‘We only want one room!’ Will your summer holiday experiences create the right memories?

0 family of 5

As the UK basks in glorious sunshine, many of us have already got into the summer holiday spirit. With the school holidays here or about to commence, suntan lotion is being stocked up, new bikinis and swimming costumes being purchased, and plenty of reading material is being downloaded onto Kindles.

Whilst it is impossible to predict the weather for a British summer, it is possible to predict that families from all over the UK will be embarking on their summer holidays in the next few weeks. Some will choose to stay at home (something we have done before very successfully). Some will choose to holiday within the British Isles (and with weather like this, who can blame them). Others will take the more adventurous route and board planes, trains and boats to different parts of the world. It is all very exciting – especially if you are a little person.

If you think back to your holidays as a child, there are likely to be a lot of very happy memories. Like all great experiences, it is the best ones that you remember, and holidays rank right up there amongst the most memorable of all experiences we have. I will never forget the time I was lucky enough to be taken to Disneyland in California. I remember boarding the bus to go back to the car at 2am – it was the first time I had ever stayed up so late – I remember it so vividly. It was an amazing experience.

Holidays should be great experiences – not just for the children, but for everyone – from the youngest to the oldest. The holiday experience should be a great experience from beginning to end – from the minute you start to investigate where to go, to the minute you return home to start doing the washing!! Ok – it will never be a great experience once you get to the washing part, but there are some ‘moments of truth’ in every customer journey that cannot be avoided (unless you can afford to have a maid that is!!). In reality, holidays are not always great ‘end to end’, and that is the reason for writing this blog post.

We have all had experiences of accommodation that was ‘not quite what we expected’. I’ll never forget the ‘luxury’ cottage B&B in the UK that ended up being a ‘hell hole’. When we entered the room, all we could hear was buzzing. The room was full of flies – we could not even stay the night! We all also have plenty of horror stories of the travelling ‘steps’ of the journey – from being stranded in airports, to uncomfortable flights, to not realising that the low-cost Ryanair flight planted us miles away from the centre of the city!

However, I do not want to focus on the usual ‘holiday nightmares’ – I want to focus on the bit right at the beginning. The bit that is usually done by Mrs Golding (thankfully). The bit that is becoming more and more stressful. Booking your holiday should actually be quite exciting. Dates have been agreed, location decided upon – you can start dreaming of white sandy beaches and wonderful food that makes the pre holiday dieting worthwhile. So choosing the hotel, villa, resort, mode of transport etc.. shouldn’t be too hard….should it?

When I first met my beautiful wife Naomi, it certainly was not difficult. As a couple, we could wait until the very last second to book a holiday. On one occasion, we opted for the ‘find out where you are staying when you get there’ option – it was so easy and fun. Yes it was a lottery, but it added to the mystique. We could travel at any time of the year. When Ciara came along (our eldest daughter), things were a little more tricky, but still not too challenging. We had different requirements, needing our chosen destination to be ‘baby friendly’, but there were plenty of options. Even when Caitie arrived (daughter number two), we were still able to affordably identify suitable holiday options. Most hotels were designed for 2+2 – families with two children. So although travelling with young children was more complicated, a family of four can very easily find somewhere to stay.

0 2+2= 5

Then little Jack came along. Our only son, like our two daughters, was an amazing addition to our family. Funny, witty, with a smile that can turn even the grumpiest Dad to mush, Jack does not realise what trouble he has caused. Jack turned our family from 2+2 to 2+3. Jack has made booking a holiday a complete nightmare. For the last six years, we (I say we, but I mean mostly Naomi) have increasingly struggled to find accommodation that will accept our little clan in one room. I have at times observed Naomi tearing her hair out!

Unless you have three children or more, it might be difficult to understand, but why oh why is it such a challenge for the tourism industry to accommodate families of 5 or more ‘economically? All the way back in 2001, the Guardian published an article about the rise of families with three children (http://www.guardian.co.uk/lifeandstyle/2001/apr/04/familyandrelationships.features102). The author, Sarah Ebner, reported that even though the average birth rate was falling, and the number of lone parents increasing, more of the children being born at the time were the third in their family. Families with three or more children are not a new concept.

Fast forward to 2013, and the picture is different. In March the Telegraph produced a similar article to Sarah Ebner’s – the difference is that this one was entitled ‘the rise of the one-child families’ (http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/9954280/Rise-of-the-one-child-families.html). The change is summed up as follows:

One-child families have increased by 5 per cent over the last 16 years to 47 per cent, while families with three or more children fell by 3 per cent to 14 per cent, the Office for National Statistics (ONS) survey of 100,000 families found.

Whilst one child families are increasing, there are still 14% of families in the UK who have three or more children. The European average is 11%, whilst the Netherlands have the greatest percentage at 19%. That is a lot of families who need accommodation that is not 2+2! So why is it so difficult to find a holiday to accommodate the millions of families who fit into the ‘large family bracket’?

I do understand that there are options. We could go camping. It is completely up to us how many people we want to fit in a tent! We could rent a villa – something we often do – and mainly because it is the easiest way to find accommodation for a family of five. But there are times when we want more than a tent in a field, or a villa can provide. Sometimes we want a holiday where someone else makes the beds and cleans the bathroom. Where someone else cooks the meals and provides the entertainment. A holiday where everyone gets a rest – not just the kids. We want these simple luxuries to be affordable. That is why it irritates me so much when hotels will only accommodate us in two separate rooms!

This is now going to sound like a rant – I suppose it is, but when you are faced with having to pay inflated summer holiday prices, you do not want to have to pay double!! I do not understand why it is possible for smaller establishments (such as B&Bs) to accommodate as many people as they want in a room, when hotels militantly demand that no more than four people can stay in one room. An old colleague suggested to me that it is clearly a health and safety issue……I am not sure I agree. No one has ever made it clear as to why hotels do not allow more than four people to stay in one room.

At a time when families are struggling with less disposable income, we need/demand easier, more affordable experiences. Is it not enough that there is nothing to stop hotels and travel operators from charging families more during the summer holidays? Not only do I not want to have to pay for two rooms, I do not want to be split up from half of the family every night either. Why do we want to go on holiday to spend the holiday in separate places?!

Families with three or more children face this battle on an annual basis. They have been for many years. I found this interesting conversation in a forum on Martin Lewis’s website (http://forums.moneysavingexpert.com/showthread.php?t=993159&page=1) – it is a fascinating insight that helps contextualise the problem. If only hotel owners could put their customers first and think about the challenge from our perspective. If only they could consider larger families when designing new hotels. Wouldn’t it be cool if hotels were designed as flexible spaces – where rooms could have moveable walls that could be made bigger or smaller depending on the guests requirements. Now that would be something.

The holiday experience should be memorable for the right reasons. So if you are reading this on your tablet whilst sipping a Pina Colada on a sunbed in Barbados, just spare a thought for the mum or dad who is still trying to find suitable affordable accommodation (that is not a tent) for their family this summer!

By the way, if you do not the ‘official’ reason why hotels will not allow more than four people in one room, I would love to know what it is!!

‘What a brilliant day!’ How communities can help revive Britain’s High Streets

This is the historic city of Chester in North West England. With Roman remains a plenty, including the largest uncovered amphitheatre in Britain, the beautiful River Dee, and the world-famous ‘rows’ (two rows of shops – one on the top of the other) along the four main streets in the city, Chester has a huge amount going for it. Chester also boasts one of the best Zoos in the world, the oldest racecourse in the UK, has a modern business park populated with big names from the financial services industry, and is just down the road from the enormous Airbus factory in Broughton, North Wales. I have not even mentioned the wonderful Cheshire countryside, or the proximity of Chester to both Liverpool and Manchester. All of this is just over two hours on the train from London.

Chester attracts hundreds of thousands of tourists every year – both from inside the UK and from all four corners of the globe. With so much history to enjoy, it is not surprising. Chester also has a rapidly growing University, with thousands of students coming and going throughout the year.

Sounds good doesn’t it? It certainly did to me eight years ago when Naomi and I decided to relocate our family from London. One of the things that had always struck me with the Chester was the vibrancy of the city centre. You can sort of understand why – Chester is a very busy place. The shopping was absolutely renowned as being amongst the best outside of London. People would come from Liverpool, Manchester and even further afield to visit big brand names sitting alongside the dozens of small independent retail specialists nestled along the rows. 8 years after re-locating though, the centre of Chester feels very different.

0 chester forum sc

This is the Forum Shopping Centre – slap bang in the middle of Chester. It is directly opposite Chester Cathedral, and less than sixty seconds walk to ‘the rows’. Bearing in mind the picture I have just painted of Chester, you would expect a shopping centre like this to be bustling with locals, students and tourists on a lovely warm, sunny day. This picture was taken at 12pm yesterday – Sunday 7th July. It is almost completely deserted. Like many of the cities in Britain, Chester has been devastated by economic instability since 2008. The majority of the shops in the Forum shopping centre (which also houses the Chester Market) have closed down. Only a couple remain. Spiralling business rates have forced both chains and independent retailers out of business, as has the effect of large ‘out of town’ superstores. A brand new Marks & Spencer store has opened near to Cheshire Oaks, a big outlet village only five miles from the centre of the city in Ellesmere Port. The centre of Chester still contains two, more traditional Marks and Spencer stores. It can only be a matter of time before one, or maybe both of them close down as well.

It is so sad to see the centre of such a beautiful and historic city ebbing away. This story can be repeated for many cities around the country – regrettably this is now a more common story than not. However this blog post is not intended to focus on the negative. Whilst retail experts, politicians and other interested parties lobby government to address the issue of business rates, it is time for the great British public to start taking matters in to their own hands. Whilst it is very difficult to control the behaviour of governments and landlords, it is within our control to keep our cities living and breathing – and most importantly creating great EXPERIENCES that encourage visitors and tourists to keep coming.

The scene at the Northgate Quarter Choir Festival
The scene at the Northgate Quarter Choir Festival

Yesterday afternoon, just a few yards from the entrance to the desolate Forum Shopping Centre, just such an EXPERIENCE was being created. From 12pm to 6pm, anyone lucky enough to be in the Northgate Quarter in Chester was treated to a festival of choirs. As the sun blazed down, hundreds of people were treated to the amazing voices of a dozen choirs on three different stages. Spearheaded by Chester’s very own musical supremo, Matt Baker, it was quite frankly the most amazing way to spend a Sunday afternoon. It was an experience that anyone who was there will be recounting again today. As visitors delighted in the ‘free’ concert, restaurants and bars were full to the brim. The shops and market stalls that were open were doing a roaring trade. In a beer garden where another stage was located, it was difficult to find space to sit.

The Chester Mystery Play Chorus at the Northgate Quarter Choir Festival
The Chester Mystery Play Chorus at the Northgate Quarter Choir Festival

All of this was going on despite the fact that many people were glued to their televisions to see if Andy Murray could end Britain’s 77 year wait for a men’s champion!! Chester proved yesterday that it is possible to bring vibrancy back to Britain’s high streets. Chester proved that if local communities and local councils are prepared to work together, it does not cost a lot of money to bring people in to EXPERIENCE your town or city. What is required is a huge amount of time and commitment. Matt Baker is a great example of this – Matt and his colleagues gave up their time for nothing yesterday. For him, and many of the people performing, yesterday was his only day off from a gruelling schedule. Yet Matt understands that what happened yesterday was important. It was important for the community to stage an event that would make Chester proud. To stage an event that would bring people out in to the city centre. Matt and the other organisers of the event yesterday deserve a big round of applause.

Culture and entertainment is a critical component of a successful high street. If embraced, it can ensure a steady flow of visitors who will all need feeding and watering. Many of those visitors will need a bed for the night, and might partake in a little light shopping the next day. At the moment, Chester is lucky to be enjoying a run of the Chester Mystery Plays – a five yearly spectacle that celebrates stories from the old and new testaments. The plays are being shown in the nave of the Cathedral – a remarkable setting. Thousands of visitors are coming from all over the world to see them – it is great for Chester, and great for Chester’s economy.

Last week I visited Stockport. Another town in the North West that has not escaped significant economic decline. The state of their high street is even more extreme than Chester. However Stockport also has enormous potential. I was in Stockport to see Ciara, my eldest daughter appear in the choir alongside H from Steps (remember him?) in a production of Joseph. The production was being held at the Stockport Plaza – an amazing art deco theatre – if only Chester had a theatre like this!!

The benefit that this theatre will bring to Stockport is huge – it will be a draw to thousands of visitors well in to the future. Again, every visitor will have money to spend – and that is another reason why theatres like this need to be supported by a suitable high street – and vice versa.

Please do not misunderstand me. I do not think that a festival of choirs, or an art deco theatre alone will save Britain’s high streets. I completely understand that it will take a little bit more than a few volunteers giving up their time to bring back national and independent retailers. What these volunteers did demonstrate though is what a positive effect the local community can have on bringing people into the centre of their towns and cities. If more people like the Matt Bakers of this world are prepared to do things like the choir festival, then more and more of us will join in. The more wonderful events that are staged every week, the more great experiences we will have. It is these great experiences that will keep us coming back, and that will lead us to telling friends and family to come to.

If this community effort AND common sense at a political level can come together, our high streets will start to go in the right direction. If retailers are supported by councils, government and landlords, our high streets will have a very bright future.

What fantastic events have you attended in your local high street? Where are communities working together to bring people back to the high street – I would love to hear your stories.