A dream come true for Barbara Fraser

Not everybody is fortunate enough to be offered their dream job but that’s just what happened to Barbara Fraser of Smiths Medical Social Club in Kent, as Carrie Drage discovers.

Barbara Fraser

When Barbara Fraser accepted voluntary redundancy from Alliance & Leicester in 2003 she never thought that a few months later she would land her dream beijing job with Smiths Medical International Ltd in Kent. She says, “I began organising theatre trips and days out for Alliance & Leicester employees on a voluntary basis in 1995 and booked our first break for 100 people to New York in 2000. I really enjoyed putting trips together and dreamed of the day I would get a job as a group organiser, so I consider myself very lucky!”
Barbara’s paid part-time role as Social Club Administrator makes her responsible for organising days out, holidays and social activities for the 280 employees and 100 retired staff of Smiths Medical International Ltd, which has sites in Ashford and Hythe. She explains, “When a person joins the company, they automatically become a member of the social club.” Barbara is assisted by a committee of four as well as two representatives for the retired element of the social club. The group meet once a month in their offices at Hythe to discuss the club’s activities, which average at two trips a month. On top of this, Barbara organises car treasure hunts and quiz nights that are held in the canteen at the Hythe site, along with the annual kids Christmas party, which is a favourite with both children and adults alike. She adds, “Some employees don’t like ‘work trips’ so I purchase show tickets for the nearby Marlowe Theatre in Canterbury and Leas Cliff Pavillion in Folkestone. That way, the members can make their own way to the venue but still benefit from the discounted rate.” Recently, she also introduced discounted cinema vouchers, which are going down really well with the group. She says, “I’m seeing names of people that have never got involved with the social club before so these cinema vouchers are a good way of capturing a new audience.”

A visit to Scotland

A visit to Scotland

How it works

With members across the whole of Kent, Barbara finds it easier to contact people by email. She says, “I produce a newsletter every fortnight and for those that don’t have access to the internet, I mail it out to them instead.
I also keep members updated about any special offers that arise.” The social club has its own website too, which is accessible from the Smiths Medical International Ltd intranet.
Barbara likes to give her members ample warning for any upcoming trips, with at least three months notice for day trips and six to nine months for UK and overseas breaks. She explains, “We have a system whereby employees can fill out a form and pay installments for trips via payroll, meaning they can spread the cost over several months. This makes it more manageable, especially for those with families.”
The members are also very fortunate that Smiths Medical International Ltd is able to subsidise the trips, offering a generous donation to the social club every month. Barbara says, “We subsidise every trip with day trips receiving a higher subsidy than holidays because they appeal to a wider audience. For example, we do regular days out to London and Brighton, which include coach travel only so members are free to make their own plans when they arrive. These are priced at just £4! There’s often enough takers for a couple of coaches.” As well as the members themselves, all trips are open to friends and family, with one guest per person receiving the subsidised rate, as well as children and grandchildren up to the age of 16. Anyone else is classed as a non-member and must pay the full price; however, they do still benefit from any group rates that may be on offer.

The group in Sorrento

The group in Sorrento

Barbara admits that one of the most difficult aspects of her job is putting together a programme that benefits everybody. She explains, “Our members range in age from their 20s into retirement and we also have a lot of families to please, so I have to be careful to cater to different interests.” Coach travel for Barbara’s day trips is booked with local firm,
Scotland and Bates, based in Appledore, near Ashford in Kent. She comments, “I’ve known the family since childhood because I grew up in the village. They’re a very professional company and Georgina Bates, who I deal with, is excellent with timings and making sure everything is spot on. I’ve no complaints.”

Extended stays

As well as regular day trips, Barbara also organises longer breaks for her members in both UK and overseas destinations. The majority of these are booked through Wiltshire-based tour operator, Success Tours. She remarks, “Tony Flanagan is brilliant. He’s really enthusiastic about travel and is good at coming up with ideas for my group. Because he knows my members requirements so well, he’s able to advise me on destinations that they might like.”

Members posing for a photograph in Lake Garda

Members posing for a photograph in Lake Garda

For example, in 2007, Barbara took a group of 48 people to Scotland for five nights, which incorporated a visit to the Edinburgh Tattoo. She says, “We had really good seats and everybody thoroughly enjoyed it.” The group also took a boat ride on Loch Lomond with Sweeney’s Cruises of Balloch. Barbara comments, “Our skipper had a good sense of humour, which made you want to listen to his commentary even more.”
Spa weekends have also featured on the programme in recent years, with one free treatment included in the price. She says, “We do these in February because it gives people something to look forward to after Christmas.” Q Hotels’ The Cheltenham Chase Hotel, in Gloucestershire, was the venue for 48 people in 2011. She explains, “It’s a really modern building and there was a nice buffet for breakfast and evening meals.”
In 2009 and 2010, the Barceló Shrigley Hall Hotel, Golf & Country Club, in Cheshire, provided a similar service for Barbara’s members. She remembers, “The treatment rooms here were in an area that used to be a church so it was an unusual experience.”

More recently, in April this year, a group of 24 people enjoyed a three night break to Warner Leisure Hotels’ Nidd Hall in Yorkshire, following a successful break at Bembridge Coast Hotel on the Isle of Wight the year before. Barbara says, “I booked these breaks direct and I can’t fault either property. The rooms, food and entertainment were all excellent and we intend to visit another Warner property, Cricket St Thomas Hotel in Somerset, in April 2012.”

Discovering the waterways of Venice by gondola on a day excursion

Discovering the waterways of Venice by gondola on a day excursion

When Barbara joined Smiths Medical International, she was quick to introduce long-haul overseas breaks and a five-day trip to New York with 25 people was the group’s first foray into long-haul holidays. The group stayed at The Roosevelt Hotel, which Barbara describes as “within walking distance of Times Square” and the members were able to choose the excursions and activities that interested them. For example, a helicopter ride over Manhattan or a dinner cruise on the Hudson River.
Indeed, this is a model that Barbara has used for other destinations since including the six-day break to Las Vegas in 2007 and four-day trip to Rome in 2009. She adds, “I try to organise a city tour as an introduction to the destination but, after that, everyone is left to do their own thing, which most people prefer.”

Italy is a popular destination with the group and Lake Garda, in particular, is one of Barbara’s favourite destinations. A 53-strong group visited for three nights in 2007 and many of them still talk about it now. She says, “We also went on an excursion to Venice where everyone took a gondola ride at the same time. We kept passing each other along the Grand Canal, which amused everyone.”
Sorrento, meanwhile, was the destination for a four-night break for 30 people in March 2010. Barbara says, “Everyone really enjoyed Pompeii and climbing Mount Vesuvius.”
Staying in Europe, 44 members travelled to Austria for four days in 2008 staying at the Hotel Mohrenwirt at Lake Fuschl. Barbara reveals, “This was in a really nice area and the staff at the hotel really looked after us. St. Wolfgang, nearby, is an attractive town as is Salzburg.”

The group returning from their boat trip to Niagra Falls aboard ‘Maid of the Mist’.

The group returning from their boat trip to Niagra Falls aboard ‘Maid of the Mist’.

Another holiday that brings back fond memories for the group is the six-night break to Toronto and Niagara Falls with 100 members in 2006. Barbara comments, “Niagara-on-the-Lake is a really pretty town and the hotel where we stayed, Sheraton on the Falls, has bedrooms overlooking the American Falls on the New York side. Some of us paid a supplement just to stay in these rooms.” While here, the group enjoyed activities like a boat ride on the world famous ‘Maid of the Mist’ and a helicopter ride over the Falls. She adds, “One evening, we dined at the revolving restaurant at the top of the Skylon Tower at Niagara Falls, which offers a set menu for groups. Every half an hour, we would get magnificent views over the Horseshoe Falls, which were illuminated at night with a light show.”
Although, as a general rule, Barbara doesn’t like to repeat the same trip over and over, there is the odd exception; Disneyland Paris being one of these. A group of 14 people last visited for two nights in 2008 staying at the Hotel Santa Fe. Barbara says, “The hotels on the resort are great because you can easily get the shuttle or walk to the parks.” She adds, “Disneyland Paris has everything that adults and children could possibly want and we’ll be returning again in October.”
European Christmas market breaks are also a staple on Barbara’s programme, with recent visits to Valkenburg in the Netherlands, Prague in the Czech Republic, Krakow in Poland and Barbara’s favourite, Cologne in Germany. She reveals, “Thirty-two of us went for three nights in 2009 and it was great because there was a selection of different markets to explore.”

Sightseeing in St Wolfgang, Austria.

Sightseeing in St Wolfgang, Austria.

A full day out

Barbara’s day trips tend to be more popular than her holidays, attracting around 35 to 40 people each time.
She says, “We do everything from theatre and events to historic houses and gardens.”
Last November, for instance, saw the group visit the Thursford Christmas Spectacular in Norfolk for the third time. Barbara says, “It’s like a variety show with ventriloquists, bagpipers, drummers, singers and dancers. The stage is massive; about triple the size of a typical West End theatre stage!” Barbara recommends booking well in advance in order to secure tickets, adding, “Getting them is like winning the lottery!”

More dancing was on the cards for the group’s visit to Strictly Come Dancing; The Live Tour at London’s O2 Arena in January this year. She reveals, “It was a knockout competition featuring the judges from the TV series and ballroom dancers such as Vincent Simone and Flavia Cacace alongside celebrities like Matt Baker. Our group had a lovely time.”
Even more recently, in May this year, the members enjoyed pomp and pageantry at the Windsor Castle Royal Tattoo. Barbara comments, “The great thing about this is that your ticket also gives you entry to the Royal Windsor Horse Show, held at the same venue during the daytime, making it really good value for money.” Barbara wasn’t sure at first if the show would live up to the Edinburgh Tattoo, which the group had visited four years earlier but says, “It was certainly as good; I had so much excellent feedback about this trip.”
West End theatre trips also feature regularly on Barbara’s programme, with these averaging twice a year. Tickets are usually booked through Ticketmaster and Group Line, although she admits that some of the best seating is often acquired through Ambassador Groups.

Exploring Prague city centre.

Exploring Prague city centre.

Making sure there is enough family-friendly entertainment on the programme is a big consideration for Barbara and one of the most popular shows with her members is Holiday On Ice at the Brighton Centre. She reveals, “We last saw the show two years ago but we’ve been on several other occasions too. I arrange tickets for a matinee performance so that people can bring their children and grandchildren along.”
Barbara’s members also have an interest in history as evidenced by the large proportion of outings to historic houses and palaces. For example, in February this year, she organised for two coaches to visit the Houses of Parliament in London. She remembers, “We had an excellent tour. The guides were very knowledgeable and humorous too. It wasn’t nearly as serious as I’d imagined it would be.”
The following month, the group journeyed to Bletchley Park in Milton Keynes, famously the site of secret British codebreaking activities during World War II. Barbara says, “It was really interesting learning about the Enigma machine and where the intelligence came from in order to use the machines.”
Castles have also featured heavily on the programme with Windsor Castle, in 2009, and Arundel Castle, in April this year, among the most popular with the group. Barbara comments, “Windsor Castle is somewhere you can easily spend a whole day, while Arundel Castle, in West Sussex, is very near the town and easy for coach parking, meaning the passengers don’t have to walk far. We visited on a special event day so we got to enjoy jousting displays and a hog roast was on offer too.”
With Barbara’s members residing in Kent, widely known as the ‘Garden of England’, there is an abundance of gardens to visit in the area, which she exploits to full effect. One destination, in particular, that stands out in her memory is Groombridge Place Gardens & Enchanted Forest near Tunbridge Wells, which the group visited in 2009. She remarks, “There’s a stream so you can take a boat ride to a lovely woodland area with giant swings for adults!”

Enjoying some downtime in Krakow, Poland.

Enjoying some downtime in Krakow, Poland.

Elsewhere in the country, the group has visited the RHS Garden Wisley, in Surrey, and RHS Garden Hyde Hall in Essex. Barbara explains, “As a company, we take out a yearly subscription to the Royal Horticultural Society, which entitles us to one free visit annually to any RHS garden for up to 50 people.” Wisley, which the group last visited in 2009 is Barbara’s favourite garden because “it’s been established for so many years” but the 2010 visit to Hyde Hall also made an impression on the group. She remarks, “The facilities are superb here, with a lovely cafe and gift shop. The garden itself is also nice and you could easily spend a good four or five hours exploring it.”

All in a day’s work

Barbara believes that the secret to a successful group trip is good organisation and making sure passengers are given all the necessary information in advance. For example, she sends out itineraries with timings for the coaches, as well as city maps for coach-only excursions so people can plan ahead what they want to visit. Barbara says, “Coach trips appeal because there’s no organisation required on the individual’s part. They want everything in place and to be made to feel special.”
Barbara already has lots planned for the rest of the year and into 2012, with theatre visits to Million Dollar Quartet in August and Legally Blonde the Musical in October, as well as a day out to Airbourne, Eastbourne’s International Air Show, in August and a shopping trip to Romford in November. Breaks coming up include a weekend in Trier, Germany, for its Christmas market in December, and a four-day trip to Lake Como, in Italy, in October 2012.
Barbara’s enthusiasm for her work is clear and she gets a lot of satisfaction from knowing that a trip has gone well. She remarks, “I absolutely love what I do and hope to continue for as long as I can. It’s such a special feeling hearing people laughing together on a trip I’ve organised; there’s nothing that matches it.”