How German groups enjoy their British visits

Visitors from abroad enjoy the UK as group travellers, just as we do! Germans are amongst the most significant incoming groups and for this issue, Val Baynton investigates what German groups like to do when they are in Britain. She talks to two specialist incoming operators that help them with their plans, and German operators experienced in offering itineraries for visiting groups.

Three specialists who help with German incoming groups

Alex Jacobs

Alex Jacobs
Alex Jacobs was born in Germany, moving to Newcastle-upon-Tyne to study at university before making it his permanent home in 2004. Passionate about the North East and its great tourism potential, he trained as a Blue Badge Guide and set up Northern Secrets in 2010 to promote the area, and to provide a service planning and managing itineraries and leading tours for groups, both from the UK and Germany. (Read more about Alex on page 65 of the August 2015 issue of GTO magazine (258).

Karin Urban

Karin Urban
Karin is Managing Director of Hotels & More, which was founded in Germany in 1996. Since then the company has become one of the leading wholesalers of tours of Britain and Ireland for German groups, offering a wide range of services. In 2015, the wholesaler organised tours for 2,400 groups and more than 100,000 guests travelled with them. The 70-strong multilingual UK team is based in Harrow.

Niall MacDougall

Niall MacDougall runs Urlaub Cornwall, a Truro-based marketing company, specialising in promoting the county, as well as other parts of the UK such as Scotland, to German groups. He set up the Urlaub website around six years ago to provide information about visits to Britain in a more inspirational way, with iconic photography. His site now comes up first on internet searches in Germany for ‘Cornwall’.

German visitors to Britain have some clear preferences about what they’d like to do and see – and group organisers bringing them here demonstrate those choices in where they visit, stay and eat.
Coach travel is popular in Germany and group travel a significant element in holiday-taking, but the way it is put together is somewhat different to UK–based group organisers. Clubs, societies and local organisations exist, but they tend to leave the programming and travel arrangements to suppliers, including the coach sector, where the ‘tour operator’ dimension of coach firms is more significant than in the UK, and just ‘providing the wheels’ less usual.

Family-run tour operators and small to medium-sized travel businesses are an important sector all over Germany, but there are big names involved in selling collective trips too – perhaps surprisingly including retailers Lidl, Aldi and Tchibo, who promote through their stores – though not in the UK (yet!).

One of the biggest firms engaged in UK group travel for Germans is Hotels & More, whose customers value the experience, quality of products and competent all-round service that’s offered from one source. Karin Urbach, their Managing Director, says ‘Round trip tours to the UK and Ireland are our most popular products, with the south of England and Cornwall being the most popular destination. Scotland is second with the country’s spectacular Highlands, iconic castles and whisky being draws, and Ireland is rapidly growing in popularity.’

The cultural differences and expectations of German group visitors are clearly recognised and supported by Karen, Alex and Niall. The most popular themes include history, culture and countryside. Key is the cleanliness of each hotel and since hotels are more expensive in Britain than Germany, expectations are high! The traditional English breakfast will be tried by visitors, but Germans prefer a selection of continental items such as ham, cheese and fruit on the buffet as well. The quality of group food served in hotels is singled out as being poor with bread being particularly criticised. During a visit, groups like to sample cream teas and fish and chips as well as beverages such as whisky, beer and wine. Jamie Oliver’s ‘Italian’ restaurants are also popular on itineraries. Germans are not used to double quilts and will usually have single quilts even on a double bed. A standard double bed in the UK is smaller than a German double bed and is often mistaken for a single bed. A German double bed usually has two single mattresses in one frame and is comparable to a UK king-sized bed. Germans generally don’t wait to be seated in a restaurant but will go straight to a table. In bars in Germany, it’s customary to place an order at the table whilst in Britain orders are taken at the bar.

The top picks

Niall MacDougall from Urlaub Cornwall develops itineraries for German groups including options for visits that are a little ‘off the beaten track’ and partners with specialist tour operator Barton Hill from Haywards Heath to provide the travel services that the group requires. Niall finds ITB Berlin (the world-leading travel trade show taking place every March) is an important opportunity to meet German tour operators. He adds, ‘The Urlaub website helps to spread awareness but ITB is the chance to talk to operators face-to face. The German market for travel is diverse and deep, and there is a lot going on, but it’s also very traditional and regional, and there are many local travel and coach companies, which each offer the personal service that Germans favour for their holiday needs. The local and fragmented nature of the market means it can be difficult to get information to the operator.’

Prideaux Place 17

Prideaux Place

Film location tours are popular with British groups and unsurprisingly also with a German audience. More than 100 of Rosamunde Pilcher’s novels including The Shellseekers have been serialised and broadcast by national German TV since 1994 and so her works have become a focus of many itineraries, with visits to places in both Cornwall and Devon that feature in the novels, and to attractions and destinations that were filmed in the different episodes. Amongst attractions often included are Prideaux Place, an Elizabethan manor in Padstow, Port Eliot house and gardens in St Germans, the Victorian Duke of Cornwall hotel in Plymouth (now a Best Western hotel), St Michael’s Mount and much of the coastline at Chapel Porth. Hotels & More offer Rosamunde Pilcher itineraries as part of more general tours to the UK and Ireland, which can also take in London and Scotland. Karin Urban, Managing Director of Hotels & More, reports that Ireland is growing as a destination because it offers good value for money and has a reputation as a safe country.

Niall MacDougall adds that his expertise and in-depth knowledge of Cornwall means he’s able to add tailored options to the Rosamunde Pilcher tour including visits to houses that are not normally open. He also plans other themed itineraries including Myths & Legends tours, with a visit to Tintagel whilst in Cornwall and to Stonehenge, on the way to or from the county, being an important must-see part of many trips. Alternative tours are essential both for returning groups and for specialist groups popular in Germany such as baker or butcher professional groups or others such as dolls’ house collectors.
Most groups travel to Cornwall by coach direct from Germany, but some groups fly from Frankfurt Hahn airport to Newquay with Ryanair, meeting their coach once they are in Britain. Niall remarks, ‘The number of hotels in Cornwall is declining and this is a challenge, but the Hotel Bristol in Newquay is a favourite with German guests as it has German speakers on the staff including the general manager.’ Niall continues, ‘The county has had a chance to develop its offer for German groups with printed information in German as standard and many German speakers on hand, and these are benefits other parts of the country that want to make themselves attractive to this European nation should consider when developing their offers.’

One destination in Cornwall that has already developed its facilities for Germans is Clovelly. This historic village, in private ownership since Elizabethan times, is famous for its steeply cobbled street clinging to a 400-foot cliff in North Devon, and can only be accessed by donkeys and sledges. Its picturesque beauty makes it a natural stop for German groups to take in the views and the tourism team have accordingly developed German literature, a welcome film in German plays at the visitor centre and German-speaking guides help to ensure a warm greeting to groups. Coaches with German groups – some 500 each year – come between Easter and October, and are brought by a host of operators including over 100 by Hotels & More.


A German group in Durham

Alex Jacobs tailors programmes around northern England and Scotland with a focus on the North East to meet the specific needs of his groups – he brings around 7,000 people to the region every year – and he aims to let them experience the character of the area. A several-night package involves accommodation, visits to attractions and restaurant bookings, and there are several destinations that regularly feature on itineraries because of their importance – such as Alnwick Castle with its links to Harry Potter films and Downton Abbey, which is currently popular on German TV. Alex comments, ‘Another series that is a favourite in Germany is Vera, which is filmed in various locations in Northumberland, and I am seeing demand to visit Vera hot spots increasing on my tours.’ Iconic buildings such as Durham Cathedral, the National Trust-owned country house Cragside and the Bowes Museum are regular stops, and groups also enjoy exploring the city of Newcastle. Alex adds, ‘If an attraction would just prepare a little bit of information in German for visitors to take away, this would really add to the quality of a visit.’

Generally groups stop in one hotel for the duration of their visit and the Ramada Encore hotel in Newcastle is a popular choice. One of Alex’s groups of family and friends is returning for the third time this year and their 11-night stay will include return visits to Newcastle and Durham but many new places including gardens throughout the region and Edinburgh Castle.

A recent group of 32 singers and their friends, from the Der Gesangverein Freundschaft (the Singing Club Friendship) from Hamburg in Germany travelled to Newcastle for a six-day tour in August last year, and their itinerary took in many of the sights mentioned as well as Hadrian’s Wall, Vindolanda and the concert venue, Sage Gateshead. The choir group said, ‘The trip was excellent – we especially enjoyed the mix of boat trips, cultural exchanges and tours, free-time and coach excursions in general. Alex’s explanations were easy to follow yet comprehensive and interesting.’

Lidl Travel

Now well-known as a food retailer in Britain, where it entered the market in 1994, Lidl traces its roots in Germany back to the 1930s, when it was founded as a food wholesaler, and the first retail stores were opened in Germany in Ludwigshafen in 1973. Since then it has added stores in most countries of Europe, and many different services to its offer including travel.
Tours to the UK and other countries are promoted through its stores in Europe and are available from the online Lidl Travel shop at, for customers in Germany, Austria, Switzerland and the Netherlands. Its UK tours programme is launched in October for the following year and customers fly from a variety of airports such as Munich, Berlin, Cologne and Frankfurt, arriving in London, Manchester or Dublin, to join their coaches.
Two new programmes are added to the selection each year – and there are usually eight departure dates between April and October for each tour. For 2016, the trips include ‘Classic England’ – taking in Liverpool, Chester, Snowdonia, Birmingham, Leeds, York and the Peak District – and a ‘Castles and Garden Tour’ with visits to London, Chester, Snowdonia, Oxford and Brighton as well as to Sissinghurst, Canterbury and Rochester in Kent. A popular option is the ‘Classic South England and Cornwall’ itinerary, which takes in Windsor, Glastonbury, Land’s End, St Ives, Stonehenge and Salisbury, Southampton, Purbeck and Brighton.
A final option is a combined ‘England and Ireland’ tour with a choice of 16 dates. Meanwhile, the ‘Ireland’ only tour is extremely popular with five different itineraries running three times weekly from March to October. Itineraries allow some scheduled stops and tours as well as free time to explore destinations.
Hotels are booked depending on the size of the group and availability, but are generally three or four-star, offering good quality. It is estimated that Lidl tours bring 40 group trips to the UK every year plus others exclusively to Ireland.

Croydon stays suit German guests

London is a popular destination in the programmes of German tour organisers. We checked out three of the firms, whose coaches are regularly seen in the capital, to find out about their arrangements.
Graf’s Reisen of Herne in the Ruhr regularly bring groups on trips of up to four days in London, taking the ferry from Dunkirk or Calais to Dover. The three-night accommodation options generally are hotels on the outskirts of the city, such as the Croydon Park Hotel and Jury’s Inn in Croydon, which are promoted as good quality four-star, and well-placed for independent trips into London by train during the visits, for which the formal programme includes The British Museum, Windsor Castle, a city tour with a guide and pub lunches. Perhaps surprisingly, Graf’s also offer a day trip to London from Germany with no overnight accommodation for just 79 euros/£60.00. In February, Graf’s brought 40 travel agents on a three-day educational trip to London.
Another regular London visitor are Jansen Reisen of Wittmund, on the North Sea Coast near Bremen, using the same hotels in Croydon.
Hoffman Touristik of Vechta in Lower Saxony use both the Jury’s Inn and Holiday Inn Express in Croydon, and the Double Tree by Hilton in Islington. As well as their London trips, Hoffman’s bring other group visitors to the UK on eight-day tours along the South Coast, including Brighton, Portsmouth, Salisbury, Stonehenge, Bath, Bristol, Tintern Abbey and the Brecon Beacons, returning via the Cotswolds, Straford Upon Avon, Birmingham, Oxford, Blenheim Palace and Windsor. The trips with seven nights accommodation cost 1195 euros, which is around £900.

Tips for tourism suppliers
•    The coach driver is often likely to be the owner of the company so treat him well!
•    Train staff to be patient and understanding with German groups – many visitors can speak English but are unfamiliar with regional dialects
•    Provide some information in German

Fact File…  German groups in the UK:
•    Coach travel is popular in Germany – there are some 2,500 coach tour operators and 4,200 coach companies.
•    Just under 300,000 Germans travelled to Britain by ferry and coach in 2013, with a little under 50,000 travelling by coach through the tunnel.
•    The average coach group size is 30 to 40 people, with groups arriving by plane being 25 to 30 people on average.
•    German groups make four to seven-night stays on average and three or four-star hotels are preferred.
•    London is the most popular destination, accounting for 31% of visits, the south east is second with 14%, and the south west and Scotland both receive 10% of visitors.
•    As well as coach and tour operators, food and non-food retailers in Germany offer holidays to their consumers – including Lidl, Aldi, Otto and Tchibo (see page 36 for more on Lidl).
* Figures courtesy of VisitBritain and RDA. The RDA International Coach Tourism Federation in Germany represents the complete spectrum of the coach tourism business activity. There are over 3,000 member companies, with several associated federations in some 40 other countries. Over 70 individual sectors include coach companies, tour operators, tourism federations, destination marketing organisations, visitor attractions, culture and event suppliers, carriers, hotels and restaurants. The RDA organises major exhibitions and workshops (travel trade only). The next takes place in Cologne from 5th to 7th July and will have between 900 and 1000 exhibitors, and trade visitors from some 3,500 companies.


Tracey’s friendly trips

Exploring Portsmouth.

Residents of Merton are fortunate to have an enthusiastic GTO in their midst. Tracey Waterman, organiser of the outdoor activities programme for Age UK Merton, constructs an imaginative monthly itinerary offering exceptional value for her groups and with wide ranging appeal. Val Baynton discovers more.


Tracey Waterman

Tracey Waterman
Tracey Waterman became connected to Age UK Merton after volunteering at the Celebrating Age Festival in the London borough in 2013. She now works 20 hours a week for the charity leading on their outdoor activities programme and is also responsible for a variety of administrative tasks and banking. Aside from her official hours, Tracey willingly and actively researches more ideas for visits, developing itineraries in her own time. Prior to working with Age UK Merton, Tracey worked for the Patient Advice and Liaison Service within the NHS.

Tracey Waterman organises outdoor activities for age UK Merton, based in the London Borough of Merton. the varied programme for the Outings Group includes half day and full day trips to heritage attractions, art galleries, gardens, animal parks, historic towns or museums travelling by public transport or by coach. She also organises itineraries for the Walks Group and the Theatre Group. The outdoor programme is one of many services organised and offered by age UK Merton for people who live in the borough and who are in their fifties and over. the objective is to maintain people’s independence and to help them lead active and fulfilled lives for as long as possible. In the last year, Tracey has taken over 120 different people, the friends of Age UK Merton, on 46 trips and also organised seven trips to take place as part of the 2015 Celebrating Age Festival.

Researching Ideas
‘Coming up with new ideas for places to visit is easy,’ says Tracey. She’s helped in her quest by her husband Geoff and enthusiastic age UK Merton volunteer, and retired rugby referee, David Fisher. Longstanding friends, who enjoy long distance walks, they all love learning about Britain and want to share this enthusiasm with others. Whenever they are out and about, they are on the lookout for ideas for new visits, collecting leaflets and other information. they also find inspiration from attending travel trade shows, such as the recent GO Travel Show held at the Copper Box Arena, at the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park. Tracey adds, ‘these shows are really useful because it gives me the chance to meet people from attractions face-to-face. Amongst the itineraries I develop there need to be trips that are suitable for the less mobile friends of age UK Merton, and it’s by talking to representatives from venues that I can really discuss what facilities are in place and how much walking or steps may be involved.’ In addition, every three or four months she meets up with some of the friends to ask for their feedback and their ideas for the future.

The programme, giving the schedule for up to three months ahead, is regularly published on-line and is also available at the age UK Merton activity centre in London Road, Mitcham, and at local libraries and community centres. But before a trip is publicised, Tracey will have carried out a recce, accompanied by David Fisher, so that she is fully prepared and knows what choices there are for the friends. ‘Tracey says. ‘a recce is invaluable. for example, whilst on a planning visit to Walthamstow we discovered the William Morris Gallery in the Lloyd Park in the town, and now that is going to form the basis for an outing, later in the year, and I will link up with the members of the art group.’ Tracey continues, ‘because age UK Merton attracts people with such diverse interests and abilities I also try to ensure that a trip can appeal on several levels.’ accordingly, the March trip to Walthamstow incorporates the market – with 100 stalls it is the largest daily outdoor market in Britain – the traditional shops on the high Street and an optional walk led by David. The walk will explore the original Walthamstow village with its medieval church, ancient house, 16th century alms houses, 18th century workhouse and 19th century cottages. Tracey adds, ‘It is a rare little oasis of history in east London.’

The Outings Group

Some of the friends at Penshurst Place.

Many of these trips explore the wealth of attractions and heritage in the capital city and the south east, and, aiming to be as inclusive as possible, Tracey endeavours to ensure each trip is affordable. She takes advantage of local transport as most friends are able to use their freedom Pass (this allows off peak free travel across London on most types of transport, as well as on local bus services across England). Charges for each trip include a small administration fee of around £4 and any admission charges – but the programme includes both free-to-enter museums and galleries such as the national Science Museum, as well as attractions that make a charge, so that there is something for every budget.

Last August, the Outings Group visited Chislehurst Caves in Kent. The man-made tunnels were formed over centuries as chalk was mined for various needs including lime burning and brick-making. Friends made their own way from Wimbledon and Mitcham Eastfields railway stations, meeting up at Waterloo east to travel by train onto Chislehurst. Tracey says that signalling delays en route gave the group of 26 time to catch up with old friends and to chat to new people who’d come along for the first time. At Chislehurst, the group enjoyed a guided tour around the maze of tunnels learning about their history such as their use as a munitions store for Woolwich arsenal in the first World War and as an underground air-raid shelter for 15,000 people during the blitz. Filming for TV programmes such as Doctor Who and Merlin has also taken place in the caves. It was good day out, Tracey remembers. Other trips have been to the Royal Hospital Chelsea in October 2015 and to Osterley Park.

During the summer months, the Outings Group travel further afield and, in 2015, successful trips were made to Penshurst Place in Kent, to Margate, and to Portsmouth. Tracey includes several elements within each day-long itinerary so that the trip appeals to a wide audience and there’s usually 40 to 50 friends on each trip. Local coach companies Edward Thomas and Banstead Coaches have provided transport, Tracey comments, ‘recently we’ve had the same coach driver, courtesy of Edward Thomas, and it’s been good to see a relationship build between him and the friends of the outings group. But both companies are excellent, and offer a reliable and friendly service.’

‘Penshurst Place was an excellent attraction.’ Tracey recalls. ‘It was a glorious June day and the gardens were lovely. there was plenty to do inside and out, including the historic stately home and the Toy Museum, so even if it had rained my group would have enjoyed themselves. It was also a location for filming Wolfe Hall, and seeing some of the props used in the film was fascinating.’

Margate was a great town to visit.

Tracey was inspired to include Margate after reading about the reopened Dreamland in GTO Magazine, and the town was perfect for the group. She says, ‘there was so much to do, from a guided walk led by David and the free entry Turner Art Gallery, to Dreamland with its historic rides and classic sideshows.’ Friends could also explore the narrow lanes and retro shops at leisure or relax in one of the charming pubs and tea rooms.

The Walks Group
Volunteer David Fisher researches the walks for the group, and he and Tracey lead them together. David is at the front explaining what there is to see and Tracey brings up the rear, ensuring no-one gets left behind. There’s generally one walk a month and the group of 20 to 25 friends sets off at about 10.00am from one of the local railway stations – Wimbledon, Mitcham Eastfields or Morden – and return home for 4.00pm. The two to three-mile walks have a variety of themes such as history, architecture and wildlife, and they are conducted at a leisurely pace. January’s walk was to Clerkenwell – named after the Clerk’s well and the group visited the remains of three medieval monasteries, London’s oldest church – St Bartholomew the Great, London oldest hospital – St Barts as well as Smithfield and Hatton Garden. Coming up are walks to Westminster and Belgravia, whilst another will be a return visit to Chesham, which was first visited by the walks group in 2014. During each walk the group stop for coffee and lunch – Tracey doesn’t book a specific refreshment stop as the areas they visit have a range of cafes and pubs, so that people can choose the type of venue that suits them best or even bring a picnic.

Theatre Group
The monthly theatre trips are always popular and Tracey takes advantage of group rates (for 10 or more people) at local theatres such as the Wimbledon New Theatre, to book a variety of shows, and upcoming are Shrek the Musical and Chicago. Tracey adds, ‘last year I added a backstage tour to one of the visits we were making. It was fascinating to see what happens behind the scenes, and this knowledge and insight means we now enjoy the shows even more.’

An Expanding Programme
Tracey gets immense satisfaction in organising the outdoor activities programme. ‘I enjoy learning about our heritage but I am especially delighted when I see other people get pleasure from the outings I’ve organised.’ Not content with the extensive programme she’s already developed, Tracey is adding new ideas, ensuring Age UK Merton can engage with as many local residents as possible. These include Cinema and Shopping trips, a walk in a park, Sunday lunch Club and pub lunches. This last combines a meal in a pub along with an insight into its history researched and presented by David, and in late March, the group are heading to The Falcon at Clapham Junction. Famous for its decorative interiors of screens, and glasswork – with designs by M.C. Escher – the pub has the longest bar counter in the country.

Bringing solo travellers together

Rope Bridge

Val Baynton talks to Jackie Ring, Holidays and Trips Organiser for The Unattached Group in Surrey, and finds out how she has perfected the art of ‘mix and match’ group travel for singles.

Jackie Ring

Jackie Ring
Jackie Ring has been involved with The Unattached Group (T-U-G) for a decade and has always ‘organised things’. This has been a common theme in her many jobs – as a college tutor, a PA and secretary, and as an agent organising programmes for visiting foreign students. Currently she works in a local church office looking after maintenance, writing news sheets and handling the bookings diary for the church hall, and she is an assessor of people training to be teaching assistants. Jackie is a member of the Group Travel Organisers’ Association and a newly appointed committee member for the Southern Branch, and she edits the newsletter, Southerly Breeze. She has also joined the Woking Area U3A and she helps out organising their trips from time to time, too.


The group in Venice

As Holidays and Trips Organiser for The Unattached Group (T-U-G), Jackie Ring arranges theatre trips and short breaks for a core of 100 or so members living close to Guildford in Surrey. She joined T-U-G around 10 years ago after getting divorced, and in the early days did not arrange many activities. As her children have grown up and her work commitments have reduced though, she has taken on more and now organises 30-plus theatre trips as well as eight or more two or three-night breaks annually. Generally between 10 and 20 people sign up for each of her trips, and Jackie also prepares A4 flyers about her events to be distributed with the monthly programme and on each trip. She adds, ‘I want as many people as possible to sign up for each trip so I actively promote everything I organise.’

The group is made up of single people who are widowed, divorced or who have never married, and aims to provide a range of activities that allow members to socialise as friends. However, having said this, Jackie comments, ‘In the 15 years the group has been running, there have been 25 weddings or permanent partnerships involving, what are now, former members.’ As the group focuses on singles, once a member does find themselves in a committed relationship – whether with another member of the group or someone else – then they are not invited to renew their membership at the end of the year. Jackie explains more, ‘We have found that if we include couples in membership then it really changes the dynamics of the group and we want it to remain for unattached people, who can dip in and out of the programme and have total freedom to interact with other members during each activity, as they wish.’

Another guiding principle is that every member has to organise an activity at least once in a six-month period; it may be a meal out, a walk or a cinema trip, for instance. This keeps the programme fresh with a broad variety of activities for members to choose from, and there’s not too much burden on one or two people to organise everything. As many individuals work or have daytime commitments, activities are often in the evening or at weekends. Each week there is a pub night; the programme outlining all upcoming events is handed out at the pub
meeting at the end of each month, and also emailed to members who are not able to attend. There are similar groups elsewhere in the country, but T-U-G is not affiliated to any other.


Outings to the theatre

The Royal Albert Hall, where Jackie’s group often enjoy performances.

Regular afternoon and evenings trips are made to the New Victoria Theatre in Woking and to London’s West End by T-U-G. As Jackie personally enjoys musical theatre, these are the outings she plans, which allows other members to organise trips to more ‘serious shows’. For the Woking trips, Jackie books direct with the groups team at the theatre, but for the West End she does often book through agencies such as Ticketmaster, See Tickets and Encore Tickets, using whichever company sends the relevant marketing material at the opportune
time and based on the seat allocation they can promise. ‘Good seats are very important to my members,’ she says. ‘I book four to six months in advance to get these, as well as the best rates.’ Jackie also looks for and receives last minute offers for shows and she will email these around to members to see if there is any interest, and usually there are at least 10 people who sign up.

Either before or after the show, Jackie will also organise a meal or time for a coffee. ‘As single people, we are used to going to places on our own, but we all really appreciate a chance to chat over a meal or drink. After the theatre in Woking, we generally have a coffee whilst the car park clears, and in London I hunt around for a good deal for a restaurant meal – usually pre-show.’ Jackie finds that restaurant chains such as Strada, specialising in Italian fare, can offer deals and she also uses her Gourmet Society Card membership to get discounts. This card (it costs around £30 a year but there are often joining offers) allows the holder to access deals such as two meals for one in a variety of restaurants, and at some places it’s possible to use it for bookings of up to 10 people. Jackie has booked meals on the riverboat RS Hispaniola, which is moored on the Embankment too. Set price menus are a good option for groups, as this can save many a headache when the bill is divided up at the end. Jackie has perfected a technique for this, however, and now prefers to sort the bill out before any member sees it so she can tell each person how much they owe, including drinks and service charge – which often get overlooked when individuals try to do the calculation themselves.

As with the majority of T-U-G events, members make their own travel arrangements to get to the theatre, sharing cars or using local trains and buses if going to London. Many members have bus passes, which are valid in London, so this makes these trips cost-effective.

In December, 10 members went to a Bert Bacharach concert at the Criterion Theatre in London, booked direct with the theatre. As usual, the group met under the clock at Waterloo Station before heading for a meal at Planet Hollywood, just off Trafalgar Square. Jackie was impressed by the freshly cooked food and the diversity of meals on offer. The group also enjoyed the show. Jackie says, ‘The Criterion Theatre is delightful and the show was lovely; there was a good selection of songs, all with a modern twist.’ Afterwards, members caught a bus to Selfridges and walked back along Oxford Street to admire the Christmas lights and the festive window displays.

Other trips have included the Royal Albert Hall, which Jackie books direct with the venue. ‘We really loved seeing Romeo & Juliet being danced there, in the round, by the English National Ballet last summer, starring Carlos Acosta in one of his final performances, and I’ve booked Swan Lake in June 2016 already.’ There have also been trips to the Royal Military School of Music at Kneller Hall in Richmond for concerts, which Jackie says are ‘outstanding’. The group also go to recitals at the University of Surrey in Guildford. Music and drama students have to perform live as part of their courses and Jackie regularly books into a selection of these shows. Jackie says, ‘You are never quite sure what is going to be performed,
but it’s lovely to see these young talented students in action. The recitals are also free.’

Another excellent evening of entertainment was on a River Lights cruise operated by City Cruises. The three-hour cruise gave impressive views of London riverside landmarks lit up at night, and included a four-course meal with live entertainment. Jackie says, ‘This was enjoyed by all, the food was delicious and the singer was superb.’


Short break appeal

At the European Parliament on a trip to Brussels.

Jackie looks for a variety of short break experiences for the group, including city breaks, leisure hotels and an annual cruise taking in a variety of destinations to satisfy members’ demands to discover new places and things. Generally, the two or three-night break is over a weekend as these do not take up too much holiday entitlement for those members who still work. Members travel to UK destinations in the main by car-share, whilst for overseas trips Jackie will work with a variety of specialist operators such as Greatdays of Cheshire, Riviera Travel of Staffordshire or HF Holidays of Hertfordshire as they provide financial protection and essential back up should flights be delayed or cancelled. All three provide a good service but Jackie singles out Greatdays for the way they work with her group. ‘I was very impressed with their knowledge of attractions and places to visit on a recent trip to Belfast, and they booked a very good guide, which made all the difference to the success of the trip,’ she says.

Jackie suggests destinations through research she has done herself or because of a familiarisation trip she has been on, such as recent ones to Wiltshire with Visit Wiltshire and to Switzerland with the Switzerland Travel Centre. ‘I will only agree to go on a familiarisation trip, though, if I feel it will be something I am likely to offer to my group, and I will usually only organise an overseas trip if I have personally visited the destination beforehand,’ she adds.

For UK breaks, Jackie will reserve accommodation (members pay hotels direct) and meals, and suggest a variety of ideas, including visits to historic properties, gardens, walks and shopping, for her members to consider. During the weekend, Jackie will organise an activity, such as leading a walk or a visit to a National Trust property, but if members don’t want to do that they can join up with others to explore the destination themselves, taking in the elements that most appeal to them. Meeting for lunch and for dinner, members then chat about what they’ve done that day. Jackie adds, ‘This free-style, mix and match approach really suits my group; it means everyone is happy and can do just what they like, but we make sure that no-one is left on their own. We find people mix well too – three or four members might travel to the destination together from Surrey, but once there individuals pair up with other members to pursue specific interests.’

Single supplements are an important consideration for Jackie as, ideally, each of her members will want their own room. ‘I understand the need for a supplement as a hotel still has to service the bedroom and bathroom whether there are one or two people using it, but I feel the supplement should be at a reasonable level and a single occupant should definitely not pay ‘double’ for a room, especially as some single rooms are not that much bigger than a cupboard!’

Again, Jackie is alert to offers and as her members do like Warner Leisure Hotels, she will take up early-bird discounts for stays at their resorts. She explains that Warner holidays are always excellent value, and there is so much flexibility in what members can do in the day time – whether exploring the locality or staying in the hotel and using the facilities, whilst at night there’s excellent food and entertainment. ‘We can all sit together for dinner too, and I often invite members for a drink in my room first so we can all go down to eat at the same time.’

In mid-December, the group returned to one of their favourite Warner hotels, Bembridge in Yarmouth on the Isle of Wight, for a weekend break. For some members, Jackie says, this was their Christmas celebration. On the Friday, 21 members of the group made their own way to the island by car and ferry from Portsmouth, which Warner helped to book, ensuring good rates. On Saturday, about two thirds of the group went to English Heritage’s Osborne House, where they thoroughly enjoyed seeing the house dressed for a Victorian Christmas. Meanwhile, Jackie and other members went to the Christmas Tree Festival in Brighstone, using the shuttle bus there and back from the oyster farm at Isle of Wight Pearl. Jackie says, ‘It was very festive and lovely.’ Back at Isle of Wight Pearl, many members shopped, taking advantage of a 20% discount on pearl jewellery. On Sunday, the group again split, with Jackie leading a walk from the hotel to Alum Bay, taking the bus for the return route, whilst others went to Brighstone. ‘The entertainment at the hotel each night was great’, Jackie adds. Members made their own way home, but Jackie and several others lingered, taking a walk to a bird sanctuary.

Over the next six months, Jackie has booked breaks at Warner Leisure Hotels’ Cricket St Thomas in Somerset in February and Bembridge, on the Isle of Wight, again, in June. For the Somerset holiday, she will also make suggestions to her members on where they can break their journey on their way to and from the hotel. From the recent familiarisation trip she attended in Wiltshire, she would suggest time in Salisbury or Bradford-on- Avon.

Recently, Jackie has organised weekend breaks at De Vere Hotels too. She has found that although they are busy with business and conference guests during the week, they can often offer good value at weekends. By selecting hotels close to Guildford – at Latimer Place in Chesham and Theobalds Park in Cheshunt, Waltham Cross – members can arrive after work on Friday. Jackie says, ‘We enjoyed using their team-building facilities, such as the table football.’

Coming up for 2016
By taking advantage of discounts wherever she can, Jackie feels she can plan twice as many trips and breaks, and she has many ideas for the year ahead. Some trips, as mentioned, are already booked to take advantage of early-bird deals, but she is also hoping to plan a weekend in Salisbury and a visit to Geneva and Montreux for the Christmas markets, which she will be arranging through the Switzerland Travel Centre. And, as usual, Jackie will decide what to include in the programme using one decisive factor – that of enjoyment. ‘If I think I will enjoy the performance, the venue or destination, then I am happy to book and to organise the trip, encouraging as many other members of the group to join me,’ she concludes.