Travelling with Marian

Marian’s group on holiday in Austria.

Marian Durbidge is a very active GTO and organises a full programme of day trips,  short breaks and holidays for each of her two groups.
Val Baynton discovers how Marian became a GTO and gains insights into her expertise.

Marian Durbidge.

From her Harpenden base, GTO Marian Durbidge organises activity for two groups – The Herts Theatre Club and the Go Together Travel Club – resulting in some four theatre and two day trips a month plus five to seven holidays a year. Her programmes for the 500 or so members of each group are varied and although she does plan ahead she’s also keen to take in unexpected opportunities as they arrive, Marian says, ‘I like to be spontaneous, so I can take advantage of last minute ideas and developments and can offer my members lots of choice and reasons to keep travelling with me.’ With such a busy calendar, it’s not surprising that Marian’s husband, Robert is involved too – responding to enquiries when Marian is away, or going on trips himself.

Becoming an organiser
Marian worked for a London-based company called Theatre Goers for around 10 years and thoroughly enjoyed the time working with groups and helping them to enjoy days out. When that business closed in 2002, Marian thought, ‘I’ve enjoyed the experience so much why don’t I do it by myself?’ and so she set up the Herts Theatre Club and organised theatre and day trips. For the first three or four years she did this on a part time basis and then was persuaded by a local community organisation, The Harpenden Trust, to begin organising outings for its mainly single and senior membership providing opportunities for them to socialise and to experience life outside of the town, and suddenly Marian found she had a full time job! ‘I called the new group The Go Together Travel Club (GTTC) and decided from the outset to keep the two groups separate. Very occasionally I offer the same itinerary to both groups but generally I plan different programmes, for the GTTC I also organise holidays in the UK, whereas for the Theatre Club – where members tend to be in couples and younger – I include overseas breaks.’

Marian and her group at Royal Ascot.

From talking to other GTOs Marian says that she feels her two groups have developed over the last 15 years in quite a distinctive way. She explains, ‘Our groups are  made up of friendly people who like travelling and experiencing different activities in the company of others but there is no shared focus linking individuals such as work, social or sporting interests and they are not part of a national organisation such as Rotary, WI or U3A. The two groups work more as an extended family where people keep in touch and take part in trips as their work and life schedules allow.’

She is a founder member of the New Meridian Association of GTOs, which formed in 2016 – and she says meeting, networking and attending Fam Trips with this group of very active travel organisers is invaluable to her. She adds, ‘When we meet we pass on and swap information about what has worked or not worked for us. Although we organise for very different types of groups we share high standards and expectations and so we can trust each other’s judgments.’

Theatre outings and day trips
Many of the four monthly theatre outings for the Herts Theatre Club are to the London West End, and Marian includes musicals, opera, ballet and serious plays in her programme and offers both matinées and evening performances. Occasionally she will book two different productions on the same afternoon or night so that her members have choice, but she also selects provincial theatres and Richmond, Guildford, Milton Keynes and Windsor are all favourite venues.

Weymouth’s pretty harbour was popular with Marian’s group.

As well as theatre outings Marian organises a selection of day trips at weekends and weekdays for the Theatre Club. Galleries and exhibitions, such as the recent ‘David Hockney’ Exhibition at Tate Britain and the current ‘Canaletto & the Art of Venice’ exhibition at the Queen’s Gallery, Buckingham Palace, and Race Days are popular choices. There’s an annual trip to Brighton but ‘Surprise Saturdays’ and ‘Mystery Sundays’ to places such as a tour of the Cotswolds or to Broadstairs add a sense of fun to the programme.

Marian likes to plan activities that her members would not easily be able to book on their own. For example, in 2013 she took two groups to the Museum of London to see ‘The Cheapside Hoard: London’s Lost Jewels’. Marian says, ‘This was a captivating exhibition with an amazing story, which was really enhanced by the introductory talk from the museum experts I booked for my groups. They explained how the jewellery was discovered and the amazing work that went into cleaning it before it was displayed.’

Travelling overseas
When organising overseas breaks Marian always works with a tour operator as this gives much needed back up and over the years she has used several companies including Success Tours, Brightwater, Greatdays Travel, Norman Allen and Travel Adventure. ‘I select the company according to the type of trip I am looking for, and I might discuss an idea with a couple of different contacts before selecting the one that has the best solution and suggestions for the particular holiday.’

Marian will also look to book a guide or guides as their insider knowledge adds to the success of the break. This was true for a Canadian holiday that she organised with the Travel Adventure. The programme for the 23 members included the Rocky Mountains and an Alaskan cruise, Marian decided to travel by coach rather than by train. ‘This worked very well as we could stop when and where ever we wanted. The driver and the guide took us to the best places to see wildlife such as wolves and they knew the outstanding beauty spots and vantage points.’ The cruise, on a Celebrity ship, Celebrity Century, was excellent too, as Marian recalls, ‘we were able to go on smaller boats right up to the ice wall, which was amazing.’ She says that this trip was a challenge for her to organise and she felt it was a huge responsibility but it was a fantastic experience. ‘The icing on the cake was that two of my members met each other because of the holiday and are now partners. I just love people and seeing others make friends is wonderful.’

Celebration on board Balmoral on a cruise to Norway.

Another holiday enhanced by a memorable guide was in Andalucía in Spain in 2013, which included Ronda, Seville, Cordoba and Granada. The guide was on hand for the whole of the seven-night tour and her insights, Marian says, made the most ordinary buildings come to life.  On this occasion Marian had met the guide on a familarisation visit to the region and so she asked for her again when she made a booking for her group. She says, ‘This is one of the benefits of taking part in educationals. They can be time consuming but if the country is somewhere you are planning on taking a group to, there is no better way of doing the research because you can learn at first hand if it is suitable and see which elements will work best for the group as well as discovering attractions that are not obvious when researching on-line or by reading brochures.’

Other fam trips she has joined included trips to Switzerland and an educational cruise organised by Fred. Olsen to Norway last year. Following on from these, Marian has booked holidays for her groups. Unusually, she offered the nine-night cruise on the ship Balmoral to Norway from Dover to both clubs and because many people did not know each other, Marian organised a lunch party for everyone before they went, Marian says, ‘It’s great to get people to meet before a  holiday starts and its particularly important for those who are new to the group or who are travelling on their own.’

Evolving for the future
Marian and Robert are hoping that their daughter-in-law will become more involved in the next couple of years.  Marian says, ‘In our opinion our two groups are unusual and I’m not sure if anything similar exists in other town and cities. We want to build on the extended family character that we have seen develop – amazingly some members now live on the other side of the world but we all keep in touch!’ Their plan is to involve younger people, enabling them to enjoy the variety of experiences on offer, but also to encourage them to help look after older people on the trips at the same time. ‘Our thought is to bring the generations together and to focus on nurturing the sense of an extended family, so we are considering how best to achieve this.’

On a trip to Switzerland with Sylvia Saxon from the New Meridian Association of GTOs.

Last chance to see Jesus Christ Superstar at Regent’s Park

Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre’s production of Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Jesus Christ Superstar has extended its season to 23rd September 2017 – giving audiences a final chance to see this acclaimed production in its original home.

The production returned to the Open Air Theatre following a sell-out run in 2016, with critics proclaiming it “adrenaline-pumping” (The New York Times), “a gorgeous, thrilling, heavenly musical” (The Guardian), “vivid and compelling” (Evening Standard), “an almighty revelation” (Daily Telegraph).

Directed by Timothy Sheader, the production won the 2016 Evening Standard Award for Best Musical, and the 2017 Olivier Award for Best Musical Revival, with the Open Air Theatre announced as ‘London Theatre of the Year’ in The Stage Awards 2017. Tyrone Huntley who reprises his role as Judas this year, also won the Evening Standard Award for Emerging Talent, and was nominated as Best Actor in a Musical in the Olivier Awards. The production also picked up Olivier Award nominations for Best Lighting, Best Sound, Outstanding Achievement in Music, and Best Theatre Choreography.

Discounts available for groups of 10 or more.

For more information call the Box Office on 0844 826 4242 or visit www.openairtheatre.com/jesuschristsuperstar.

Trips with Friendship at their Heart

Innes’s group on a visit to Beachy Head.

Innes Brett, from the West Midlands, has a wealth of experience organising day trips and short breaks for her members and has just celebrated her 25th year as a GTO!  Val Baynton discovers more about her experiences and her tips for successful trips.

Innes Brett.

Innes Brett.

Innes Brett worked as a primary school teacher, specialising in Religious Education and Needlework, for four decades before taking up the challenge of organising day trips and short breaks for members of the WI based within the West Midlands Federation. Twenty-five years later, and approaching her 90th birthday, she still enjoys planning and running a variety of trips. Innes’s lifelong passion for education means she is also a trustee of the West Midlands Federation of Women’s Institutes Educational Trust, which gives grants to members to participate in further education – such as attending the WI College (Denman College near Abingdon) or other local educational establishments.

This year, she is celebrating her 25th anniversary of organising day trips and short breaks for her members, who are based in and around the village of Berkswell in the West Midlands. Not only has Innes herself made many friends through organising her programme of outings, but she has been delighted to see that her members have made new friendships too. Innes adds, ‘This has been a great blessing and is one of the main reasons I have been so happy to organise these trips over so many years.’ Innes has also enjoyed a long relationship with Johnsons Coaches of Henley-in-Arden, and has used the company many times over the 25 years to transport her members around Britain and into Europe.

At the start of a trip to Northumberland with Johnson Coaches.

At the start of a trip to Northumberland with Johnson Coaches.

Becoming a GTO

Many readers will recognise Innes’s story of how she began organising trips. It was, she says, ‘something I rather fell into and before I knew it, I was a GTO!’ As a WI member, Innes was asked to help with organising trips for the West Midlands Federation of Women’s Institutes and, in 1992, her first solo trip saw her take 40 members to Paris. Looking back, Innes recalls, ‘The trip was horrendous and it was definitely not my finest hour as a GTO. I realised, though, that the main thing was to be cheerful in the face of adversity and to do my best to keep everyone happy, and this has been an approach I’ve followed ever since.’

Innes has used Warwickshire based coach operator, Johnsons Coaches from the outset. She remembers her first meeting with John Johnson and Innes has been delighted with the service the team have offered to her and her members ever since, adding, ‘They have been brilliant and all the coach drivers go out of their way to make sure the trip goes smoothly. Now I liaise with Jo Brown, Group Tours Manager, who organises the logistics of each holiday for me. I tell her where we’d like to go, some of the things we’d like to see and she knows the type of hotels we like to stay in, so she does the rest! Nothing is too much trouble for them and I can’t recommend them highly enough.’ Innes remembers that on one of her  early trips to Europe being caught out by someone who hadn’t brought any spending money with them. This was before the days of cashpoints and easy currency withdrawals and it was the coach driver who stepped in and saved the day. Innes adds, ‘I will always be grateful for this as it was one of the most heart-stopping moments I’ve had as a GTO. Now, I always make it clear on my itinerary what extras people need money for and I take some spare cash just in case! However, it’s reassuring to know that the coach driver is a supportive back up.’

Innes stops the traffic so her group can cross the road!

Innes stops the traffic so her group can cross the road!

Facts and Figures

Although she began organising for the WI, Innes’s membership base has gradually expanded. Hearing of the success of her trips, friends from her church in Berkswell asked if they could come too and gradually through word of mouth, more and more friends of friends have joined in – which Innes is delighted about.  Currently, Innes organises a five-night UK holiday for her members and anything between six and 12 day trips a year. She usually books a 49-seater coach – and occasionally fills two coaches such as on a visit to Windsor Castle last year to see the exhibition ‘Fashioning A Reign – 90 years of Style from the Queen’s Wardrobe’. She has previously organised five-night breaks to Europe but hasn’t for the last couple of years. She explains, ‘Our last trip to the Floriade in Holland was very popular and there’s no good reason for not organising another, so maybe it’s time I put plans together for a trip to the continent!’ She doesn’t like, however, to travel more than a day on a coach and the furthest they’ve been is Trier in Germany.

For planning purposes, Innes bases costings on 40 people on a 49-seater coach. This allows some lee-way with the budget, and if more people come she donates any surplus monies to Berkswell WI. For day trips she prefers to make contact with attractions directly and once she has the price she will provisionally reserve places, whilst she talks to Johnsons about the coach. The final cost per person includes a gratuity for the driver so everyone pays the same and there is no need to ‘pass a hat around the coach’ at the end of the trip. For holidays, however, Jo at Johnsons takes care of all the arrangements including excursions for Innes.

The group at Wilkin’s Jam Factory, Tiptree.

The group at Wilkin’s Jam Factory, Tiptree.

Short Breaks
Innes has explored many parts of Britain with her group and memorable five-day short breaks have taken place in Essex and Suffolk, Devon, Scotland and the Isle of Wight. Highlights from these trips include the Wilkin’s Jam factory at Tiptree near Colchester, which was very interesting – and Innes recalls that all her members made purchases in the shop! Meanwhile, on the Isle of Wight, Innes would recommend the Roman Villa at Brading for its amazing mosaics and insights into the past as well as the regal Osborne House. In Edinburgh, Innes says, the Royal Yacht Britannia is also a fascinating place to visit as this much loved royal vessel has welcomed so many world statesmen and famous people over the years.

The group has just enjoyed their 2017 trip – to Northumberland – staying at the Best Western Beaumont Hotel in Hexham, and this is the second time Innes has ventured to the north east with her group. Innes included a visit to the magnificent Durham Cathedral where they all very much enjoyed the Open Treasure Exhibition in the newly restored Monks’ Dormitory. The itinerary also included visits to Hadrian’s Wall, Lindisfarne and Alnwick Gardens (a riot of colour in the spring), as well as to the National Trust owned Cragside House – famous for an incredible garden and as the first house in the world to be lit by hydro-electricity – and the nearby Wallington, which was the family home of the Trevelyans for over 300 years and one of the childhood haunts of landscape gardener, Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown. Innes’s favourite moment of the trip was the surprise tea party she planned with Wall WI. She explains, ‘Traditionally WIs are very welcoming to members from other WIs who are visiting their area, and so they were delighted to invite us to tea. We really loved their delicious selection of homemade cakes.’

The Royal Yacht Britannia.

The Royal Yacht Britannia.

A Sense of Satisfaction

Looking back, Innes says that she has gained great satisfaction from being a group travel organiser. ‘I’ve enjoyed every trip I’ve done, the good and the bad, all the shocking and the hilarious moments. I have loved every single minute and could not possibly select one as my lifetime favourite.’ There’s pleasure in knowing so many people have made lasting friendships through the outings and short breaks and in enabling her members to have a holiday – she’s very aware that some people just would not get away otherwise. The group has become Innes’s family too, and she is keen to spend time with them at the end of a busy day, for a relaxing drink in the bar, for food and for conversation. In conclusion, she adds, ‘If I could have my time again I would have chosen a career in travel!’.

Favourite Trips

Learning the art of chocolate making in Bruge.

Learning the art of chocolate making in Bruge.

 

HOTEL Innes recommends the Skiddaw Hotel at Keswick. This is a super hotel she says with a great offer for groups There are 43 en-suite bedrooms and it has good food and comfortable beds. ‘We come on holiday to enjoy ourselves and we do not want to rough it,’ Innes says, adding, ‘The staff at the Skiddaw know what they are doing and treat groups well.’ One thing Innes prefers is to have dinner at 7.30pm and she favours hotels that will allow her members to choose their meal each evening rather than in advance so that members can take account of what they’ve eaten for lunch. ‘I know many hotels would prefer us to eat much earlier so we are out of the way, but this means the evening is unnecessarily long and we have to rush back from our day out to allow time for members to refresh themselves before dinner. It’s much better to be able to gather in the bar, have a drink and chat about the day before enjoying a leisurely dinner.’

 

The harbour at Brixham.

The harbour at Brixham.

EUROPEAN CITY Bruges in Belgium gets Innes’s vote as her favourite city. She likes it for its beautiful architecture, its intimate and friendly character, the lace, seriously good food and above all its delicious chocolate! ‘Bruges is very welcoming and has the perfect attitude to groups. My only reservation is that many of its excellent hotels do not serve an evening meal and this means we have to go out for food, which some of my members do not like to do.’

 

MOTORWAY SERVICES Gloucester Services on the M5 and Tebay Services in Westmorland on the M6 are Innes’s top choices ‘The offer at Gloucester is outstanding, and I am pleased to see that gradually more and more service stations are raising their standards. I always used to say that the toilets at motorway services in the UK are excellent and the food terrible whilst it is the other way round on the continent, but the food here is, fortunately, getting better.’

SEASIDE RESORT Brixham for its excellent fish and chips.

GARDENS Osborne House on the Isle of Wight has beautiful gardens and an excellent children’s garden too.

COACH COMPANY Johnsons Coaches.


Top Tips from Innes

Research where you are going. Innes finds out as much as possible about the destination and shares it with her members on the coach prior to the visit.

  • Quizzes and anecdotes help to pass the time on a long journey.
  • Innes goes round the coach with a tin of sweets as this gives her the chance to talk to people and make sure everyone is okay.
  • Encourage members to tell you straight away if something isn’t right, then there’s a chance to get it sorted. ‘Deal with it’ and everyone feels better.
  • Be clear what’s included on a trip and what extra spending money may be required.
  • Innes carries a variety of emergency supplies – including food for diabetics.
  • A small tot of sherry and nibbles helps to perk members up when spirits flag on a long journey!
  • Ask members where they’d like to go on holiday next. Innes passes around a sheet of paper for suggestions on the journey home and the most popular destination wins!
  • Always find something to laugh about.