Three decades of group organising

30 years of Group Experience

30 years of Group Experience

The Group Experience feature appeared in the very first issue of GTO magazine and in every one since! As part of our 30th anniversary we turn the clock back and remember some of the GTOs and their trips featured in the past – a couple of them more than one time!

The first group experience was written by Editorial Director, Peter Stonham, and featured two organisers of ski holidays. Chris Franklin had started out organising ski breaks for a group of friends, but after a few years the Kings Ski Club had actually developed into a tour operator specialising in providing ski holidays for hundreds of other groups. Peter also spoke to a very new GTO, Dr. Brian Haylock, who had just begun to organise ski trips for his colleagues in the medical profession and their family and friends. As he said to Peter, ‘group organisation becomes easier as you get to know more about it.’ It’s a sentiment that GTOs from many other backgrounds will undoubtedly share.’

Looking back, Peter recalls that many of the early Group Experiences featured organisers from substantial and well-funded company based social and sports societies and clubs from famous names such as Heinz, BT, British Airways and Boots. Such clubs are now not so prevalent as it seems that investment into this kind of employee support is no longer a priority for many large businesses today.

Shared experiences

Talking to GTOs over the years reveals just how many different types of group there are, and the reasons for them being set up are just as varied. There are sports, social and retirement clubs, WI and Probus groups, Townswomen Guilds, U3A travel clubs, art appreciation and gardening clubs, a host of clubs supporting specialist hobbies and activities such as walking, cycling and bird watching, as well as community groups, singles clubs, local history, educational and youth clubs and friendship groups. Our list could, of course, go on! What unites them all is the spirit that doing something together as a shared experience is much more fun and rewarding than doing things as an individual.

This shared passion for an activity was the reason that the Roller Coast Club of Great Britain (RCCGB) was founded by Andy Hine, coincidentally also 30 years ago. GTO magazine has actually interviewed Andy twice – in 1994 and in 2007 – but we felt, given our shared journey it would be good to catch up with Andy again to find out what, if anything had changed.

Andy Hine

Andy Hine

On a roll for three decades with Andy

Andy Hine set up the Roller Coaster Club of Great Britain when he began to compile a list for himself of where roller coasters might be found! During his trips around the country he began to bump into kindred spirit coaster fans and by swapping names and addresses he started to preplan future trips with these like-minded enthusiasts, going on to launch the RCCGB on 11th August 1988, just three months before GTO began production. Today, the club’s 1200 members are mainly in the UK, with some in Australia and the States, and Andy’s regular trips around the UK and longer breaks overseas also raise funds for charity. He was awarded the MBE for services to tourism in 2004, the nomination being made by theme park owners.

The first official club trip and launch event was to Margate to Dreamland, and it was attended by 11 people. Andy adds, ‘We were able to enter the park an hour before the gates opened to the public but of course we remained at the park for much longer that day.’ From this small beginning the club quickly grew and Andy was interviewed on television and in the national press. He says, ‘Those were the days when at the end of the interview I actually gave out my home address so interested people could contact me.’

During the season – from April to end of October – there are regular meetups at theme parks around the UK, from attractions such as Alton Towers and Drayton Manor Park to Blackpool Pleasure Beach. Typically 300 people will attend and Andy arranges out-of-hours access – either before the park opens or at the end of the day – for his group. There might be other activities too, including talks from park owners and even a private disco on a roller coaster at the end of the day. Since people come from different part of the UK each person makes their own way to the park but, car sharing is common and members also organise their own trips with friends.

Andy says, ‘What has been very satisfying to see over the years is how many friendships have been made. We are a social group united by our interest in riding and enjoying the adrenaline rush, members come from all backgrounds and walks of life. Eighteen marriages have taken place!’ He goes on to explain, ‘My payment, if I need any, comes when I see everyone enjoying themselves.’

The Roller Coaster Club at their annual bash at Blackpool Pleasure Beach.

The Roller Coaster Club at their annual ‘bash’ at Blackpool Pleasure Beach.

The group is multi-generational – with the youngest being 15 months and the oldest nearly 90, and two of the original founding members still come along on the trips. A few years ago Andy introduced family membership, meaning that for every person who join his or her family are automatically members too. This has meant that membership continues to grow as children are welcome on the trip and the private sessions now include the junior rides.

The RCCGB is not just about theme parks however as Andy also arranges other activities especially in the winter season to keep everyone in touch. These include go-kart racing and ski-ing trips. ‘Basically anything that’s fast and is exhilarating is popular with my members,’ Andy explains.

Andy has regularly arranged overseas trips and this is where his style of organising has evolved. For trips to European theme parks, Andy used to book coaches and accommodation but the effect of package travel regulations and the development of low cost airlines has changed this. Now, Andy contacts the theme parks, and arranges the entry and activities at each venue for the group and he then advises his members of the itinerary – when and where to be. He will also recommend accommodation and negotiates discounts at selected hotels for members but leaves booking the flight and the hotel up to each individual. This means members can fly from their favourite airport at a time and day to suit, and book the hotel that is most appropriate for them.

American tours are also very popular, and Andy has organised some 20 of ‘hard-core’ trips, which see visits to 15 or 16 parks over a 17-day trip – and typically around 100 people generally sign up. Andy has been a fan of flying with British Airways but in recent years it has become less group friendly – meaning that members can’t sit together and deposits are now lost if the pre-reserved seats are not ultimately booked up. Instead, he has forged a relationship with Etihad Airways who has proved to be much more understanding of group needs. Deposits are returned if seats are not sold within the time limit, and the airline will book hotels too. ‘This means all I need to do is call the parks!’ Andy says.

Andy Hine in GTO magazine in February 1994

Andy Hine in GTO magazine in February 1994

Next year he is organising a first – a trip to Dubai and Abu Dhabi – as Asia is rapidly expanding its theme parks. Recognising that this may be his members’ only opportunity to visit the country, Andy is adding a range of other attractions and activities to the ‘Twist and Sheikh’ programme – some will be high adrenaline too such as the Desert Safaris. But, he will also allow some relaxation time at hotels to enjoy swimming pools or to explore the large shopping malls.

Over the last 20 years Andy has campaigned to ensure the survival of existing wooden roller coasters and to encourage the building of new ones. He explains, ‘Wooden roller coasters like those at Blackpool Pleasure Beach or Margate give the authentic “shake, rattle and rock’ and I’ve always wanted to see new ones so that more people could enjoy their unique style.

I have been so pleased that in our 30th year, following a presentation and discussions with the board at Alton Towers, that they have invested in and now opened the park’s first ever wooden roller coaster ride, Wicker Man.’

Looking at how to ensure the group continues, Andy feels opening up membership to include a family has been a good move, and enabling flexible ‘travel and stay’ has also been an important way of maintaining the club’s appeal to a generation that now has more varied work and life routines. He says he will continue to organise trips for as long as there are members wanting to join in the fun.

First in the post

Margaret Davies, social secretary for the West Midlands Federation of Townswomen’s Guilds and first Chair of Group Travel Organisers Association had long experience as a GTO. When GTO magazine interviewed her for Issue 27 at the end of 1991 she had already been organising for some 23 years.

An extremely capable postmistress she organised many overseas trips for the Federation’s 2000 members including visits to the Niagara Falls, Rhode Island and to Europe as well as weekend trips and day outings around the UK. She preferred to do all the bookings for trips herself with suppliers because it was cheaper, but found that in the 1990s, at least, Canadian coach and motel operators were not very used to booking trips for groups.

As a founder member of GTOA and then the inaugural chair, she was keen to show the travel trade that many GTOs take their role seriously. She recognised the importance of enabling GTOs to have a voice, to meet to discuss issues and share views.

In 1991 GTO asked Margaret why she was a GTO and her response will be shared by many GTOs.’It’s helping people really. A lot of people wouldn’t do it unless it was organised for them… and they get a lot of enjoyment out of it.’

Where Heinz went

Dave Nurse, GTO of the social club for Heinz was typical of many of the group organisers for company based social clubs we spoke with in the early days, and he was interviewed in the second issue.

In 1988, Dave had been official club secretary – a full time position at Heinz – for 11 years but had already been organising two or three annual trips for another 20 years prior to that while working as an electrician on the shop floor. So, you could say he was exceptionally well qualified!

With just over 1,500 members Dave organised the social and sports team events as well as day trips and Christmas outings and was responsible for introducing a Continental programme to satisfy the members’ demands for more choice. Dave recalled that in 1977 as the new secretary he spent his annual holiday entitlement looking for locations, because ‘in those days there were fewer package deals, either from hotel groups or operators, so you had to do things yourself.’ What would he have made of the Internet!

Friends & family

Jim Godsell has been organising travel since the late 1950s, initially for his work colleagues but, since retiring nearly 25 years ago, for his ‘Jim Godsell and Friends’ group made up of family and friends Jim and his wife, Denise, have made during their 58 years of marriage.

GTO first interviewed Jim in 2010 and learnt of his passion for organising fun outings. At the grand age of 80, he’s still organising regular trips a year for around 180 people and the recent programme has included a trip to see Aladdin in the West End with dinner, a local performance of Saturday Night Fever and a Cabaret Luncheon Party. Jim explains he still gets pleasure from seeing others enjoy themselves and he adds, ‘it’s clear that when you are in your 80s and possibly living alone, to have someone to do the organising and to go out alongside friends makes it so much easier.’

Looking back Jim says the biggest change has been the internet, which has made gathering ideas simple. The rules and regulations over package travel have made it much more important to work with professional tour and coach operators, he says.

For the future and, an idea for other groups, Jim suggests including younger people on trips by more mature groups as a way of bringing together the generations and providing opportunities for social interaction away from the distractions of computer or TV screen.

Co-operative values

Susan Stockwell, Member Relations Officer for Co-operative Retail Services, Wales and Borders region organised trips for an amazing 85,000 people. When GTO magazine interviewed her in 1996, issue 76, we discovered that all the trips were quite unique as they were all linked to co-operative movement in some way.

Typical visits were to suppliers such as a cereal factory in Deeside, Cheshire, the Co-operative Wholesale Society creamery in Llangadog or the tea and coffee centre in Crewe as her members like to see how the products they supply or can buy are produced. She also included historical destinations with connections to the Co-op such as the Packaging Museum, then at Gloucester Docks or the Pontypridd Historical Centre, which chronicled the history of the Chartist Movement.

Susan explained why she so enjoyed being an organiser, ‘I always like meeting people and that’s why I enjoy organising trips for Co-op Retail Services, as it gives me the opportunity to come into contact with people with similar interests.’

Looking to the future

Over the last few years we have been delighted to interview more GTOs from niche interest groups – revealing the diversity of group travel available today. From cycling groups to a visiting group from America investigating Britain’s geology. We are looking forward to writing about more unusual interests in the future!

Please get in touch with editor Val Baynton if you’d like to be included as a featured Group Organiser.