Toni Waxman

Toni Waxman’s desire to visit Sandringham in Norfolk is what first led her to become a Tour Organiser for Harrow U3A. Twelve years later she is organising nearly 20 annual theatre trips, outings and short breaks for her London-based group, as Carrie Drage discovers.

Toni Waxman - Harrow U3A

Toni Waxman - Harrow U3A

The pursuit of knowledge

Toni Waxman’s experiences as a Tour Organiser for Harrow U3A began 12 years ago with a three-day break to Norfolk. She explains, “I kept nagging the group’s previous tour organisers to go to Sandringham and eventually my husband just told me to organise it myself. So I did.” She now arranges an average of four day trips and short breaks annually, both in the UK and overseas, and also introduced monthly theatre trips for the members six years ago. She says, “I thought it was a shame that nobody had thought of this before, particularly since we live in London and the West End is right on our doorstep.” Ambassador Groups and Group Line are the agencies Toni approaches most often for tickets as she believes they both offer good service. She explains, “With the theatre visits, I don’t bother to arrange coach hire because by the time you add on the transport, it works out too expensive. Besides, most of my members are 60 plus so hold a Freedom Pass, which entitles them to free transport in London.”

There are presently more than 1,400 members in Harrow U3A who pay a membership fee of £30 a year for an individual or £46 for a joint membership with their partner. As well as the tour and visits group, there are other sub groups within the organisation, spanning interests such as arts and crafts, languages, music and current affairs. Toni sits on the tours and visits committee with 12 other people who meet once every three months to “thrash around ideas”. Each member takes control of organising particular trips which, combined, amount to at least three a month, and Toni keeps a master diary to ensure dates don’t clash. She says, “There used to only be five of us that organised all of the group’s day trips and short breaks but in the last few weeks, we’ve managed to recruit several others to help out.” Toni’s partner, Jack Kushner, also sits on the tours and visits committee and is responsible for organising the group’s concert trips. She says, “It’s good to have somebody that understands what it means to be a group organiser and, in this respect, he is able to help out and provide encouragement.”

Most of the programme is advertised in the thrice-yearly branch newsletter, details of which are submitted to the editor by the committee members, along with any write-ups of previous trips. Toni reveals, “Most of the trips I organise have a waiting list so I must be doing something right!” Theatre visits, on the other hand, are more spontaneous so these don’t tend to be advertised in the newsletter. She explains, “I get a core of about 100 people interested in these and I ask them to send me three stamped addressed envelopes so that I can keep them updated with details of upcoming productions that I’ve reserved tickets for.”

As well as constant updates by coach firms who send Toni the latest literature, she also gets her inspiration from the annual Excursions show at Alexandra Palace. She admits, “A lot of my past trips have been with exhibitors that have had a presence at this show. It’s good for networking and catching up with some of my existing contacts.”
Capital gain

Many of Toni’s day trips are based in the capital, particularly during the winter time, when she admits that people prefer to stay closer to home. She says, “With so many great places within such close proximity, it is even possible for me to arrange half day itineraries.” Similarly to the theatre trips, London-based excursions are popular with members because there is no need to book coach transport.

Museums are always a popular addition to the group’s annual programme and one visit that stands out in Toni’s memory is the trip to Wimbledon Lawn Tennis Museum last summer. She says, “The surroundings are lovely and there’s interesting tennis memorabilia in the museum. The bit where John McEnroe appears in front of you is fantastic.”

Just last month, the group also visited the Bank of England Museum. She reveals, “As part of our visit, we watched a short film and listened to a talk about the museum. It was very interesting.”

Guided tours also feature a lot on Toni’s programme, and a particular highlight was the visit to the Emirates Stadium, the home ground for Arsenal Football Club, last year. She remarks, “I was very impressed with this venue. It has so much atmosphere and you get to see lots of places behind the scenes on a guided tour here.”

The group has also visited the Houses of Parliament on a number of occasions, most recently in 2008 with Nick Hurd MP. She says, “It was interesting to see all the traditions that take place here. For instance, seeing the Speaker, carrying the Mace, head to the Commons chamber with his procession.”

Toni has a lot of admiration for Blue Badge guides, particularly Anne Mark of Marksman Tours in London, who she has used many times in the past. She remembers, “Last year, I organised a bus tour called Manhattan on Thames with them where we got to see movie locations such as the Strand tube station, which is closed to the public but used a lot for filming.” It was such a popular addition to the programme that Toni has organised a similar Hollywood on Thames tour with riverboat operator, Thames Luxury Charters, for next month.

Indeed, river cruises have been popular with the members for many years and often provide a pleasant alternative to coach travel. Toni remembers, “About 10 years ago, I organised a visit to Hampton Court Palace, which was followed by a two-hour boat trip to Chertsey with French Brothers, who provided a lovely cream tea.”

Although Toni’s members enjoy their adventures in the capital, during the warmer months when the weather is more settled, they like to venture further afield by coach. Usually, transport for this is provided by Hearns Coaches of Harrow. One such example is the day visit to Constable Country in 2007. She says, “We started with a tour at The National Trust’s Flatford Bridge Cottage in Suffolk where we got to see some of the landscapes featured in Constable’s paintings, and followed this with a visit to The Beth Chatto Gardens in nearby Essex, which the group absolutely loved.”
Keeping costs down

Toni is no stranger to organising overnight breaks for her members; however, prefers to book these (as well as the overseas breaks) with a coach or tour operator. She says, “I normally do some research on the internet then sit down with a representative from one of the companies I use to discuss my requirements.” Hearns Coaches and Greencastle Travel in Hereford are the firms she usually trusts with these arrangements. She remarks, “I’ve been using Hearns Coaches for at least five years and their costs are always very reasonable. Greencastle Travel also understand that senior citizens have a limited income, know what I like and rectify any problems immediately.”

In 1999, Toni organised a five-day break to Yorkshire, which incorporated a visit to Fountains Abbey and Studley Royal Water Garden belonging to The National Trust. She says, “This made the trip for me. It was so beautiful.”
Then, in 2002, she decided to visit Devon and Cornwall for five days with her group. She recalls, “We visited the year after the Eden Project opened and the excursion here was wonderful. We also got to see the Lost Gardens of Heligan, which were delightful.”

About seven years ago, Buxton and Derbyshire was the destination for a five-day break with Harrow U3A. On one of the days, the group visited The Heights of Abraham, which was Toni’s first experience of a cable car. The members also visited Chatsworth where they were lucky enough to come face to face with the owner. She remembers, “We were standing on the steps admiring the house when the present Duke of Devonshire came out to have a chat with us.”
The Lake District, meanwhile, was the setting for a week-long group break in 2008. Naturally, a large part of the itinerary was devoted to visiting sites with connections to Beatrix Potter, a highlight of which was Hill Top where Beatrix once lived. Toni says, “This was lovely. I remember battling through huge rhubarb leaves in the garden, which you can just imagine provided inspiration for some of her books.”

Last year, the destination was Salford for five days and one of the most memorable parts of this trip was the visit to Shugborough en route. She reveals, “Senior citizens don’t like to spend too much time on a coach so I try to break up a long journey with a visit to a stately home or similar attraction.” She adds, “Shugborough has a wonderful Victorian kitchen and laundry room.”
Up in the air

Toni’s group ventures overseas at least once a year; however, as with the day trips and the UK breaks, the responsibility for organising these visits is shared amongst the committee members.

About 10 years ago, Toni organised a week-long break to Geneva in Switzerland. She reveals, “I used to live here so I knew it would appeal to my members.” The group stayed at the Hotel du Midi in central Geneva, where Toni managed to negotiate a good rate, and timed the visit to coincide with the Music Festival in June. She says, “Having a centrally-located hotel was ideal because it meant people could go off on their own to experience some of the free concerts around the city.”

In 2002, the group visited Norway for six nights where they divided their time between the Rosenkrantz Hotel in Bergen and Park Hotel in Voss. She says, “I was very pleased with the standard of both hotels on this trip. We also had a wonderful guide, which meant I could enjoy the itinerary without having to continually check on the group’s welfare.”

More recently, Toni organised a break to Ireland in 2009 after requests from some of her members to repeat a similar break to the country eight years earlier. The members stayed at Mount Herbert Hotel near Dublin for two nights of their seven-day stay. Toni remarks, “The staff here were friendly and obliging, particularly with regard to the group’s dietary requirements.” A number of excursions were built into the itinerary including a visit to Powerscourt House & Gardens. She says, “This is certainly one of Ireland’s greatest treasures. The scenery is superb and there’s a beautiful Japanese garden.”

Toni believes that research is paramount to a successful group trip. She explains, “It’s important to find out what is realistically do-able, particularly when organising for senior citizens who don’t like too much crammed into an itinerary.” She adds, “You also need to be aware of what your group likes and dislikes and then be able to tailor your programme accordingly.”

As an organiser for a retirement group, Toni is also aware of the fact that some of the single members enjoy the company that a trip brings. She says, “If there are single people on a trip, I like to introduce them to each other beforehand. For instance, I might arrange a pre-trip meeting so that they can get to know one another in a relaxed way and perhaps decide to share taxis to the airport.”

In the coming months, Toni has day trips planned to Stockwood Discovery Centre in Luton, in May, and the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, in June, as well as London theatre trips to see Women Beware Women at The National’s Olivier Theatre and Paradise Found at the Menier Chocolate Factory, both in June. There is also the possibility of a six-day break to Istanbul in October although this is still to be confirmed.

Although for the past few years Toni has been telling herself she needs to wind things down, she is yet to do so. She laughs, “At this rate, I’ll be organising well into my 90s! The trouble is, I get such a buzz from seeing people enjoying themselves. It makes all the hard work worthwhile.”