GTO Frances Walker

Group Leisure talks to Frances Walker about her first two years as a GTO and the lessons she’s learned.

Frances Walker organises trips for the 100 members of Unison Retired Members Club in Preston.

Tell me a bit about your group.

All our members are retired health service workers who were members of Unison (a British Trade Union) during their working lives.

On retirement life membership of the Retired Members’ Section is obtained by paying a one-off fee of £15, but if the member has been in Unison for more than 20 years then our parent branch The Central Lancashire Health Branch pay the fee.

Friends of Life Members can also join by becoming Associate Members and pay a £3 yearly subscription. We have a monthly meeting; sometimes we’ll have a guest speaker, other times it’ll be a bit more of a social with a meal. I organise trips as well as any events, for example, Christmas dinner.

How did you become the GTO?

It’s funny really; the lady who previously organised for the group retired, and a friend of mine offered to take over. However, around the same time, the chairman of the Retired Members Section stepped down, so my friend put herself forward for that role instead – and I offered to become the group organiser. I suppose I sort of stumbled into it by accident.

What sort of places have you and your group been to so far?

We have been to Blackpool for a tea dance, Well Dressing in Bakewell, and Liverpool where we went on the Mersey Ferry.

I've also organised outings to Saltaire Village and Haworth, the Anderton Boat Lift and canal cruise, a tour of BBC Media City, and we have also had a trip to Muncaster Castle and the Ravenglass Railway where the weather was amazing!

Touch wood we’ve never experienced any bad weather; it’s always been superb, and it makes such a difference when you’re visiting new places.

Sometimes we use Great Days Out for a trip; they send a guide, and it’s nice to have an expert on a trip. Other places we’ve visited have included Derbyshire, Alexandra Palace and Iron Bridge.

You’re a relatively new group travel organiser; how are you finding it?

When you’re starting something for the first time, there are lots of things you haven’t experienced before. 2014 was my first year and I made a few mistakes – mainly with pricing, like forgetting to include a driver’s tip, or not making any money from a trip.

It’s nice to make a little bit of profit because then I can go the extra mile at other times like Christmas, when I can take that surplus money and use it for something like wine or other nice bits for the group.

How do you choose what trips to go on?

Familiarisation trips and travel exhibitions are very helpful, and it’s wonderful to meet people face to face to organise days out and get inspiration for group trips.

I went to the Group Leisure Reader Club trip to Leicestershire and found myself sat next to some people at dinner who were coach organisers. I’m going to meet up with them in the future to find out a little bit more about them and how they can help Unison Retired Members with travel plans for potential trip ideas.

My group includes people who can’t walk very far, so that plays a big part in choosing where to go as well. I have to choose places with plenty of options so everyone enjoys the experience.

Has anything ever gone wrong on a trip?

The first trip I ever organised went slightly wrong in that the coach drove off from one of the pick-up points and left someone behind who had gone to the toilet.

While it all worked out alright in the end, I often find I don’t get quite as much sleep as I should the night before a trip – I’m quite paranoid now! I always double check that everyone is on the bus so we don’t leave anyone behind again.

What has past experience taught you about organising?

Pricing is one of the things I wasn’t so good at in the beginning, but now I give people receipts and keep on top of trip finances so I don’t make a loss.

I do an account after each trip, and note how much we collected. I considered charging our members per month to cover all the trips each year, but actually, I can’t just assume that everyone will want to come on every single one.

I like to offer everyone several options when I’m sorting out future trips, for example, a railway, or a canal trip, or a historic building; that way everyone gets to vote for where we’ll go.

Do you find anything difficult about being a GTO?

I’ve found it challenging that some people want to pay you on the day, which is awkward. I have to do so many things, like make sure everyone’s on the coach, and that the coach driver knows where he’s going. I like to be organised before we set off. 

There is also a limit as to how much of my personal life I want to be involved in organising. It’s quite hard to balance that; I have to weigh up what I do at home and what I do within the group to keep it in equal parts.

If you had any advice for other new organisers, what would it be?

Do the best you can, have a laugh, enjoy it, and expect that there will be things that go wrong! Joining the GTOA is also a good idea, as you get a variety of benefits when you join – such as included National Trust membership – so you’ll be able to save some money.

Do you enjoy being an organiser?

Yes, and I think I am a very prepared one. I also try to be as honest as I can. I’ve experienced an organiser before me being quite unpleasant when a coach was running late and trying to shift the blame on to someone else. If I ever make a mistake, I’ll just say so. I just want everyone to have a good time.