Virtually there

Katie Mather drops in on the Manchester Pubs Matter Festival


Manchester Beer and Cider Festival 2020 was the last busy beer event I visited without thinking about hand gel, masks or how close I was standing to the people around me. In fact, it was the last event I went to; BeerX in March 2020 went ahead but I was in the grip of Covid fear, and didn’t travel to Liverpool for it. A year on, I’m missing these events. Manchester Beer and Cider Festival in particular is a pillar of my year, kicking every year off with the swing and thump of the Theakston’s cooper’s mallet in the demonstration zone. Here, in the vast space of Manchester Central, is where I drink with beer and cider lovers of all ages and backgrounds, and occasionally, wear the bright volunteer t-shirt with pride. That’s right, I’m in CAMRA, a young(ish) member of my local group (the Clitheroe faction of East Lancashire) and a keen advocate for beer education, enjoyment and equality, and for the promotion of pub use as important centres of our communities. This isn’t an ambush, I’m not asking you to join too. I’m just saying CAMRA in 2021 probably isn’t what you think it is. Have a quick look at the website.

Anyway, I digress. Manchester Beer and Cider Festival might be a CAMRA-run event, but it’s open to all, highlighting the very best thing about the beer and cider worlds: everyone is welcome. With a growing number of people visiting the festival every year, it’s become one of the busiest and most successful beer and cider festivals in the CAMRA calendar, also making it one of the most diverse. Here you’ll find Society For The Preservation Of Beers From The Wood members chatting with craft beer fans at their beer from the wood bar, and brewers visiting each other’s stands to try the latest releases; first-timers brought along by their beery mates, both trying natural cider for the first time. 

So when it was finally announced that it wouldn’t go ahead in January of this year, this totally expected and sensible but nevertheless disappointing news made lockdown feel even deeper. We’ve all been feeling distant from one-another, and another missing social event felt harsh after refraining and isolating for so long. Luckily for us punters, the team behind the festival decided that having no festival at all simply wasn’t an option. Instead, “Manchester Pubs Matter Festival” was born, a virtual week-long schedule of events hosted at five separate pubs in and around Greater Manchester, that aimed to fill the hole. The pubs involved were some of the area’s top-rated, and much-beloved by drinkers way beyond the region’s geographical limits: Marble Brewery-owned The Marble Arch in Manchester, The Petersgate Tap in Stockport, The Font in Chorlton, The Smithfield Tavern in Manchester and Wigan Central in, you guessed it, Wigan.

“The event was planned well before this so-called Roadmap To Recovery that was announced in February, so we were recognising that we were going into a third lockdown without an awful lot of prospects,” David Rigby explains. As Press Officer for the festival and one of Manchester Pubs Matter’s organisers, I wanted to speak to him about how a virtual event could ever fill the gap of our missing festivals and pubs.

“Greater Manchester feels, with some justification, that we’ve had even more draconian restrictions on pubs during the last 12 months – Bolton had a complete closure, pubs during this third lockdown couldn’t sell beer to take away,” he continued, as I nodded furiously in agreement. It’s true, up north, we’ve had it pretty hard. I haven’t managed to get to a pub since mid-October, having been sick with Covid myself during the final two weeks of them being open where I live in Lancashire.

It’s true, up north, we’ve had it pretty hard

Not having pubs and festivals to go to has had an effect on how we’re drinking, and for many beer and cider fans, the worry is that people are simply switching off from craft beer, real ale and independently-made beer and cider because they aren’t being presented with it in an easily-accessible way. Without pubs, we’re not being adventurous.

“We felt as drinkers and pub owners that the way you get to know about beer and cider is going to the pub. So that was our premise, to recognise the detriment that pubs had faced.”

Building a virtual pub

“Manchester Pubs Matter Festival ended up being pretty much exactly how we’d originally sketched the ideas out in our first meetings, including the choices of the five pubs who ended up hosting the virtual festival’s events,” David tells me with a smile. It’s nice when a plan comes together.

“Increasingly, the traditional ways to publicise festivals just aren’t effective anymore: drip mats, flyers and pop-up banners aren’t useful in pubs; publicans tell us they don’t use drip mats, or they’ve got no space for banners. And, given the current situation, we couldn’t have used them anyway.”

For the first time, Manchester Beer And Cider Festival, or as it was in 2021, Manchester Pubs Matter Festival, was promoted and advertised solely online. Using social media that linked back to a central website built by organiser John O’Donnell, this solution was surprisingly effective. In fact, the team now think this represents a change in how the festival will be promoted in the future.

“The FAQs section in particular was such a time-saver, managing to field all of the queries I’d normally expect to be answering in the lead-up to the festival. I think this is a change that we’ll be looking at taking forward for events in the future.” So take note, event organisers and pub owners. Whether you’re creating a virtual festival or planning a real life event once we can all get together again, don’t overlook the importance of a decent online presence.

One of David’s main marketing worries was the responses he’d had in the past about how people found Manchester Beer And Cider Festival each year.

“The main answer we got was always: We just come here every year anyway. And this idea was certainly in my mind. How could we reach those people with what was, essentially, a new event? However, you do think, who else is visiting who hasn’t filled in the questionnaire? And how did the people who come every year find out about it the first time they came? I think we just felt we had to try something new… and it really worked.”

It did. At the events I logged in for, attendance was around the 100 mark, and the chat box was flashing with interested people drinking and talking and getting involved. For a first time virtual festival with modest aims, I’d say it was a roaring success in engagement terms. But how did the pubs involved fare?

Supporting pubs virtually

“There were people buying tickets for Wigan Central who’d never been there!” David told me, when the conversation moved towards ticket sales. FYI, everybody present at the virtual festival’s separate events had purchased a ticket for around £40-£55, and every ticket included a box of beers to enjoy during the evening.

“And for Petersgate Tap, which is a well-known and award-winning pub, 35% of the guests that night according to a poll we did had never been in person! Maybe now people will be encouraged to make sure they visit these pubs that they’ve heard of and have always meant to go to but somehow never managed to before lockdown.”

It’s an interesting idea, that virtual events could boost pub attendance. It seems counter-intuitive somehow, but with stats like these, it might just be mad enough to work. After all, in the same sort-of vein, Googling hotels and campsites all lockdown hasn’t satisfied my wanderlust — it’s increased my yearning for post-hillwalking pints and tapas tours.

There’s a definite appetite for events like this, they are very accessible

“There’s a definite appetite for events like this, they are very accessible. And it’s also worth remembering that The Font in Chorlton, Wigan Central, The Petersgate Tap in Stockport and The Smithfield Tavern in Manchester are wet-led pubs — that’s four out of the five pubs involved in Manchester Pubs Matter that are still a long, long way away from being able to trade again anytime soon if they don’t have adequate outside space. I think it’s likely we’ll do another virtual event — all the pubs were very positive about the experience, and they ended up selling way beyond their expectations. It was worth doing.”

“However, Manchester Pubs Matter was about trying to replicate that atmosphere of the pub that we’re all missing,” David says. “In a way, while we were offering an event that helped bring the pub to all of us who are missing that interaction and experience, we were also mindful of reminding everyone that we do miss the pub. We’re trying to get people to remember that going to a pub is a completely different experience to anything we can run virtually. The five pubs did a marvellous job, but it’s just not the same, is it?”

No David, it’s not. But while we can’t make it to our favourite pubs, events like Manchester Pubs Matter certainly help create a much-needed fourth space for us all to get together in. And right now, that’s really important.

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