“There’s no such thing as an average group or group product”

Peter Stonham

Editorial Director, GTO magazine

Peter Stonham, Editorial Director, GTO magazine

On these GTBF pages, GTO’s Editorial Director Peter Stonham usually writes an introduction reflecting on topical issues affecting the group travel sector. In the Expert View column we feature an interview with an industry professional giving insights into serving the group market. In GTO magazine’s 30th birthday issue, we bring the two together as editor Val Baynton interviews Peter to find out how and why he set up the magazine, and how he feels the group travel business has evolved over the past three decades. We also learn some thoughtful and perceptive insights into the sector and its future.

How and why did you establish GTO magazine?

I studied transport and had a background in the travel and transport industry and was interested in the different ways people get from place to place. I became a specialist writer on the subject and gained publishing experience. As part of my understanding of travel systems and the operations of coaches, trains and planes, I realised that many people travelled together as a group, but there was very little discussion about how each was formed, who organised it or what the specific and specialist needs of a group might be.

Strange though it might seem today, the concept of a ‘Group Travel Organiser’ was not talked about in those days, and indeed it was often thought that it was the coach driver, tour operator or courier who actually brought each group together! Given that groups were regularly described rather disparagingly as ‘The Coach Party’, ‘The Day Out Trippers’ or ‘Those Foreign Tourists’, I thought it was time for more dedicated conversations – firstly with GTOs themselves, and secondly with the transport they used and the places they visited or stayed, to ensure they were treated in a more respectful and supportive way.

A couple of colleagues – Chris Cheek and Richard Winfield – recognised these ideas and we hatched a publishing plan, deciding to start a magazine and take it to the World Travel Market in 1988. In those days it was about a quarter of the size it is now and held at Earls Court, London. We also researched social clubs and specialist associations and societies, though this was hard work as it was before the days of the internet so we had to plough through directories, phone books and other reference material in our local library.

What was the response to the first issue?

We quickly found that we had struck a real chord with both suppliers and GTOs, and it’s pleasing to point to a number who supported us in the early issues and are still going strong today – the likes of Norman Allen Group Travel, JAC Travel, Chessington World of Adventures, Success Tours, Chester Zoo, Knebworth House and Cotswold Wildlife Park.

Irwin Ferry was our first editor, and his journalistic experience and family involvement in tour operator Titan Travel was a real support to what we were trying to achieve, and we had an excellent sales person – Adrian Gates – in the team.

By careful audience development we took our circulation up to over 10,000 named GTOs. This is now in the region of 8,200 but there’s also a significant number of GTOs who interact with us through our various online products.

Looking back through early issues, it is remarkable how many businesses successful then and regarded as ‘famous names’ are no longer around – from airlines like Air Europe and ferry operator Olau to tourism attractions such as Stapeley Water Gardens in Cheshire and hotel chains including Trust House Forte.

Who’s been important along the journey?

I would be remiss not to mention a few other people who were important in the development of the magazine particularly the editors who followed on from IrwinBernadine Walsh, Jamie Cash, Joanne O’Connor and Abbe Bates, as well as Val Baynton who is our excellent editor today, and Fiona Horan who has made the Make a Date section her own. Feature writer, Brenda Watkinson has been contributing features and visiting attractions and destinations around the UK and Europe for us for over the last 25 years. Sales and commercial activity has been in the very able hands of Sarah Jeffery for many years and in the office Julie Hart has been liaising with readers and customers and providing essential support for a fair while.

How has the business and magazine evolved?

GTO magazine has been part of the Landor Group, which we set up when we launched, and we’ve since added other specialist titles in the transport and urban development sectors.

Having established the credentials and the status of group travel, we found that the magazine itself began to be copied by other publishing companies! – some have claimed they were starting something new, but unless they can show they began in 1988 (which none did!), they were just following on from what we had initiated. Not content with launching competitor magazines, they have also copied many of our feature ideas and special sections.

We have countered this imitation (the sincerest form of flattery!) by continually innovating in what we do, so by the time others have caught up with us we have moved on. For example, our skills in developing the group travel market were spotted by regional destination management organisation, Tourism South East, and so we became partners with them in developing the travel trade show Excursions. We began to be taken a little for granted in that regard, so we now have our own innovative GO Travel Show, ably led by Darryl Murdoch.

I quite quickly thought that GTOs deserved an independent voice outside of the magazine, so I founded the Group Travel Organisers Association in 1991, recruited the first committee and the Chair, the excellent and very dedicated Margaret Davies. We also established the first Group Travel Awards to specifically reward excellence in this sector of the industry in 1997.

How has publishing changed?

Firstly, the actual production process is radically different! In 1988 prepress production was very expensive and the use of colour particularly so, and so we restricted it to a few pages and the number and quality of pictures was also limited as digital cameras and storage of images had not arrived. The advent of computer and digital technology (like the Apple Mac and the Internet) has made it incredibly easy to access information and create impressive designs, while image resource and manipulation means we can do so much more to make each issue rich and interesting.

The type of complex multi-layered cover on this and the last issue would just not have been possible back in 1988. Print is not the only medium now and we are taking our material and using it in other complementary forms online, such as our GTO Community website, Readers’ Passport Club and Discover Animals website, and in our new email newsletter – The Grapevine, which I’m delighted has been so well received. We will continue to add other online products covering particular topics that will appeal to and engage new audiences beyond the magazine itself.

What would you have least expected 30 years ago?

  • That you would be able to go up 68 floors at six metres per second in a 306 metre tower right beside London Bridge station for an incredible view, and then be offered a Virtual Reality helter-skelter ride around its outside; or that a tourism attraction could be made out of real preserved human bodies as has just opened at Body Worlds in Piccadilly.
  • That you could enjoy an ocean cruise on-board a ship sleeping 6,680 passengers with entertainment including state of the art performance theatres, zip lines and an ice rink; or that at the other extreme it would also be possible to sail through Polar ice on an expedition vessel sleeping just 54 people.
  • That the winter and summer seasons could be so reinvented! When we began, Christmas was virtually a ‘dead’ season with only a few ‘turkey and tinsel’ breaks or flights to the sun on offer. Now there’s a host of imaginative light-up trails and colourful Christmas Markets to attend all over the UK. Major summer garden events were very few too, and really only one big show: Chelsea (Hampton Court Flower Show began in 1990). Now there are numerous flower shows, incredible year round speciality gardens and festivals from food and vintage revivals to jousting tournaments to enjoy every summer!

Has your offer to the group travel sector evolved?

You could say our main intention has not actually changed, as the idea has always been to connect group buyers with group suppliers, and to provide buyers with help and information. But the way we do this has most definitely changed, as we have initiated different ways of connecting, and each method has itself also evolved over time.

I’ve never felt that we should be purely defined as a ‘publisher’. We have a particular skill in presenting information and reaching out to people, but as an active part of the wider travel and tourism system we have been able to broaden what we do.

Today, we network and interact with both suppliers and buyers through the magazine, online and through our own travel trade shows – the GO Travel Show, the regional South West Group Travel Show and our Northern Travel Shows – through the GTBF, and its programme of seminars and events, by engaging face-to-face with readers as they sample new experiences and destinations through our programme of familiarisation visits and promotional partnerships.

The impetus behind the way these aspects have evolved – as with the actual publishing process – has been technology. This has changed the way people find out information, how they make their purchases and the ways they want to spend their leisure time. What to do, and how to do it, has changed massively for individuals and equally so for groups. There really is no such thing as an ‘average group’, or an ‘average group product’ any more! In the early days the things groups did were much more limited and predictable.

The products that we can share with buyers are now incredibly varied. And so is what we can offer to suppliers – there’s the traditional advert and editorial for print and online use, there are our shows, as well as events and other opportunities for sponsorship partnerships such as at our awards or by hosting a readers’ event. We are now also offering a new advisory and consultancy service, which sees us sharing our knowledge and insights into the group market with suppliers, attractions and destinations to support them designing their products and putting them into the group travel distribution chain.

What has been significant in influencing the evolution of group travel?

It is difficult to know where the boundaries between everyday life and travel and tourism lie nowadays. ‘Tourism’ and ‘leisure’ have changed so much over the years. It could be (quite traditionally) shopping, visiting a historic house and/or a garden, or more adventurously learning language or cookery skills in a foreign country or perhaps understanding the art of medieval jousting! The definitions are increasingly blurred, and what was once a single activity such as a trip to the theatre or to watch a sporting event, is now regularly extended with eating and drinking and behind the scenes or enhanced visits.

The ‘interconnectivity’ of everything and the pressures on peoples’ time with competing activities such as multi channel TV, films, browsing the internet, or enjoying live music have influenced the evolution of group travel, but it is still a great way to enjoy things!

It can also be difficult to pin down who in a group makes the decision about travel these days. It might be one person for holidays, another for theatre visits and yet another for day trips. There is also far more shared responsibility within groups, decisions are often made by several people and in dynamic ways and this fluidity means that it is pretty impossible to construct a ‘data base’ containing all GTOs!

What has also become significant is the need to have a constant dialogue with both readers and our commercial partners – whether advertisers in the magazine or online, or exhibitors at shows, to understand their needs and objectives and how we can support them. It is clear that not all want the same solution and we have to respond in creative ways. The trick in responding to the dynamic state of the sector must be by reaching out in multiple ways with the most message and delivery for each product.

This article was originally published in issue 284 (November / December 2018) of GTO magazine.