Laura Sexton speaks to Margaret Nicholls about how her experiences as a teacher inspired her to become a GTO, travelling all over the world with her group.
Margaret, tell us how it all began?
I’ve been organising for the U3A since 2007, but prior to that, when I was teaching, I organised a lot of school travel abroad. We went to a number of places including Switzerland, Germany and the Black Forest, and Austria.
When I retired I began attending U3A meetings. After a while, I started a history group; we began with only eight members meeting in a house and it grew to 160. I was doing it on my own, organising everything from day trips and longer stays as well as writing reports and arranging speakers. When it became too big, we formed a committee. So, the tasks are now divided among us - I tend to organise the longer trips.
What can you tell us about your group members?
They have to be over 55 to join and it’s a mix of semi-retired and retired people; the oldest member we have, who comes every time, is 91 - she’s amazing! She’s been in the group a long time and U3A has been really good for her, especially after losing her husband. In fact, a lot of our members are widows and widowers, so it’s nice for them to have the company.
You recently visited County Durham with your group, what did you do there?
Well, we visited Brodsworth Hall on the way, an English Heritage Victorian property, which was beautiful. We also visited Durham Cathedral and had a guided tour before taking a trip on the river.
Before going to see Kynren in Bishop Aukland, some of the group went to the Bowes Museum because we’d read about its Fashion exhibition in Group Leisure & Travel magazine, and it was outstanding. Meanwhile, some of the group went to Barnard Castle, another English Heritage property. We also visited Mount Grace Priory on the way back and the gardens have been restored, so it’s well worth a visit.
You mentioned you’d seen Kynren, what was it like?
When we got back on the coach, everyone was speechless. My members said words could not describe it. It’s absolutely incredible; it’s something that everybody should go and see. All GTOs should arrange for their group to go there.
Where else have you been this year and what do you have lined up?
I’ve taken a group to Torquay and on a Scottish Islands cruise with Cruise & Maritime Voyages (who are excellent for groups, with less single supplements than some).
In September we’re going to Llangollen Railway and Aqueduct. In October I’m taking a group of 47 to Eastbourne for five days and in November we’re going to the craft show at the NEC.
Our plans for next year include a long-haul land tour of Vietnam and Cambodia, a study tour to Norfolk, and I’m organising a European river cruise.
What challenges do you face as a GTO?
The biggest challenge is finding single rooms; some supplements are ridiculous. As we get older we’re going to have more single people wanting rooms and travel firms must accommodate us.
The other challenge is with hotels who try to insist on us having set meals when we are paying good money for our stay.
Have you received any stand-out service from an individual?
We booked our County Durham trip with Just For Groups! and I dealt with the group sales development manager, Pamela Edwards, who I’ve known for a while. She is excellent; you need someone like that who you can trust and who will be working with you, for the benefit of the group.
What advice would you give fellow group organisers?
Research what you want to do thoroughly so nothing takes you by surprise. And look after the people with mobility or other health problems because they often feel left out and if you take care of them you’ll earn the respect of everyone else.
If you could go anywhere with your group in the world where would you go?
We’ve been all around the world twice now so it’s hard to choose, but perhaps Australia, because of the vastness of the place and the friendliness of the people – there’s so much to see and do there. New Zealand too because it’s like England about 30 years ago! It has a much slower pace of life.
Margaret Nicholls at a glance…
Group Name: Wyre Forest and District U3A History Group
Based in: Worcestershire