to “sign in”.

    As a CAMRA member of over 40 years standing, and someone who has attended beer festivals up and down the country, I don’t recall ever having been asked to do this. Perhaps I was lucky with the festivals, and the year of my visit, but I do agree that making people queue just so the organisers can collect information on where visitors have come from is both crazy, and damn right nosey.

    I’m not in favour of tokens either. I fully understand all the reasons put forward for their use, but the general public don’t like them and often end up confused. It is interesting that cash sales at the bar are the order of the day at GBBF; so why not make that extra bit of effort and apply the same process to all CAMRA festivals?

    One complaint I hear quite frequently, particularly when I volunteer at a festival, is “I’ve paid out three quid for a glass and another tenner for these tokens, and I haven’t even had a drink yet!” When there’s an admission charge as well, people understandably think they’re being ripped off, especially if they have not been to a beer festival before.

    I know most CAMRA festivals offer refunds on tokens, but the general public don’t always realise this. Tokens get lost, or screwed up in peoples’ pockets and unfortunately this only increases the impression that a visit to a beer festival can be an expensive day out.

    We do have to take into account that CAMRA beer festivals are organised and staffed by unpaid volunteers, so it is perhaps understandable that some of the practices you refer to are necessary. However, we should not lose sight of the fact that the prime purpose of these events is to introduce the public at large to the vast range of different beers which are available these days, and to help them appreciate the distinctions between the various styles and strengths.

    Beer festivals should not exist solely for the benefit of CAMRA activists or, even worse, the “ticking brigade”.


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