Building Memories

This month, Carrie Drage speaks to Patricia Jeffrey from Buckinghamshire who has gone from organising trips for just 30 people at the Chesham Townswomen’s Guild to around 460 people as Outings Chairman for the Chiltern & Castle Federation of Townswomen’s Guilds.

Patricia Jeffrey

Patricia Jeffrey

Patricia Jeffrey has been involved in group travel in one form or another since the 1970s. She explains, “I joined the Pinner Evening Townswomen’s Guild, in Middlesex, at an early age and within a year I was on the committee, organising day trips at first, then holidays for its members.” Patricia had always loved travel and moved around a lot for her husband’s work, living for three years in West Africa and six months in Venezuela. A little while later, as her children were growing up, she made the decision to go back to work and managed to land a job in a travel company. She was there for five years altogether, working in the groups department. She reveals, “Initially, I joined the company as a secretary to the groups manager but was later promoted to group travel co-ordinator, which involved researching and putting together itineraries for groups, and making all the necessary arrangements. It was a great grounding for my work with the townswomen’s guild.”
After moving away from the area, Patricia joined the Chesham Townswomen’s Guild and, once again, found herself on the committee, organising day trips and holidays for its 30 members. However, by the late 1980s, she had been approached by the committee of the Chiltern & Castle Federation of Townswomen’s Guilds to become their Outings Chairman. She explains, “I felt I wouldn’t have enough time to organise trips for my Chesham group anymore but I still attend the monthly meetings at Chesham Town Hall.”
In her current capacity, Patricia organises an average of three holidays a year for 13 guilds across Buckinghamshire and part of Berkshire, which amounts to roughly 460 members. The members are invited to meet seven times a year at the Bourne End Community Centre, in Buckinghamshire, and although everyone is welcome at these meetings, most guilds tend to send just a couple of delegates to report back. Patricia explains, “I normally do a presentation to the group and give each representative a leaflet to take back to their guild containing information about the trips coming up. It’s then up to them to make sure their members are kept informed, although I’m still the primary contact for all bookings.”

In the grounds of the Manoir d’Apreval distillery near Honfleur.

In the grounds of the Manoir d’Apreval distillery near Honfleur.

Patricia’s trips are open to members of the Federation’s 13 guilds as well as family and friends. She says, “Everybody pays the same price whether you’re a member or not. Mostly women come on our trips but we’ve had a few more men in recent years, which makes a nice change! We always get a good turnout with around 30 to 35 people on each holiday.”

Jet set lifestyles

After several decades in the business, Patricia has built up good contacts in the trade and tends to book most of her holidays through a select group of suppliers. She says, “After years of experience, I’ve come to know some of the most reliable, which have the expertise to provide the kind of support I require.” Success Tours in Wiltshire is her main tour operator and she meets with Tony Flanagan several times a year to discuss the programme. She states, “He always has plenty of ideas for me to mull over; the rest of the team also give a very good service.”
As a group, the members certainly have no limits as to where they will travel to, with destinations as diverse as Ireland, Italy, Germany, Austria, Belgium, Poland, the Czech Republic and Canada just some of the places that have been visited in the past. Patricia says, “Many of the holidays I’ve booked on the back of a familiarisation trip. It makes such a difference if you’ve been to a destination beforehand because you know what you want out of the holiday.”
A five-day break to Helsinki, in Finland, in July 2002, is just one of the destinations that Patricia visited previously on a familiarisation trip. She states, “There’s lots of wonderful architecture in Helsinki; beautiful museums and churches. One thing I’d say about Finland though is that you’ve got to be adventurous with the food!” The group was based at the Scandic Simonkenttä, a central Helsinki hotel. Patricia reveals, “The bedrooms here were very modern and spacious.”

Boarding the Bernina Express on the Lake Como holiday.

Boarding the Bernina Express on the Lake Como holiday.

During the break, a number of excursions were built into the itinerary including a day out in Tallinn, Estonia. She remembers, “We took the Nordic Jet Line ferry over from Helsinki. It’s a fascinating place; full of character.”
Understandably, there are some places that Patricia holds more affection for than others and Honfleur, a fishing town in northern France, is just one of these. Patricia remarks, “It’s such a charming little place and the food is to die for, especially in the seafood restaurants. We went on a bed and breakfast basis so we could make the most of these.” The group stayed for four days in May 2005 and during the break enjoyed excursions to Deauville and Trouville to do some market shopping and a visit to the Manoir d’Apreval distillery in Pennedepie, just outside Honfleur. Patricia says, “There was a tour and, of course, a tasting of their famous Calvados apple brandy.”
Italy is another destination that never disappoints, with the group returning time and time again. For instance, Sicily was the destination for a five-day break in October 2004, during which time they stayed at the Hotel Tourist in Cefalù. Patricia remembers, “It was a friendly family-run hotel with its own private beach.” As well as days out to Mount Etna and Taormina, the group visited Palermo. She remarks, “With its Byzantine and Norman buildings it’s well worth doing a tour here.”
Four years later, Lake Como was the setting for another five-day getaway in May staying at the Grand Hotel Cadenabbia. She says, “It was right on the lake next to the famous Villa Carlotta. Enjoying our welcome drink on the patio we felt like we were in paradise.” With Lake Como right on the border with Switzerland, the group took full advantage of its location with an alpine train journey on the Bernina Express. Patricia says, “As the train wends its way up the mountainside, it’s the most wonderful experience.”

Some of the group in front of the Gullfoss waterfall in Iceland

Some of the group in front of the Gullfoss waterfall in Iceland

More recently, the group visited Sardinia in October 2009 for a six-day break, with accommodation at the “delightful” Dei Pini Hotel in Alghero. For Patricia, the scenic boat ride to Capo Caccia, renowned for its underground labyrinth of caves, was one of the highlights. She says, “We visited Neptune’s Grotto, which was amazing with all its stalagmite and stalactite formations.”
The same year, Patricia organised a five-day visit to Iceland in April, booked through The Travel Adventure in East Sussex. She remarks, “People still talk about this holiday now. Jayne Kerr organised it superbly and I certainly wouldn’t hesitate to use them again.” The group was based at the Hotel Reykjavik, which Patricia describes as “on the edge of the city but very welcoming” and enjoyed a number of excursions during their stay. She says, “The group loved the Golden Circle tour, which took us around the geysers and glaciers, and to Gullfoss, known as the queen of Iceland’s waterfalls. We also enjoyed the ice bar experience in Reykjavik.” The visit to the Blue Lagoon geothermal spa on the final day was also a highlight. She explains, “This was unforgettable! It was just like a warm bath but what made it was the Blue Lagoon cocktail that we were greeted with. We didn’t want to come out!”

Inside the ice bar

Inside the ice bar

Although the group has dabbled with cruising in the past, the seven-night Norwegian fjord cruise in August last year was one of the best. In fact, she is already looking into doing another cruise with the company in 2012. She says, “It was a Fred. Olsen cruise aboard the Balmoral and I can’t rate them highly enough. The cabins were smart, the entertainment was good, and the food and service was first class.” A good number of excursions were offered in the itinerary with a highlight being the day out to Flåm. Patricia states, “It was wonderful going up into the snow-capped mountains by train.”

Back in Blighty

Dinner on the Balmoral.

Dinner on the Balmoral.

Although Patricia’s group is certainly adventurous with regards to holiday destinations, their breaks in the UK continue to be just as popular. In September 2008, she decided to book a five-day holiday to Warner Leisure Hotels’ Cricket St Thomas Hotel, in Somerset, and hasn’t looked back since. The group had such a lovely time that Patricia booked another break, this time to Bodelwyddan Castle Hotel in North Wales, for April last year, and is hoping to repeat its success with a stay at Bembridge Coast Hotel, on the Isle of Wight, in August this year. She says, “I would highly recommend both the properties we’ve stayed at. The rooms were very spacious and furnished to a high standard and the entertainment was most enjoyable too.”
Another regular addition to the programme are the breaks that Patricia builds around the Townswomen’s Guild’s national AGM, usually held in June. She explains, “At one time, the AGM would be in a different location each year but has been at the ICC in Birmingham for the last two years.” Last year, Patricia organised a weekend break staying at the Ramada Birmingham, Solihull hotel and was impressed with the results. She says, “It’s a super base for exploring Birmingham and the surrounding area. Solihull is quite upmarket with a lovely tree-lined precinct.” On one of the days, the group was transported back to the golden age of steam with a ride on the Severn Valley Railway. Patricia says, “It was a lovely day out. I have such fond memories of going on steam trains as a child and it was just as I remember it. The journey from Kidderminster to Bridgenorth is so relaxing and travels through some beautiful countryside.” From one mode of transport to another, the next day saw the group take a boat ride with Bancroft Cruisers on a day out to Stratford-upon-Avon. She says, “We spent a good hour going up and down the river and were even treated to tea and biscuits onboard and a commentary.”

The group outside the Best Western Milford Hotel

The group outside the Best Western Milford Hotel

A few years earlier in July 2006, Harrogate in Yorkshire was the destination for the group’s AGM so Patricia organised a five-day break staying at the Best Western Milford Hotel on the outskirts of Leeds. She says, “We were made to feel very welcome here. I tend to use Best Western a lot because their hotels have a lot of character and are always of a good standard.” As well as a day out exploring the Yorkshire Dales with a Blue Badge Guide and free time in Harrogate, the group visited the historic city of York. Patricia comments, “York is one of my favourite English cities and it’s so compact. The minster is magnificent and definitely a ‘must see’. We also had a lovely boat ride on the River Ouse with YorkBoat.”
In addition to Patricia’s role as Outings Chairman for the Townswomen’s Guild, she is also involved with Ley Hill Flower Club and organises an outing for the group on an annual basis. She explains, “I’ve been a member of the club since I moved to Chesham and have been organising coach trips for the members for over 10 years.” Transport for these outings is arranged with Woottens Luxury Travel in Chesham. Patricia remarks, “It’s a family-run firm and I have a good relationship with the Director, Michael Wootten. They always come up trumps, providing nice coaches and friendly drivers. I also use them for transfers for some of our overseas holidays and as transport for our UK breaks.”
Patricia has organised a number of excursions for her flower club over the years, including a very memorable visit to Sulgrave Manor, in Oxfordshire, in July 2009. She comments, “This is a delightful manor house and was home to George Washington’s ancestors. We had a wonderful guide, superb buffet lunch and there was even time to wander round the lovely gardens.”

In front of the coach on the break in Yorkshire.

In front of the coach on the break in Yorkshire.

The day out to Sussex in May 2001 is another of Patricia’s favourites, combining a ride on the Bluebell Railway with a visit to The National Trust’s Sheffield Park and Garden. She says, “We went during bluebell season so all the banks were covered in them. It was very pretty. Sheffield Park is less than a mile away so it’s the ideal accompaniment. When we went the rhododendrons and azaleas were coming into flower. It was so beautiful and peaceful here.”
Additionally, Patricia tries to arrange a day out for the Federation Officers and committee members as a treat for all their hard work. In the past, this has involved a day out to The Mill at Sonning in Oxfordshire. She says, “There’s normally about 11 of us for this. We tend to go on a weekend for a matinee performance and enjoy a delicious lunch preshow. It’s a really delightful venue.”

The importance of people skills

Plan, research and, above all else, communicate – these are the three things that every GTO must be able to do well, according to Patricia. She says, “To be a success, you need to know how people tick. There are so many different types of people you have to liaise with in this industry and not everybody responds in the same way, so you have to be adaptable.”
Although Patricia has experienced one or two minor disasters in her time, she mostly has fond memories of her trips. She laughs, “I remember when we were in Niagara, Canada, and the hotel made a mistake with our booking, placing some of our ladies in double rooms instead of twins. We managed to resolve it though and they compensated us with chocolates and meal vouchers.”

Posing for a photograph outside Warner Leisure Hotel’s Bodelwyddan Castle Hotel.

Posing for a photograph outside Warner Leisure Hotel’s Bodelwyddan Castle Hotel.

Patricia has been a member of the Group Travel Organisers’ Association from the outset and has found it a “godsend” for networking. She explains, “It’s a good outlet for meeting interesting people in the travel trade and is a way to share ideas with other GTOs. It’s also a good way to discover new venues because the different branches organise regular meetings, which include familiarisation trips, throughout the year.”
Although it’s impossible to predict what’s round the next corner, Patricia is optimistic about the future saying, “I’d like to keep doing this as long as I can. This year, I hope to go on some more familiarisation trips and we’ve got a six-day visit to Italy’s Amalfi Coast with Success Tours in June, which we’re all really excited about. Long may it continue!”