Bringing solo travellers together
Val Baynton talks to Jackie Ring, Holidays and Trips Organiser for The Unattached Group in Surrey, and finds out how she has perfected the art of ‘mix and match’ group travel for singles.
Jackie Ring has been involved with The Unattached Group (T-U-G) for a decade and has always ‘organised things’. This has been a common theme in her many jobs – as a college tutor, a PA and secretary, and as an agent organising programmes for visiting foreign students. Currently she works in a local church office looking after maintenance, writing news sheets and handling the bookings diary for the church hall, and she is an assessor of people training to be teaching assistants. Jackie is a member of the Group Travel Organisers’ Association and a newly appointed committee member for the Southern Branch, and she edits the newsletter, Southerly Breeze. She has also joined the Woking Area U3A and she helps out organising their trips from time to time, too.
As Holidays and Trips Organiser for The Unattached Group (T-U-G), Jackie Ring arranges theatre trips and short breaks for a core of 100 or so members living close to Guildford in Surrey. She joined T-U-G around 10 years ago after getting divorced, and in the early days did not arrange many activities. As her children have grown up and her work commitments have reduced though, she has taken on more and now organises 30-plus theatre trips as well as eight or more two or three-night breaks annually. Generally between 10 and 20 people sign up for each of her trips, and Jackie also prepares A4 flyers about her events to be distributed with the monthly programme and on each trip. She adds, ‘I want as many people as possible to sign up for each trip so I actively promote everything I organise.’
The group is made up of single people who are widowed, divorced or who have never married, and aims to provide a range of activities that allow members to socialise as friends. However, having said this, Jackie comments, ‘In the 15 years the group has been running, there have been 25 weddings or permanent partnerships involving, what are now, former members.’ As the group focuses on singles, once a member does find themselves in a committed relationship – whether with another member of the group or someone else – then they are not invited to renew their membership at the end of the year. Jackie explains more, ‘We have found that if we include couples in membership then it really changes the dynamics of the group and we want it to remain for unattached people, who can dip in and out of the programme and have total freedom to interact with other members during each activity, as they wish.’
Another guiding principle is that every member has to organise an activity at least once in a six-month period; it may be a meal out, a walk or a cinema trip, for instance. This keeps the programme fresh with a broad variety of activities for members to choose from, and there’s not too much burden on one or two people to organise everything. As many individuals work or have daytime commitments, activities are often in the evening or at weekends. Each week there is a pub night; the programme outlining all upcoming events is handed out at the pub
meeting at the end of each month, and also emailed to members who are not able to attend. There are similar groups elsewhere in the country, but T-U-G is not affiliated to any other.
Outings to the theatre
Regular afternoon and evenings trips are made to the New Victoria Theatre in Woking and to London’s West End by T-U-G. As Jackie personally enjoys musical theatre, these are the outings she plans, which allows other members to organise trips to more ‘serious shows’. For the Woking trips, Jackie books direct with the groups team at the theatre, but for the West End she does often book through agencies such as Ticketmaster, See Tickets and Encore Tickets, using whichever company sends the relevant marketing material at the opportune
time and based on the seat allocation they can promise. ‘Good seats are very important to my members,’ she says. ‘I book four to six months in advance to get these, as well as the best rates.’ Jackie also looks for and receives last minute offers for shows and she will email these around to members to see if there is any interest, and usually there are at least 10 people who sign up.
Either before or after the show, Jackie will also organise a meal or time for a coffee. ‘As single people, we are used to going to places on our own, but we all really appreciate a chance to chat over a meal or drink. After the theatre in Woking, we generally have a coffee whilst the car park clears, and in London I hunt around for a good deal for a restaurant meal – usually pre-show.’ Jackie finds that restaurant chains such as Strada, specialising in Italian fare, can offer deals and she also uses her Gourmet Society Card membership to get discounts. This card (it costs around £30 a year but there are often joining offers) allows the holder to access deals such as two meals for one in a variety of restaurants, and at some places it’s possible to use it for bookings of up to 10 people. Jackie has booked meals on the riverboat RS Hispaniola, which is moored on the Embankment too. Set price menus are a good option for groups, as this can save many a headache when the bill is divided up at the end. Jackie has perfected a technique for this, however, and now prefers to sort the bill out before any member sees it so she can tell each person how much they owe, including drinks and service charge – which often get overlooked when individuals try to do the calculation themselves.
As with the majority of T-U-G events, members make their own travel arrangements to get to the theatre, sharing cars or using local trains and buses if going to London. Many members have bus passes, which are valid in London, so this makes these trips cost-effective.
In December, 10 members went to a Bert Bacharach concert at the Criterion Theatre in London, booked direct with the theatre. As usual, the group met under the clock at Waterloo Station before heading for a meal at Planet Hollywood, just off Trafalgar Square. Jackie was impressed by the freshly cooked food and the diversity of meals on offer. The group also enjoyed the show. Jackie says, ‘The Criterion Theatre is delightful and the show was lovely; there was a good selection of songs, all with a modern twist.’ Afterwards, members caught a bus to Selfridges and walked back along Oxford Street to admire the Christmas lights and the festive window displays.
Other trips have included the Royal Albert Hall, which Jackie books direct with the venue. ‘We really loved seeing Romeo & Juliet being danced there, in the round, by the English National Ballet last summer, starring Carlos Acosta in one of his final performances, and I’ve booked Swan Lake in June 2016 already.’ There have also been trips to the Royal Military School of Music at Kneller Hall in Richmond for concerts, which Jackie says are ‘outstanding’. The group also go to recitals at the University of Surrey in Guildford. Music and drama students have to perform live as part of their courses and Jackie regularly books into a selection of these shows. Jackie says, ‘You are never quite sure what is going to be performed,
but it’s lovely to see these young talented students in action. The recitals are also free.’
Another excellent evening of entertainment was on a River Lights cruise operated by City Cruises. The three-hour cruise gave impressive views of London riverside landmarks lit up at night, and included a four-course meal with live entertainment. Jackie says, ‘This was enjoyed by all, the food was delicious and the singer was superb.’
Short break appeal
Jackie looks for a variety of short break experiences for the group, including city breaks, leisure hotels and an annual cruise taking in a variety of destinations to satisfy members’ demands to discover new places and things. Generally, the two or three-night break is over a weekend as these do not take up too much holiday entitlement for those members who still work. Members travel to UK destinations in the main by car-share, whilst for overseas trips Jackie will work with a variety of specialist operators such as Greatdays of Cheshire, Riviera Travel of Staffordshire or HF Holidays of Hertfordshire as they provide financial protection and essential back up should flights be delayed or cancelled. All three provide a good service but Jackie singles out Greatdays for the way they work with her group. ‘I was very impressed with their knowledge of attractions and places to visit on a recent trip to Belfast, and they booked a very good guide, which made all the difference to the success of the trip,’ she says.
Jackie suggests destinations through research she has done herself or because of a familiarisation trip she has been on, such as recent ones to Wiltshire with Visit Wiltshire and to Switzerland with the Switzerland Travel Centre. ‘I will only agree to go on a familiarisation trip, though, if I feel it will be something I am likely to offer to my group, and I will usually only organise an overseas trip if I have personally visited the destination beforehand,’ she adds.
For UK breaks, Jackie will reserve accommodation (members pay hotels direct) and meals, and suggest a variety of ideas, including visits to historic properties, gardens, walks and shopping, for her members to consider. During the weekend, Jackie will organise an activity, such as leading a walk or a visit to a National Trust property, but if members don’t want to do that they can join up with others to explore the destination themselves, taking in the elements that most appeal to them. Meeting for lunch and for dinner, members then chat about what they’ve done that day. Jackie adds, ‘This free-style, mix and match approach really suits my group; it means everyone is happy and can do just what they like, but we make sure that no-one is left on their own. We find people mix well too – three or four members might travel to the destination together from Surrey, but once there individuals pair up with other members to pursue specific interests.’
Single supplements are an important consideration for Jackie as, ideally, each of her members will want their own room. ‘I understand the need for a supplement as a hotel still has to service the bedroom and bathroom whether there are one or two people using it, but I feel the supplement should be at a reasonable level and a single occupant should definitely not pay ‘double’ for a room, especially as some single rooms are not that much bigger than a cupboard!’
Again, Jackie is alert to offers and as her members do like Warner Leisure Hotels, she will take up early-bird discounts for stays at their resorts. She explains that Warner holidays are always excellent value, and there is so much flexibility in what members can do in the day time – whether exploring the locality or staying in the hotel and using the facilities, whilst at night there’s excellent food and entertainment. ‘We can all sit together for dinner too, and I often invite members for a drink in my room first so we can all go down to eat at the same time.’
In mid-December, the group returned to one of their favourite Warner hotels, Bembridge in Yarmouth on the Isle of Wight, for a weekend break. For some members, Jackie says, this was their Christmas celebration. On the Friday, 21 members of the group made their own way to the island by car and ferry from Portsmouth, which Warner helped to book, ensuring good rates. On Saturday, about two thirds of the group went to English Heritage’s Osborne House, where they thoroughly enjoyed seeing the house dressed for a Victorian Christmas. Meanwhile, Jackie and other members went to the Christmas Tree Festival in Brighstone, using the shuttle bus there and back from the oyster farm at Isle of Wight Pearl. Jackie says, ‘It was very festive and lovely.’ Back at Isle of Wight Pearl, many members shopped, taking advantage of a 20% discount on pearl jewellery. On Sunday, the group again split, with Jackie leading a walk from the hotel to Alum Bay, taking the bus for the return route, whilst others went to Brighstone. ‘The entertainment at the hotel each night was great’, Jackie adds. Members made their own way home, but Jackie and several others lingered, taking a walk to a bird sanctuary.
Over the next six months, Jackie has booked breaks at Warner Leisure Hotels’ Cricket St Thomas in Somerset in February and Bembridge, on the Isle of Wight, again, in June. For the Somerset holiday, she will also make suggestions to her members on where they can break their journey on their way to and from the hotel. From the recent familiarisation trip she attended in Wiltshire, she would suggest time in Salisbury or Bradford-on- Avon.
Recently, Jackie has organised weekend breaks at De Vere Hotels too. She has found that although they are busy with business and conference guests during the week, they can often offer good value at weekends. By selecting hotels close to Guildford – at Latimer Place in Chesham and Theobalds Park in Cheshunt, Waltham Cross – members can arrive after work on Friday. Jackie says, ‘We enjoyed using their team-building facilities, such as the table football.’
Coming up for 2016
By taking advantage of discounts wherever she can, Jackie feels she can plan twice as many trips and breaks, and she has many ideas for the year ahead. Some trips, as mentioned, are already booked to take advantage of early-bird deals, but she is also hoping to plan a weekend in Salisbury and a visit to Geneva and Montreux for the Christmas markets, which she will be arranging through the Switzerland Travel Centre. And, as usual, Jackie will decide what to include in the programme using one decisive factor – that of enjoyment. ‘If I think I will enjoy the performance, the venue or destination, then I am happy to book and to organise the trip, encouraging as many other members of the group to join me,’ she concludes.