Organised Groups – are you getting enough?

News stories are free to read. Click here for full access to all the features, articles and archive from only £8.99.
Julia Pearce when she was Group Sales Manager South for Dunwood Travel

Alan Payling speaks to an award-winning expert in the group travel market to discuss the benefits, pitfalls and future developments of the sector, so operators can make the most of this valuable business

Is there anything more likely to put a great big smile on the face of a coach operator than a group organiser walking through their door? Are there any other words that an operator would rather hear than, ‘I’m a group organiser, and I’d like to make a booking’? Something like, ‘your coaches have all sailed through their MOTs’ might come close, but in terms of welcome business, a group organiser getting in touch must feel like manna from the big coach park in the sky dropping kindly in their lap. And it’s so easy: one booking is a week’s work for a coach. Sorted, job done. And once the group have been away with them once, they’re bound to want to make more bookings – aren’t they? Maybe, maybe not. Perhaps it’s not always that simple. Maybe there is a lot more to the groups market than meets the eye – like getting them to walk through the door in the first place.

To find out more, I recently met up with Julia Pearce of Torquay to have a chat and find out from her what some of the challenges are in the sector. Given her considerable sales experience, organisational ability and award-winning expertise in the sector, she offered some insights into how groups and their all-important organisers can be kept happy, again, and again, and again. [wlm_nonmember][…]

Are you enjoying this feature? Why not subscribe to continue reading?

Subscribe for 4 issues/weeks from only £2.99
Or login if you are already a subscriber

By subscribing you will benefit from:

  • Operator & Supplier Profiles
  • Face-to-Face Interviews
  • Lastest News
  • Test Drives and Reviews
  • Legal Updates
  • Route Focus
  • Industry Insider Opinions
  • Passenger Perspective
  • Vehicle Launches
  • and much more!
[/wlm_nonmember] [wlm_ismember]

Meeting Julia

Julia was born in Torquay and is proud to come from what she describes as ‘Torbados’. At the time of writing in mid-January though, the hurricane sweeping through the English Riviera certainly did have a Caribbean flavour! What some would describe in my native Yorkshire as ‘Rum weather, lass!’

Even when she was still at school, Julia was gaining valuable experience by working her way up from the bottom of the hospitality and coach holiday sectors when she was employed as a chambermaid in a coaching hotel on Torquay’s central hotel strip, Belgrave Road. And boy, do you start at the bottom in a job like that. She then went on to work in local restaurants and bars, at conferences and at events including weddings, banquets and in the President’s Tent at the Devon County Show.

Julia then worked over the years with many types of organised groups once she had climbed her way up the local coach trade ladder. For example, she worked for 11 years in the Daish’s Holidays’ travel office, where she was eventually promoted to be their Groups Sales Manager. Daish’s is a coach holiday and hotel group with eight hotels in seven of the UK’s leading resorts, operating some 22 coaches. Julia could speak persuasively from personal experience when she was selling the company’s wares. She and her family enjoyed many happy coach holidays with Daish’s at their hotels at the Isle of Wight, Newquay and Bournemouth.

Julia – front right – dines with group organisers on a New Meridian ‘fam’ to Lake Como. JULIA PEARCE

As a measure of her expertise, when she was the Groups Sales Manager for Daish’s Holidays, Julia won the Group Leisure Magazine Excellence Award 2010 for customer service, which was supported by group organisers from throughout the UK. This award Julia considers to be the ultimate accolade for someone catering to this market. Daish’s Holidays then went on to win the Group Travel Award for ‘Most Friendly Hotel Chain’ three times in four years.

Julia then spent a spell with Dunwood Travel of Dudley as Group Sales Manager South. She carried out this role from home, so didn’t have to leave her beloved Torbados on a permanent basis.

The next company that Julia worked for was also a finalist in the Group Travel Awards for ‘Best Large Coach Fleet’ – this being the Alfa Leisureplex Group, where she was employed as Groups Sales Executive. Alfa were voted as finalists in three categories at the 2017 Group Travel Awards.

On a broader front, and as a further indication of her standing amongst her peers in the group travel trade, Julia served on the Board of Trustee Directors for the Association of Group Travel Organisers (AGTO) from 2013-2016. AGTO is an independent organisation representing Group Travel Organisers (GTOs) and those who provide services to GTOs.

A new adventure

Now Julia is starting out on what she calls a new adventure with her blog and its associated services, to help group organisers planning visits via the South West Group Travel Blog. The objective of the blog is to promote South West England as one of the premium destinations in the UK for groups of all sizes, ages and types by offering her expertise to – primarily – group organisers and coach operators. She will also be assisting tourism businesses in the South West to attract more group bookings and to develop their services to the group travel market.

One of her first clients will be as the Coach Tours Development Consultant for Torbay Growing Museums Partnership which includes Torre Abbey, Torquay Museum and Brixham Museums. In particular, Torre Abbey is a hidden and undiscovered gem as far as the coach trade is concerned in this part of the world, so Julia’s work here could well improve coach visits to Torquay in the future; watch this space on that one. She is also working with Torquay Museum, developing a package for organised groups of Agatha Christie fans which will include visits to a number of the locations the world-famous authoress was associated with locally.

Among the many services that Julia can offer to those in the UK’s coach trade planning visits to the West Country is a hotel inspection service, so that the busy operator can have an independent opinion and report to ascertain if a hotel meets their needs. This can include a hotel anywhere in the West Country.

A changing industry

In terms of the future of the groups market, Julia’s view is that it is in some cases evolving if one recognises the opportunities. With the growth of new media and technology, some group organisers don’t realise that they are in fact, just that: group organisers. Julia cited the case of a friend who is a yoga teacher who organises yoga retreats, which in Julia’s view makes her a group organiser. Similarly, Julia has come across groups of women going on a spa break who don’t regard themselves as a ‘group’.

Julia is also of the view that the traditional groups market is shrinking. With the increasing closure of places like working men’s clubs and pubs that organised trips for the in-house organised groups they catered for, Julia believes that this market is declining. With changes in employment patterns, Julia can see that organised clubs for retired workers will also reduce. Unless the coach trade can organise coach holidays for groups of robots in the future, then as Julia notes, eyes have to be cast more widely to recognise new markets. For example, she is in the process of planning a trip to Ladies Day at Wincanton Racecourse in May as an example of offering a group or collective experience – but to a slightly different market.

With her husband and the Chair of New Meridian, Sylvia Saxon, on the Amalfi coast. JULIA PEARCE

In that sense, even in traditional and emerging markets, the problem with the groups market is that it is just so varied as to where they are to be found, what they want to do and where and when they want to do it. Even what appears to be one group can have many different needs to cater for. Julia cited the example of the Tesco Retired Staff Association which has a membership which numbers in the thousands. On the face of it, one group, one set of identical needs. Not quite. Because the group is so large, the membership is split into different groups geographically which all have varied interests. The watchword here would appear to be ‘flexible’; keep your eyes and ears open and don’t take anything for granted.

When it comes to finding business in this sector, Julia had some clear words of advice for the coach operator keen to increase group bookings: don’t sit there waiting for them to just walk through the door. After all, you have people like Julia who are out there acting in a very proactive manner finding, chasing and nurturing this business – and it can be a very patient waiting game. If you have ever gone fishing, that is the sort of patient approach to apply here. Julia counselled that operators should look at the long-term and recognise that they are going to have to slowly build relationships with people – possibly for a long time – before they eventually get their business. Julia once spent three years charming a customer before they eventually signed on the dotted line.

She was also very keen to emphasise that people buy from people they like, and the smart operator will slowly build a relationship until the day arrives that the group organiser they are courting falls out with their existing coach operator, and then they can turn all that patient work – and charm – into valuable bookings. The starting point for all this can be a lot of leg work at trade shows, for example, coupled with follow up letters and calls to contacts that have been made. Julia’s approach reminded me of the old adage of the professional salesperson: a refusal gets you one call closer to a sale. In other words, keep at it and don’t let a prospective customer forget you, where you are and what you offer.

AGTO: a worthwhile step to take

If operators are not already a member of the Association of Group Travel Organisers (AGTO), Julia was very clear that this is a very important step to take. The membership includes access to their database of group organisers and access to the annual AGM which takes place at the Group Travel Show Excursions at Alexandra Palace in January. In September there is also an annual showcase which moves round the country. Both are opportunities for networking and meeting and making contact with group organisers. In addition, New Meridian is a new association of group organisers which is composed of what Julia described as some of the most active and enthusiastic group organisers in the UK. These are people who organise some 30 to 40 parties a year, so it is a valuable forum in which to develop contacts.

When dealing with groups, their demands can be challenging. As ever, some bookings will run smoothly, while others have expectations that can’t always be met. The demands for single rooms can be a major issue. Julia also raised the difficulties that arise when the group organiser has not achieved a level of bookings that would make running a coach worthwhile. In such scenarios, which won’t be uncommon to coach operators, Julia was at pains to outline that diplomacy, tact and a bit of plain old down-to-earth brown nosing is required to placate the customer – while avoiding running at a loss and losing their business.

New media is also seen as an important factor when attracting business from the groups market. Of course, this doesn’t apply just to this market, but Julia did stress that the grey sector of the groups market is getting savvier when it comes to the use of new technology and, as a result, it can be a very important tool to use – not just to introduce it to your website, but if you’re using social media, to keep it updated.

If you have a lively Facebook page for prospective customers to look at which includes recent and up-to-date input from drivers and passengers, this can personalise what a particular company is doing in a way that appeals to growing numbers of people. And if you are also looking at younger markets, then that argument in Julia’s mind is doubly important. However, if your Facebook page has become a sad, unused afterthought that someone thought was a great idea to keep up with the 21st century but hasn’t been used for 18 months, then as far is Julia is concerned, just forget it. If you use social media, use it properly – and often. And what could be more persuasive for the group organiser surfing the web looking at the website of an operator that they have met at a trade show than to see lots of up-to-date photos and glowing comments from another group organiser on a coach firm’s Facebook page?

Julia touched upon the changes in the groups market above, but carrying on from the issue of new technology, she is currently exploring the potential of the group booking platform Tripsi. This is, in effect, a site that can offer quotes for coach packages while allowing bookings to be made online. Julia currently has some reservations about this service if bookings cover a whole holiday, but, in an age of online shopping, Uber, Deliveroo et al, the generation that now wants to do everything via Alexa and the internet will be looking for every sector of the market to respond – and Julia is sure that this will include group organisers in due time.

Julia Pearce receiving the Group Leisure Magazine Excellence Award from Martin Kemp. GROUP LEISURE AND TRAVEL MAGAZINE

More modest aspirations

There will be some people working for the large coach operator or hotel groups that take for granted the resources that allow for in-house Group Sales Managers and for staff to visit the leading – and expensive – trade shows. But what of the small to medium operators where the owners have to wear a number of differing hats during a busy working day? How can they enjoy a share of the cake here?

One avenue that Julia suggested was to keep up-to-date with existing group organisers that have travelled with an individual operator. Just an occasional phone call to see if a former customer is still actively organising groups can be useful here. Don’t forget, if you’re not calling them, someone like Julia most certainly will be. It may be expensive to visit and to display at the big national shows, but there are a number of local regional trade shows that are held round the country that could provide leads into the groups market.

One possible idea that we discussed was whether a group of small operators could combine to take a stand at a show offering their respective services and, in terms of splitting up the spoils, letting the customer decide who they want to book with. After all, in South Devon, local visitor attractions like the Donkey Sanctuary in Sidmouth and South Devon Railway in Buckfastleigh combine with others (such as the Devon Association of Tourist Attractions) to jointly fund exhibition space at national trade shows that individually they could not possibly afford. Given the links that smaller operators have as a result of hiring in coaches from each other and via the CPT, is this not an idea that could help them break into this market? After all, the one big USP for the small to medium operator is that they are the ones that can provide a much more personal service than bigger operators. No doubt about that, but if group organisers forget about them they won’t be given the chance.

Julia also suggested that small scale familiarisation trips that are offered to group organisers could also offer a route into this market, and they need not fill a full-size coach. If an operator got a dozen group organisers from their local area and took them away for the weekend with an itinerary that is likely to appeal, this in Julia’s view is one way of getting bookings. But this might also be a way of getting feedback to get their product right. A ‘fam’ trip could offer answers to questions that haven’t occurred to an operator: why aren’t they getting group organisers to book with them? What are they doing right and what could they do better? And where a ‘fam’ trip demonstrates that the operator is meeting the needs of the group organisers and their members this can only persuade them they have found the company to book with. Julia also felt that a special trip need not always be organised. After all, who hasn’t got empty seats that they could offer to group organisers when they’re going away on a weekend trip for example.

So, if you’re sitting in your office hoping and praying that a little of that golden group travel manna will drop into your lap – and it doesn’t – it might mean that you have to get up out of your chair and go and chase the business. And before you set off, you could do worse than have a chat with someone like Julia to tap into her award-winning expertise in sunny Torbados.

AGTO: [email protected] 020 8253 4505
New Meridian: [email protected]
Julia Pearce: South West Group Travel Blog –
07519 590 213