AGM May 5th 2021 by Zoom - Chair's Report

Over the last two years, Stafford Bridge Club, like almost everywhere else in the world, has been experiencing an unprecedented hiatus in its activities due to the coronavirus pandemic.   My Chair's Report for the 2021 AGM therefore will likewise be quite different from customary Annual Reports.

From an organisational perspective, it is necessary to record that no AGM took place in 2020.    When the first Covid lockdown occurred, your Committee initially took the decision to postpone the AGM from the planned date of May 21st 2020.     Your Committee agreed that Officers and Committee Members should continue in post until it was deemed feasible to hold an EGM or AGM to regularise the situation.  Members were informed of this decision, together with the Accounts for 2019, which the Committee had already seen and accepted.   

Unfortunately, a second lockdown was imposed before a rescheduled AGM could take place.    Your Committee resolved not to hold an AGM online at that time, partly because of relative unfamiliarity with the technology, and partly because many members would effectively be disenfranchised through lacking the skills or the hardware needed.     In light of the continued lockdown, and with uncertainty over when it might be safe and legal to re-open the Club premises, your Committee has decided to proceed with the 2021 AGM at the normal time of the year anyway, but online.    Efforts have been made to enable all members to be involved in the AGM in one way or another.

The Club premises were closed down in March 2020.   They have not been opened since, though the lockdown has allowed for some redecorating to be carried out recently, and plans are in hand to redesign the kitchen.    It is not yet possible to give a definite date as to when the premises will be officially re-opened.   The process of re-opening involves various safety and prevention measures; the EBU has issued relevant guidance on this.    Your Committee is actively exploring air purifiers and the provision of adequate ventilation. Members quite properly need to feel and to be safe.

Stafford Bridge Club exists to enable its members to enjoy playing duplicate bridge.   The Covid lockdown has therefore had a seismic impact on the Club's basic raison d'etre.      The Club owes a considerable debt of gratitude to Carol, Terry and Ann Sleightholme who put in much effort to get to grips with playing bridge online and to enable a significant number of Club members to participate as a Club in online bridge.   The next paragraphs have been prepared with the help of Club Captain Terry.

Following the closure of the Club the Chairman, Secretary and Captain formed a small working party to look to provide online bridge for our members.  With no experience of online bridge, a request was sent out to our Club members for recommendations.   The few replies we received tended to favour Bridge Club Live (BCL).    BCL seemed more suited to the majority of our members, and more straightforward, than Bridge Base Online (BBO).

BCL was one of three recommended by the EBU and there was even a special offer negotiated by the EBU for those joining BCL.  We decided to go with BCL.   We prepared comprehensive instructions for our members on how to join and how to play on BCL.  We also provided telephone support and practice sessions for those lacking in confidence.  Eventually 48 Club members would register with BCL.  At this time BCL provided options to play social, teams of four or competitive Bridge.  If you wished to play either friendly or competitive Bridge, with or without a partner, it was available on BCL at any time of the day or night.

We decided to run a teams of four league which would include handicaps, as calculated by Terry.  Nine teams joined and instructions and competition rules were written.   Several weeks of friendly teams matches followed, to ensure that players were comfortable with the vagaries of the process.  League matches commenced on the 18th of May.  The league was completed by the end of August, the winning team being Bill, Clive, Michael & Beryl; runners-up Carol, Rose, Clair & Ros. The league must have been popular as a number of requests were made that we run a second league during the Winter.  This time eight teams have entered, with the league due to be finished by the end of April.

Club duplicate competitions were not available initially but Ann Sleightholme put a lot of time and effort into devising and running a Friday evening pairs game just for Club members.  This had to be actively directed by Ann, as the sessions could only cater for multiples of eight and involved some intricate pairing and seating sequences within a teams structure.

BCL completed the development of 'Local Rooms' during August.  In these rooms it became possible to play Duplicate Pairs competitions restricted to members of your local club.   BCL gives clubs in the UK the option of applying for morning, afternoon or evening sessions; start times are flexible but the session has to be completed by a fixed time.  We decided to try one session a week and also to have this session as close to the timing of one of the SBC Showground sessions as possible, and settled on a 1.30pm start on a Monday afternoon.  Our first Monday session took place on the 7th September and as of 18th April we have now held 30 Monday sessions.  

Ann quickly realised that the Friday sessions would benefit from following the Monday format, so we booked a regular Friday evening slot in our Local Club Room.  The first Friday session took place on the 25th September and we have now held 27 Friday sessions.   So far, we have attracted between 6 and 8 tables for every Monday & Friday session.

Earlier this year BCL suffered a major glitch (not their fault) when a fire in Strasbourg ravaged the cloud server base of the company providing BCL's online capacity.   Many organisations and even governments were affected, and it is to BCL's credit that they were able quickly to restore some online activity from available backups, and to resume a full programme only a fortnight or so later.

Although a number of regular bridge players have chosen not to play online with BCL during the lockdown, in general the decision to promote Club activity via BCL during lockdown has proved very worthwhile.    Many of our members have enjoyed regular duplicate bridge in a variety of ways, a sense of Club identity and morale has been sustained, and new Club competition frameworks for online play have been devised and successfully mounted.     Members were able to participate even in a national pairs event online via BCL.

The Covid lockdown has inevitably impacted greatly on the Club's normal patterns of financial activity and membership renewal.     Following the imposition of the first lockdown, your Committee agreed to waive the payment of an annual subscription in 2020, until the premises were open again, and to carry individuals' membership through into the new membership year.    In the event, with the premises still not open, this arrangement has continued in place.   When our premises do re-open, membership renewal and payment of an annual subscription for 2021-22 will proceed.

Through Stafford Borough Council, the Club was offered early in the lockdown a £10,000 grant from a government scheme to support small businesses etc during the pandemic.     Though your Committee had some ethical hesitations about accepting this grant, it did agree to apply, as did other local bridge clubs.    Needless to say, the grant has more than compensated for the quite substantial drop in our regular income flow.   Our financial position remains buoyant.

It is necessary to record with sadness that since the last AGM two years ago several of our members have passed away.    Others have become infirm or have moved from the Stafford area.     Organised social events such as the American Suppers and the Weekend Away have had to be suspended.    It will take some time when the Club re-opens for a new "norma" to establish itself, and it unlikely to be identical with what was the previous "normal".    I anticipate that the new Committee will wish to continue the consultations which have already been initiated, concerning members' intentions and preferred options for duplicate sessions and lessons in the re-opened premises.

As we see a glimmer of light ahead, with the hope of emerging at last from the dark tunnel of the last year and more, I want to thank very warmly all the members of the Committee for their perseverance and encouragement during the difficult times we have been passing through.    While Zoom has enabled most of us to "meet" for Committee Meetings, mutual contact and informal discussions have inevitably become more fragmented, and dependent heavily on email or phone.

I would particularly like to express the Club's huge appreciation to our Club Secretary Carol and Club Captain Terry for the exceptional support they have been giving to the Club.   Ann Sleightholme has been indefatigable in her lively oversight and management of our website, as well as in her care for the Friday evening sessions.    Our premises have continued to benefit from the watchful eye and prudent action of our House Manager John.

Our very warm thanks and good wishes are extended to our Treasurer Adrienne, as she relinquishes this role, and to Garry for his support and scrutiny of our financial activities, as he also relinquishes his complementary role.    I am pleased that Steve (Lister) is willing to put his name forward for Treasurer.

The new Committee may well have many of the same faces on it as before, though with some in a change of role.  It will nevertheless be serving the Club in a new context which will be both exciting and challenging: preparations for the reopening of our premises will need to carried out with care and thoroughness, and the return to a new normal will need to be managed with shrewdness and energetic leadership, so that our Club may flourish once again, and continue to "maximise the opportunities for its members to enjoy competitive duplicate bridge". 

Michael Metcalf, Chair