Starting Over

Allan Clarke of the On Q Theatre Club, in Gloucestershire, speaks to Carrie Drage about setting up his own theatre group on the back of his past experiences as a regional manager for the Theatregoers Club of Great Britain.

Allan Clarke

Allan Clarke

On Q Theatre Club has been going since April 2002 and was set up by Allan Clarke and his wife Jean to fill the void left by the closure of the Theatregoers Club of Great Britain. This had a nationwide following and Allan was regional manager for the Bristol area for five years before it officially closed in March 2002. He explains, “Some of the club’s former members approached me about setting up a new club so, after some deliberation, I decided to put an advert in the local tourist office in Chipping Sodbury to see what the interest would be. The response was good so we decided to give it a try.”
The activities of the club are organised on a similar premise to its predecessor. Allan explains, “We try to get the best seats for shows and always make sure we have nice places lined up for coffee stops and lunches.” Members pay £20 a year to join as an individual or there is a joint membership for an additional £8. Members are welcome to bring guests along on the trips; however, there is a £5 charge for this on top of the cost of the trip. Currently, there are about 150 members, most of whom heard about the club through word of mouth. Allan says, “Most of our members live within a 10-mile radius of Bristol but we have some that live in Somerset and drive for an hour to get to our first pick-up point!”
Allan and his wife Jean arrange an average of 15 trips a year, the details of which are mailed to members once a month. The workload is split evenly between the pair, with Allan booking the trips, keeping the accounts up to date and producing the monthly updates, and Jean taking bookings, dealing with enquiries and acting as courier on the coaches.

Taking lunch together at The Watermill Theatre in Newbury.

Taking lunch together at The Watermill Theatre in Newbury.

On with the show

Understandably, after five years as a regional manager for the Theatregoers Club of Great Britain, Allan is a well-known face within the theatre and travel trades, and uses this to his advantage. One benefit is that he is able to get long holding periods for theatre tickets, so there is ample time to confirm numbers before making payment. If he knows a show will be popular, he deals directly with the theatre rather than going through a ticketing agency. He adds, “I’m able to negotiate better prices this way but it normally requires payment upfront.”
Allan uses Berkeley Coach & Travel, based in Paulton, near Bristol, for his transport needs, a coach firm he used previously in his capacity as regional manager for the Theatregoers Club of Great Britain. He says, “They offer a reliable service and we’ve also gotten to know the drivers well over the years. They value our customers as much as we do.”
Theatre trips obviously make up a large proportion of Allan’s programme, particularly regional theatre visits, which attract an average of 50 people per trip. Depending on where they are travelling to, some combine entry to an attraction enroute and most include a coffee or lunch stop. The Watermill Theatre near Newbury, in Berkshire, is a popular venue for the group, who enjoy lunch here in the restaurant preshow and cream teas afterwards. Allan says, “In the summer, tea is laid out on tables in the garden, overlooking the river. It’s a splendid setting and the staff are great.”
Also frequented by the group is Salisbury Playhouse, which is usually paired with a “superb” lunch at the nearby Mercure Salisbury White Hart Hotel. A popular stop enroute is the King John’s Hunting Lodge in the medieval village of Lacock, now in the care of The National Trust. Allan says, “We like to stop here for a piece of cake and a cup of coffee. The owner, Margaret Vaughan, is very accommodating, putting tables up in her home if there are too many of us to fit in the tea room.”
Theatre trips to Windsor, meanwhile, have seen the group visiting Windsor Castle and Frogmore House. Allan says, “You can easily spend a whole day at the castle because there’s so much to see. When we were there last year we were lucky enough to catch an orchestra training in St George’s Chapel.” On another occasion, The Savill Garden at Windsor Great Park provided a peaceful retreat for the group pre-show. Allan says, “It’s pleasant to spend a few hours here as here’s so much to see. There’s also a lovely restaurant with a good choice of lunches.”

The Christmas outing to ss Great Britain

The Christmas outing to ss Great Britain

Countdown to Christmas

The annual Christmas outings tend to get more takers than any other trip on Allan’s programme, usually between 50 and 90 people. He says, “We enjoy a full day out with lunch and either a guided tour or free time for the members to look around the venue independently.”
Warwick Castle was the setting for the very first festive outing back in 2002, when the group enjoyed Christmas lunch in the main hall, entertained by a handful of musicians in medieval dress. Allan comments, “The nice thing about Warwick Castle is that they often have special events on; when we visited there was a Christmas craft fair that everyone really enjoyed.”
The following year saw the members visit Chavenage House, an Elizabethan manor house in Tetbury, Gloucestershire. Allan says, “It’s a privately-owned house and one of the daughters does an exceptionally good guided tour.” The visit was repeated in 2005 and, all these years later, it still stands out in people’s memories.
According to Allan, Brunel’s ss Great Britain on Bristol’s harbourside is also “worth a visit”. He remembers, “We did a tour here in 2004 and enjoyed lunch on the ship itself. It was really interesting seeing the conditions in which the passengers lived, including the accommodation, dining room and sickness bay.”
Birthplace of Sir Winston Churchill, Blenheim Palace in Oxfordshire served as the destination for the Christmas outing in 2006. Allan remarks, “The house was decorated for the season and there was organ music and carol singers too.” The group enjoyed lunch together in a converted stable adjoining the main house, before everyone separated to view the state rooms independently.
Meanwhile, back in 2007, Allan’s members enjoyed Christmas lunch at Longleat, in Wiltshire, followed by a guided tour of the house. Allan states, “We got to see inside Lord Bath’s private apartments, as well as the guest facilities. The lunch was pretty good too!”
The following year, the group ventured to Buckinghamshire for a visit to Waddesdon Manor, built for Baron Ferdinand de Rothschild. Allan says, “They really go to town on the Christmas decorations here, with a different theme each year. There was also a land train taking visitors from the house to the stables where there was a Christmas fair.”
Not far from here, Littlecote House Hotel in Hungerford, a property belonging to Warner Leisure Hotels, was the setting for Christmas lunch in 2009. Allan says, “Some of the group enjoyed a tour of the house with a very knowledgeable guide to learn about its historic connections.”

The Christmas outing to ss Great Britain

The Christmas outing to ss Great Britain

Staycations

In addition to day trips, Allan also organises one short break per year for which he organises all the separate elements – including transport, accommodation and excursions – himself.
The first break was introduced to the programme in 2004 and the destination was Lymington, in Hampshire, for two days. The highlight of the trip was a visit to Exbury Gardens & Steam Railway, which was made all the more memorable by a surprise VIP visitor. Allan explains, “That day, there was a visit from the Queen and we waved to her as she went past on the train!” He adds, “The gardens are very impressive and the steam train that circles them allows you to get on and off at different points.”
Further along the coast, Chichester, in West Sussex, was the destination for an overnight visit in 2005, a trip that was built around a visit to the Chichester Festival Theatre. Although it was only a short visit, there were a couple of excursions built into the itinerary including a visit to Whitchurch Silk Mill in Hampshire. Allan remembers, “The guide here was very enthusiastic, telling us how they weave silk for television costume dramas and other uses.”
Not far from here is the New Forest, where the group stayed for two days back in 2007. On one of the days, the members visited Beaulieu. Allan remarks, “There is lots to do here. We particularly enjoyed the National Motor Museum and the exhibition tracking the role played by Beaulieu in the training of secret agents during World War II.” Also on the itinerary was a visit to Compton Acres in Poole, Dorset. He says, “The gardens here are very attractive, laid out on different tiers.”
The south coast is a popular spot for Allan’s group and Brighton was the setting for a three-day break in 2008. Once again, the trip was built around a visit to Chichester’s Festival Theatre; however, on this occasion, the group stayed in Brighton. As well as free time to explore the city independently, the group enjoyed a guided tour of the Royal Pavilion, built as a seaside retreat for King George IV in the early 19th century. Allan remembers, “There’s so much history to the building and the decor is so wonderfully colourful. It really was a magnificent day out!”
Meanwhile, in 2009, the group visited Tunbridge Wells, in Kent, for three days, stopping at RHS Garden Wisley, in Surrey, enroute to the hotel. Allan comments, “There are several glasshouses that are attractively planted and a land train makes it easy to get around for the less abled.” Also on the itinerary was a visit to Biddenden Vineyards, near Tenterden. Allan reveals, “The staff here arranged some danish pastries for us to enjoy outside.”
The following year, the group stayed in Newmarket for three days, with a highlight being a visit to Sandringham, the Queen’s country seat in Norfolk. Allan comments, “The nice thing about Sandringham is that every room is lived in. We were told by our guide that it’s not unusual for a member of theRoyal Family to just turn up so there was a lot of security around!”

Research is the key to success

After more than a decade in the business, Allan believes that research is the most important thing when putting together a group trip. He says, “I plan the route meticulously, making sure the coffee and lunch stops meet our standard. My wife and I also stay at the hotels to ensure they are suitable.”
Although theatre trips, in particular, can sometimes be arranged at a low cost independently, his members recognise the benefits of going by coach. He comments, “The opportunity to mix with like-minded people is part of the appeal. They also know that they will be well looked after and can switch off once they’re on the coach as everything has been taken care of.”
Allan is yet to confirm most of his programme for 2011; however he has revealed that the group will be going to see Tell Me On A Sunday at the Theatre Royal Windsor in May and Strictly Gershwin at the Royal Albert Hall in June.
Allan is still uncertain what the long-term future holds, especially with VAT and fuel prices on the increase, but is optimistic about the year ahead. He says, “2011 got off to a slow start but business is now starting to take off. We’ve even had a few new member enquiries. Hopefully, this is a sign of things to come as I really enjoy my role and would like to stay in this business for a while to come.”