Paul Bennett, the Founder and Managing Director of Grand UK Holidays
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Paul won the Exceptional Achievement Award at the first Silver Travel Awards in 2015. Jennie Carr found out more about the man behind this successful company.
I know there is a lovely family story behind the founding of Grand UK Holidays, would you share it?
I had just graduated with a Law degree and decided to take a breather for a year before starting out as a Solicitor. I wanted to do some travelling before the world disappeared behind an office door but needed to save up some money to make it happen. I’d heard that a holiday company in Folkestone was looking to take on graduates and a month later I had been offered a job at Saga Holidays as their PR Executive. I spent the following year travelling the world with some amazing people and, incredibly, getting paid at the same time. Result! I was close to my paternal grandparents and as an early teenager remember feeling sad that they had never had the opportunity to travel. My granny always had holiday brochures on the coffee table and would spend hours talking about far flung destinations like a seasoned traveller. But the truth is that they had never stepped foot outside Suffolk. They just didn’t have the confidence and no-one to give them the reassurance they needed. If only my grandparents had known about an organisation like Saga. Alas it was too late for them, both had sadly passed away by now, but what a wonderful difference it would have made to their lives. So, inspired by the possibilities, and buoyed the recklessness of youth, I decided to set up my own travel company. Grand UK Holidays – exclusively for the over 55s – was born in May 1983 with the princely sum of £500. There was no turning back, and absolutely no doubts, then or since. Reaching out to people like my grandparents remains the biggest motivation and the reason the company continues to thrive, and I hope they would be very proud.
And if your grandparents were alive today, where do you think they’d be visiting?
My grandmother had a picture of a Spanish orange grove on her sitting room wall, and it fascinated her. So I suspect a trip to Valencia and the ‘orange blossom coast’ would have been high up the list. She loved the sunshine and the sea – but had never sailed on it – so I can see her laid out on the decks of a cruise ship dreaming of the next port of call. My grandfather would have loved Scotland and the Lake District. He often bemoaned the ‘flat’ Suffolk countryside – although he never let it out of his sight – and would have been amazed by the sheer beauty of Scotland’s West Coast (particularly in the spring when the roads are lined with spectacular Rhododendrons) and the timeless pastoral landscapes of England’s Lakeland.
What do you feel that Grand UK Holidays uniquely offers the mature traveller?
Grand UK Holidays are exclusively for mature travellers and everything we do is driven by that. We were the first to introduce a strict no supplement policy for single rooms back in 1984 and that is something we continue to this day. It always seemed wrong to me to punish single people by charging extra - and many operators have followed our example over subsequent years. We were also the first to introduce a complete luggage handling service on our mainland UK coach holiday programme, we offer a network of over 350 free local joining points, and we offer the added benefit of a Tour Manager escort on most of our tours. That adds up to a pretty unique and unequalled offer in our opinion.
Your Tour Managers are a really important part of the holiday: how do you pick them, what special qualities do they need to have?
Tour Managers are an integral part of the Grand UK holiday experience, and we have such an amazingly talented team of people. The first TM I took on in 1984 stayed with us for 23 years, and more than twenty five have celebrated 20 years’ service with us. Our TMs come from all sorts of background – we have had civil servants, lawyers, milkmen, retired nurses, aspiring young actors… you name it, we’ve had the pleasure to work with them! Because we lose very few TMs, recruitment is rarely an issue. But as our itineraries become ever more complex, and our range of destinations more diverse, we are always happy to hear from people with particular specialisms. Our Groups division – justforgroups! – works closely with the Royal Naval Association, among many organisations and associations, and so we are always looking for people with an interest in maritime history for example. A successful TM loves life and loves people. They love to share information and sharing their favourite places with strangers. They need to be patient and calm under pressure, selfless, understanding and generous with their time and their emotions. Above all, they have to genuinely enjoy seeing other people enjoying themselves. Special people indeed.
How would you describe the ideal holiday for the over 55s? What are the crucial elements?
We all deserve our leisure time, and time is very precious, so those of us in the holiday business have a huge responsibility to deliver a product that not only matches our customers’ expectations but exceeds them too. There is a huge element of trust involved when a customer books their holiday with an operator and that is something we never lose sight of. The whole point about a holiday is that it must be worry and hassle free – from the time of booking onwards. We want our holidays to be happy and friendly affairs, where you can relax in good company and do as little or as much as you want. Literally thousands of friendships have been formed on our holidays over the years – not to mention many hundreds of romances!
We have seen that the market for single travellers is growing jolly fast, what do you plan to do for this important group?
As already mentioned, we have never charged extra for single rooms, and we were one of the first to introduce ‘specially for singles’ holidays. We now feature singles holidays throughout the year and they continue to grow in popularity. The challenge is trying to persuade hoteliers to offer up twin and double rooms for single occupancy. Thank goodness we have the best Hotel Contracts team in the business! Many single people are single through choice - as opposed to being widowed for example – and we are always trying to find ways to open up spare hotel capacity so that we can offer single accommodation across our regular product range throughout the year.
Some people have said that coach tours are a bit limited and offer a narrow range of options. How would you respond to that statement?
I would totally disagree! The range of holiday opportunities by coach in this country and abroad has never been more varied or tempting. We have more than 150 different itineraries, featuring visits to more than 350 places of interest including ancient monuments, stately homes, galleries, exhibitions, visitor centres, talks and presentations – not to mention evening entertainment options including theatre visits and shows. And coach touring opens up a completely new dimension in exploring the countryside – our itineraries are carefully planned to take in the very best of Britain and Europe, unveiling vistas that would never be discovered by car. And there’s no parking worries when you arrive either!
What are Grand UK’s Holiday plans for the future, any new types of experiences or destinations?
We are always plotting and scheming! Dreaming up new holiday ideas and making them work is what makes tour operating so much fun. We are working on a new self-drive programme at the moment and we would like to develop our successful river cruising programme to feature one or two of the smaller waterways of Europe. We are also working alongside a number of country house hoteliers to offer more bespoke and individual itineraries and dining options, but I can’t tell you too much more about that at the moment!
And finally, would you take a holiday on the moon, if money were no option?
Yes! I was nine years old when Armstrong and Aldrin took their giant leap and it left an indelible mark in my memory. I am in awe of space travellers, and the whole notion that there might be life on other planets. I’m not sure of it being much of a holiday destination though… the Sea of Tranquillity doesn’t look like it has many nice beaches, or any beachfront bars for that matter!
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