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Interviews with Vegetarian/Vegan Activists
June 2009

Organising Vegetarian ‘Meetups’
Joe Goh is a local vegetarian activist in Singapore, where he heads the Singapore Vegetarian Meetup Group: www.meetup.com/singapore-vegetarian In this interview, Joe tells us what Meetup is, what kinds of activities Singapore Vegetarian Meetup does and his ideas for the future. The hope is that the Singapore experience will inspire others and that others may wish to share ideas with Joe and his Singapore friends.

Hi, Joe. Please begin by telling us what Meetup is. Besides vegetarian Meetup groups, are there other types of Meetups as well?

Hi! Sure. Meetup is a website where people with similar interests can find each other and meet offline, in the "real world". It’s a popular site with tens or even hundreds of different interest groups in many major cities, from more mainstream ones such as Chinese culture and running, to niche ones like Lord of The Rings groups!

Why use Meetup and not just use Facebook or other websites?

Meetup is specifically for the purpose of people interested in meeting others with similar interests, and a lot of people find out about other Meetup groups through the site. This is harder to achieve on Facebook. Using the Singapore Vegetarian Meetup Group as an example, many of our members are also members of the Singapore Adventurers and Nature Lovers Meetup group, and find out about the vegetarian group through emails that the site sends out, from the website itself, word of mouth from other meetup attendees, etc.

As Meetup is focused on getting people to meet in "real life", the tools available for organisers make it much easier for events to be held. For example, it automatically sends reminders to people who RSVP, allowing me to ask attendees questions when they RSVP, keep track of contributions, etc.

The downside is that there's a fee for using the site, but I've not faced much trouble with collecting contributions from members. A great upside is that people have more of a sense of belonging to the group, and although we may receive less RSVPs than through Facebook, a lot more enthusiastic people attend the meets. I think just the very act of getting people to register for an account for the meetup precludes people who are less enthusiastic.

Why and how do people join Singapore Vegetarian Meetup?

Singapore is a nation of food lovers; so, the most commonly heard reason for joining Singapore Vegetarian Meetup is that people have heard of our excellent track record with finding delicious vegetarian food in Singapore and want to join in the feasting. We're very popular with non-vegetarians too, and in fact, about half of our members are non-vegetarians (or, at least they were when they joined the group). I make enjoying delicious vegetarian food together the focal point, and if people find out more about vegetarianism and have a better opinion of vegetarians, I let that happen as a great side effect. This allows the non-vegetarians to feel more at home, and I guess a big draw of this group is the level of trust they feel in the group, that no one will be shoving information or values down their throats.

If you’re in Singapore, to join the group, head over to www.meetup.com/singapore-vegetarian and register for an account on meetup, and join the group. Membership is free, although I do encourage a minimum US$2 donation from everyone, to cover the Meetup fees.

Why did you choose to organise the Singapore Vegetarian Meetup Group?

I wasn't the founder of the meetup, and truth be told, I was initially reluctant to take over as the organiser when the founder decided to hand over the responsibilities to someone else, as I have a very busy work schedule. I became vegetarian a few months before the group was founded, and I felt quite isolated, as I was the only vegetarian I knew. I wanted to meet other vegetarians, and organising the meetup also has given me a great excuse to get away from work to find new places to eat and enjoy a great time out with lots of like-minded people every few weeks.

What keeps me going as the organiser though is the feeling I get that organising these meets is helping spread vegetarianism through subtle means, or at least, help dispel some of the myths and prejudices some may have towards vegetarians.

How do you measure the success of the meetup events?

Meetup allows people to rate the success of events by giving an event a rating of between 0 to 5 stars after each meetup. I'm pleased to say that the Singapore Vegetarian Meetup Group is one of the most highly-rated meetups in Singapore, and we've achieved an average rating of 4.85/5.0 (97%) as of last month.

But statistics aside, I measure the success of events not just by the numbers that turn up, but by the overall vibe and the smiles on people's faces during and after the meet. It’s quite easy to tell when a meetup is going well, as everyone will come up to you and ask when the next meet will be.

What have been two of your more successful Meetup events?

Very recently, I organised a trip to a local eatery known for their vegetarian take on a Singaporean dish called Hokkien Mee, followed by a visit to a traditional Chinese tea house. The turnout was amazing, especially considering how late I was in sending out the details because I was too busy earlier. The vibe at the tea house was infectiously cheerful, although we did break the tranquility of the location with our banter! ;-)

A few months ago, we organised a trip to the beach and flew kites, in commemoration of a Singaporean vegetarian activist and kite flyer who passed away. We've also served some vegetarian burgers, and the combination of the beautiful weather, delicious food and rediscovering the simple joy of kite flying had everyone leaving with a smile.

Why do you think they were successful?

I think it’s important to organise events not for the sole purpose of satisfying attendees, but to do it primarily to please yourself first. That way, the enthusiasm and passion comes through naturally. To deviate a little, I think it’s vital that the organiser enjoys the events that he/she organises, as it’s the only thing that will keep him/her going for the long-term.

Have you also had some not very successful events? To what do you attribute their limited success?

We had a picnic held at the same beach I mentioned above, and that was our lowest rated meetup ever. I think the main problem that day was the timing. Because we met too late, it quickly turned dark, and there were no lights where we were. Somehow, the lack of lighting contributed to everyone feeling a little less social.
 Also, one member started discussing religion during the meetup, which affected some of the other attendees negatively. I've since learnt that all conversations relating to religion, politics and other sensitive topics should be gently guided away.

Do you have anything special planned for the future?

I started a new regular event 2 weeks ago called Veggie Wednesday. It’s an event designed to encourage non-vegetarians to not consume meat and seafood for one day each week. I make it a rule that attendees must not consume meat and seafood the entire day before we meet for dinner. Of course, there isn't any way I can verify this, but so far, it’s been working well enough. As usual, the food quality during the dinner-meet needs to be high, but I'm making this meetup more focused on vegetarianism. As the attendees have to make a conscious switch away from meat and seafood, they are more open to discussions about vegetarianism, and that has proven to be correct based on the experiences of the first meet.

Any advice for people who might want to start a vegetarian Meetup or to reinvigorate an existing group?

Just do it! Everything begins with that first step. It may be hard to get the group going at first, so having very consistent meetups in the beginning is essential. It brings a level of trust to people, as they'll be able to feel your dedication. Also important is to try to make the events as social as possible, and avoid having speakers, special topics, etc, except perhaps a few times each year. Let the people that attend the meetups be the centre of attention, not the organiser, or some other speaker or topic. Most importantly, you need great food to attract the non-vegetarians. The vegetarians may attend purely for the social side of things, but it’s the food that attracts the other, sometimes bigger half of the crowd.

In the beginning when there are less members, it may be important to have a few light, friendly, ice-breaking topics on hand to keep the conversations flowing. From the most obvious, like asking why the vegetarians chose to switch, to the more obscure, like what people eat for breakfast every morning. Topics unrelated to vegetarianism should not be stopped; just let people do what they want unless religion or politics is brought up.