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.

 

EARLY ORGANISING EXPERIENCES

Clive’s first experience as a GTO was when he worked at an international language school in Hastings in the early 1980s, and was responsible for organising itineraries and transport for the students. Visits to Canterbury, Brighton and London were regular parts of the programme and he gradually built up a network of contacts in the travel trade. When he spotted an advertisement in The Times Educational Supplement inviting people to train as a Blue Badge guide, he was immediately interested. The training was rigorous, Clive recalls. ‘It involved attending lectures in Eastbourne and Brighton, and studying three days a week for a year, and usually one of these days was spent on a coach giving commentaries. There were 19 subjects on the curriculum, ranging from history, gardens and church architecture to the monarchy.’ Clive qualified in 1987 and Kent, East and West Sussex, and Hampshire became his specialities, although he is able to guide anywhere in the UK and travels across the country including to Wales and the Scottish Borders. He doesn’t have to re-qualify to continue as a guide but he does attend professional development days, which take place at a range of historic properties, gardens and visitor attractions. On such days, the attending guides are usually briefed about the attraction by the resident expert as well as receiving additional information covering health and safety legislation and so on. Clive also points out that many Blue Badge guide updates are received electronically too.

After qualifying as a Blue Badge guide, Clive worked part time for the local Hastings and District Bus Company, preparing itineraries and acting as a courier guide for their day trips. When the company was taken over by Stagecoach, who were not so interested in the excursion programme, Clive was encouraged by local residents, who frequently went on the trips and didn’t wish to see them end, to set himself up as an independent organiser of trips and short holidays.

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.”

 

THREE-PART OFFER

Clive liaises with a wide variety of groups he helps, from Probus Clubs and Women’s Institutes to historical or sporting societies, and offers three types of service. He organises day trips or longer breaks for private groups, planning and arranging the itinerary and excursion options, working with the members to ensure the day or the break is perfectly tailored to their needs. Secondly, he will assist local groups to combine to share a coach or take a block booking on one of Clive’s publicly promoted tours. ‘This is quite a popular option,’ Clive says. ‘It allows groups to develop interesting and good value activities because they don’t have to fill a 45 or 50-seater coach on their own.’ His third activity is as a Blue Badge guide to groups coming into 1066 Country, as the town of Hastings and surrounding area is known. One of his most popular tours is the ‘Foyle’s Walk’, which takes in locations in Hastings Old Town where the first five series’ of TV’s Foyles War were filmed.

 

ADVICE FOR OTHERS

Over the years, Clive’s programmes have developed to reflect his particular approach to organising and to fill what he perceives as a gap left by the traditional coach tour operators. Personal interaction is important; he takes time to get to know the people on his trips to build up relationships with individuals, and tries to create a community group spirit on board the coach. He dislikes the anonymity and impersonal contact that controls much of 21st century life and he aims to add value to the day through the guiding and courier experience he can uniquely offer. ‘Guiding is something of an art,’ he says. ‘You have to know when to be quiet and not be tempted to speak all the time. But if there’s something of interest to say, then I like to share this with the group on the coach!’ He also makes a point of offering limited pick-up points for the tours so that the day can get started quickly and so, within an hour of departure, the coach is off somewhere interesting for an early coffee stop.

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!

 

CLIVE’S HIDDEN TREASURES

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.’

Tasty trips for wine lovers

One of the wine classes run by The Local Wine School.

One of the wine classes run by The Local Wine School.

Wine tourism is a growing trend, with specialist groups focusing on tasting and appreciating wine and visiting vineyards to learn at first-hand from the professional growers and makers. Val Baynton checks out the experiences of organisers of different types of groups, and learns how both specialists and non-specialists can enjoy discovering more about wine.

Since 1971, Howard Hunter has been nurturing his passion for wine, joining the local branch of the Yorkshire Guild of Sommeliers in that year and continuing his interest in his retirement. Howard is also involved with other local groups such as Rotary and he regularly meets with a group of good friends for private wine tastings too

Since 1971, Howard Hunter has been nurturing his passion for wine, joining the local branch of the Yorkshire Guild of Sommeliers in that year and continuing his interest in his retirement. Howard is also involved with other local groups such as Rotary and he regularly meets with a group of good friends for private wine tastings too.

Howard Hunter, a former electronics engineer in Scarborough, has a passion for wine, which now forms the basis of his group travel activity. Howard is an enthusiastic member of the Yorkshire Guild of Sommeliers, founded in 1962, which brings together wine lovers from Yorkshire and North Lincolnshire to enjoy wine tasting events, overseas trips and social events throughout the year. There are nine sections and each one has its own chairman and committee.

Over the last 12 years, Howard has shared his passion by organising overseas visits to Europe, primarily France, for his local group, the 47-member Scarborough section. The seven to 10-day wine tasting breaks usually take place in September or October, with around a quarter of the places booked by members from Scarborough, and the rest filled from the 500-strong membership of the whole Guild.

Wines tasted during the monthly meetings often inspire a particular trip. As Howard says, “Having tasted a wine and enjoyed it, it’s then most instructive to go and see where and how it is made.” Having decided on a vineyard, and thus region, Howard plans other parts of the itinerary partly by consulting books written by experts. “I also talk to the wine importers we have become friendly with over the years to find out what they would recommend in that area,” he adds.

Howard also researches hotels and makes some selections. Venues such as the Best Western Shonenberg in Riquewihr are praised by his group for the quality of the accommodation and friendliness of the staff. To finalise the arrangements, Howard hands over his draft itinerary to Pamela Edwards at specialist tour operator Golden Compass (see page 47). “I’ve worked with Pam for a number of years,” he says. “She always gives a great service, coming up with further suggestions for hotels and local restaurants. Over the years, she has come to understand just what our group wants from the trip, and liaises with the coach operator to ensure a good value package.” Howard points out that because Golden Compass also operate their own Wine Tour itineraries, as well as specialising in tailored and personalised tours overseas, they have the exact type of expertise his group requires.

Howard books a 49 or 50-seater coach, but the tours are actually restricted to 20 people; a core of around 10 members always come, and he’s found that giving everyone enough space on the coach, so they can sit on their own or move around, makes the journey far more pleasant for everyone. And, since the group likes to bring back wine, the large tri-axle coaches thus have sufficient storage space for numerous cases! Howard also says, “Twenty is the maximum number that smaller vineyards can welcome on a tour. Sometimes even this is too many, and we have to split into smaller groups.”

Yorkshire Rose Coaches is Howard’s transport choice. “The Mills family who own and run Yorkshire Rose are superb,” he says. “The coaches are immaculate and the service they offer is second to none.” For trips to France, the group travels by P&O Ferries from Hull to Zeebrugge and, if the destination is southern France such as the Rhône or Bordeaux areas, they stay overnight in Reims. Last year, the group visited Spain, and sailed with Brittany Ferries from Portsmouth to Santander.

WINE TASTING ITINERARIES

Howard and his group enjoying lunch at Bistro Des Grand Crus Chablis during a trip to the Loire region.

Howard and his group enjoying lunch at Bistro Des Grand Crus Chablis during a trip to the Loire region.

Howard’s trips have been made to the Alsace, Rhone, Bordeaux, Loire and Champagne areas of France and the 2015 trip will be to the Champagne, Macon and Beaujolis regions. Itineraries have also focused on visits to bodegas in the Rioja and Navarra regions in Spain, and the group has also called at German vineyards whilst in Alsace. The group was very impressed by wine made at Germany’s largest co-operative winery, Badischer Winzerkeller in Briesach. Howard recalls, “We were surprised to learn that the wine from each of the producers in the co-op was vinified separately, hence the reason for its quality.”

Wine tasting takes place every day of a trip and, in total, 10 or 12 vineyards will be visited on each tour. Viewing the cellars and vineyards is an important part of each individual visit, as well as meeting the wine maker. When the sommeliers arrive at a vineyard showing their enthusiasm and that they have more than a basic knowledge for wine, they are often invited to taste older, more exclusive vintages. Howard is anxious to point out that at vineyards the etiquette is to taste a wine and not to drink it. “We are privileged to sample some very exclusive vintages,” he says. “Some can cost over £200 a bottle.” He continues, “The time for ‘drinking’ wine is in the evening at meal times.” Usually, Howard plans a mixture of pre-booked meals in the hotel or local restaurant, as well as nights for ‘free-style dining’.

He makes notes during each vineyard visit about both the wines they have sampled and what the group thought. These notes are great reminders of the trip and can be used at future monthly tastings and presentations.

Howard has lots of ideas for the future, but is looking forward to the Champagne trip, where the group will taste some of the best of the region’s wines. He is particularly anticipating his first sip of a Laurent-Perrier champagne!

CHRIS TAKES WINE SCHOOL SCHEME NATIONWIDE

Chris Powell  Prior to setting up the first Local Wine School in Newcastle upon Tyne in 2000, Chris Powell, a fully qualified engineer, had a 20-year career in petrochemicals and commercial management. As well as an engineering degree, he also has an MBA,  which he studied at Durham University.

Prior to setting up the first Local Wine School in Newcastle upon Tyne in 2000, Chris Powell, a fully qualified engineer, had a 20-year career in petrochemicals and commercial management. As well as an engineering degree, he also has an MBA, which he studied at Durham University.

In 2000, having been a professional engineer for some years, Chris Powell decided it was time for a change. Inspired by an enthusiasm for food and wine, he set up The Local Wine School in Newcastle upon Tyne. His objective was to make wine accessible for everyone and to offer a range of fun, friendly wine tastings, courses and experience days. The concept was quickly successful and so Chris has replicated the idea, establishing franchises for the schools, and there are now 26 Local Wine Schools throughout the UK, with some 60,000 clients. The schools’ courses are run by tutors who have qualifications from the Wine, Spirit and Educational Trust (WSET) and students can opt to attend professional courses that will lead to the WSET qualifications, or join the more informal tasting evenings or days. All schools are run independently of any retailer or wine merchant.

Chris has also organised five-day wine tasting holidays for students from the schools to visit vineyards in France’s Rhône Valley. The breaks are put on in conjunction with the Auberge du Vin, a wine school based in a converted 18th century farmhouse in rural Provence, near Mont Ventoux, run by Linda Field and Chris Hunt. Linda is a qualified wine educator and she helps Chris Powell plan a varied itinerary for each of his holiday groups, and provides essential support such as interpreting.

A local wine school trip.

A local wine school trip.

Around 12 to 14 people are typically on each trip, and Chris has found it works best if group members make their own way to France. Individuals or couples can then opt to make the wine break part of a longer holiday, or to use their own transport if they also want to buy wine to take home. “The emphasis is very much on wine and food,” Chris explains. “We may visit three different vineyards or chateaux in a day but there is also time for relaxation, and the Auberge has excellent facilities including a swimming pool.” The group tends to visit specialised vineyards that Linda and Chris have developed relationships with over the years and, usually, the group will meet the wine makers or owners, and frequently enjoy a special lunch with these experts whilst sampling the wine.

Originally the holidays were restricted to members in the Newcastle area, but since the school network has expanded, participants come from all over the UK. Last year, for example, a group of six students from the Hertfordshire Local Wine School, run by David Rough, joined the Rhône party. David says, “It was great to take part in this trip and it was very well organised with a good balance between discovering more about Rhône wines, such as the Chateauneuf-du-Pape, Gigondas, Rasteau and Beaumes-de-Venise appellations, and being extremely relaxing. There was lots of added value to the tour because it was customised to our specific group needs and made very personal to us. Elements such as visits to private vineyards were included that would not have been possible to experience if visiting the region as an individual.”

David also organises visits to vineyards in the UK. These trips take place a couple of times a year and typically there are around 20 in the group. Because members come from all over Hertfordshire, people make their own way to the vineyard, although quite a bit of car–sharing does take place. A recent visit was to Frithsden Vineyard, near Berkhamsted, which makes red, white and rose wines. The group had a tour of the vineyard and also enjoyed a tasting session and an informal supper. David says, “Going to a vineyard and meeting a wine maker helps to bring the theory we’ve talked about during the courses to life. Members also appreciate the chance to socialise with each other too.”

U3A WINE APPRECIATION GROUPS

Many branches of the University of the Third Age (U3A), in Britain and overseas, include wine appreciation groups that, alongside regular tasting sessions, organise trips to vineyards. In Jávea, located between Alicante and Valencia on Spain’s Costa Blanca, Geoff Woodward is the leader of the town’s U3A wine appreciation group. Geoff organises regular meetings with wine tastings for the group’s 85 members and, once a year, usually in June or September, he arranges a trip to a bodega so the group can see and taste at first hand some of the wines they have learnt about. Generally, the group visits bodegas that are within two hours travel, and 50 to 55 people go on each trip. Geoff reports that the last two trips have been unusual.

In 2013, they went to the Unión Vinícula Del Este bodega in Requena to learn about the production of the sparkling wine Cava. “We saw many parts of the Cava making process including the bottling line and we enjoyed seeing how it differs to wine making. We also had tastings of various Cavas, learning about the different qualities of each,” says Geoff.

The Jávea U3A at the Bodegas Mustiguillo in Utiel, Spain.

The Jávea U3A at the Bodegas Mustiguillo in Utiel, Spain.

In 2014, following a presentation at a meeting by the oenologist (or specialist in wine making), Paco Masia, from the Bodegas Mustiguillo in Utiel, which specialises in the Bobal grape, the group were invited back to visit the bodega later that year. Geoff states, “The bodega is one of the most prestigious in Spain, being only one of 15 in the country that are allowed their own wine denomination. We felt it was a real privilege to be invited, especially as they asked us to come at one of their busiest times – during the harvest in September.” During the visit, the group were led around the vineyards by Paco, who described the hand cultivation and watering system. Geoff continues, “We also toured the bodega and saw the wine making process from start to finish, including how grapes are sorted by hand, and we were introduced to the bodega owner, Toni Sarrión.” The group then visited the Wine Museum in Utiel, where members were guided around the displays with information about the history and origin of wines in the Utiel-Requena region, as well as the historic collections of wine making equipment and farming implements. The visit concluded with a fine lunch in Requena’s Fortaleza restaurant.

In Britain, U3A wine appreciation groups can be found all over the country from Matlock in Derbyshire to the Exe Valley in Devon. Fetcham & District in Surrey is one of the most active U3A branches, with over 80 different groups – including no less than eight concerning wine appreciation! The leaders of its wine appreciation group 7, Adrian and Jenny Coulson, explain that wine tasting is a popular activity as it allows members to socialise as well as learning about wine. Tastings take place in members’ homes so 15 is the maximum number for any one group and thus to cater for demand, additional groups have been set up. Adrian and Jenny’s group is particularly active, visiting a French vineyard at least once a year as well as English ones. A favourite trip is to the pretty and historic town of Ardres, about 15 miles south of Calais, where the group enjoy a wine tasting organised by wine expert Guy Boursot – sometimes in his own cellars in the town, or whilst taking lunch in the nearby Le Relais Restaurant. “Either way, we are able to taste a wide variety of wine and learn from Guy about each one,” Adrian says. “We also have some delicious food and, after the meal, there is a chance to buy wine to bring back home.” The Coulsons have organised the trips since 2009, and this year they are planning a visit to the Champagne area too.

Pat’s passion gives her village group a great time travelling

After a refreshing cuppa in the Bat’s Wing Olde English Tearooms at Godshill on the Isle of Wight.

After a refreshing cuppa in the Bat’s Wing Olde English Tearooms at Godshill on the Isle of Wight.

Super-enthusiastic Pat King has turned her retirement into an opportunity to arrange group trips for her village in Cambridgeshire.

Pat King.

Pat King.

Pat King officially became a GTO in 2000, when she retired, and found that she’d already learnt many of the skills required for organising trips and short breaks during her career as a teacher and youth leader. As Outings Organiser for Buckden Friends, Pat’s programme includes approximately 10 day trips a year, as well as two five-day short breaks. Her group is made up of around 100 members drawn from Buckden Women’s Institute (WI) and friends from the village in Cambridgeshire, about six miles south of Huntingdon. Pat is helped by her husband, Brian, a retired electronics engineer and explains, ‘I couldn’t do it without Brian’s support; he shares the burden of organising the trips and is great at looking after people when we are away, making sure everyone is happy.’

BECOMING A GTO

Pat and Brian in New Zealand.

Pat and Brian in New Zealand.

When Pat and Brian retired, they decided that travel would be a key part of their new life and have since spent a lot of time exploring the world. One of their most exciting adventures together was in 2006 when they travelled to Australia from the UK, on a nine-month overland trek. They bring their love of discovery and of experiencing new places to organising trips for the Buckden community.

Joining Buckden WI in 2000, Pat discovered that the group rarely went on outings, so one of the first things she did was to organise one! This was for around 30 members to a recording of This is Your Life at the BBC TV studios in London, with actress Anita Dobson as the guest of honour. It was much enjoyed by the group and Pat found she had made a new role for herself as Outings Organiser! The success of the trip led to more days out and, as word spread through Buckden, Pat found that non-WI members wanted to come along too. Nowadays, the expanded group is called Buckden Friends. In the process, the WI recruited more members to its monthly meetings and activities, and it now has a healthy base of 70 people. ‘Word of mouth and personal contact are the best way to expand a group,’ Pat says and she continues, ‘I think there is a real demand for group excursions – both for days out and longer breaks. Many people, especially women, do not want to travel on their own and getting together with friends is the perfect alternative. If you are struggling for numbers for a trip, I recommend inviting other people in your local community to join in, as I am sure this will have a very positive effect.’ She assesses her contribution to the WI and Buckden Friends as one of an enabler. ‘I want to enable people to do things or to get involved in ways they might otherwise not have done, so that they can live their lives to the full.’

THE DAY TRIP PROGRAMME

The Day trip programme Pat ensures that the annual programme includes variety – both in places visited and in timings. During the year, there are weekday and weekend trips, and day and evening itineraries so that people who work can also take part. Generally around 35 members go on the trips, which are around 90 minutes travel time from Buckden, although occasionally the group goes further. For example, the group has recently been to Down House in Kent. This English Heritage-owned property is the former home of Charles Darwin and the group were thrilled to walk in his footsteps on the Sandwalk – Darwin’s famous thinking path – and see hothouses with carnivorous plants and exotic orchids, as well as tour the house. In the afternoon, the group went to another English Heritage property, Lullingstone Roman Villa, where there were dressing-up opportunities!

Pat always includes a refreshment stop on the way out and on the return journey. ‘This is a key element of the day, and members who have been on trips with other groups often come back complaining that there were no stops for a cuppa,’ she says. Pat chooses a variety of places for these short stops such as factory outlet stores, an interesting small town or a National Trust property, and avoids motorway service station stops. She says, ‘We often stop at a Wetherspoons, which offer good value for money and are in interesting buildings such as old post offices.’ The tea stop on the outward journey is particularly important, as it allows new members to meet the group and for bonding to begin; the same is true of the lunch stop at the start of a five-day trip.

The group learn about chocolate making at Hotel Chocolat.

The group learn about chocolate making at Hotel Chocolat.

Many of Pat’s trips include a fun element, reflecting her and Brian’s passion for trying new and different activities, but it’s an approach that is al­so much appreciated by her members. Hands-on experiences are popular and these have included chocolate making with Hotel Chocolat in Huntingdon. Pat says, ‘We had an excellent time here and felt like royalty! We came away with generous goodie bags.’ The group also enjoyed an evening trip to Edible Ornamentals, a chilli farm at Chawston in Bedfordshire. ‘It was a very well organised visit,’ Pat says. She also favours factory visits but these, she notes, are harder to book than they used to be because fewer sites now offer tours – either because they no longer produce goods in the UK or safety legislation has become too restrictive.

Like many GTOs, Pat tries to add value to each of her trips, to make sure there’s a benefit to going as a group that couldn’t be accessed by visiting on your own, such as a guided tour or a ‘meet and greet’ at the beginning of a visit. As she explains, a cheery greeting and a brief talk is an invaluable way that an attraction can add that ‘little something special’ to a visit. Some attractions only offer tours to groups – such as the gardens of Buckingham Palace and Cutlers Hall in Sheffield.

The group on a visit to the Sikh temple in Peterborough.

The group on a visit to the Sikh temple in Peterborough.

Other notable visits have been to a Sikh temple and to a mosque – both in Peterborough. ‘On each occasion we were made to feel very welcome,’ Pat says. ‘It was very interesting to have an insight into these religions and their traditions. After sitting on the floor for over an hour at the temple, some of the group needed aid standing up, but there were plenty of helping hands!’ she jokes.

Coming up for the group this year is a day trip to Norfolk, to the Davenports Magic Kingdom in North Walsham, followed by the RAF Air Defence Radar Museum in Horning. Whenever possible, Pat researches itineraries by pre-visiting an attraction to check the quality of what’s on offer and to make sure it will be suitable for the group. She also notes any steps or inclines that might cause a problem for her less active members. ‘This promises to be an exciting trip,’ she says. ‘I went on a familiarisation trip organised by the museum and was delighted in what I saw, and I am really pleased to support the Davenports in their new family business. The Radar Museum was fascinating too. It will be an early start for the group but it should be a ‘magical’ day out.’ The Davenports Magic Kingdom is part museum, with a large collection of magic-related memorabilia, and part show – with a 30-minute live magic show included. The Davenport family has been involved with magical entertainment since 1898.

SPRING TIME TRIPS

The group in Llandudno, North Wales.

The group in Llandudno, North Wales.

The May break for the group (see panel for autumn breaks) has taken them to many different areas of Britain such as Devon in 2012 and Llandudno in 2008. For the spring holiday, Pat works with a tour operator who can help negotiate the best deal for hotels and help with the single room challenge. For many years, Pat has used West Yorkshire-based Airedale Tours, whom she praises. ‘They are an excellent tour operator, and the team is always helpful and friendly.’ For this year’s trip to Morecombe and Lancashire, she is working with just for groups! of Norwich for a change.

The key qualities Pat looks for in a hotel are good food and friendly staff; the group doesn’t have any particular favourites and is happy to use local independents as well as the more well-known chains. Pat arranges the five-day excursion programme herself and for each visit she also tries to make sure there are options that will suit the less as well as the more active members of the party.

For last year’s holiday to Derbyshire, the outward journey was broken with a lunch stop at Nottingham’s Gallery of Justice Museum. This preserves Nottinghamshire’s old courthouse and county gaol and a vast collection of spine-chilling artefacts relating to crime and punishment. Costumed re-enactors bring the exhibition to life and, as part of the visit, Buckden Friends dressed up in wigs and acted out a trial. Pat says, ‘This was a brilliant lunch stop. One of the best we’ve ever done.’

The group stayed in Belper at the Clarion Collection Hotel Makeney Hall, the former home of the Strutt family, who developed the town from a small hamlet to a thriving industrial community. The five-day programme included a tour of Strutt’s North Mill, in Belper. ‘This was very good,’ Pat explains. ‘The group was split into smaller sets of six, allowing everyone to hear the guide and to have the chance to ask questions.’ They also visited Eyam, the Derbyshire village that sealed itself off from the outside world to prevent the plague spreading in the 17th century.

Pat is now working on her programme for 2016 and, following a GTO Readers’ Day event with Visit York in October 2014, she is looking at basing a five-day break around York, with a visit to Fairfax House, Pat and Brian’s favourite visit of the day, being high on the agenda.

PAT’S TIPS AND CHALLENGES

With years of experience behind her, Pat has some salient advice for GTOs:

• Always keep your members informed both before and during the trip.

• Smile all the time as this is infectious, and never ever look worried.

• Make sure you take care of the people on your trip – you will be sure they’ll book again.

• Preparation is everything! Pat advertises forthcoming breaks towards the end of each holiday; last October for instance, 34 out of the 36 members on the holiday signed up for next autumn’s break at Thoresby Hall.

• Pat’s challenge is finding hotels who can supply sufficient single rooms – sometimes between 16 and 20; she says there’s a big market for hotels who can work with groups in providing the required allocation at an affordable price!