Voyages of discovery

Carrie Drage catches up with Bob Walker of Mancass in Manchester, who recently booked his first group cruise and overseas walking holiday, to see how things have changed since he first began his role.

Bob Walker

Bob Walker

When GTO first caught up with group organiser Bob Walker back in 2000 he was basking in the glory of organising his biggest ever day trip, involving chartering a train for 452 members from the north west to the Millennium Dome. Ten years on, Bob has since retired from his management role at BT but has continued to remain active on the committee. Two years into his retirement, he is still organising about 85% of the club’s activities, amounting to roughly half a dozen overseas holidays, three or four day trips and a couple of long weekends a year. He remarks, “When I was still working at BT, the demands of my position as Social Secretary were so huge that it was like I was holding down two full-time jobs. Even now, I still devote about 25 hours a week to the role!” He continues, “When I retired, there wasn’t any pressure from the committee to step down; most of the other board members are retirees anyway so it was just accepted that I would stay.”
A group organiser for nearly 30 years, Bob first began arranging holidays and day trips for his colleagues at BT in 1982 when he became Secretary for the Macclesfield BT Sports and Social Club. He says, “Four years later, our club merged with other BT sports and social clubs from the Manchester area to create MANCASS and, as Secretary, I automatically became a committee member. Then, in 1992, I became Social Secretary.”
The activities of the club are open to BT employees and retired staff as well as friends and family, and to cater for the various ages of the members, Bob’s programme is suitably diverse. There are currently 1,800 members and each of them pays a monthly fee of £5.25, which also includes a share in the lottery. He explains, “We usually draw 14 winners each month and the top prize is £1,000. Any remaining money is then used to subsidise the trips. We allow non-members to come on our trips; however, they must pay the non-subsidised rate.”

Snowmobiling on the Finland Snow Safari.

Snowmobiling on the Finland Snow Safari.

Bob sits on a social committee with five other people who meet four times a year at BT’s offices in Rochdale. Once the programme has been agreed, a quarterly newsletter is distributed by email or posted to the 500 or so members without internet access. An internet page is also regularly updated and twice a week an e-shot is sent out. Bob gets a lot of his ideas from magazines such as GTO as well as books and trade shows. He also attends familiarisation trips and speaks with tour operators and other members of the Group Travel Organisers’ Association. He says, “I sit on the committee of the GTOA’s Northern branch and the various events held throughout the year offer a good opportunity to network with other GTOs.”


Long-haul holidays

Overseas holidays make up the majority of Bob’s programme and one of Bob’s most memorable holidays was a four-week round the world adventure for 96 people in 2005. Starting in SINGAPORE, the members went on to visit Sydney in AUSTRALIA, NEW ZEALND, FIJI and LOS ANGELES, before returning to the UK.

Bob’s members in Australia.

Bob’s members in Australia.

Fifteen days were spent exploring New Zealand and Bob was impressed with the variation of the country. He says, “There was a lot included in the itinerary such as a maori evening in ROTOROA, a scenic train ride from CHRISTCHURCH to ARTHUR’S PASS on the tranzalpine express and a cruise to MILFORD SOUND.” Although Bob likes to avoid optional activities where possible, preferring instead to incorporate activities into the programme that the whole group will enjoy, tours are sometimes able to accommodate niche interests. He adds, “On this occasion, we stopped just outside Queenstown at the KAWARAU BRIDGE bungee jump and five of our bravest members took the plunge.” Four years later, Bob returned to Australia for an extended four-week tour of the country with 22 members, booked with SOUTH QUAY TRAVEL & LEISURE in London. He comments, “They did an excellent job with the itinerary and the whole trip ran really smoothly.” The journey took in the major cities of MELBOURNE, CAIRNS, ADELAIDE, SYDNEY and PERTH as well as the RED CENTRE. Bob says, “One of the most memorable experiences was eating dinner under the stars in the middle of the desert. I’ve never seen a sky so clear in all my life!”
Another extended holiday was to Peru and Brazil in 2008 with 16 people; again, it was booked with SOUTH QUAY TRAVEL & LEISURE. Lasting nearly four weeks in duration, the holiday included a trip to MACHU PICCHU. Bob says, “This ancient city definitely has the wow factor.” The itinerary also included three days in RIO DE JANEIRO, where the group stayed near Ipanema beach. Bob remembers, “We enjoyed a cocktail party on SUGARLOAF MOUNTAIN at sunset, which was an incredible experience.”

Bungee jumping at the Kawarau Bridge in New Zealand.

Bungee jumping at the Kawarau Bridge in New Zealand.

More of the world’s natural wonders formed the itinerary for the 22-day ‘Parks and Canyons’ holiday in 2010 with SUCCESS TOURS. Bob says, “I’ve always found them to be extremely reliable and flexible too. They put a lot of effort into creating an itinerary that is perfectly suited to your group and are good at suggesting experiences that will enhance the holiday.” Twenty people made the journey to the United States, with visits to BADLANDS, CANYONLANDS, MOUNT RUSHMORE and CUSTER STATE PARK included in the tour. Bob says, YELLOWSTONE NATIONAL PARK, with its extraordinary geysers and hot springs, was a particular highlight. The wildlife here was incredible.” To bring variation to the programme, the tour also included three nights in the lively cities of LAS VEGAS and NEW YORK.
The following year, SUCCESS TOURS also organised a two-week break to EASTERN CANADA for 13 people. Bob reveals, “I appreciated the fact that they were able to run the tour for a smaller group of people than expected, for a marginally inflated price.” The tour visited some of Canada’s largest cities including MONTREAL, QUEBEC, OTTAWA and TORONTO, with guided city tours included in the programme. The group also visited NIAGARA-ON-THE-LAKE and NIAGARA FALLS, where they enjoyed a very wet boat ride under the falls aboard ‘Maid of the Mist’.

At Niagara Falls aboard ‘Maid of the Mist’.

At Niagara Falls aboard ‘Maid of the Mist’.


European coach tours

As well as a programme of long-haul tours, Bob also organises regular holidays to the Continent. France has long been a popular destination for the group, with a five-day tour of the LOIRE VALLEY in 2004 one of Bob’s most memorable tours.
He says, “The 38-strong group enjoyed wine tasting at CHÂTEAU DE NITRAY, a beautiful château surrounded by enormous vineyards.” Bob booked the break through GREATDAYS TRAVEL GROUP in Manchester, remarking, “They are an easy company to work with when it comes to arranging tours. Greatdays were also the ones that discovered the little gem, Château De Nitray.”
Italy also never fails to impress and, in 2005, 46 members enjoyed a seven-day break to UMBRIA with SUCCESS TOURS. Bob recalls, “We did allsorts here, from touring an olive oil factory to visiting the APENNINE MOUNTAINS.”
In June this year, SUCCESS TOURS arranged another Italian adventure for 33 members to the island of SARDINIA. Four out of the six nights were spent at the PAUSANIA INN, an “excellent, family-run hotel” where the group received a cookery lesson. Bob explains, “We spent the morning learning how to make fresh pasta and, in the afternoon, we walked from the hotel to the family’s vineyard where we enjoyed cheese and wine on the veranda.”
A little less relaxing was the FINLAND SNOW SAFARI, a three-night break in 2003 with 26 members. Bob says, “We were based in IVALO about 300 miles above the Arctic Circle.” During the trip, the group tried a number of activities such as dog sledding, snow mobiling, tobogganing and kick sledding. Bob adds, “A few months earlier, I’d arranged a Christmas break for the children to see Santa Claus in his grotto. The popularity of this trip is what prompted me to organise an activity holiday in the region.”

Outside the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia.

Outside the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia.

Culture vultures aren’t left disapponted by Bob’s programme either, with a highlight being the seven-day holiday to RUSSIA with 40 people in 2007. The group divided their time between MOSCOW and ST PETERSBURG, travelling between the two cities by overnight train. Bob remembers, “In Moscow, we visited the KREMLIN and RED SQUARE where we watched the local citizens preparing for the May Day parade.”


In the UK

In addition to overseas holidays, Bob also organises regular day trips and weekend breaks in the UK, with transport supplied by ROY MCCARTHY COACHES in Macclesfield and SWANS TRAVEL in Manchester. He says, “The firm I use depends on the direction we’re headed in. Roy McCarthy Coaches is an excellent family-run company and I know the drivers and staff really well. Swans Travel, again a family-run concern, has a good portfolio of well maintained coaches that meet all of our needs.”
The mystery tours twice a year are always popular additions to the programme, with past destinations including JERSEY, SOLIHULL, TORQUAY, ST ALBANS and STOCKTONONTEES. In 2007, TELFORD was the destination for Bob’s summer mystery tour, with visits to the IRONBRIDGE GORGE, SHREWSBURY, WROXETER VINEYARD, POWIS CASTLE and a ride on the WELSHPOOL & LLANFAIR LIGHT RAILWAY all included in the itinerary for the weekend.
Meanwhile, in 2006, another interesting addition to the UK programme was the five-day break to NORTHERN IRELAND with 18 members, staying in the STORMONT HOTEL, located adjacent to STORMONT CASTLE and the PARLIAMENT buildings, the seat of Northern Ireland’s government. Other highlights included visits to the GIANT’S CAUSEWAY, BUSHMILLS DISTILLERY and the ULSTER FOLK & TRANSPORT MUSEUM.

Taking a rest at Barnsdale Gardens

Taking a rest at Barnsdale Gardens

When it comes to day trips, Bob has set a maximum travelling distance of 120 miles; anything beyond this will be considered as part of a longer break. The members have broad interests and, in recent years, the group has been on day trips to destinations such as BARNSDALE GARDENS in Rutland, DENBY POTTERY in Derbyshire and the BLACK COUNTRY LIVING MUSEUM in Dudley.
As previously mentioned, a series of regular walking trips also contribute to the day trip programme. Four years ago, for example, the group enjoyed a memorable ramble round the DERWENT VALLEY. Bob recalls, “We walked five miles round the DERWENT RESERVOIR where the Dam Busters used to practice and, afterwards, we visited the DERWENT DAM MUSEUM.”


Two firsts for the group

Although Bob has been organising for nearly 30 years, he still manages to introduce new experiences for his group.
For instance, in 2007, he organised his first seven-day group cruise for 30 members with NORWEGIAN CRUISE LINE (NCL), booked through SUCCESS TOURS in Wiltshire. He says, “What appealed to me most about NCL is their freestyle cruising concept. As somebody who had to wear a shirt and tie for most of his working life, the last thing I want to do while on holiday is get suited and booted for dinner.” The ship sailed to ALASKA out of VANCOUVER where the group enjoyed whale watching off the side of the boat, gold panning and a scenic train ride on the WHITE PASS & YUKON RAILROAD. On returning to Vancouver, the group flew to Hawaii for an additional week. Bob adds, “We went swimming with turtles in the sea, visited PEARL HARBOR and climbed to the top of a volcano.”

On the Alaskan cruise with NCL.

On the Alaskan cruise with NCL.

On top of this, last year he arranged the group’s first foray into overseas walking holidays. He explains, “We’ve been doing walking trips of the local area for quite a few years so I thought it might be nice to venture a little further afield.” Thirty-six members made the journey to MADEIRA for seven days, arranged through ATLANTIC HOLIDAYS based in Gloucester. Bob says, “The whole trip went very smoothly. I’ve no qualms about using them again.” The holiday included four walks as well as a coach tour of the island and free time to explore the area. He adds, “I’d heard a lot about the LEVADA WALKS (trails that follow the levadas or mini canals) before our trip and we weren’t disappointed, despite the region experiencing devastating mudslides shortly before we were due to arrive.”


Wise words

Understandably, after nearly 30 years in the trade, Bob has a lot of advice for GTOs just starting out and his number one rule is know what you want to achieve from a trip. He says, “When I put a holiday out to tender I often get suggestions from tour operators that I hadn’t considered myself and, although it’s useful to get another person’s input, it’s also important not to divert too much from your original plans.” He is also careful about using reputable suppliers, adding, “The cheapest is not always the best”.
In the current climate, value for money is an important factor to consider when booking a holiday but Bob understands that certain standards have to be met. He says, “Essentially, my trips do what they say on the tin. That said, I also like to keep a few surprises up my sleeve so not everything we do is put down on paper.”
As well as keeping the customer happy, Bob knows that it is important to be on good terms with the coach driver. He says, “They have a font of knowledge that GTOs can use to their best advantage.”
Looking ahead to what Bob has planned for the rest of 2011 and 2012, there are a number of holidays pencilled in the diary including a six-night NORTHERN LIGHTS cruise with CRUISE FOR GROUPS in February, a long weekend to LISBON with SUCCESS TOURS in March and a 10-day break to SLOVENIA with ANDERSON TOURS in September. On the home front, members have a CHESTER weekend in December, a spa weekend near ROTHERHAM in January and ROYAL ASCOT weekend in June to look forward to. He adds, “Further walking tours, overseas and in the UK, are also in the pipeline and I would like to visit a cookery school too, but I need to find the right one to suit my group first.”
There are many perks to being a group organiser, not least the fact that it provides an opportunity to see places or do things that you might not do as an individual and, 30 years on, Bob admits that he still gets the same buzz from arranging trips. He remarks, “The main thing is knowing that all your hard work has come to fruition when you see people enjoying themselves. This is what makes it all worthwhile and is why I intend to carry on for a few more years yet!”