An expert organiser
Clive Richardson is one of those special kinds of GTO that organises both a holiday programme for other groups and his own itineraries. Val Baynton discovers how he gets the balance right.
Sometimes there’s a thin line between the role of a group organiser and the person who helps them put on a successful and well-prepared trip. Clive Richardson sits firmly on that line – a knowledgeable and experienced specialist who can combine the skills of tour planner, coach operator, guide and administrator for both trips he arranges himself and the ones he helps put on for local organisers in his East Sussex locality.
Battle-based Clive is typical of a specialist type of GTO in the way he plans trips and organises group travel, always looking to add value and a personal contribution – whether in designing an unusual itinerary or acting as a guide or courier – to ensure the tour is successful and enjoyable. Many of the larger or more corporate coach and tour operators are not able to add this personal touch, and so he has evolved Clive Richardson Tours to fill this ‘gap in the market’. His role is very much to be the GTO for the duration of the trip from its initial inception to return home, whether it’s made up of individuals, small groups travelling together or, indeed, a single larger group.
After nearly 30 years of organising trips, Clive has learnt a thing or two about what makes a good day out or short break, not that that means he doesn’t still get nervous before a big trip, as he says, ‘Even though I’ve so much experience and I always try to foresee what could go wrong, and eliminate these issues, there are always some elements outside of my control.’ Despite these risks, Clive takes much satisfaction from organising group travel – numbering some 80 days out and 20 longer breaks a year – and tries to cultivate an atmosphere of an extended family for the participants (usually between 25 and 45 people), where everyone can relax and get to know each other. A special ingredient is Clive’s in-depth knowledge of lesser-known places to visit – and how to get access to them.
EARLY ORGANISING EXPERIENCES
Clive’s first experience as a GTO was when he worked at an international language school in Hastings in the early 1980s, and was responsible for organising itineraries and transport for the students. Visits to Canterbury, Brighton and London were regular parts of the programme and he gradually built up a network of contacts in the travel trade. When he spotted an advertisement in The Times Educational Supplement inviting people to train as a Blue Badge guide, he was immediately interested. The training was rigorous, Clive recalls. ‘It involved attending lectures in Eastbourne and Brighton, and studying three days a week for a year, and usually one of these days was spent on a coach giving commentaries. There were 19 subjects on the curriculum, ranging from history, gardens and church architecture to the monarchy.’ Clive qualified in 1987 and Kent, East and West Sussex, and Hampshire became his specialities, although he is able to guide anywhere in the UK and travels across the country including to Wales and the Scottish Borders. He doesn’t have to re-qualify to continue as a guide but he does attend professional development days, which take place at a range of historic properties, gardens and visitor attractions. On such days, the attending guides are usually briefed about the attraction by the resident expert as well as receiving additional information covering health and safety legislation and so on. Clive also points out that many Blue Badge guide updates are received electronically too.
After qualifying as a Blue Badge guide, Clive worked part time for the local Hastings and District Bus Company, preparing itineraries and acting as a courier guide for their day trips. When the company was taken over by Stagecoach, who were not so interested in the excursion programme, Clive was encouraged by local residents, who frequently went on the trips and didn’t wish to see them end, to set himself up as an independent organiser of trips and short holidays.
His first trip as Clive Richardson Tours was in 1988 to Folkestone Market. His second trip to Whitstable, to the annual oyster festival in July, was very popular and he is still organising trips there. Clive comments that it makes a good day out as it’s a pleasant town and there’s lots to see including a ‘Cushing’s Whitstable Tour’, which takes in locations linked to the actor Peter Cushing, who lived in the town. He adds, ‘Events such as the oyster festival make a good focus for a day out. Oysters are landed on the beach by fisherman dressed in traditional costume and are carried to the town’s restaurants where they are cooked using classic recipes; an Edwardian tea party sometimes takes place in the castle garden too, so there is lots to see and do.’ The next festival takes place from 25th to 31st July 2015. See the panel opposite for more on events and festivals.
Another staple of his annual programme are the Dickens festivals in Rochester, Kent, to which Clive has organised trips for 26 years, attending both the summer and Christmas events. He thinks he is the only organiser to have attended so many consecutive festivals! Clive finds that the same people often book for the day and many people get into the spirit and dress in Victorian costume too. Since the early days, Clive has commissioned Rambler Coaches in Hastings to provide the transport for his tours. He says, ‘I have used them ever since the language school days; they are reliable, friendly and the coaches are comfortable and clean. There’s no need to change.’
Clive has public liability insurance and a trust account for people’s money to cover any problems that might arise on trips, although he admits that making sure you are following the correct procedures can be a minefield. He comments, “My reading of the Package Travel Regulations, which are in place to ensure customers are covered if something goes wrong on a package holiday, suggests that they are contradictory and definitions are vague and not clear, particularly in relation to GTOs.”
Clive liaises with a wide variety of groups he helps, from Probus Clubs and Women’s Institutes to historical or sporting societies, and offers three types of service. He organises day trips or longer breaks for private groups, planning and arranging the itinerary and excursion options, working with the members to ensure the day or the break is perfectly tailored to their needs. Secondly, he will assist local groups to combine to share a coach or take a block booking on one of Clive’s publicly promoted tours. ‘This is quite a popular option,’ Clive says. ‘It allows groups to develop interesting and good value activities because they don’t have to fill a 45 or 50-seater coach on their own.’ His third activity is as a Blue Badge guide to groups coming into 1066 Country, as the town of Hastings and surrounding area is known. One of his most popular tours is the ‘Foyle’s Walk’, which takes in locations in Hastings Old Town where the first five series’ of TV’s Foyles War were filmed.
ADVICE FOR OTHERS
Over the years, Clive’s programmes have developed to reflect his particular approach to organising and to fill what he perceives as a gap left by the traditional coach tour operators. Personal interaction is important; he takes time to get to know the people on his trips to build up relationships with individuals, and tries to create a community group spirit on board the coach. He dislikes the anonymity and impersonal contact that controls much of 21st century life and he aims to add value to the day through the guiding and courier experience he can uniquely offer. ‘Guiding is something of an art,’ he says. ‘You have to know when to be quiet and not be tempted to speak all the time. But if there’s something of interest to say, then I like to share this with the group on the coach!’ He also makes a point of offering limited pick-up points for the tours so that the day can get started quickly and so, within an hour of departure, the coach is off somewhere interesting for an early coffee stop.
He feels he bucks a trend by regularly returning to popular places – such as to Cambridge in spring, where he often plans a full day’s programme taking in a snowdrop garden such as Anglesey Abbey. He finds that an itinerary that offers choices often works well with groups with mixed interests so some of the coach party can opt for a self-guided day browsing around a town’s historic centre whilst others might choose a special tour of a nearby historic house or garden. One recent trip was for the Hastings Ramblers who stayed in Sherbourne, Dorset for a week last year; they enjoyed several walks in the area as well as attractions in Glastonbury and Wells.
Every GTO has their own unique recipe for success; in Clive’s case it’s a mixture of flexibility in itinerary planning and a ‘can do’, personal approach that have been key elements. It’s a model that will ensure Clive Richardson Tours will remain in demand!
CLIVE’S HIDDEN TREASURES
Clive’s Blue Badge training combined with his own extensive interest in what he designing is Hadlow Tower between Tonbridge and Maidstone. Built in the late 18th century by Walter May, the folly is taller than London’s Nelson’s Column and gives amazing views across Kent’s North Weald. There is a lift nearly to the top, which helps with access.
Another Kent curiosity is close by in Offham. Here, the medieval quintain on the village green was used by knights to practise their jousting skills and it is believed to be the last remaining example in its original place in the country. ‘Buildings owned by the Landmark Trust also make interesting and unusual places for visits,’ Clive explains. These buildings are let out to people for accommodation but, on ‘change over days’ and on the free open days, groups can visit and find out more about these extraordinary and diverse historic buildings.
For longer breaks, one of Clive’s favourite haunts is Rutland and, again, he makes a point of including the county’s numerous hidden treasures in the itinerary. He points to places such as Clipsham, in the north east of Rutland, where an avenue of yew trees is a remarkable place to visit. The one third of a mile avenue, once the carriage drive to Clipsham Hall, is lined with 150 yew trees trimmed to depict birds and animals. Nearby, Greetham has an extraordinary Stone Mason’s Cottage, which is made up of remnants of historic buildings such as churches, and, in Wing, south of Rutland Water, there is an old turf maze said to date back to medieval times when it was used by penitents who would follow the path on their hands and knees. Perhaps the most remarkable place in the county is the Norman church, St Peter’s, in Tickencote, close to Stamford, where there is an elaborate Chancel Arch decorated with imagery including bears, cats and monsters. Clive comments ‘It’s one of the most perfect arches in the country, let alone Rutland, yet I’ve never seen another coach there.’