Trips with Friendship at their Heart
Innes Brett, from the West Midlands, has a wealth of experience organising day trips and short breaks for her members and has just celebrated her 25th year as a GTO! Val Baynton discovers more about her experiences and her tips for successful trips.
Innes Brett worked as a primary school teacher, specialising in Religious Education and Needlework, for four decades before taking up the challenge of organising day trips and short breaks for members of the WI based within the West Midlands Federation. Twenty-five years later, and approaching her 90th birthday, she still enjoys planning and running a variety of trips. Innes’s lifelong passion for education means she is also a trustee of the West Midlands Federation of Women’s Institutes Educational Trust, which gives grants to members to participate in further education – such as attending the WI College (Denman College near Abingdon) or other local educational establishments.
This year, she is celebrating her 25th anniversary of organising day trips and short breaks for her members, who are based in and around the village of Berkswell in the West Midlands. Not only has Innes herself made many friends through organising her programme of outings, but she has been delighted to see that her members have made new friendships too. Innes adds, ‘This has been a great blessing and is one of the main reasons I have been so happy to organise these trips over so many years.’ Innes has also enjoyed a long relationship with Johnsons Coaches of Henley-in-Arden, and has used the company many times over the 25 years to transport her members around Britain and into Europe.
Becoming a GTO
Many readers will recognise Innes’s story of how she began organising trips. It was, she says, ‘something I rather fell into and before I knew it, I was a GTO!’ As a WI member, Innes was asked to help with organising trips for the West Midlands Federation of Women’s Institutes and, in 1992, her first solo trip saw her take 40 members to Paris. Looking back, Innes recalls, ‘The trip was horrendous and it was definitely not my finest hour as a GTO. I realised, though, that the main thing was to be cheerful in the face of adversity and to do my best to keep everyone happy, and this has been an approach I’ve followed ever since.’
Innes has used Warwickshire based coach operator, Johnsons Coaches from the outset. She remembers her first meeting with John Johnson and Innes has been delighted with the service the team have offered to her and her members ever since, adding, ‘They have been brilliant and all the coach drivers go out of their way to make sure the trip goes smoothly. Now I liaise with Jo Brown, Group Tours Manager, who organises the logistics of each holiday for me. I tell her where we’d like to go, some of the things we’d like to see and she knows the type of hotels we like to stay in, so she does the rest! Nothing is too much trouble for them and I can’t recommend them highly enough.’ Innes remembers that on one of her early trips to Europe being caught out by someone who hadn’t brought any spending money with them. This was before the days of cashpoints and easy currency withdrawals and it was the coach driver who stepped in and saved the day. Innes adds, ‘I will always be grateful for this as it was one of the most heart-stopping moments I’ve had as a GTO. Now, I always make it clear on my itinerary what extras people need money for and I take some spare cash just in case! However, it’s reassuring to know that the coach driver is a supportive back up.’
Facts and Figures
Although she began organising for the WI, Innes’s membership base has gradually expanded. Hearing of the success of her trips, friends from her church in Berkswell asked if they could come too and gradually through word of mouth, more and more friends of friends have joined in – which Innes is delighted about. Currently, Innes organises a five-night UK holiday for her members and anything between six and 12 day trips a year. She usually books a 49-seater coach – and occasionally fills two coaches such as on a visit to Windsor Castle last year to see the exhibition ‘Fashioning A Reign – 90 years of Style from the Queen’s Wardrobe’. She has previously organised five-night breaks to Europe but hasn’t for the last couple of years. She explains, ‘Our last trip to the Floriade in Holland was very popular and there’s no good reason for not organising another, so maybe it’s time I put plans together for a trip to the continent!’ She doesn’t like, however, to travel more than a day on a coach and the furthest they’ve been is Trier in Germany.
For planning purposes, Innes bases costings on 40 people on a 49-seater coach. This allows some lee-way with the budget, and if more people come she donates any surplus monies to Berkswell WI. For day trips she prefers to make contact with attractions directly and once she has the price she will provisionally reserve places, whilst she talks to Johnsons about the coach. The final cost per person includes a gratuity for the driver so everyone pays the same and there is no need to ‘pass a hat around the coach’ at the end of the trip. For holidays, however, Jo at Johnsons takes care of all the arrangements including excursions for Innes.
Innes has explored many parts of Britain with her group and memorable five-day short breaks have taken place in Essex and Suffolk, Devon, Scotland and the Isle of Wight. Highlights from these trips include the Wilkin’s Jam factory at Tiptree near Colchester, which was very interesting – and Innes recalls that all her members made purchases in the shop! Meanwhile, on the Isle of Wight, Innes would recommend the Roman Villa at Brading for its amazing mosaics and insights into the past as well as the regal Osborne House. In Edinburgh, Innes says, the Royal Yacht Britannia is also a fascinating place to visit as this much loved royal vessel has welcomed so many world statesmen and famous people over the years.
The group has just enjoyed their 2017 trip – to Northumberland – staying at the Best Western Beaumont Hotel in Hexham, and this is the second time Innes has ventured to the north east with her group. Innes included a visit to the magnificent Durham Cathedral where they all very much enjoyed the Open Treasure Exhibition in the newly restored Monks’ Dormitory. The itinerary also included visits to Hadrian’s Wall, Lindisfarne and Alnwick Gardens (a riot of colour in the spring), as well as to the National Trust owned Cragside House – famous for an incredible garden and as the first house in the world to be lit by hydro-electricity – and the nearby Wallington, which was the family home of the Trevelyans for over 300 years and one of the childhood haunts of landscape gardener, Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown. Innes’s favourite moment of the trip was the surprise tea party she planned with Wall WI. She explains, ‘Traditionally WIs are very welcoming to members from other WIs who are visiting their area, and so they were delighted to invite us to tea. We really loved their delicious selection of homemade cakes.’
A Sense of Satisfaction
Looking back, Innes says that she has gained great satisfaction from being a group travel organiser. ‘I’ve enjoyed every trip I’ve done, the good and the bad, all the shocking and the hilarious moments. I have loved every single minute and could not possibly select one as my lifetime favourite.’ There’s pleasure in knowing so many people have made lasting friendships through the outings and short breaks and in enabling her members to have a holiday – she’s very aware that some people just would not get away otherwise. The group has become Innes’s family too, and she is keen to spend time with them at the end of a busy day, for a relaxing drink in the bar, for food and for conversation. In conclusion, she adds, ‘If I could have my time again I would have chosen a career in travel!’.
HOTEL Innes recommends the Skiddaw Hotel at Keswick. This is a super hotel she says with a great offer for groups There are 43 en-suite bedrooms and it has good food and comfortable beds. ‘We come on holiday to enjoy ourselves and we do not want to rough it,’ Innes says, adding, ‘The staff at the Skiddaw know what they are doing and treat groups well.’ One thing Innes prefers is to have dinner at 7.30pm and she favours hotels that will allow her members to choose their meal each evening rather than in advance so that members can take account of what they’ve eaten for lunch. ‘I know many hotels would prefer us to eat much earlier so we are out of the way, but this means the evening is unnecessarily long and we have to rush back from our day out to allow time for members to refresh themselves before dinner. It’s much better to be able to gather in the bar, have a drink and chat about the day before enjoying a leisurely dinner.’
EUROPEAN CITY Bruges in Belgium gets Innes’s vote as her favourite city. She likes it for its beautiful architecture, its intimate and friendly character, the lace, seriously good food and above all its delicious chocolate! ‘Bruges is very welcoming and has the perfect attitude to groups. My only reservation is that many of its excellent hotels do not serve an evening meal and this means we have to go out for food, which some of my members do not like to do.’
MOTORWAY SERVICES Gloucester Services on the M5 and Tebay Services in Westmorland on the M6 are Innes’s top choices ‘The offer at Gloucester is outstanding, and I am pleased to see that gradually more and more service stations are raising their standards. I always used to say that the toilets at motorway services in the UK are excellent and the food terrible whilst it is the other way round on the continent, but the food here is, fortunately, getting better.’
SEASIDE RESORT Brixham for its excellent fish and chips.
GARDENS Osborne House on the Isle of Wight has beautiful gardens and an excellent children’s garden too.
COACH COMPANY Johnsons Coaches.
Top Tips from Innes
Research where you are going. Innes finds out as much as possible about the destination and shares it with her members on the coach prior to the visit.
- Quizzes and anecdotes help to pass the time on a long journey.
- Innes goes round the coach with a tin of sweets as this gives her the chance to talk to people and make sure everyone is okay.
- Encourage members to tell you straight away if something isn’t right, then there’s a chance to get it sorted. ‘Deal with it’ and everyone feels better.
- Be clear what’s included on a trip and what extra spending money may be required.
- Innes carries a variety of emergency supplies – including food for diabetics.
- A small tot of sherry and nibbles helps to perk members up when spirits flag on a long journey!
- Ask members where they’d like to go on holiday next. Innes passes around a sheet of paper for suggestions on the journey home and the most popular destination wins!
- Always find something to laugh about.