Organiser Janet Spooner’s luxury tour business, Travel Treats, based in Milton Keynes, incorporates everything from outings on the Orient-Express to exotic holidays to India. Jean Rush spoke to her.
Janet Spooner reckoned that something special with a little opulence might appeal to people wanting a bit more than a traditional group outing. And her 12 years experience running her Travel Treats programme suggests she’s right.
Janet’s main aim is to provide a luxury travel experience for the customers of her small organisation based in Milton Keynes, which she started in 2000.
Janet explains, “I worked for a bank for many years and I’d just retired when some friends and colleagues from our local investment club suggested we try out the newly-opened London Eye. Having worked in marketing and in project management, I was happy to arrange this with one of my friends, so we set off to London to check it out. All seemed fine, but we thought just a 35-minute trip on the Eye wasn’t enough, so we put together a full day including a London Ducktour and a trip to Covent Garden too.”
“It just blossomed from there,” she continues. “After running the business as a partnership, I now operate as a sole trader, with help from friends. I realised that just going on a coach trip wasn’t everyone’s cup of tea, so I began to offer something different such as chauffeur-driven transport.”
In the past 12 years, Janet’s trips have included luxury train travel on the Orient- Express, dining out at Michelin-starred restaurants (see The Height of Decadence below), visits to the private home of HRH The Prince of Wales (see “Christine made us all so welcome” below), and trips to the Big Apple and the Italian Riviera. She also has upcoming exotic trips to China and India (see “Glen really knows his product” below).
MONEY AND MARKETING
Janet has a list of about 1,400 people on her mailing list now, mostly coming to her from recommendation. The majority come from within a 30-mile radius of Milton Keynes where she lives.
“I run the business from home, and promote my events with an annual leaflet, posted to my guests, through my website – www.traveltreats.co.uk – email marketing with monthly e-newsletters and an annual Welcome Evening for existing and new contacts.
Initially I made the leaflets myself, but now have them produced, designed and printed professionally. The website was made and designed professionally too and I use a specialist company for email marketing.”
Although Janet sometimes makes a small profit on her trips, that is not her motive, and she often uses this to subsidise a trip that is not otherwise financially viable. “I don’t like letting people down – I’m not in the disappointment business,” she says.
Most of Janet’s ‘people’ are aged between 50 and 85, with the majority retired. “I have many couples and lots of ladies, some widowed and some who like a day out with friends, but who will sometimes bring their husbands!” She explains, “We don’t generally encourage children although occasionally grandchildren do come along.”
Janet is keen to understand social networking opportunities. “I do think it’s important to keep up-to-date. I belong to the Milton Keynes Chamber of Commerce and they run courses on social networking and other services. I’m not really into Twitter and Facebook, although I’m connected to LinkedIn. One service I do use is Flickr – I load up the photographs I’ve taken of each trip on to the Flickr website and then notify the website link to each of the guests who came on the trip so they can view them and hopefully keep a happy memory of the day.”
Janet is careful to protect people’s money as part of the business. “People pay me a deposit when they book for an event, usually £20. If I have to buy expensive tickets, for example for a concert at the Royal Albert Hall, then I’ll probably ask for a £50 deposit, because I have to put up quite a lot of money up front. A deposit shows commitment, as people are less likely to change their mind before the event. I take credit and debit cards too, processing them online. I have two bank accounts, one for day to day expenses, which I build up from the small profit I make on trips, and the other – my reserve account – where I ensure that the deposits and monies paid are kept until they are needed.”
Janet was conscious when she started the business with her partner that they could have a lot to lose, possibly their homes, should something go wrong and someone decided to sue. So they made sure they took out appropriate insurance to cover all their potential liabilities.
Janet picks the destinations, hotels and events she features by going to travel trade exhibitions, looking on websites and reading magazines such as GTO. “Lots of my people come up with ideas as well,” she reports. “In fact, three people have asked me to do things this morning!
Some things I’ve tried and they don’t work. For me, theatre trips are no good, possibly because living in Milton Keynes it’s not too far from London, and Milton Keynes Theatre is a very successful one too, so my customers can arrange that sort of trip themselves. When new shows open in London and have lots of publicity, I do consider those.”
Janet has certain standards she likes to maintain. “Quality of service is very important to me,” she comments. “I don’t always use four-star or above hotels though, as there are some very good three-star ones that suit those with smaller budgets. I like to have something for everyone if I can – provided we can have quality enjoyment.”
Janet organises between 12 to 15 day trips each year, and can usually expect between 30 to 50 people on each. She also arranges five or six holidays each year, each with 35 to 40 people, and she is aiming to increase these for 2013.
Janet also organises at least two of what she calls ‘super luxury’ trips every year including train journeys on the Orient-Express and lunch at Michelin-starred restaurants. (see “Christine made us all so welcome” below)
“For coach day trips, I use Masons Coaches who are based near Tring,” says Janet. “They are a family company and we like their drivers. We always use luxury air-conditioned coaches and pick-up points are kept to a minimum.”
“For our holidays, I always go through tour operators because I’m not bonded, and don’t have my own ATOL. My business and, more importantly, my people, would not be covered should something go wrong otherwise.”
Janet uses a number of suppliers for her trips. For most of her short breaks, Janet uses Success Tours of Wiltshire. “Tony Flanaghan from the company usually comes up with plenty of suggestions and there’s a lady in their office, Jennie Willis, who is the most wonderful administrative person,” says Janet. “She deals with everything for me. I know I can trust her to get everything right; all the names will be correct and all the extras needed by guests.”
China will be the first really long-haul trip that Janet does next March, and she is really looking forward to this. “I’ve arranged it with Collette Worldwide Holidays of Middlesex – I’ve used them before and they were excellent. I deal with Barney Timson. Back in, I think it was 2002, they took 22 of my people to New York and they had a fabulous time. Sadly, at that time, my then business partner and I couldn’t afford the extra two tickets to join them. We had probably just paid our insurance premium! I try to go on each trip, but will always pay for myself.”
She also now uses tour operator Travelsphere as a supplier (see “Glen really knows his product” below).
In over a decade organising her trips with Travel Treats, Janet has travelled extensively, from Scotland to Scandinavia. Among the recent highlights of her programme was a memorable day trip to the Morgan motor factory and Worcester Cathedral in August. “This included a real insight into how these beautiful hand-made cars are made,” says Janet. “I arranged this event and found the staff at Morgan Cars were more than helpful. Our group of 50 were shown a film detailing the history of Morgan cars and their founder. ” The group then split into three groups and were taken into various workshops watching real craftsmen at work. Tables were reserved for the group’s lunch in the Visitor Centre. “It was a cold buffet – all home made and delicious, especially the cake and desserts,” remembers Janet. She continues, “We all departed for an afternoon in Worcester Cathedral and had four guides – all volunteers. They were really lovely people and all well informed. They made the tours very interesting and kept everyone’s attention.”
An ability to solve problems and add extras is a big part of Janet’s skill as an organiser. She has just recently returned with a group from Windsor Castle for example, as a special treat for members who had been disappointed with their visit to the Thames Pageant in June. “Apart from the pouring rain, there were other factors that weren’t quite right,” says Janet. “So I took it up with the pageant committee, and they gave me 200 tickets for Windsor Castle.”
Further afield, a trip to the Floriade in Holland in July was a special event, taking place as it does only once every 10 years. “Tony Flanagan from Success Tours suggested I try this trip to see this World Horticultural Expo and Flower Extravaganza. He arranged a four-day half-board break for us in the superb four-star Golden Tulip Hotel in s’Hertogenbosch (known locally as Den Bosch),” reports Janet. “Comfortable rooms, excellent food and a wonderful welcome made me feel this was going to be a successful trip and it was – with sunshine every day too!” The group’s coach travel was provided by a coach company often supplied by Success Tours, Travelwright from Newark. “We had a familiar driver, Glen, who had taken us to Scotland twice in 2011. He was good fun, very professional and did his homework to make our trip even better,”says Janet.
A group of 33 has just returned from a six-day visit to the Amalfi Coast too. “This is a destination that is definitely worth visiting,” says Janet. “We stayed in the four-star Reginna Hotel on a half-board basis and all of us had lovely sea views.” The group had an excellent guide throughout their trip and enjoyed visits to Positano, Amalfi, Sorrento, Ravello, Vesuvius and the isle of Capri. “Pompeii was a highlight,” recalls Janet. “It did bucket down whilst we there though and everyone got soaked, but the group were wonderful in helping each other out to avoid slipping over!”
Janet already has plenty in the pipleline for her members in the coming months. Planned for the rest of the year are two more visits to Windsor Castle, and a trip on the new Thames Cable Car, which is already full. She says, “I am running three Christmas trips – to Vincent’s Christmas Cottage at Brick Lane Music Hall, the Thursford Christmas Spectacular, and Carols by Candlelight at the Royal Albert Hall with brunch at Christopher’s Grill.” Next year, along with her adventurous trips to China and India, she is planning a ‘Taste of Britain with Cornish Treats’ break for five days (with personal extras such as a Bucks Fizz breakfast on the coach on the first day) and a five-day trip to the Peak District. She is also thinking of organising a river cruise next year. “I did actually sell a few places on a river cruise for Travelsphere recently on the Rhine,” Janet says. “They had some places left and it was at very short notice.”
“I might try out ocean cruising in the future too,” she muses. “I just hope I have the energy to carry on forever!”
THE height of decadence- the super luxury trips
A rather unique aspect of Janet’s programme are the annual day trips she offers on board the British Pullman service of the Orient-Express, the favourite being ‘The Golden Age of Travel’ outing. It is a premium luxury experience, offered for just under £400 per person.
Says Janet, “We last took 28 people in August this year. It really is a step back in time, on the most beautiful train. We got on at Victoria and enjoyed lunch with fine food, champagne and wine, with excellent service from stewards in smart livery.”
Oysters and English sparkling wine were served when the group arrived in Whitstable, which was part of the circular route from London.
“I arranged this trip with Karen Carpenter and Alison Rawle in the Orient-Express Groups Department,” states Janet. “They are always friendly and good to deal with. They make sure all our guests are seated as they wish, and they send tickets in quality leather folders, which make a nice keepsake from a trip of a lifetime!”
“All those who go on our Orient-Express trips are taken from home to Victoria station and back in chauffeur-driven luxury cars,” she continues. “We’ve found that so many people want to buy Mum and Dad a special gift (we offer special gift vouchers), for perhaps a wedding anniversary or something like that, but have the worry of transport. This way we can do it for them, and slightly cheaper, as we take four or six people in each car, and they can get to know their fellow travellers on the way.”
Karen Carpenter says, “Janet has been booking with us since I started at the company and is always a delight to work with. Approximately a month before travel, we forward our group arrangements booking form and seating plan to Janet to complete. When it is completed, and timings are confirmed for the departure, we issue travel documents and send them by special delivery. I believe the reason Janet manages to sell year on year is because she actually travels with her groups and has experienced the fantastic service on board, which makes it so much easier to promote.”
“I’ve been with Orient-Express for eight years and handle group enquiries for all Orient-Express products. I work with Alison Rawle who has been with Orient-Express for 23 years and we generate about 400 to 500 groups a year. We are always here to help and provide those delightful touches that Orient-Express are renowned for.”
Janet uses “excellent vehicles” provided by NTD Chauffeurs from Leighton Buzzard to provide the door-to-door service for her Orient-Express trips. “This particular trip fell right at the start of the London 2012 Olympics and I wasn’t sure how bad the traffic would be and was worried we may miss the train,” recalls Janet. “But Nick Hopkins and Claire Reynolds at NTD, who often drive us themselves, were on the ball watching the traffic news, and I had no need to worry!” explains Janet.
The cars used by NTD include Audi, Mercedes, Rolls Royce and their latest addition to the fleet, the Mercedes Chauffeurjet8, an eight-seater vehicle specially converted to reflect the ambience of a private jet, with every luxury including reclining seats.“Our company does a variety of jobs for both private and corporate clients, the mix changes each year, and we have over 20 years experience,”
Claire Reynolds comments. “The normal procedure is for a client such as Janet to give me some ideas and I then put together a plan for the trip.” The Chauffeurjet has wireless headphones, so that people can watch television during the journey without bothering anyone else. The vehicle also has a drinks chiller too. NTD regularly undertakes trips to Ascot, the Orient-Express and London theatre.
Janet also uses NTD chauffeured cars for her ‘posh lunches’. “The price of these outings, usually between £100 and £200, includes a champagne reception, a three-course lunch in Michelin-starred restaurants with wine and coffee, and chauffeur-driven transport,” she explains. “Over the years, we have been to Le Manoir aux Quatr’ Saisons, Raymond Blanc’s two-Michelin starred restaurant in Oxford; the Auberge du Lac, a former hunting lodge dating back to 1760, set in the grounds of Brocket Hall in Hertfordshire and with one Michelin star; and the three-star Michelin Waterside Inn in Bray.”
“Glen really knows his product”
One of the main suppliers Janet now uses is Travelsphere in Leicestershire. She deals with Glen Thomas there. “He took me on the most amazing familiarisation trip to India and I was totally sold on it,” she explains. “There was something magical about it. The colours and excitement of India were indescribable. All the people are happy, even the ladies working in the fields wear lovely saris. Mind you, we did see it in luxury with four and five-star hotels! I came home absolutely raving about it.” As a result, Janet has organised a 10-day trip to the country in October 2013, which Glen and his team have arranged. “Glen has just taken me with a party of GTOs to Russia, so this will be a likely trip for the future too. The holidays are so much easier to sell if you’ve actually experienced them.”
“Having worked in the travel industry for 24 years, I started with Travelsphere just over three years ago and in that time have made contact with several group organisers, a number of whom come to me by recommendation. Janet was one of those,” explains Glen Thomas. “I like to take the time to meet with a GTO and get to know about their group. I will often take a VIP trip out to one of our popular group destinations and let the GTO experience what Travelsphere can offer. This year alone we will have taken three trips out on an ocean cruise, a river cruise and a tour of Moscow and St Petersburg. I have a dedicated team who look after groups – and our main aim is to offer the best service in the groups market for escorted touring and cruising.”
“Christine made us all so welcome”
An extra special trip from Janet was to Highgrove and Bourton House Garden in Gloucestershire in September. “This was our fourth visit to HRH Prince Charles’ Highgrove Garden – it certainly is a popular place and much easier to visit now than in previous years,” states Janet. “The staff are superb, both with booking tickets and on arrival. The garden is a delight, so many unusual things and you just don’t know what to expect round the next corner. Our visits this year have included lunch in the Orchard Room and this is highly recommended. You have to pre-book it but it’s excellent value at £15 each for two courses.”
The afternoon was then spent at Bourton House Garden. “I met Christine Walford and her colleague from the garden at the BoBl exhibition last year, and thought this would make a good addition to the day, as the garden was not too large and was on the way home from Highgrove,” explains Janet. “It was a good choice – the garden is beautiful and everyone loved it. We were taken around by the Head Gardener, Paul, who was very knowledgeable and more than happy to answer all the gardening questions from our group.
” Christine Walford says, “We always try to go the extra mile for our groups at Bourton House Garden. Janet Spooner’s Travel Treats group planned to arrive just before 4pm. As we usually close at 5pm, we arranged to keep our tea room open for an additional hour so the group could enjoy tea and home-made cakes in our beautiful 16th century Tithe Barn, after a private guided tour with our Head Gardener, Paul Nicholls. Guided tours with Paul are a combination of immense knowledge and dry wit – all the groups who book a tour seem to have a really good time!”
“Group visits are very important to us and we all do our utmost to ensure that everything runs smoothly for group organisers before and during their visit. We welcome feedback and it is very gratifying to be able to say that we receive many ‘thank you’ letters and emails throughout the season. For those organisers booking two visits in one day, Bourton House Garden is ideally situated for all the ‘must see’ North Cotswolds villages as well close to many other popular tourist attractions.”