Bon Voyage: A Trio of Group Cruising Fans

paris to honfleur WEB

The Fetcham U3A with CroisiEurope’s MS Botticelli.

River and ocean cruising is an increasingly popular option for groups and, in this issue, Val Baynton talks to three GTOs whose groups enjoy cruising, to learn more about their experiences.

Winnie Benford

Winnie Benford

Winnie Benford
Winnie Benford helped establish the Fetcham U3A in Surrey in 2002 because the two existing local U3As were full. She was on the organising committee from the outset, and drew on her experience working for large companies to become the travel and social events organiser. Her roles in the past had included working in a chemicals division of ICI where, amongst other things, she organised international tennis tournaments! She confesses to being a ‘born organiser who loves seeing people enjoy themselves’, but she also finds the role a positive influence in her own life, and one that keeps her mind and soul active. It all helps her to cope with the varying needs of her husband, who suffered two strokes nearly eight years ago, which severely reduced his mobility.

When Winnie Benford was one of the founder members of the Fetcham branch of the University of the Third Age (U3A) nearly 13 years ago, she began an enjoyable and varied time with like-minded, energetic retirees, and from the start she was involved in organising travel and days out for the group, drawing on her experience in similar tasks during her professional working life.
River cruising quickly became one of the most popular activities for her members and, most years since 2004, the group has taken a trip along one of Europe’s waterways. Cruises are usually for between seven and ten days, and normally around 40 people join each trip. Single rooms are always requested on the vessels and operators such as The River Cruise Line are expert at getting a good allocation. If there are not enough singles, Winnie does confess that she is quite persuasive in encouraging people to share!


CroisiEurope’s MS Victor Hugo.

One of the reasons that cruises are so popular is because they offer a complete package for her members. The cost is known at the outset and the price includes transport to the ship – whether by coach or coach and flight – all meals and standard drinks on-board, and excursions. ‘My members like to know what the costs will be before they travel, and river cruises allows them to budget very well,” says Winnie. “In fact, there’s hardly any need to spend any money whilst away!’ Cruises are normally planned a year to 18 months ahead, so the cruise can fit in around the rest of a full and varied programme for the group, and there’s time for individuals to save up.

Memorable cruising highlights have included a recent ‘Rhine in Flames’ cruise on mps Lady Anne, sailing with The River Cruise Line. This cruise is timed to coincide with the annual fireworks display in the Rhine Valley when local vintners celebrate the harvest of the Riesling grape. ‘The location with fire, water and light interacting is a great backdrop for the sound of the fireworks as they reverberate around the valley,’ says Winnie. The group has also experienced the Danube sailing from Passau to Budapest on MS Serenity, again with The River Cruise Line, in 2014. In 2012, they chose CroisiEurope’s Paris to Honfleur cruise on the MS Botticelli along the River Seine. The group normally takes the standard excursions offered on each cruise, as these include the highlights of the towns or regions they pass through, and are well organised and led by experienced guides.


Picturesque Vienna

From the cruise on the Danube, they took excursions to the Benedictine Abbey in Melk and the days in Vienna, Budapest (pictured below) and Bratsilava. All were typical of the high quality offered by The River Cruise Line, Winnie says. However, if one of her members wanted to visit somewhere in particular, then Winnie would be happy to try to include that too as part of the cruise itinerary.

Winnie is very impressed with The River Cruise Line. “The company knows what my members enjoy so working with them is very straightforward and there are very competitively priced options,” she says.

For this year’s cruise, Winnie was delighted to find something slightly different for her group, as she felt they had almost ticked off all the European rivers! “This year, in July, we sailed from Berlin to the Baltic Sea, Poland and Copenhagen with CroisiEurope on MS Victor Hugo,” she says. ‘This provided a very interesting itinerary and a tiny bit of ocean, albeit, coastal, cruising.’ She further explains how her members enjoyed learning and seeing the varied history and landscape of the region. The visit to Peenemünde on the island of Usedom in the Baltic Sea was fascinating, she recalls. ‘We visited the factory where German flying bombs were made, with a replica V-1 rocket in the compound, and saw the flats that were built for the servicemen to holiday in, but were never used.’

Web MPS Lady Anne

The River Cruise Line’s mps Lady Anne

‘The cruise brought to life aspects of the past that were familiar to much of my group,’ reflects Winnie. ‘But it was a chance to see places at first hand.’ She notes that there were several differences to on-board life compared to a standard river cruise because of the sea cruising element. ‘When the ship was sailing the Baltic sea, passengers had training to wear life jackets and when the ship was moored, security onboard was paramount and was carried out to a high professional standard to ensure everyone’s safety at all times,’ she recalls. ‘It was a brilliant trip, the CroisiEurope crew were very good and the wine and food was excellent.’ Spurred on by the success of being at sea, she is now thinking of an ocean cruise for her group’s next cruise holiday in 2016.

Generally the group boards a coach locally and travels via Eurotunnel to start their river cruises or, in some cases, flies to the departure point for the cruise, being collected by coach again and returned home at the end of the break. As a GTO, Winnie is very aware of the responsibility of taking a group away and ensuring that everyone is safe and enjoys the break. She says, ‘A cruise is a good option as there is a lot of support and backup before the trip and during it as well, which I personally find very reassuring.’


Mary Ginger

Mary Ginger

Mary Ginger
Mary Ginger is based in the Vale of Taunton in Somerset and started to organise trips for her friends and family some 25 years ago. Their first trip was to the 1990 Garden Festival in Gateshead, and came about by chance when her friends learnt she was planning to visit herself and asked if they could come along! Before she knew it, 28 people had signed up and the few days away were so successful that on the return journey home she was asked not only to do it again but, following a short visit to Durham Cathedral, requested that she organise a return to Durham to explore the area more fully. Mary is now retired but for the first few years of her organising worked full time in a busy fine art sale room in Taunton, where her role liaising with customers gave her the administrative experience to cope with putting together the trips. She is also Visits and Tour Secretary for the local West Somerset NADFAS (National Association of Decorative and Fine Art Society) and Visits Secretary for NADFAS South West, which covers the area from North Somerset to Cornwall.

Mary Ginger’s travel group, made up of an informal network of neighbours, friends and family in her home area of Somerset, has been going on day trips and short breaks for 25 years since her first trip to the Gateshead Garden Festival in 1990 (see panel). She and her late husband, Brian, came up with the name Dragonfly Tours after seeing a handful of the insects settle on a garden table in their then new home. Dragonflies had been one of Mary’s favourite visitors to the garden pond in their previous home, so she was pleased to see they also frequented their new garden! The name seemed apt for a group loving to travel and it suitably reflected the friendly and open make-up of the group. Over the years, Mary has organised a wide selection of trips, from day visits to gardens and stately homes to longer breaks to Europe and Canada.


Dragonfly members all dressed up for dinner, Fred. Olsen style.

Often Mary’s trips are in response to a suggestion from her members, and this was the case with their first ocean cruise in 2011. Mary had been on a cruise herself with a relative the year before and when she got back her group said ‘Why didn’t you take us?’ Mary selected a Fred.Olsen cruise for her group for two reasons – they’d been with the cruise operator for her previous cruise, and she was delighted by the ship and the service they offered. She also cherished a particular memory from her childhood. ‘As a small child, my grandmother used to take me to watch the ferries going in and out of the mouth of the Tyne,’ she recalls. ‘And they always seemed to be Fred.Olsen. I told her that one day I would go to Norway on a ship just like that!’

Now the group has been on three cruises – firstly visiting Spain and Portugal, which was followed by a cruise to the Mediterranean in 2013 and then to Norway in July of this year. All have been with Fred.Olsen, sailing on Balmoral and departing from Southampton. ‘The ship itself is very comfortable,’ Mary says. ‘And the crew are extremely friendly and look after us exceptionally well. They seem to remember so much about us! The welcome we receive is wonderful and everyone feels at home and happy.’

What impressed Mary from the outset about Fred.Olsen was the service she received from the moment she made her first tentative enquiry about a cruise back in 2011. ‘Ellie Fulcher and the groups team looked after the booking and me every step of the way’, she explains. ‘And this was very supportive. The exceptional service continued onboard, and no fault could be found, so I was happy to book our subsequent cruises with them.’ Above all, she notes that it is the attention to detail that makes the cruise line stand out. ‘When we arrived in our cabins this year, not only was there the hand written ‘Bon Voyage’ card from the groups team but also a brass bookmark in the shape of a dragonfly!’ Mary was particularly delighted when an anniversary cake to celebrate the 25th birthday of Dragonfly Tours was presented to the group during afternoon tea whilst they sailed the fjords.

Mary and her group have happy memories of the whole eight-night Norway cruise. The first port of call was Stavanger, which Mary says was delightful, combining the old with the new. ‘Many of the group went on the organised tours but I found that the local tourist bus going around the port was very good.’ The highlight of the cruise was that all four Fred. Olsen ships were in Bergen at the same time – the first time this has happened in 200 years. Mary recalls, ‘We were due to dock at 5am but my friend and I were up looking out by 4.30am and we invited others to join us on our balcony for a ‘coffee party’ and watched as we all sailed into port. There was a carnival atmosphere on the quayside with bands, pipers and dancers, and the party feeling went on all day with tug of war and basketball between the ships’ crews. The ships were bedecked with flags and bunting too.’

There were many tours organised by the groups’ team that passengers could book whilst in the beautiful and interesting port of Bergen. However, Mary says, ‘Many of us enjoyed wandering around the town taking the funicular car to the top of Mount Floyen. It was a lovely sunny day and the view of the four ships in port was a sight to see.’

So far, all the Dragonfly Tours cruises have departed from, and returned to, the UK and Mary organises coach travel to Southampton using Ridlers Coaches from Dulverton in Somerset. ‘Ridlers drivers are always unflustered in stowing the enormous amount of luggage we seem to take with us!’ she says. Mary uses Ridlers for all her other tours too. For overnight breaks, she always asks for the same driver. ‘They always give 110%!’ she says.

Mary now plans a cruise for her group every other year, to give members time to save. For 2017, she is considering going further afield and booking a fly-cruise – perhaps to the Caribbean or the Baltic region. She finds that although cruising is a relatively expensive break, she is able to persuade people to come along by pointing out the benefits of the all-inclusive price, which covers all meals, teas and coffees as well as the excellent nightly entertainment. ‘There is also a package that covers daily alcoholic drinks,’ Mary adds. ‘And we took that this year. So there was really nothing extra to pay for!’


Rob Waters

Rob Waters

Rob Waters
Rob Waters has been Travel Manager, Coach Trips, organising outings for the Addlestone Community Association in Surrey since 1973. He worked for British Rail for 37 years, retiring in 1997. Rob is married to Lyn and they have two children and four grandchildren. Aside from organising trips, Rob is an enthusiast about canals and enjoys travelling around Britain on his own canal boat.

Rob Waters must be one of the longest serving GTOs we’ve been in touch with. This year he celebrates 42 years of organising trips and short breaks for the Surrey-based Addlestone Community Association, which has some 900 members! GTO first interviewed Rob in 1994 (GTO 52, May – see below) and this time we asked him more about what made him return to group cruising after nearly 20 years. An established feature of Rob’s annual itineraries has long been trips on heritage railways and canals, but in 1997 he decided to be a little more adventurous and he booked the first river cruise for the association. The cruise was booked with KD River Cruise Lines (now part of Viking River Cruises), sailing on the MS Intalia France, Eure (27), Les Andelys, la Seine//France, Eure (27), Andelys, the Seinealong the Rivers Rhine and Moselle from Frankfurt. It was judged an outright success by him and his members, but this year is the first time they have booked another cruise because, during the intervening years, Rob struggled to find an operator that offered both service and value until he came across CroisiEurope. He has been extremely impressed by the company since, and he and his members are keen to book another cruise soon. He explains why. ‘CroisiEurope boats are spotless, the food is delicious, the cabins are comfortable and well maintained, and all the staff – from the Captain to the kitchen prep team – are, without exception, brilliant,’ he enthuses. ‘The attention to detail is unparalleled and overall the standard of service is what every hotel should provide, but many don’t!’ As an example, he points to the on-board chef and his team’s ability to provide delicious food choices for passengers with dietary restrictions, ‘I filled in a form when booking the trip, outlining any special needs, so that when we arrived onboard, the restaurant staff were already well informed.’ If the suggested menu was not to the person’s taste, then something else was offered, Rob says.

Détente sur le pont

Members of Addlestone Community Association relax onboard

Fifty two members were on the six-night cruise sailing down the Seine from Paris to Honfleur, passing though the pretty section of Les Andelys on MS France. ‘We were actually late to embark because of issues at the Channel Tunnel,’ Rob recalls. ‘But the purser delayed the welcome reception so we all had time to get changed.’ As usual, the group travelled with Trumans Coaches, based in Ash Vale in Surrey. ‘Trumans look after us very well and the drivers know what we like to do, so we’ve used them for the last four years,’ Rob says.

Rob organised his own land-based excursions and he arranged for the coach to shadow the cruise ship so it was always on hand to pick the group up. During the Seine cruise, there were trips to Monet’s Garden in Giverny (pictured bottom left) and a sightseeing tour when moored in the cathedral city of Rouen, as well as a coastal tour along the picturesque stretch of the river known as the Côte Fleurie from Honfleur to Cabourg, with a visit to a distillery making Calvados. At the end of the cruise, they journeyed back to Addlestone, calling at Le Touquet for lunch on the way. His community group represented about a third of the total passengers on the ship, and there were also groups from Norway and Denmark as well as some individuals. The cruise was ‘first rate in every regard,’ Rob says.

River cruising is popular with Rob’s group for several reasons. ‘It offers excellent value for money, once on board there’s no need to keep re-packing, the scenery is ever changing and it’s a wonderful way to see the countryside,’ he explains. Rob adds, ‘My members like to know the costs involved up front, and the all-inclusive package offered by CroisiEurope makes it easy to budget.’

Cruising top tips
• Work with a group cruising specialist operator to get full support in planning and organising your cruise
• Plan a year or two in advance to give your group time to save
• Sailings from UK ports can suit more members, especially those who are less mobile
• All inclusive packages mean there’s very little extra to pay for whilst on a cruise, making budgeting easier for everyone
• Selecting the same operator and ship for cruising allows members to feel at home
• Take advantage of familiarisation visits to ships or short two-night cruises to assess whether a cruise would suit your group

Opening up trips for those with special travel needs

On safari in South Africa with Accessible Travel and Leisure.

On safari in South Africa with Accessible Travel and Leisure.

Val Baynton talks to GTOs who specialise in planning holidays for groups of people with a range of special personal needs.

Alongside planning the usual elements of a day out or holiday  – transport, visits to attractions and destinations, accommodation and refreshments – GTOs working with groups of people who use wheelchairs, who require physical support or who live with mental health or other specific emotional problems have to take other factors into consideration to ensure everyone has a safe and enjoyable time. In speaking to GTOs involved with three different types of such groups, we learnt more about the complexity of their experiences, how they find suitable destinations and accommodation, and discovered a number of specialist suppliers ready to help meet their particular needs.Though making the arrangements and ensuring the trips go smoothly is a challenging task, the rewards in enabling people to enjoy group travel experiences are clearly significant.


Dave and Debbie Jepson

Dave and Debbie Jepson.

Based in North Wales, Dave and Debbie Jepson have more than 25 years of experience in organising holidays for wheelchair users. In setting themselves up as organisers of small group holidays, Dave and Debbie drew on years of experience. Dave formerly worked as overseas tour manager for Winged Fellowship, organising their European holidays as part of the charity’s mission to provide short breaks and holidays, as well as respite care, for disabled people and carers. Debbie was a volunteer carer helping on the breaks – and this was how she met Dave.

When Winged Fellowship’s direction changed (it’s now known as Revitalise) and they stopped running overseas holidays, Dave was made redundant. He and Debbie, however, were encouraged by the many friends they’d made to carry on organising a holiday or two for their wheelchair user friends and this has blossomed into Makin’ Tracks. Debbie explains, ‘We said, “we’d do it for one year and see how it goes”, and here we are, nine years and two children later, still organising holidays.’ Dave adds, ‘We do it because we love it.’ Dave’s insider knowledge of European cities and fluency in languages is key to their success, and Debbie’s degree in Travel and Tourism has been very helpful too.

Dave is extremely hands-on and can apply his huge knowledge of each destination, its culture and history, and a sensitive approach to accessibility issues to ensure each group discovers a place to the full. Breaks regularly take place in Italy, Spain, Portugal, Hungary, Croatia, Austria and Germany, and this year’s programme has included Rome and Sorrento in Italy, and Northern Greece.

Dave Jepson explains the view to the group on this year’s trip to Italy.

Dave Jepson explains the view to the group on this year’s trip to Italy.

The outline itinerary is made in advance, with hotels and activities requiring advance tickets booked, and fine tuning takes place in the week before the tour. Dave drives out alone from the UK in his specially adapted minibus, taking out a wealth of equipment including hoists, which he then stores at the hotel to use as required. The first task is to check the bedrooms are all suitable. Next, he explores the area thoroughly, visiting restaurants, checking toilets and working out accessible routes. He says, ‘Experience has shown me that it is best to do these checks and bookings close to our tours because then our needs and the access complications are fresh in everyone’s mind – including mine!’

He adds that it is important to remain flexible throughout the time away, as he tailors the holiday to suit the abilities, specific interests and ages of each member of the group to take in both academic and more general approaches to information and, during the holiday, he will change the programme to suit an individual’s needs. He sees each trip as an ‘unfolding story’, so the order that attractions are visited in is important; he believes, for instance, it’s best to go to Pompeii and to Herculaneum before a follow-up visit to the Archaeological Museum of Naples.

When arriving at a city, he tries to drive in on a route that allows a panorama view to whet his group’s appetite for what’s in store, and with a small vehicle he can get close in to city centres too. In Florence, for example, large coaches have to drop off a mile out of the centre, but his minibus can get right up to the pedestrianised areas, which is, of course, essential for wheelchair users. Dave also plans routes to avoid driving the same roads twice and plays appropriate music on the minibus to give a subtle background to the trip. Dave stresses, ‘The one thing I avoid is seeing the tour as a list of places to be ticked off. I want to do things well and ensure the group enjoys the whole experience.’

A delicious lunch is served during the Makin’ Tracks Italian holiday this year.

A delicious lunch is served during the Makin’ Tracks Italian holiday this year.

Sorrento has been a popular destination over the last two years. This year, the group stayed in the Hilton Sorrento Place hotel – with fully accessible bedrooms including roll-in showers – and trips included the stunning Amalfi Drive, a ferry to the Isle of Capri, a trip to Pompeii and Naples as well as time to explore Sorrento itself. Meals were taken in the hotel and in restaurants in the town. The one part of the holiday Debbie and Dave regret that they are not able to include are air flights as the cost of ATOL regulation is too great for them. However, the upside is that people can fly from whichever regional airport is most convenient for them and the Jepsons will help identify the best and cheapest options. For further information, visit


Carol Sargent and Jo Harris work in the East Midlands and run MindforYou for those living with dementia and their carers. Jo is a community psychiatric nurse and for the past 20 years has specialised in working with older adults. Carol has experience with dementia through supporting her mother and mother-in-law and as a befriender for the Alzheimer’s Society. This changed her perspective and career path from a scientist to establishing MindforYou with Jo, after being unable to find suitable holidays that offered support for her parents.

Carol Sargent ­(front left) with a MindforYou group.

Carol Sargent ­(front left) with a MindforYou group.

Carol found that most existing holiday support for people living with dementia and their carers was of a respite nature and was targeted at the person with the illness, who is then isolated from their carer, which can have negative effects on both people in the dementia partnership. She and Jo set up MindforYou to offer holidays to people living with dementia and their carers in relaxed, dementia-friendly environments, with experienced and compassionate support staff – so that both the person living with dementia and the carer can relax, meet new people and be supported by professionals.

The holiday breaks take place in Scotland, the Peak District, Norfolk, Leicestershire and Yorkshire, and are for groups of up to 12 people. As part of ensuring holidays are as dementia-friendly as possible, Carol or Jo assesses each property beforehand. Carol explains, ‘We make sure that accommodation has a simple layout, ensuite bathrooms, good lighting and accessibility, and we reduce or eliminate any potential hazards such as rugs. Where possible, we provide assistive technology – for example dementia clocks giving the day and month as well as the time.’ The timing of the trips is important too; they run from Sunday or Monday for five nights, so that each couple can settle in and then return home before the weekend to get back into a routine before the start of the next week.

The break begins as soon as people leave home, as Carol and Jo include personalised transport options and, if required, a travel companion to assist on the journey. This is an important part of each holiday, and every break can also be tailored to suit the needs of each couple. Jo continues, ‘MYTime is available during all of our activities and gives the carer the opportunity to choose how they want to spend their time. For example, during their trip to Norfolk this year, a group enjoyed a nostalgic steam ride on the North Norfolk Railway and then one of the carers explored old haunts in Sheringham while his wife went shopping with one of our experienced staff.’


Enjoying a MindforYou holiday.

This year, three successful holidays in Norfolk, Pitlochry and the Peak District have taken place so far. Part of the holidays is providing support to allow people to do things they would normally be unable to do; in the Peak District, staff helped a couple in their 80s travel up the Heights of Abraham cable car! Meeting like-minded people is also an important aspect of the work that MindforYou does, with people on their holidays saying that they felt as though they had ‘found a second family’.

Carol and Jo are working with Loughborough University to generate evidence of the benefits of a supported holiday and to give people living with dementia the confidence that they are still able to have an enjoyable holiday together. Additionally, MindforYou aim to use the information to make the case for carers of people living with dementia to have one week’s paid holiday a year. Carol says, ‘Jo and I have been overwhelmed by the feedback from people who have been on our holidays so far, and the responses of each group have been humbling, with everyone wanting to re-book in the future.’ For further information, visit


Ally Ward.

Ally Ward.

Ally Ward has been Courses Manager for leading spinal cord injury charity, Back Up, for seven years. Previously, she was Princes Trust Team Leader at Warwickshire College, where she led 12-week personal development courses for young people aged 16 to 25, designed to boost confidence and gain qualifications.

Back Up helps thousands of people of all ages and backgrounds rebuild their confidence and independence after a devastating spinal cord injury. Ally’s role includes planning and managing residential courses for groups of people with spinal cord injury from all over the UK and Northern Ireland. In most cases, she supports people to make their own travel arrangements but she also organises annual courses and the group travel arrangements to a winter park in Colorado and a ski school in Sweden. Her goal is to encourage participants to see that life doesn’t have to stop because they’re paralysed. Spaces are based on individual applications and places are allocated to those with the greatest need. Ally explains, ‘Our aim is for people to realise they can still do activities and even take up new ones. By trying things out in a supported group situation – such as art and crafts, abseiling, flying or skiing – we aim to give people the confidence to go on to do these things with families and friends or on their own.’

Part of a group enjoying a winter adventure  with Back Up.

Part of a group enjoying a winter adventure
with Back Up.

The participants on these courses can be wheelchair users and some participants have no movement below the shoulders and require breathing assistance. This means there are many logistical issues to be thought through for each course. Back Up groups also take part in activity courses at the Calvert Trust centres in Exmoor and the Lake District, which are led by Back Up’s trained volunteers. There are specific courses at these centres each year for people aged under 18 and over 50.

Over 20 adults travel each year to take part in Back Up’s ski courses in Sweden and the USA, and Ally works with Meon Valley Travel in Petersfield, Hampshire, to organise hotels and flights. She says, ‘Their support is invaluable in getting the best deals, and in providing back up when flights are delayed or cancelled. This can be a particular issue when flying to and from snowy destinations, and it’s good to have the Meon Valley team’s support in emergency situations.’

Even though the support from the Meon Valley team is important, Ally thinks that it is still essential to make direct contact with the manager and staff at the airline to make sure all are totally aware of the needs of the group. ‘This prevents possible breakdowns in communication that can cause issues,’ she explains. For further information, visit


Across Europe, there are campaigns to improve accessibility for all tourists. In 2013 and 2014, VisitEngland ran a pilot project, Access for All, with the destinations of Bath, Leicestershire and NewcastleGateshead, to develop and promote each destination for visitors with access needs. Deemed successful, the initiative has been expanded and, since October 2014, VisitEngland has partnered with seven further destinations – Kent, Birmingham, Lincoln, Northumberland, the Peak District and Derbyshire, Nottinghamshire and Brighton.

The launch of Tourism Disability Access Day  in Edinburgh.

The launch of Tourism Disability Access Day in Edinburgh.

Another initiative, Disabled Access Day, first took place on 17th January 2015 and saw 200 organisations across the UK encourage disabled people, their friends and families to visit somewhere new to raise the profile of what was on offer. Amongst attractions taking part was the Royal Yacht Britannia in Edinburgh (see above), which promoted their hand-held tablet for deaf and hard of hearing visitors, their audio guides for visually impaired visitors and the wheelchair access provision throughout the yacht. The next Disabled Access Day is 12th March 2016. In the meantime, in September, VisitEngland will launch a national marketing campaign to showcase what is on offer for visitors with access needs.

Across the channel, Germany has also been campaigning for disabled provision and the Barrier-Free campaign by the national tourist office highlights the extent of choice on offer through the country for people living with a disability, whether a wheelchair user or partially or fully deaf or blind.


Those groups with very specific needs will often require the services of operators or organisations used to dealing with particular types of requirement. Here are a few ideas.

Tourism for All UK is a national charity dedicated to making tourism welcoming to all and overcoming barriers that might prevent older people, wheelchair users, carers of young or older people or those living with illnesses from participating in tourism. The website provides information about the charity, and outlines advice and assistance that can be offered to businesses, and the linked website gives comprehensive accessible tourism information on places to stay, visit, eat and drink, and activities and events, in the UK.

CanalAbility in Essex is an established charity with over 20 years experience dedicated to providing affordable canal boat holidays and day trips in the UK for people with disabilities and their families, friends and other community groups.

A group on a wildlife photography holiday with Go Provence.

A group on a wildlife photography holiday with Go Provence.

In France, Go Provence specialises in running rewarding, fun and safe holidays for adults and children with learning disabilities in the Gorges du Verdon in Provence. Typically holidays combine outdoor adventures, excursions and relaxation, with trained and professional staff providing high levels of support for each group member.

Accessible Travel and Leisure of Gloucester is a specialist tour operator providing holiday accommodation and holidays that are accessible to wheelchair users, and those less mobile or who travel with carers. Holidays take place worldwide and include many different types such as skiing, river and ocean cruising, and safari trips in South Africa.


All three groups we spoke to have had some disappointing experiences due to the specific access needs of their groups. Ally Ward and David and Debbie Jepson both say that airlines provide a bad service to wheelchair users. Individual staff are extremely helpful but the system itself is poor. Every other type of transport – train, coach, ferry – has to make provision for people to stay in a wheelchair but airlines do not. This means that wheelchair users are manually lifted from their own chair into a smaller chair that can access a plane’s aisle and then the person is manually lifted again into their allocated seat. Ally has spent time with the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) Working Group to try to improve the experience of disabled people at airports, which, she says, has been a successful initiative.

David Jepson also comments that, when new hotels are built, accessible bathrooms are often created by taking space from the bedroom so the overall unit size of accommodation is maintained. This means there might be room for only one bed and therefore the carer cannot support their wheelchair user in the night and has to stand the cost of an additional room.

Parts of Spain provide good accessibility – for example, since the 1992 Olympics, Barcelona has vastly improved its understanding of wheelchair user needs. Other countries have pockets that provide good facilities, but it seems, Dave observes, to be down to how local authorities are prepared to enforce EU directives.

Carol Sargent points to the lack of staff specifically trained and experienced at supporting people living with dementia as being one of the main issues in making tourism accessible for all.

An expert organiser

Clive Richardson wears his Blue Badge with pride.

Clive Richardson wears his Blue Badge with pride.

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.



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.

The fish market in Whitstable. © Visit Canterbury

The fish market in Whitstable. © Visit Canterbury

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.

Rochester Dickensian Christmas Festival.­­­  © Medway Council

Rochester Dickensian Christmas Festival.­­­ © Medway Council

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.



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.

One of Clive’s groups walking around the gardens at Anglesey Abbey.

One of Clive’s groups walking around the gardens at Anglesey Abbey.

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!



Hadlow Tower, near Tonbridge.

Hadlow Tower, near Tonbridge.

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.’