Sue Shapland became a GTO after joining the West Somerset National Trust Association in 1994, and she still organises several day trips a year for them. She ran their first holiday in 1996 and now organises four holidays of varying lengths for the West Somerset and neighbouring Quantock Association. But this was not enough for her incredible appetite for travel so she set up the Exmoor Extroverts in 1999 and focused initially on theatre trips, festivals and events, rather than the historic properties and gardens that are the mainstay of the National Trust programmes. On average, she now organises 50 day trips to a diverse range of attractions and 15 ‘stay-aways’ or holidays a year for the group, which has some 900 members.
Exmoor Extroverts began after Sue suggested to the chairman of the National Trust Association that members might like to go to the Bristol Hippodrome to see the Phantom of the Opera. This was such a success that she was asked to run other outings and, as Sue says, ‘The group has since grown like topsy from these humble beginnings. I think Exmoor Extroverts is popular because it’s run as a not for profit organisation so the prices for each trip are very reasonable, and people like the idea of going away with others as part of a big family.’ For the last two years, Sue has had help in organising the trips from Vickie Hickman, who, Sue notes, ‘has taken to the challenges of group organising like a duck to water’.
FROM THEATRE OUTINGS…
The programme includes a broad selection of day trips to local theatre such as the Hippodrome in Bristol, the Northcott Theatre in Exeter and the Millennium Centre in Cardiff for musicals, dance and opera. Garden visits and trips to racing stables and racecourses are also popular, and there are several two-night weekend stays to London as well. For these trips, the group usually stays outside of the capital – at the Walton Cottage Hotel in Maidenhead – allowing a visit to the Mill at Sonning on the first evening, before venturing into the city the next day. In March, the London programme included a performance of Absurd Person Singular by Alan Ayckbourn at the Mill, with a trip to the Tower of London on Saturday. Sue adds, ‘It was 15 years since most of us had visited this popular London attraction, and there was so much new to enjoy and see.’ The highlight of the trip was dinner at the Royal Albert Hall, followed by a performance of La Boheme, as Sue explains, ‘The show more than lived up to expectations – the set included a railway platform complete with restaurants and 100 performers in the centre of the hall – it was spectacular and difficult to take it all in.’ On the way back to Somerset, the group called at The Vyne, a National Trust property dating back to the 16th century, close to Basingstoke.
La Boheme was the fourth of the Raymond Gubbay operas the group has seen at the Royal Albert Hall and Sue has already booked for Madame Butterfly next March, and this is in addition to a booking in November for the Classical Spectacular, which Sue is offering as an alternative to the Christmas Spectacular at Thursford.
Like many GTOs, Sue works months, if not years, ahead in planning her trips. She says, ‘Theatres and venues such as the Royal Albert Hall will hold reservations for a few weeks, just long enough to allow me to inform the group, but generally seats have to be paid for well ahead of the trip. For example, in September, our visit to London will take in Buckingham Palace, The Shard, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time at the Gielgud Theatre and a concert at the Royal Albert Hall, but tickets had to be confirmed and paid for by 10th April.’
…TO ‘EXTROVERT’ HOLIDAYS
After 15 years, Sue has found interest in joining her group remains as strong as ever. She does not advertise but new members frequently contact her to request to join the group. Sue has considered a cap on membership but when she receives an email from a recently bereaved person asking to join the group, she realises that this is not something she can do. However, she admits it’s a challenge to find enough good outings to satisfy the demand because expectations are now so high. This was one of the reasons she started to offer longer holidays. These vary from UK destinations such as Lincoln to further afield. In May, Sue took 79 members for a ‘Springtime Garden Cruise’ with Cruise and Maritime Voyages of Essex. Starting in Bristol, they visited Cork, St Mary’s, Jersey and Honfleur with an excursion to Monet’s Garden being a particular highlight. As well as France, the Exmoor Extroverts have travelled to Holland, Austria and Italy, with the most ambitious tour being to Alaska last year.
For these overseas breaks, Sue always works with a tour operator and finds The Travel Adventure in East Sussex a very good partner (see page 30). She finds the company understands the needs of the group and can come up with interesting itineraries and suggestions to complement her own proposals. For the Alaskan trip, she wanted to offer an alternative to a cruise following a trip she had done three years previously. Travelling by ferries, trains and coaches, 28 members took part in this trip of a lifetime. The 18-day holiday included Fairbanks, Mount McKinley and the Denali National Park with the chance to see grizzly bears, caribou, moose, wolves and Dall sheep, and a visit to Husky Homestead, where puppies are reared by Iditarod racing sled champion, Jeff King. Anchorage, Juneau and Skagway with excursions to Prince William Sound and the Mendenhall Glacier were also on the itinerary and there were optional helicopter flights to the ice-fields for dog sledding. A highlight was the breathtaking journey on the White Pass and Yukon Railway, travelling over immense gorges. The holiday ended with four nights in Vancouver.
Sue recalls, ‘Alaska was really special and The Travel Adventure did us proud with all the arrangements. The most incredible thing was the weather; at11.30pm the sun was still shining and it was 80˚F!’ The holiday was voted an outstanding success by members, with Sue and Vickie’s hard work praised.
Forthcoming holidays for 2015 include an anniversary Waterloo and Flanders tour planned for June, a Fred. Olsen Baltic Cruise for July (with over 30 members already booked), and a two-week trip to Canada, travelling cross country from Vancouver to Toronto in late September.
With so many day trips and longer breaks in the diary, Sue has evolved some efficient administrative techniques. She advertises trips in a newsletter, which is sent to members every two months for a £10 annual fee, alternatively it can be e-mailed, and booking forms for upcoming trips are handed out by Vickie during each trip. The website is also regularly updated with information.
Nowadays, Vickie looks after all the bookings so this frees Sue up for planning! Sue joins familiarisations visits so that she can experience an attraction or destination at first hand. She joined the ‘In Search of the Northern Lights’ familiarisation visit offered by Wiltshire-based Holidays & Cruises for You back in March. Having experienced the trip, which involved a four-hour round flight from East Midlands Airport to north of the Shetland Islands where the plane made circuits so that passengers could see and admire the incredible Northern Lights display, Sue will be including the trip in her itinerary for next winter. ‘It’s great to have an interesting outing in January and, even if the aurora is not on display, we will be guaranteed a brilliant view of the stars along with interesting insights and explanations from the on-board astronomers.’
Sue thinks attention to detail is very important so either she or Vickie phones everyone who has booked on a trip 48 hours before it departs to remind them of the details such as departure place and times. Sue explains why, ‘This saves embarrassed faces all round, and it means if someone has booked and they don’t hear from me, they know to get in touch as it may mean their original booking form has gone astray. This has happened very occasionally but, when it does, I book extra tickets and meals enroute and take care not to let the individual know.’
Sue has usually got her laptop with her so she can plan ahead and also reschedule excursions if an emergency occurs and something needs to be changed at the last minute. ‘I hate to cancel a trip,’ she says, ‘so I will pull out all the stops to come up with a new plan if an arrangement falls through.’
Sue uses local coach company, Ridlers Coaches, from Dulverton in Somerset, for her day trips and, like many GTOs, she and the group have some favourite coach drivers. Ridlers Coaches is a family business dating back to 1945; it prides itself on its luxury coaches but also its personal service. In May, Sue organised a meal at the Hobby Horse in Minehead to celebrate the 15th anniversary of Exmoor Extroverts, and two of the drivers, the owner and manager and wives were invited along as VIP guests. Sue adds, ‘I wanted to include Ridlers in our celebration; the drivers have been so much a part of our trips over the years and, without doubt, their help and friendly nature has added to the success and enjoyment of our days out.’
If not many people sign up for a trip, then Sue suggests travelling with cars rather than hiring a coach, and this is the case with this year’s visit to the Three Choirs Festival, taking place in Worcester from 30th July to 3rd August. The festival celebrates the choral music of the choirs of Gloucester, Hereford and Worcester Cathedrals and has been running for 299 years. Themes inspiring music in 2014 include the centenary of World War I and the 450th anniversary of Shakespeare’s birth.
Established for over 20 years, The Travel Adventure – one of Sue Shapland’s favoured partners for extended holidays with her group the Exmoor Extroverts – is an award-winning group tour operator and a regular finalist and winner at the Group Travel Awards.
Founder and managing director Ian Kerr explains that the vision for the company ‘has always been to ensure customers are treated with personal care, respect and attention. This has meant that many of our travellers come back to us again and again, and we continue to build on our strong working relationships. No two trips are the same and we are very able to tailor travel programmes to suit each group’s needs. Our guiding principle is big enough to operate – small enough to care.’
The Travel Adventure works with adult travel groups, schools and colleges, and their experience means they can create programmes covering every kind of break in the UK, Europe and further afield. ‘The trip to Alaska for the Exmoor Extroverts was an interesting one to arrange, requiring lots of research,’ says Jayne Kerr, Sales Director. ‘We are delighted to learn that the holiday was so successful and pleased to be working with Sue again on her forthcoming holidays.’
From an initial enquiry through to the return home, The Travel Adventure offers help and assistance whilst providing a competitive and reliable service. Each member of the team has a valuable travel sector background – Ian has an incredible 50 years of experience in the industry – which sets them apart from other tour operators.
Of particular importance is a strong working relationship with Disneyland Paris and, every year, The Travel Adventure takes many groups to the resort. In addition, for almost 20 years, the company has offered a resort-based College Convention, for students undertaking Travel & Tourism and Marketing courses. The convention allows the students to understand, at first hand, the sales, marketing and human resources aspects of the travel industry by getting valuable input from Disney professionals. In 2012, the company was awarded the prestigious Lifetime Achievement Award by the resort, and last year they received another award for sales growth.