An Expert View With…

hbHAROLD BURKE

SALES DIRECTOR, THE UK HOLIDAY GROUP

What’s been your journey in group travel?

I became involved in group travel after leaving school in 1971 when I joined Co-op Travel’s Tour Operating Department. Working my way up from the most junior roles meant I’ve learnt a great deal about what groups want, the marketplace, and how it’s continuing to change. I’ve worked with all types of groups from retirement clubs, which have always been the backbone, to specialist and niche clubs and associations. A highlight of the early years was putting together a weekend event for 8,000 machine knitters at Pointin’s, Southport in the mid 1980s.

What changes have affected group travel?

When I started you had to go through the switchboard to make an enquiry and everything went by post. Now the web is playing an increasingly central role, and although many GTOs still prefer the phone for its personal touch, increasingly people tend to interact with us on online and use the internet as a source of instant information. Initially, the group travel sector did not have the market identity it enjoys today, as there were no major trade publications or shows – which we now have in abundance. The first group travel show I recall was Moot, predecessor of the British Travel Trade Fair, and even that was more ‘trade orientated’ in the early years. Coming before the influence of the internet it was the place to be to gather information and network, and the aisles were literally jam-packed! The dynamic of the market place has also changed. When I started out, single members were happy to share three or four to a room that usually did not have a bathroom, TV or tea-making facilities! That all changed when overseas package holidays started to boom in the 70’s with new hotel offers. Today, the needs of the mature group sector is for single or twin rooms and walk-in-showers. Our expertise has to be aimed towards meeting these ever-changing needs alongside developing new groups with a younger membership. More attention has also been paid to the vital role of the GTO, without whom there would be no group industry! Gradually their role began to be recognised and they now have a platform and voice of their own, which continues to evolve.

How has the market evolved?

In the early years the average trip was an annual eight-day holiday in the UK, and most hotels opened from Easter to end of October and only off-peak dates were offered to groups. The season has extended, and some groups take three or four holidays a year. Ideas like Turkey and Tinsel holidays are now popular, but these were never really heard of until the mid 90’s – we made these ‘take-off’ during my days at Pontin’s! Most group business nowadays is all year round and tailored to themes like gardening, history, culture, bowls, dancing, reunions – the list is endless. Groups travel far and wide, and trips vary in size a lot. We’ve organised river and ocean cruises for numbers ranging from a handful to in excess of 800! Groups have the desire, more than ever, to travel throughout Europe and beyond, and most importantly they tend to know exactly what they want to do. Our message to GTOs has always been that we will ‘tailor make’ a trip to suit whatever their group wants, and that gives us the edge when it comes to personal service. The nature of retirement groups has also evolved from traditional Darby and Joan Clubs to more exploratory organisations such as the U3A, NADFAS and National Trust. As the number of coach operators offering holidays to their local community has declined, tour operators have developed their own niche areas.

What does the future hold?

I believe group travel remains a land of opportunity, through promoting the many benefits to be enjoyed when travelling with other like-minded people. The profile of our customer may be changing, from those who would most likely join a club on retirement, to today’s more independent internet-savvy and well-travelled generation, but the momentum remains upwards. You just need to keep up with the ever-changing trends! The challenge is to find the ‘group leaders of tomorrow’, to continue to attract a new customer base, and introduce new product that is relevant to the market whilst embracing social media – which is where you will find tomorrow’s generation. We must never lose sight of personal contact and that by bonding with a GTO you are working in a relationship that will last over the years, and appreciate their importance and the pressures and responsibility they face.

With over 45 years of experience in the group travel industry Harold Burke is an expert in the field. After joining the Co-op Travel department in his home town of Manchester, he has worked in the group travel sector ever since with spells at Pontins and Rank’s Butlins, Haven and Warner divisions before joining The UK Holiday Group as Sales Director in 1999. He also heads up just for groups! which is part of the company’s portfolio including Grand UK. Sunrise Direct and Glenton Holidays.