Greeting card agent helps build 39,000-strong virtual community

AS pubs and bars reopen across the country, landlords Neil Greenwood and Lorraine Robinson are looking forward to slowing down after serving 39,000 patrons for four months.

The Oldham-based best friends have spent the whole of lockdown running the Virtual Tavern, a Facebook group they set up to keep the pub fun going online just two days after the UK went into hibernation. With everything from quiz nights and live acts and DJ sessions to bingo and comedy, the group has grown from friends and friends of friends into a safe, supportive, fun and helpful community with 39,147 members – and counting – in 76 countries and territories across almost every corner of the globe.

“Lockdown for us has been filled with nothing but positivity and amazing experiences,” independent travel consultant Lorraine said, “and it’s all been down to the Tavern and the wonderful community that has been created. We can’t believe how well it’s taken off – and gone global! The project is about escapism, support and positivity during these difficult times. In the beginning we both talked about whether it’s possible to create a positive place where people feel safe to speak, supported if they needed it and can have a really good laugh. We think as a collective we’ve managed it thanks to the wonderful members and their passion for the Tavern.”

They’ve built up to a 17-strong team of administrators and moderators which includes Neil’s mum Carole and have a website with an official logo and range of Virtual Tavern merchandise and a video.

Former DJ Neil, now a freelance greetings and gift sales agent and Forever Living products distributor, said: “Although our live quizzes will be taking a break, the Tavern is not going anywhere and remains the same fun and inclusive place it has grown to be, just with fewer live activities for the time being. It’s been great fun and a learning curve as neither Lorraine nor I were very tech-minded so we very quickly had to get on board with new technologies – we now feel like mini experts in Zoom, Kahoot, live streaming, TikTok videos, moderating posts and so on.

“And it’s been a great opportunity to provide a platform for performing artists to showcase their talents – from the more experienced to complete newbies we’ve had so many who have taken the plunge and performed live to a large audience. The biggest thing we’ve learned though, is what a wonderful and supportive town we live in here in Oldham.”

Set up as a safe space, the Tavern’s rules include no swearing, football, religion, politics, hate speech or bullying and negative Covid-19 posts.

Lorraine and Neil are proudest of the way members support each other with many coming into the Tavern group when they’ve been struggling with isolation and mental health difficulties, seeking advice and help for domestic difficulties, or they’re simply down over missing loved ones.
There have been birth, death and divorce announcements – and the separate Virtual Singles Lounge is the place to go for dating.

Among the big birthday celebrations marked was Lorraine’s 40th in June, while Neil’s 48th in May saw Coronation Street star Shane Ward pop in for a virtual pint and to wish the landlord many happy returns. Neil said: “It just shows attitudes are contagious. If you’re surrounded by positive people you can’t help but want to join in. The problem with the world is it’s too easy to be negative and then people feel the need to follow suit. This group has shown me just how much people are there for each other when it really matters.”

Morag Henderson from Scotland wrote: “This tavern has been as good as the NHS for us all here, you’ve kept us all sane and probably saved people from depression.”

In Dubai Zurah Woods posted: “It has been such a positive group with fantastic people lifting each other through everything and strangers showing compassion for others. It has been a life saver.”

Lorraine added: “We can’t wait to see what the future brings for this wonderful group. The team are still the same, the fabulous personalities we have within it and all the hard work we all do will remain to keep the group going.”