The website changing outdoor clubs – and how you can use it

Posted by Carey Davies on 20/01/2014
Meetup can be a powerful tool to bring like-minded people together

A popular social media website has attracted thousands of people to join outdoor clubs across the UK. We take a look at what it is and how you can use it to grow your BMC club.

When Rachel first thought of setting up a new walking group in the Upper Calder Valley, she wanted it to be a low-key affair. Not wanting to take on the responsibility of organising a big group, she envisaged a small and informal group of people from near her town of Hebden Bridge going for walks on the surrounding moors and hills and perhaps further afield and occasionally meeting for social events; a modest pool of people to share her love for walking and the great outdoors. 

These days many outdoor and walking clubs say recruiting new members, particularly younger ones, can be a struggle. But Rachel didn’t have this problem. The first walk of Calder Valley Walking Friends attracted 13 people, and within weeks she had recruited 70 more members.

If anything, she began having too much success in finding new people, with the idea she had of a small, local group in danger of being overwhelmed. She even had to turn down applications from people who didn’t live in the area.

So why did Rachel, who didn’t even set out to create a large group, have such success in attracting new members?  The answer lies in the way she organised it – online, with the website meetup.com.

Meetup is a social networking website that enables users to organise groups and get-togethers with other like-minded people, with an emphasis on the social aspect of the experience. The types of groups can be wildly diverse, spanning politics, socialising, cinema, religion, hobbies and everything in between. A quick search reveals groups for clubbing, calligraphy, naturism, Dungeons and Dragons and badminton in the Greater Manchester area alone. 

But Meetup also contains a large and growing number of outdoor groups. Again, the variety in these is massive. Some are local, informal walking groups like Rachel’s.  Others are eclectic, adventurous affairs covering multiple activities, with hundreds of members. Some are commercial operations, charging upwards of £20 or more for walks in the vicinity of London. Membership of these groups can be in the thousands.

Bringing people together

Whatever the type of group, there’s no doubt that Meetup provides a powerful tool to start, organise and expand circles of people around particular hobbies and activities. Rachel’s experience backs this up.  “I was already a member of two ‘Meetup’ walking groups outside my area but wanted to meet more people from my local area who shared similar interests.  I knew that Meetup groups could be very popular and attract people from a large geographical area. I didn’t want the responsibility or the work involved in organising a large group.  So myself and other people who supported me in setting up the group decided to limit membership to people who live in Calderdale. But that didn’t restrict its popularity.”

 Rachel stresses that despite Meetup’s power, it does still involve work to start and administer a group. “There is effort involved – setting up the website, responding to requests, co-ordinating things and organising events and so on. I did some work ‘offline’ too, cycling to Sowerby Bridge and Todmorden to put posters up. So, it’s good if there is a few of you with a similar vision from the start.  I was also quite concerned that people who joined realised they were responsible for themselves, and didn’t think they were being ‘led’ or ‘guided’, so I went to quite a lot of effort to make that clear. But the nice thing is that now there are people who have come into the group who value the concept of it and want to take it forward.”

Rachel’s group was so successful it even spawned another. Hebden Bridge Outdoors was formed by two members of Calder Valley Walking Friends who wanted to create something broader, allowing members from outside the area and a more diverse mix of activities. Membership of that group exceeds 200. 

“It’s great that they went away and set up that group, because now we have two great groups based in the local area, with slightly different concepts offering a broad range of walks and activities to get involved in,” says Rachel. “There is a whole network of Meetup groups in West Yorkshire to dip in and out of. It just grows and grows.   There is now a network of people in the local area to car share with to walks further afield.

”Both local groups have also organised social events – everything from flat warmings to cinema trips.  My social life has had a big boost!”

Is this the end for ‘traditional’ clubs?

So what does this mean for ‘established’ outdoor clubs, like those affiliated to the BMC?

As the success Meetup shows, the desire of people to meet with others to share a love of the outdoors hasn’t gone away, but it has perhaps changed its form for many. In an age where people are increasingly rootless and likely to move around for work it offers a convenient way of connecting with others around shared hobbies and interests.

This need not spell the end for the ‘traditional’ outdoor club – far from it, in fact. BMC clubs offer a panoply of things the average Meetup group doesn’t – civil liability insurance, retail discounts, an annual copy of Summit magazine, the option to take out further travel and liability insurance, and access to discounted publications, grants, funding and training, to name a few. BMC staff are also available to help with a wide range of issues including child protection, liability and insurance, training, instruction and recruitment in clubs, and hut issues. And no BMC clubs are run for profit – all you pay is the yearly membership fee to secure the above benefits.

Rather than being a threat, Meetup can actually offer opportunities for BMC clubs to expand. 

Using Meetup as a BMC club

One group that has led the way in this regard is the London Mountaineering club (LMC). It is one of the most active clubs within London, with over 300 members. The club already had an extensive calendar of meets and social events and hold weekly climbing sessions at various walls across London, and decided to try and advertise them through Meetup. Its members set up a group called ‘Climbing in London’ and posted all LMC events and socials for people to attend and see what the club is about and up to.

The ethos of the club is ‘try before you buy’, so there is no pressure to sign on the dotted line straight away, but if newbies want to take advantage of what the club has to offer on a long term basis a club membership fee has to be paid. Once a member you can also tap into the clubs online private forum and Facebook page.

The LMC’s experience shows it is possible for an established club to use Meetup to expand if it already has a strong social basis and the desire to grow and attract new members.

If you want to do the same, there are some things you will want to consider:

  • Fees: Organisers of Meetup groups pay a fee to use the service – between $12 (£7.35) and $19 (£11.60) depending on the price plan. Outdoor groups on Meetup usually share this fee among the membership by either charging membership dues or fees at individual events. BMC Clubs would most likely have to absorb this into their club expenses.
  • Membership dues: Outdoor clubs affiliated to the BMC will be familiar with the fee they pay to the BMC to secure the benefits of club membership. Organisers of those groups will want to ensure the members they recruit through Meetup are incorporated into the club’s insurance policy.
  • Sociability: For many Meetup’s users the social dimension of the website is just as important as the activity itself; many will not be ‘diehards’. Clubs with an open approach to novices and a strong social dimension have the most to gain from using Meetup.  A club will certainly seem more appealing on Meetup if it stresses its social aspect – trips to the pub, barbeques, parties and other happenings – as well as the activity itself.

Using Meetup as an individual

What if you’re an individual wanting to meet people to go into the outdoors with and considering using Meetup? There is a huge diversity of groups on Meetup, some good, some bad, and trying to figure out what’s what can be daunting. Meetup has some mechanisms which enable you to verify a group’s quality, but outdoor groups in particular come with their own concerns.

If you’re looking to join an outdoor group on Meetup as an individual, here are a few things to watch out for:

  • Cost: Most Meetup groups charge a fee of some description, either in the form of an annual membership fee or for individual events. Some organisers simply use this fee to cover the cost of their Meetup subscription and other costs involved. Others appear to go further, running their groups as commercial operations which charge fees above what is strictly necessary to cover the running costs of the group. Remember the countryside is free to access, and that Meetup is not the only option if you want to meet other people to get into the outdoors with.  BMC clubs, while charging a fee to entitle you to the benefits of BMC club membership (see below), are not run commercially and cannot charge on a for-profit basis. Click here to find the BMC club nearest you.
  • Competence: Some Meetup groups make clear they are informal groups of people in which each person is responsible for their own safety, but others don’t, presenting walks and activities which claim to be guided. Before signing up for one of these, take steps to establish the competence of the leaders – check the group’s user reviews and contact the organisers to ask them for their experience and/or qualifications. There is no legal requirement for commercial outdoor providers to have qualifications (more on qualification requirements here), but if you’re paying money to someone who claims to be leading a walk they should at least be able to demonstrate competency.
  • Insurance: There is also no legal requirement to have insurance in the outdoors, either as an individual or as a commercial provider, but in the event of an accident in which you were either the cause or victim it can offer invaluable coverage. All members of BMC clubs receive worldwide Combined Liability insurance up to £10 million as part of their membership fee. Most Meetup groups will not offer this coverage, or many of the other benefits BMC club members receive (such as retail discounts, an annual copy of Summit magazine, the option to use BMC Travel Insurance, and access to discounted publications, grants, funding and training.)


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1) Anonymous User
17/01/2014
A few other things to consider. The fees cited are monthly, not annual, and meetup has a minimum age requirement of 18 to join. This may cause some issues.
A useful feature is the discussion section on the event page that allows members to arrange transport or ask questions. You can also set up various safety and info pages, and ask questions of members when they sign up for an event - eg, do they have crampons, are they competent belayers? etc. You can also link your page to a faceboug group or an blog.
I definitely agree with checking the group profile before joining. It is the internet and anyone can set one up. We (Scottish Hillwalking and Activities Group) are explicit that we do not offer led events, but we do have arrangements with professional first aid trainers and outdoor instructors, and allow them to host discounted events on our site.
One final consideration though is that meetup as a whole generates lots of emails, and you will find members stop reading them - including the imporant ones. This is an issue we are constantly tackling.
Having said that though, it is a very useful tool.

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