Sharon Haughton

In 1999, Sharon Haughton was tasked with setting up a sports and social club for the staff of Coventry Building Society. Twelve years on, Carrie Drage learns how it has grown from strength to strength.

Sharon Haughton

Sharon Haughton

Sharon Haughton was working as an assistant mortgage underwriter for COVENTRY BUILDING SOCIETY when the part-time position of Sports and Social Club Secretary first became available in 1999. She explains, “One of my colleagues saw it advertised and suggested I apply.” At this time, Sharon already had experience as a group organiser having arranged charity events throughout her school years and, later, as a volunteer for the sports and social club at Lloyds TSB where she worked as a cashier. She says, “I guess it’s something that’s always been in me. For example, I’m always the first person friends come to when they need a hen night organising!” The position itself involved creating a social club from scratch and Sharon admits it was no easy task. She reveals, “I was really thrown in at the deep end! There was all sorts to learn like bookkeeping and creating a constitution, but the hardest thing was getting to know what people liked. The customer base was completely different to what I was used to.”

Currently, Sharon has around 1,250 members from a staff of 1,550, who each pay a monthly subscription of £1, which is taken directly from their salary. The money paid in subscriptions is used to subsidise the trips although the exact amount is dependent on the cost. Sharon explains, “Sometimes, we use it to pay for the coach, insurance or a meal stop.” Members range in age from 18 to 60 and are based around the UK although the majority live in Coventry and the surrounding area. She says, “We have around 70 branches of Coventry Building Society and Stroud and Swindon Building Society, which we merged with last year, and the trips I organise are open to employees at each of these sites as well as our four head offices.” As well as the members themselves, the activities of the social club are also open to friends and family. She adds, “Every member can bring one adult and up to two children at the subsidised rate.”

Making a day of it

With Birmingham close by for the majority of members, it comes as no surprise that events at The NEC and NIA rate highly with Sharon’s members. She says, “DISNEY ON ICE, which tours to the NIA each year is exceptionally popular. For this year’s show in November, I managed to sell 200 tickets in just a week and a half!” Tickets for the BBC Good Food Show Winter at The NEC in November are also quick to sell. Sharon says, “In the past, we’ve seen celebrity chefs like Gordon Ramsay, James Martin and Rick Stein. There’s a chance to try out the different foods and a lot of wine tasting too.”

A stand at The Festive Gift Fair.

A stand at The Festive Gift Fair.

At the same venue, THE FESTIVE GIFT FAIR, also in November, is another popular addition to the programme year on year, with Sharon selling over 100 tickets for last year’s show alone. She states, “There are stands here selling every conceivable item for Christmas, from trees and decorations to toys and food.”
Indeed, the popularity of the show is what prompted her to purchase tickets for this year’s CRAFTS FOR CHRISTMAS show at The NEC. She remarks, “This is a great show for people that enjoy crafts as a hobby and want to purchase handmade items.”
Although many shows at The NEC and NIA offer generous discounts for groups, Sharon also accepts that there are occasions where groups are at a disadvantage. She says, “I used to organise tickets for about 15 pop concerts a year but because of the ticket tout situation, the promoters now limit a lot of sales to six tickets per person, making it impossible for group organisers to buy en masse. It’s a shame because the group used to really enjoy the concerts. In the past, we’ve seen everybody from MICHAEL BUBLÉ and PALOMA FAITH to CHIPMUNK and GIRLS ALOUD.” Even in instances where she is able to secure tickets, she often has to leave a lot of people disappointed. She adds, “In 2007, I managed to get 25 pairs of tickets for TAKE THAT’S BEAUTIFUL WORLD TOUR at The NEC and offered them in a draw. The trouble is there were 130 people that wanted them!”
As well as local venues, Sharon also arranges tickets to more distant events, with transport, in the most part, arranged through JOHNSONS COACHES based in Henley in Arden. She says, “They sometimes work out a bit more expensive than other coach firms; however, I’ve learnt that if you want five-star service you have to pay for it. They’re certainly worth the money.”
STRATFORD RACECOURSE, which Sharon describes as a “good family day out”, is particularly popular with nearly 90 members making the trip here in July. She adds, “I offered the tickets as buy one, get one free, so they could get a pair of tickets for just £10.”
With London also easily accessible for the group, Sharon organises an average of four visits a year to the capital to take in some of the West End shows. She says, “ENCORE TICKETS and GROUP LINE offer some of the best rates around. Recently, we’ve seen LEGALLY BLONDE THE MUSICAL and BLOOD BROTHERS, and in July I took three coachloads to see THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA and LES MISÉRABLES. In the past, we’ve also done a weekend break to London that included a choice of two shows.”

A day at Royal Ascot

A tried and tested favourite is a day at the races, with LADIES DAY AT ROYAL ASCOT a particular highlight, an event that attracted around 65 members last year. For this, Sharon normally arranges a catering company to provide a picnic lunch and drinks for the journey to Ascot Racecourse. She says, “As it’s an early start, I also arrange breakfast for the group in the canteen at the headquarters where I work in Coventry.” For a group organiser, the success of a trip is reliant as much on the efficiency of staff the other end as your own abilities and Sharon has high praise for the team at Ascot Racecourse. She says, “I can’t fault them in any way. The whole day went seamlessly.”

Sharon’s group dressed up for Ladies Day at Royal Ascot.

Sharon’s group dressed up for Ladies Day at Royal Ascot.

Getting away for the weekend

In addition to the events programme, Sharon also organises an average of two overnight UK breaks a year. One of these is usually a mystery weekend to a destination that is never more than a three-hour drive away. On the coach journey there, the group have to guess where they’re headed and once the destination has been revealed, Sharon passes around literature that she has collated to give ideas of what there is to do in the area. She explains, “There’s usually brochures about attractions and entertainment, shopping, restaurants and a map of the city centre.” In January, SHEFFIELD and HUDDERSFIELD were
the destinations for a mystery weekend, with the group of 100 people divided between the two. In Sheffield, the CUTLERS HOTEL was the base for the group’s stay, with Sharon remarking, “We were looked after really well here. I preordered the evening meal and the food was lovely.” The remainder of the group stayed at the BROOK GEORGE HOTEL in Huddersfield and, again, the feedback was positive. Sharon says, “People liked Huddersfield town centre, which is quite historic.” Sharon finds that most of her members prefer to have their days free to explore the area independently, although the evenings tend to be more social, with Sharon arranging nightclub tickets for those that require them. She adds, “On the Sunday, I also organised for both coaches to drop the group at Meadowhall for a spot of shopping.”

Dressed up for a night of fun at the Hilton Birmingham Metropole.

Dressed up for a night of fun at the Hilton Birmingham Metropole.

When it comes to booking overnight breaks, Sharon believes that half the battle is finding hotels that can offer competitive rates. She says, “There’s still good deals to be had; however, they’re not as easy to come by as they once were.” In March this year, the price was certainly right when she booked a weekend at the BRITANNIA NOTTINGHAM HOTEL . She comments, “The hotel was in a great location, well maintained and the food and welcome were also good.” She describes the weekend as a ‘party break’ and, again, there were nightclub tickets thrown in for those that wanted them. She says, “Many of the group like to go out together and there’s always a good mix of ages.”
Although Sharon’s UK breaks are busier than ever, she admits that the overseas breaks that were once a staple on her programme have lost much of their appeal. She reveals, “Our last European breaks were about four years ago. I’ve tried to introduce others since but they’ve had to be cancelled due to lack of numbers. I’ve tested the waters with holidays to America and Ireland as well but to no success.”
In more fruitful times, BELGIUM was the destination of choice for Sharon’s members, with weekend breaks to GHENT , OSTEND and BRUSSELS recurring on a regular basis. Sharon says, “Our last visit to Belgium was in 2007 when we stayed at the five-star SHERATON BRUSSELS HOTEL . It’s a fabulous city for culture.” A common family-friendly option used to be the breaks to DISNEYLAND PARIS but, again, these have fallen by the wayside due to expense. Sharon says, “We’d go at the end of February, beginning of March when kids go free and I’d always book a character breakfast and Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show for the children.” Sharon has a lot of respect for the way group check-ins are handled at the Disneyland Paris hotels and says, “All the room keys and breakfast vouchers are handed to the group organiser to then hand out on the coach; it’s a very efficient system they run.” In Britain, there are a few select tour operators that offer group packages to the resort and GREATDAYS TRAVEL GROUP in Cheshire was Sharon’s preferred operator. She comments, “They’re a very professional operation. The staff are extremely knowledgeable.”

Posing with Pluto at Disneyland Paris.

Posing with Pluto at Disneyland Paris.

More than meets the eye

Sharon admits that the variety of her role is one of its biggest attractions and she is always looking for new ways to add value to membership. She says, “As much as I enjoy the group organiser side of it, there’s a lot more to the role than people might think. For instance, I also run a classified section for employees to buy and sell products, manage monthly prize draws and organise lunchtime sales where companies bring in their wares to sell – and that’s just for starters!”
Sharon’s programme is continually growing and the next few months prove to be particularly busy. Among some of the highlights are an outing to SCAREFEST AT ALTON TOWERS and a spa weekend at RADISSON BLU HOTEL LONDON STANSTED AIRPORT in October, an excursion to HARRODS in November and a visit to WORCESTER CHRISTMAS FAYRE in December. She adds, “I’m also hoping to book a weekend break to London taking in a show on the Friday as well as a Saturday matinee. Sadly, London hotel rates have shot through the roof so I might need to rethink this.” As much as Sharon enjoys organising day trips and weekend breaks, she reveals that what really excites her is the opportunity to plan events on a large scale. She says, “Last October, we celebrated the 10-year anniversary of the sports and social club, where I arranged lots of competitions and quizzes, and a party for over 800 people at the HILTON BIRMINGHAM METROPOLE hotel. Indeed, this is something we used to do every year until recently and is perhaps something I’d like to get more involved with.” Naturally, a discussion about a career as a wedding planner followed, although Sharon was quick to reject the idea, saying, “If it wasn’t for the bride and mother it might be a possibility!”

Building relationships with suppliers

In the space of a year, Sharon organises more than 40 trips and these are promoted through the company intranet. She says, “There’s a booking form on the site for people to complete. As I’m always updating my programme, I advise members to check the website on a weekly basis.” Sharon gets a lot of her ideas through GROUP TRAVEL ORGANISER but also receives a lot of emails from suppliers so she is never short of inspiration. She states, “Ticketing agencies keep me updated on hot show deals, and I also have a good relationship with hotel groups like BEST WESTERN and BRITANNIA HOTELS , who keep me informed about sales and special offers. Group travel shows such as EXCURSIONS at Alexandra Palace in London are great for building up contacts like these because everybody’s in the one place.” Like most groups, Sharon has a core events programme, which she is always looking to build on. She reveals, “A lot of my programme is tried and tested; if it sells I’m happy to keep repeating it. At the same time, I’m always introducing new things too – albeit to varying degrees of success.” In addition, Sharon has also negotiated a number of other incentives for members, including individual discounts and special offers for various shops, suppliers and service providers. She says, “As an example, members are entitled to discounted airport car parking, hotel accommodation and short breaks with the likes of HAVEN and BUTLINS .”

Attraction tickets to venues such as Twycross Zoo are popular with Sharon’s members.

Attraction tickets to venues such as Twycross Zoo are popular with Sharon’s members.

Also popular are the attraction tickets that are made available to the members for ALTON TOWERS and DRAYTON MANOR THEME PARK in Staffordshire, WARWICK CASTLE and TWYCROSS ZOO in Warwickshire, and WEST MIDLAND SAFARI AND LEISURE PARK in Worcestershire. She explains, “I have a colleague, Peter Proctor, who takes bookings for these. Basically what happens is members purchase tickets within a limited promotional period, which are valid for the whole season so they can visit at a time that suits them. We are then invoiced by the attraction for the tickets used, with the option to purchase more tickets if necessary. We sell hundreds this way!” A similar system was introduced earlier this year for local theatre. She adds, “I’m given a six-week period to promote the show and purchase the tickets I’ve optioned and, as with the attraction tickets, members make their own way to the venue.” Coming up, the group has got DREAMBOATS AND PETTICOATS at COVENTRY’S BELGRADE THEATRE in October and GREASE at BIRMINGHAM’S NEW ALEXANDRA THEATRE in December.