Ramblers Worldwide Holidays began life in March 1946 originally as the commercial wing of the Ramblers' Association (now just ‘The Ramblers’), to sell books, establish some guest houses for walkers – and to organise walking tours mainly on the continent but also in the UK.
After several years of warfare and hikes across Europe from skirmish to skirmish, although transport services were still by no means back to normal, things were beginning to open up to be able to discover the great outdoors in a more civilised peacetime manner.
From a cramped room in Buckingham Street in London shared with the formidable ladies of the Married Women’s Association fighting for the rights of housewives and mothers, the founding figure of Ernest Welsman aided by his shorthand typist assistant and ‘field man’ the ‘Overseas Assistant Organiser’ known only as Vincent began planning the first holidays in these early days of package travel abroad.
By 1948, the company had a whole room to itself and had launched its first winter sports programme. A year after founding, 600 clients were travelling on 40 different itineraries and after five years Ramblers' Association Services (RAS), the company’s original name, was carrying 3,000 clients a year. So many groups were crossing Paris between the main stations we had a rep there to assist and hand out sandwiches at the Gare de Lyon.
Most of these early holidays involved a week’s hard walking with a quarter of the departures at grade B or above in the Alps or Arctic Lapland. These holidays would now be at Grade 9 – the closest we’ve offered recently was an Austrian mountain hutting tour at Grade C+/B (now the top end of Grade 8) in the Lechtal Alps and that was back in 2006. We said goodbye for the time being to grade A (now Grade 9) at the turn of the millennium when we stopped encouraging people into glacier crevices to teach them how to get themselves out (anyone remember our Basic Alpine Course in the Oetztal?).
In 1946 ‘A walking tour of Arctic Lapland’ featured at a cost of £46 for 24 days necessitating ‘a readiness to walk strenuously when occasion demands, as it often will’ and clarifying that ‘nailed boots must be worn’. Some holidays in these early days had an upper age limit of 25, others 30. These were the days when rambling was the sharp end of travel and adventure, back when a guidebook, travelogue or website wasn’t around to tell you what was around every corner before you turned it so that you could encounter every experience in advance.
In 1949, the brochure description for a 22 day holiday to Portugal began ‘Be warned! The travelling on this trip may be tough. Third class London to Lisbon overland takes four days … (average progress 15 miles an hour) and requires at least eleven changes. Incredibly slow and unconscionably late, the Spanish trains offer something new in overcrowding and discomfort even to London straphangers. You should be capable of entering trains by the window and of fending for yourself if the party splits up for the journey across Spain. Portugal is the most foreign country in Europe except for the remoter parts of the Balkans.’ The same brochure observed that ‘we do not seek British standards except in sanitary matters; much of the fun of going abroad is lost if you try to take Britain with you.’ So, some perspectives haven’t changed so much in the intervening years.
In 1955 the company set up an air holiday subsidiary ‘Wings’ and the easier walking grades and sightseeing tours migrated to the new product. The early flights were on the twin engined Vickers Viking, a post war civilian passenger aircraft based on the Wellington bomber and carrying up to 38 passengers, flying from either London Airport (before it became what is now LHR) or the now largely forgotten Blackbushe Airport (near Camberley).
Air travel was then exotic enough for our brochures to advertise the inclusion of the services of an air hostess aboard the flight as well as of ‘our resident Wings representative’ for the tour itself. Between 1957 and 1958 the size of the programme had doubled, a fortnight visiting Austria and Switzerland cost 36 guineas and the first regional flights from Manchester appeared.
Within 20 years, following the rapid development of package holidays by air, the RAS walking holiday operation had effectively become a subsidiary of Wings and in 1974 changed its name to the more familiar Ramblers Holidays Ltd.
The company had outgrown its London premises and had bought and moved into a new office block ‘Wings House’ in two acres of grounds in Welwyn Garden City in 1972.
Noel Vincent left Ramblers Holidays in 1973 following a brief period at the helm and went on to set up his own company, Waymark, which operate walking and cross-country ski holidays from 1974 to 2007.
Wings was sold off in 1976 and the company moved into smaller premises in Fretherne Road in the city centre. This was a real turning point; with much of the organisation’s efforts having been directed towards the Wings product, times were tough following the separation for a while; new competitors were appearing on the scene including ‘adventure’ holiday operators, the winter of discontent came and went, bookings fell and continued to fall until 1985.
In 1985 a former British Airways executive Stuart Alderman was brought in as a consultant to examine and see if the company could survive and be turned around. He introduced changes to the way tours were planned and operated, brought in Clive Boucher as financial controller to bring some financial rigour and management accounting to the organisation, and introduced the first computerised reservations and accounting systems. The effect was immediate and the following year Stuart Alderman was appointed Chief Executive. He maintained absolute control over all aspects of the company’s operations until his retirement in 2001 when Kathy Cook and Tony Lock took over as joint general managers (of operations and finance respectively before becoming joint managing directors). They remain in charge of the company today.
In 2005 the company moved from its leased accommodation in Welwyn Garden City town centre to its current location at Lemsford Mill and in 2007 rebranded as Ramblers Worldwide Holidays. There can’t be many tour operators who’ve brought a team over from Germany to install a water wheel to power its computers, have gardeners on the payroll, and include wildlife feed (for our swans) in their overheads.
The company has long co-operated with the Ramblers Association (the RA), later to rebrand in 2009 simply as The Ramblers. Since the early days when we were the RA’s commercial wing, and through the 50s and 60s the separation moved increasingly from an informal relationship to become increasingly formal and administratively clarified co-operative but legally separate commercial entities.
In 1967 the RA obtained charitable status and in 1970 the RA and the company became completely separate independent organisations. It has never been required that clients be a member of the RA to join our holidays, however nearly 70 years later, confusion still exists amongst many, including our clients, as to the connection between the two organisations. In August 2011 ‘The Ramblers’ (formerly the RA) called with the disappointing news that after 65 years of unbroken partnership they were about to announce the termination of our co-operative agreement in favour of a new arrangement with a competitor.
This break in our co-operation sparked the creation of The Walking Partnership, a new scheme to secure our ability to channel funds to support the UK walking community and directly fund grass roots walking groups throughout the UK. The scheme quickly proved popular with local groups and provides welcome income to support their work.
In October 2014 the relationship with The Ramblers was renewed with Ramblers Worldwide Holidays appointed as its Walking Holiday Partner for the following three years.
We continue to support the work of ‘The Ramblers’ head office through the Ramblers Holidays Charitable Trust, set up in 1969, topped up from a covenant from the company’s profits from which they can apply for funds.
The RA was described by Bertie Roberson (who wrote ‘Idealism & Realism’, a short early history of the company) as our parents who kept an eye on our early growth without interference; we’re now grown up, independent and with a life of our own. And we send money back home to the old folks.
The company’s tour leaders have always been vital to the success of the holidays and the organisation as a whole. Even where we also employ a local guide, it has long been company policy to always provide our groups with one of our own leaders, recruited and briefed from our UK head office.
As the most crucial point of contact with our clients, the leader has to deal with the quirks, expectations, interests and demands of a series of diverse groups of individuals whilst leading, informing, motivating (and a times commanding) them throughout the tour as the arrangements and programme unfolded.
In the early days, many leaders came from the youth hostel circuit or were former clients recruited from previous tours who were clearly attracted to our brand of travel and walking. Leaders were, and continue largely to be, volunteers doing what they do in the true spirit of amateurs; for the sheer love of travel and sharing that outlook and experience with others.
For a long time, mountain and leadership qualifications were few and not a requirement of the job. Experience, an innate understanding of what it was they were doing and an enthusiasm to share a wider experience of the great outdoors with their fellow man (and woman) was what it took. Insurance demands, an increasing requirement from governing bodies at home and abroad for suitably qualified and experienced leaders to be in charge of groups on the hill, the views coming from the courts following travel related litigation all meant that from the mid 1990s we began introducing first internal then external training courses and the requirement for leaders to hold formal and recognised qualifications before being let loose with our groups around the world.
A feel for group dynamics, communication and other social skills – repping skills, together with a basic awareness of formal procedures and regulations applying to leading became as important as leading a group safely out in the hills. The type of leaders we needed was evolving. There was a little less freedom and flexibility to adapt the programme from that advertised. And the paperwork and documentation involved in managing tours began to increase too.
Talking of paperwork and regulation, this started to bite too from the early 90s with the introduction of the principal bit of legislation affecting our industry coming into force, the snappily named Package Travel, Package Holidays and Package Tours Regulations 1992 (more familiarly just ‘The Package Travel Regs’). Regulation 15 was particularly exciting and appeared to make the tour operator directly liable for everything its suppliers (hotels, transport providers and other third parties contributing to the prebooked arrangements) did, didn’t do or did badly.
Originating in Brussels, the lawyers have made a good living for the last twenty odd years arguing what these regulations actually meant. And now that most of the big queries have been resolved, the folks of the European Commission revised them at the end of 2015 and brought in a whole new world of uncertainty for the next decade or so. Exciting times.
Administering holidays too takes an increasing number of staff. In the early 90s we managed to do what we needed to do with about 25 staff. Ten years later we were up to 35. We currently need around to 50 to manage and maintain a similar level of bookings.
Communication has changed as technology has moved on and the world has shrunk. Until the 80s we had to plan and nail down our holiday arrangements with hotels and other suppliers across the globe by tortured international telephone conversations and by letter, a system of running a business that seems positively quaint in such relatively recent years.
The wonder of telex with its ticker tape, the chance for real-time typing and a bell you could hit to attract attention at the other end of the line if things got urgent appeared on the scene at the same sort of time as the New Romantics.
Fax machine technology arrived a few years later and would allow handwritten documents, or those hot from our one-woman typing pool, to be sent with relative ease, to virtually anywhere except Greece which took a bit more effort, some colourful language and occasionally a sedative. The arrival of email and the internet brought a different set of challenges, not least the expectation of an instantaneous response from overseas partners and clients alike, together with the blight of the perpetually full inbox.
It’s been a long time since our overseas staff were able to fly in the cockpit if the flight was overbooked. And even longer since our tour leaders could cadge a lift on the cockpit jump seat on a flight returning home with one group, have an English breakfast at Gatwick before returning to Athens with the next group.
For that matter, how long is it since airports have been a part of the holiday adventure itself, with clattering information boards advertising exciting bucket-list destinations, rather than something to be endured under duress in order to get away on holiday? In the mid 80s, on the nightshift for a season at the old Athens airport it looked like things could only get better. Perhaps they haven’t. Were you truly wafted here from paradise? Nah, Luton airport.
There have been some significant challenges over the decades. Apart from the existential crisis which followed the mid 70s sale of the Wings operation, the Gulf Wars of 1991 and 2003 both caused a severe drop hiatus in bookings.
Easyjet’s trailblazing of the UK budget airlines revolution from 1995 effectively removed at a stroke the market for our short-haul city break programme, although this appears to be returning. The foot-and-mouth crisis of 2001 severely impacted our small but important Hassness programme in the Lake District.
In April 2010, the Icelandic ash cloud caused worldwide chaos following the eruption of the Eyjafjallajökull volcano and at one point threatened to cost us £90,000 a day; in the event the final total financial cost was closer to a still not insignificant £50,000 loss; for the 224 clients we had overseas this may have been our finest hour when we, our leaders and competitors worked together to preserve our clients’ holidays and get everybody home as painlessly as possible. A member of our product team was distraught at being unexpectedly stranded by a Palm Beach swimming pool for an extra week and having to survive on margaritas and lunch on the veranda.
We can’t stand still and are always on the lookout for what’s new, what might grab the imagination and what we can do well. In 2004 we decided to have a crack at breaking into walking in the UK and bought the ‘Countrywide’ brand, this programme has expanded and developed and is now a strong part of our portfolio now fully incorporated under the Ramblers Worldwide Holidays brand.
From 1948 we operated a programme of leased guest houses throughout the UK. These became impractical and not terribly cost effective to run with the exception of Hassness House in the Lake District which we’ve operated continuously since 1955 and whose future continues to look bright – despite the shared bathrooms and the almost complete absence of a mobile phone signal (and perhaps in spite of the arrival of wi-fi in an otherwise rare refuge from the connected lifestyle beyond the fence).
Things often also come out of the blue. Cruise & Walk came about after managing director Kathy Cook found herself sat next to the marketing director from Fred. Olsen Cruise Lines; it rapidly became apparent that a product seemingly so far away from what it is that we do, in fact turned out to be a perfect fit for us. Our first departures were sold out before we’d had the chance to mail out the brochures.
Our self guided programme, Load Off Your Back, arrived in the form of an unsolicited mailshot from the owners of this young and very small operator who were looking to be able to concentrate on a completely different start-up they’d begun at the same time. Although currently a relatively small part of the business it dovetails perfectly with our main product.
The latest programme launched, Adagio, also wildly exceeded our expectations. In our first year, sales not only smashed through our targets but also sold out so fast we had to lay on additional departures, only stopping when some of the hotels were unable to offer us any more space. Adagio is a departure from our other holiday products in that it doesn’t specifically offer walking holidays, rather slow paced experiences on foot. Adagio’s walking content is below that offered at the lowest grade of the company’s other brands and this is part of the reason that we made a conscious decision not to include the ‘Ramblers’ tag in the brand name.
We continue to innovate and adapt whilst providing good value holidays to new destinations, often outside the current mainstream, together with favourites we’ve almost continuously featured for several decades.
Feedback from those travelling with us in letters we receive, our post-holiday questionnaires, our independent Feefo reviews and through our tour leaders assures indicates our future is bright and we will continue to appeal to an increasing range of holidaymakers who are already keen to see the world on foot, up close and from a local perspective, but also to a new generation of enthusiastic travellers looking for most than the traditional sun, sea and sand packaged holiday.
If any of you have any great stories from your travels with us, especially in our earlier days or the Wings years, please send them in; we’d be delighted to read them and may well be able to publish them here. We have our own stories, some we can tell, some we’ll have to keep to ourselves. But they’re all a part of our heritage and lead to where we’ve yet to go.