The merriments of Manchester

Venue: Manchester
Date: 03 Dec 2011

Group Leisure received a warm northern welcome during the last Reader Club trip of 2011 in Manchester. Melissa Cadby reports.

Wrapped up warm to brace the elements on a blustery Saturday in December, I was looking forward to the Christmas-themed Reader Club familiarisation trip to Manchester. Though I’d visited the industrial city before, I was keen to see how the Mancunians were gearing up for the festive season.

Meeting with Visit Manchester representatives and a group of 20 organisers at the Customer Service Desk of The Trafford Centre, I was relieved to hear that those driving had parked their cars with ease. Previously I’d questioned the logistics of finding an available space at one of the country’s most popular shopping centres on a Saturday three weeks before Christmas, but my concerns were soon quashed. That might have something to do with the 11,500 plus free car parking places located right outside.

The first item on our itinerary was a presentation accompanied by refreshments at The Trafford Centre’s management suite, with director of operations Gordon McKinnon. The suite’s walls were lined with Group Leisure awards and certificates, reminding us that in the past it has been a finalist and winner of the Best Shopping Venue category, and for good reason.

“The day was really well organised - very useful in showing us around The Trafford Centre, which changes all the time. Interesting to have a look at Salford Quays and the Imperial War Museum, and of course one of the things we’d not considered before was a trip to the Christmas markets. I’m sure our groups will enjoy it in the future.”

Don Hayes, Rainford Horticultural Society and St Mark’s Church Group

The presentation made for a great introduction before our tour, as Gordon spoke passionately about the history and future plans of the complex, which currently boasts 200 shops, 60 food and drink outlets, a cinema, and the LEGOLAND Discovery Centre, with hotels, the Chill Factore, and Airkix located a short walk away. Visiting groups can benefit from free coach parking, a meet-and-greet service, discount vouchers and a free meal and cinema voucher for the driver. Welcoming 3,500 organised coach parties each year, GTOs often book up to a year in advance.

Next we ventured out into the bustling shopping centre, lavishly dressed for the festive season. Our tour was led by a meet-and-greet official, smartly dressed in top hat and red tails. In fact all of the Trafford Centre staff dress in red coats, which makes them easily distinguishable to shoppers looking for assistance.

Though large, the shops are simple to navigate, and easily accessible with elevators and escalators. The great selection stores and its ornate architecture, featuring marble, granite, murals, statues and water features, makes The Trafford Centre a winner.

Although disappointed I couldn’t stay and indulge in some retail therapy, I was eager to see what the afternoon’s itinerary would bring. We took a coach transfer across the industrial landscape, via the Manchester United football ground, to Salford Quays, which itself has seen lots of recent development. After a two-course Italian lunch at Pizza Express, we crossed over the Lowry Bridge to the Imperial War Museum North.

During a brief introduction, we learned that the building’s unusual design was based on the globe shattered in to pieces by conflict, and that the museum is based around how people’s lives are shaped by war. Though we had free time to explore the permanent displays and temporary exhibits, we were recommended to view the Big Picture Show, so a majority of organisers and I made our way to this particular gallery.

Taking place on the hour, every hour, the Big Picture Show is a 360 degree film, projected on to the walls amongst the tanks, uniforms and other paraphernalia on display. Based on personal accounts, I found the imagery moving and the music powerful - well worth viewing on a visit to IMW North.

“The Trafford Centre is gorgeous, it was dead interesting to find out about its history, such as the marble flooring and where it came from. I have to say that the rain at the Christmas market was a bit off-putting, but the hot cider soon warmed me up.”

Karlene Lewis, Bootle RCSL

Whilst some GTOs then opted for a warming cup of tea in the onsite cafe or a browse around the shop, I headed for the Air Shard Viewing Platform. Standing at 29 metres high, it offered spectacular views of the Manchester skyline.

Upcoming exhibitions include Once Upon a Wartime: Classic War Stories for Children from February until September, and the Imperial War Museum North offers a host of incentives for groups. Free admission, complimentary pre-booked coach parking, and a ten-minute meet-and-greet on arrival are just some of the offers available. To extend a trip to the Salford Quays area, consider visiting the nearby Lowry entertainment centre, the Lowry Outlet Mall, or a boat cruise with Mersey Ferries.

As dusk crept in for the evening, we headed back to our coach for the short transfer to Manchester city centre. Early evening was a great time of day to visit the Christmas markets, as the skies were lit up with twinkling lights, and festive cheer was in the air. We were dropped off at Exchange Square under the Wheel of Manchester, though the markets were situated across nine central locations, all within walking distance. With different themed areas, such as German, French, crafts and gifts, there seemed to be something to cater for all group interests.

We split up into smaller parties to navigate the friendly crowds, and had some free time to explore the annual markets. The quaint wooden chalets sold everything from delicious-smelling homemade delicacies to handmade toys, games, jewellery, art and more. Many on the trip managed to snap up some bargain stocking fillers whilst soaking up the yuletide atmosphere. Even the spirits of the local brass bands were not dampened by the rain, as they competed to outdo each other in the carol stakes.

“I think it was a brilliant day, very well organised by Marketing Manchester and Group Leisure. My favourite part was the Christmas markets.”

Hans-Dieter Wilke, Anglo-German Association

Last stop on the agenda was a hot bite to eat and some welcomed shelter, before we each headed home in different directions across the country. Hog roast with stuffing was order of the day for us, accompanied by a piping mug of cider, though the markets boasted hundreds of different catering options to choose from.

Our festive tour of Manchester gave organisers just a taste of what the city can offer, and allowed plenty of time for organisers to forward plan a trip for Christmas 2012. Having said that, the general consensus was that visitors will enjoy a day trip or short break spent in the city year-round, as after all, a group is for life, and not just for Christmas.

Useful contact:

Visit Manchester:
0161-238 4517

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