Sylvia Saxon is a hugely experienced GTO, with new ideas on how buyers and sellers can do business. We asked her to share her thoughts about how she’s shaped a vision of how fellow group organisers can best play their role, and why she, and others, are founding a new association.
How would you describe the current approach of GTOs?
The role of Group Travel Organiser has been evolving since I began to organise trips 15 years ago. Through my non-profit making group, Saxon Group Travel, I organise six short breaks a year including one or two long haul trips, two European and two UK holidays and recently these have included cruises. There is obviously a range of people who put together activities for their groups in different ways, but there has been a growing distinction between the more active and creative organisers and those who do occasional trips. Over the last few years, like-minded GTOs and I have developed a vision for an association that is aimed at extremely active GTOs as we feel we have different concerns and requirements to less active GTOs – although we all recognise the dedication needed to be a GTO whatever the size of a group and level of activity. The group travel market has evolved and to use a cliché to describe our position, ‘one size doesn’t fit all’. We are respectful of the established approach of the existing Association of Group Travel Organisers AGTO and so we feel the best way forward is a new association, hence New Meridian.
How do you see group travel developing?
There is a challenge to ensure that group itineraries appeal to younger and more active people – who, incidentally, are often already well-travelled as individuals. To achieve this we need a different type of support and dialogue with travel trade partners and suppliers such as tour operators, attractions and travel insurance companies. That’s been one of the thoughts behind establishing New Meridian as it will be easier for the travel trade to tailor their offers and discuss how best to do this by having a dialogue with those who share this approach. We want to take advantage of new ways of communication such as social media using Facebook and Twitter accounts. Of course, established methods such as travel trade fairs remain important, as these are essential ways to meet suppliers face to face and to pick up the latest group information.
Tell us a bit more about New Meridian?
We announced what we were doing earlier this year and there has been a fantastic response from the travel trade, from tour operators and attractions alike, and from GTOs since we officially launched on 1st September. Initially, membership will be capped at 300 – comprising 100 ‘voluntary’ GTOs, 100 profit-making GTOs and 100 travel trade supporters – all drawn from across the UK as New Meridian is a national association. We don’t want to grow too quickly as we want to ensure we offer quality to all our members. By the end of August, 60 GTOs had joined and this includes organisers for groups such as NADFAS HQ, Waitrose HQ and Solent Events & Leisure, and interestingly if you add up the number of members in each group there’s already a total of over one million that we jointly represent. We have already had a range of offers from business partners, specifically targeted for our groups, covering insurance and legal issues.
What activity is the association planning?
Networking and research are important elements of the New Meridian and both have a professional focus. For example, on fam trips we respect the privilege that we have been offered by the trade supplier and take every opportunity to gather relevant information for a return trip with our groups. A recent trip was to Switzerland and we all came back with a ream of inspiring ideas – both from the places we visited and from networking with other GTOs in the small group. Another important activity will be regular workshops and seminars, either for a day or over a weekend to address issues such as legal arrangements, insurance, social media and even first aid. Our first weekend, in Bournemouth in October, sold out quickly. We are attending travel trade fairs this autumn, including the Go Show North in Leeds.
As well as holidays of varying lengths, Sylvia Saxon also organises theatre trips, monthly walks and day trips, and is currently arranging trips to Japan and Burma. Her 6,500 members are mainly from the NHS in Dorset although she increasingly attracts members from the local police force and local authority councils. When she’s not fulfilling her GTO role she works as a receptionist and telephonist at St Ann’s Hospital in Poole. She can be contacted on 01202 740955 or by email firstname.lastname@example.org.