THE few months in the early 1980s that Paul Bennett spent working in Saga Holidays' public relations department changed the course of his life.
It opened his eyes to the immense sales potential of holidays for older people - a vision that was to manifest itself in the launch of Grand UK Holidays for the over-55s.
Bennett is still managing director of the Norwich-based company he founded 15 years ago and he remains convinced that senior citizens' holidays have an even bigger future today.
"People are living longer, they have more disposable income and they're more adventurous," he said. "Our product attracts a new breed of more sophisticated over-55s with index-linked pensions.
"These are people who have already travelled widely. They're not the stereotype coach holidaymaker who just wants to sit in a deckchair and watch the waves roll in."
At the start of the 1980s, Saga had the 'golden oldies' field to itself. With the launch of his own company, Bennett was taking on an established Goliath of the industry.
Within two years, however, Bennett had a lucky break - Saga decided to go direct-sell, leaving the way clear for an operator committed to selling through the trade.
"The small number of agents I'd persuaded to give us a shot were suddenly calling me. I'd get them to give the client one of our brochures and they'd keep the sale," said Bennett. "Bookings doubled within a year."
"Thereafter we started dancing and rambling holidays, introducing more product and widening our catchment area." This now extends from East Anglia to reach the West Midlands and Hampshire.
This year, he expects 50,000 customers - 21% up on last year - for a programme that is 85% coach-based mainland UK touring, from Cornwall to the northern tip of Scotland.
Holidays to Ireland and the Channel Islands also feature, with a limited amount of cruising and transatlantic product.
"The pace of our tours is slower and with an average client age of 67, every aspect is geared for an older market," said Bennett. "Hotels must have a guaranteed number of single rooms, be fully accessible to older people and offer traditional meals."
Grand UK Holidays owns nine hotels, all comprising between 30 and 50 rooms. The Grand Ash in Llandudno in North Wales launched the chain in 1990, followed by other properties in Newquay, Bournemouth, Bridlington, Blackpool, Skegness, Kendal, Blair Atholl and Skye.
The operator is racked by 1,500 appointed agents and Bennett claims that 90% of business is done through the trade.
"Agents have responded well," he said. "Our product is less sexy to sell than an overseas package, but agents know they can depend on it."
Scotland: eight-day Romantic Skye escorted coach tour, spending four nights on the island, £339.
West Country: eight-day Cornish Adventurer escorted coach tour, based in Newquay and including three excursions, £279.
Ireland eight-day Shamrock Rambler escorted coach tour, staying in Waterford and Galway, £399 to £409.
Theme break: four-night half-board sequence dancing break in Cliftonville, Kent, £165 to £175.
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