Today Conrad Emmett speaks to Laura Willoughby MBE – the co-founder of mindful drinking movement Club Soda. She discusses how they help their members cut down on drinking or eliminate it altogether, and she shares some tips about what you want to do if you want to be less socially dependent upon alcohol.
It’s fair to say that the team behind Club Soda is, at the moment, more than a little busy.
When they are not catering for their nine thousand members with a constant stream of webinars, blogs, courses and workshops, they are preparing for their very first festival in the heart of London. Indeed, when I spoke to co-founder Laura Willoughby she was in Liverpool, preparing to deliver a presentation to more than 500 of the UK’s pub chains.
But it wasn’t always like this.
It’s perhaps fair to say that, in a period before founding Club Soda, things had stalled a little for Laura. And, when it did, it would have been a serious step-change for the activist. Laura had at one time before this period been a local councillor for Islington. She had earned an MBE for her services to the community (at 30, no less – one of the youngest people to get the award from the Queen outside of sports). And she has an impressive track record working (amongst other things) in various positions in local government and helping the arts scene.
But then, some years ago, something happened. Something that can easily happen to any one of us.
And when it did, booze stepped in.
“I ended up in a job which I really hated, and where I was very bored – which was really bad for me,” she said. “So it was really easy for my drinking to go up quite a lot. And it did.
“You end up in that vicious circle where you don’t have the energy to find a new job, and you’re stuck in something that makes you feel miserable.”
Tiredness and hangovers were getting in the way of her activism. She felt her once outgoing self slipping away. “I realised it was getting out of hand and I wanted to put a stop to it.”
The journey to self regulation was a long one and, to some extent, it seemed surprisingly lonely. If you want to diet, there’s a place you can go. If you have a medical problem, such as diabetes, there are groups you can join. Moderating drink? Not so much, she says. Not, at least, something which fit her own outlook and personality.
“I started Club Soda partly because I realised there wasn’t really anything to support people who wanted to do a self-guided journey to change their drinking,” she said. “Most of us can make change with a little bit of support. I think with any big change you need to find people like you. The people you get sober with are just as important as who you go to the pub with.”
“Although there are services, there was nothing out there that spoke to me and who I was.”
She is also very specific about one thing. Club Soda is for people who want to control or cut their drinking – but it isn’t designed for people physically dependent upon alcohol. These people, she says, their team helps guide to professional medical resources.
Laura wasn’t physically dependent upon drink. She didn’t drink every night. But when she did drink there was no “off switch” and she felt that was a problem. Her decision to change was one she felt needed to be seen as a healthy lifestyle choice. Such a decision is “about being positive, taking the subject out of the shadows” she said, rather than viewing the subject as always unpleasant or taboo.
And once she began talking about her lifestyle change, she realised that she was not alone.
“So I set up a social business. It’s not about profit.” Established with co-founder Dr Jussi Tolvi, Laura says that they didn’t want Club Soda to be a charity and tap into vital funds needed for dependent drinkers. It also affords the club – for which admission is completely free – some flexibility. Laura added that they wanted Club Soda to be based on the needs of the customer and not the public sector or policy makers
Now, with Club Soda having run for two-and-a-half years, Laura says the days of drinking are long behind her. Although she champions the decision many members take to moderate their drink, she has herself cut it out completely. “That was five years ago this month and I can’t actually believe I still don’t drink to be honest. I go into the pub now and I don’t want an alcoholic drink, and that’s very liberating.
“And there’s something amazing about remembering conversations from the night before.”
Your biggest cheerleaders
Things are different for Laura now. She’s back to her former self – better in fact.
And there’s no question about whether she’s outgoing or not: at the time of our interview she’s due to give a talk at an event run by The Morning Advertiser, a leading publication for bar owners. Called the MA500 Study Tour, it is an event formed of five hundred pub chains from the UK. Laura is gearing up to tell people about how she works with landlords and mangers to offer better alcohol-free drinks. She will also talk them through the reception of The Club Soda Guide – a pub guide for mindful drinkers.
Mindful drinking is about Club Soda members tracking their drink habits, planning changes and discussing these with fellow members. It’s about making lifestyle choices which include knowing where to go on an evening that provides decent alternatives to alcohol.
Once you sign up, the website is geared all around helping make the right choices to suit you. The website becomes a place where you can go to set goals and watch your progress. Motivational questions are put to you to help you decide the best course of action. There are weekly webinars on issues mindful drinkers face, and tips to help overcome them – and often you will find members sharing their own stories about how they are making their own changes. There are, equally, blogs which are updated just as regularly. They provide their own suggestions about how to deal with triggers and obstacles.
All of which, again, is free – although Club Soda puts on workshops and courses which are paid.
Laura said the non-profit follows guidelines to make a positive impact on the community, and listens reflexively to the needs of the members. This is not an arm of a nanny state telling you what to do. “We are learning from our members, not deciding what the medical profession thinks is right for people,” Laura says. “The Government can’t tell you how to go to the pub and deal with your mates. Only other people can do that who have gone through the same situation as you.”
This is not an anti-alcohol movement, either. Although Laura herself decided giving up alcohol completely was the right choice for her, she says that’s not for everyone. She adds that if, as a member, you decide to moderate rather than quit “I’ll be your biggest cheerleader.”
“We’re not going to be po-faced about it,” she says.
Laura’s advice on how to cut down on your drinking
So what’s Laura’s take on cutting down on booze if you feel you are becoming socially (not physically) dependent?
“Start by trying to take a month off completely, whatever your goal in the longer term,” she says. “Only then will you realise what the triggers in daily life are that encourage you to drink.
“It gives you time and space to find alternative drinks and find people who are in a similar boat. You will then know if you need to keep going longer with this, or whether you think you can moderate your drinking.”
There is one slight precaution, she says: “Moderation is more difficult because it hits you in the pleasure centres and makes decision-making more difficult.”
And, once you have made that decision, you have to be mindful. Think ahead.
“You need a plan because you don’t realise just how alco-centric our society is.” She says it can be a surprise realising just how much drink is integrated into our culture. “In Britain we’re quite hard-wired to use alcohol for everything.”
The future of Club Soda
Because Club Soda is about making a social impact, it’s not the instant magnet for outside investment that a Silicon Valley startup is. Laura is very grounded in that reality, saying they are “still bootstrapping”. “Club Soda’s mostly run off our savings and a small business loan that we’ve had,” she says. “Like all small businesses we’re lean and bring in people when we need them. Most small businesses fail in the first three years, and we are hoping to get over that three-year hump.”
She’s also hoping to make a proper living from the social business at some point as well. “I’m still on working tax credits – I’m not going to retire to the Bahamas just yet,” she jokes. “But that’s not why we’re doing it.”
So how can you support them?
“Anyone can join – please come and sign up,” she says. She adds that Club Soda works to bring awareness to businesses as well – so if you think you could positively affect the culture in your company, she says to get in touch.
And, if you want to help in other ways, there’s the investment route. “We are looking for investors – we do have ambitions for the future.
“My big vision is we will be the biggest one-stop-shop for people who want to change their drinking. There’s lots of scope here. Not only can we help people who want to change their drinking but shift the narrative in the UK away from this being a stigma to it being a healthy lifestyle choice.”
And then there’s the small matter of the big festival on the horizon at Bermondsey Square. If you can join them on 13 August it will be a way to not only show support but open your own eyes to a world of alcohol-free drinks. “Come and surprise yourself at how good a proper alcohol-free beer can taste,” Laura says. “I love the look on people’s faces when they go ‘ahhhh,'” she says, mimicking someone downing a much-desired cold one on a hot day. “‘That’s actually alright!'”
Visit Club Soda: https://joinclubsoda.co.uk/
Get their Club Soda Guide: https://clubsodaguide.com/
Go to the Mindful Drinking Festival:
12:00 PM – 06:00 PM
Tower Bridge Rd, London,