Mark Williamson

In the first of a new series of interviews with the Excellence Award 2017 finalists, Mark Williamson from Visit Newark talks about his reaction to being shortlisted and the joys of working in the group travel industry.

Mark Williamson profile

Role: Operations Manager
Where: The National Civil War Centre, Palace Theatre and Newark Visitor Information Centre
Main duties: Organising group visits to Newark from start to end, and putting everything in a package for GTOs, plus promoting Newark as a prime tourist destination.

Q. Mark, you were a finalist for this year’s Excellence Award at the Group Leisure & Travel Awards 2017. What was your reaction on finding out you’d made the shortlist?

A. I was absolutely over the moon. To be nominated for such a prestigious award in the industry was just wonderful, especially upon seeing who I was up against. Glen Thomas, who won it, works for G Adventures and I had one of the best holidays ever with them, so it was great to be put in the same category! Being nominated came as a massive surprise.

Q. Why do you think you were nominated?

A. We’ve all worked incredibly hard over the last couple of years to really put Newark on the map. It’s such a beautiful place but no one has ever really gone and shouted about it anywhere, so what we did was focus on what people were looking for in the group travel market. They wanted bespoke packages, unique experiences, and somewhere different to visit – and I thought, we can do that!

I created a way of being able to book a group’s entire visit to Newark, from free coach parking to drop off in the centre, to visits to the castle and museum, plus teas and scones when you arrive, all in one lovely invoice and booking form. And people seem to be liking it! So I suppose that’s why I was nominated.

Q. What was the reaction like from your colleagues, friends and family on being a finalist?

A. Very positive! I’m not saying they’d never have expected me to have been nominated but yes, it’s been really great. It’s great for Newark as well, almost a vote of confidence in Newark and what we’re offering here, and it justifies it all.

Newark Castle

Pictured: Newark Castle. (Photo credit: VisitEngland and Experience Nottinghamshire).

Q. Are you passionate about Newark as a destination?

A. Absolutely! I’m from York originally and I feel Newark is almost like a mini York, it has so much to offer, from the castle and the authentic Medieval market square, to the beautiful Georgian town houses and the theatre – what’s not to like? There’s so much to enjoy, especially for groups. How we’ve packaged it means groups can spend a whole day here or a few days in the area. It’s a very accessible town, too, and its great attractions are all in the centre. So you can drop off in the centre, send the coach off to park for free, and then we can take care of everyone for the rest of the day.

Q. How do you think group travel organisers would describe you, having worked with you?

A. I would say flexible and easily approachable. People come to me and say “hello, I’d like to bring a group to Newark”. I can give them the options, and then go away and make a great day for them. We work to make sure the groups are almost ‘carouseled’ around the town and looked after by our volunteer guides.

Q. Have you any advice to others working in the industry on how to be the best when it comes to working with group travel organisers?

A. I would say it’s flexibility. Groups don’t want to come here and meet a wall of immovability. They want a range of options, not to hear “no, sorry, we can’t do that, we haven’t done that for 20 years”. We want to do things for people and make their plans happen.

Q. What are your thoughts on the Group Leisure & Travel Awards?

A. It’s such a positive event. To actually go to the Awards and see it all in front of you is really wonderful. It’s very encouraging too, to see that small companies can be recognised alongside all the big companies. This year there were such huge organisations there, and it just shows that no matter what size the business, you can shine out in the industry too.

Mark at the Group Leisure & Travel Awards

Pictured: Mark at the Group Leisure & Travel Awards.

Q. How did you find the night itself?

A. The evening was amazing, it was one of the best evening events I’ve ever been to. It was so well put together, the magician Ben Hanlin was phenomenal and it was wonderful to meet so many more people in the industry.

Q. What have been the biggest challenges you’ve faced as operations manager? 

A. I think generally, just getting Newark recognised. It’s been that place that people have often driven past on their way to Lincoln or York, so the challenge has been shouting about it enough. Exhibitions like the Group Leisure & Travel Show have really helped us. Being able to meet GTOs face to face and to show them our wonderful products has made such a difference in our group sales.

Since the GLTS in 2016, for example, we’ve had a major increase in commercial group bookings, and plenty of return customers. Over the next two years I’ve got a group coming three times, with 130 people each time. Bookings like these are a major vote of confidence in what we’re doing.

Q. What would you be doing if you weren’t working here?

A. I love history and group travel and sales, and my job actually allows me to do all of that – so I’m quite happy where I am! Newark is a town that has the content and the miles left in it to make an impact. I’m not going anywhere any time soon!

Q. And would you recommend others to work in the group travel sector? If so, why.

A. In the words of Harold Burke [the 2017 winner of the award for Outstanding Contribution to Group Travel]: “We are so fortunate that we get to work in an industry where we make people happy and look after them.” He was right when he said we’re not here to make people’s lives hard, but to help them.
At the end of the day, when a GTO tells you they’ve had a wonderful time, it really makes it perfect. We get to work in beautiful places too, and it is fantastic to help people engage with those locations – what more could you want?