Falling in Love
In 1953, at the tender age of 8, I fell in love - twice. The lovely Janet Fairly-Clarke was the object of my warmly tender intentions in Country Dancing classes at my suburban primary school. But the travel industry became the real focus for my wild dreams of freedom and adventure. To be precise, I visited the Polytechnic Travel Agency (much later to be the Poly in Lunn Poly, later still part of Thomson Holidays and later still an important part of TUI the world’s biggest tour operator.) Here I acquired a full-colour promotional map of the Rhineland, one of a set published by the German National Tourist Office covering the whole of Germany like a jigsaw. Forget the ‘Reveille’, ‘Tit Bits’ the ‘News of the World’ ‘Roy Rogers and Trigger’ (my two lesser loves) these maps were the real stuff and I was in rapture. The thought of going to the Rhine, taking people there, being a part of the nascent industry of tourism really switched me on. I was like an immature addict dropping acid - the universe was exposed. I loved the whole idea, the new worlds that would open, the opportunities for escaping drab post-war Britain for amazingly colourful and exotic foreign parts enthralled me. Mr Colesley the ex-soldier manager of the Polytechnic Travel Agency in Zetland Road became my guru.
Tourism was a major topic of conversation in our home too. My Dad, Fred Tjolle, was a train driver, secretary of his union branch and very popular with his mates. With a family in Belgium, he seemed the logical choice to organise a darts match for his fellow workers in Ostend - an enjoyable way for railway workers to use up their free passes. Well, one thing led to another and before you could say "Travel Industry" the old man swapped his two allotments, his push-bike and his overalls for a smart suit, a carnation and a taste for cigars, lobster and gin and tonic - at just 39 he became a tour operator.
I couldn't believe it - my dad - a travel boss! Most boys of my age would have been proud to have a train driver dad but mine had been elevated to stardom. My job was to provide him with his morning 20 'Players' cigarettes, his 'Sporting Life' and to make sure that he had his twist of leaf tea, his sugar and his little bottle of milk ready for action on the footplate. After a year or so cycling to work in his overalls, driving his steam train, cycling home, changing, and taking tours to Belgium, his Guvnors gave Dad a year’s leave of absence from The Great Western Railway. Our little suburban Victorian terraced home now became the international headquarters for the Jolly Party Continental Tours. Posters were liberally displayed in the windows advertising "(no) Tours to the Moon" (the printer’s idea), and Dad talked famous comedian Tommy Trinder (catch phrase ‘You Lucky People” into endorsing his product - "You lucky people going on a Jolly tour!", he said in the ads. Business, cash and cheques rolled in.
Then, as now, the travel business was about hype and escapism. My old man, like the many larger-than-life characters who followed, had found his metier. The public wanted an escape from boring Britain. Who better to provide it than someone demonstrating their own escape from a humdrum wage-earning life?
You’ve got to give it to the old man. He’d had no business training and he’d never worked in an office. The nearest he’d got to commerce was his love for gambling on the horses, an enthusiasm he shared with his Dad. Since a very early age, he’d spent time on racecourses, studying the form, associating with racing people and making well-considered bets. My Dad was a lucky gambler; a bet rescued a pre-honeymoon Belgian holiday with my mum when he was in his late teens in the thirties, and his Belgian connections provided a win serious enough to start the travel company. Apparently, a Belgian jockey friend had said to Dad in Ostend after Lavandin had won the Prix de Boulogne "Freddie, put your house on it for the English Derby". Freddie did. At nine to two he won a small fortune. Enough to start a business in fact.
And enough to convince my dad's friends (and my dad, unfortunately) of his star quality. They were certainly a celebrity-like pair, my parents. Dad was what they call a Man's Man, but he loved tailormade clothes, diamonds, gin and tonic, lobsters and caviar, spending money, being overgenerous and his daily carnation (always got from his friend in the flower market) people and pubs, women and, of course my mum.
Of course, she was beautiful, she was my mum. Described as a Green-Eyed Egyptian Bastard by my uncle (actually her eyes were grey, and she was Welsh) mum was tiny passionate and vivacious with a very strong helping of wild wilfulness and a very hot temper. Strange that she loved knitting and sewing and reading - but then at that time those were the only artistic pursuits easily available to the working classes.
And my mum was definitely working class. And a socialist. What else could you be if you were Welsh, born in the poverty and danger of the coal mining valleys, and if your dad had been thrown out of work by the mine owners because of his political beliefs. All this, and the fact that my mum, like many others, had been denied her county school scholarship because of poverty and had to work as a maid - coloured her beliefs and determination to succeed. Until her dying day she never had a good word to say for Winston Churchill - "the owner's bully-boy" "the warmonger" she called him.
My mum needed success more than anything for escape. She needed to escape the elephant who always turned up in the room - unbidden. My gran.
Not a nice little sweet gran like my mum would become, but a demanding determined strong rich self-made gran like the one who lived with us - or we lived with more factually. The gran that bought the house and the telly out of her hard-saved earnings.
And wielded immense power because of her contacts. Originally a maid, gran had risen to prominence and a little fortune as a result of the sage advice, capabilities and trustworthiness that her upper-class employers admired. Her network of trusting ex-employers stretched from the Archbishop of Nigeria to the governor of Fiji. Naturally when, later, I needed an Italian teacher she produced Miss Marie Rogman - clearly a top spy fallen on hard times.
There was a blot on gran's copybook though- 'Charlie', actually Gustave Tjolle.
Wounded in the First World War 'Trench of Death' in Dixmuide, near to his home town, Belgian soldier Gustave Ivo Tjolle had been brought to Bath to recuperate in a posh mansion. Gran was working there and met him. One thing led to another, a few years and a lot of letters later found kindly, strong, romantic Belgian Gustave (Mr Charlie to those who knew him) living in Bristol with Annie and a baby on the way. The adored only child, Freddie, was born. Although she treated him abruptly, and with some distain, gran truly loved Gustave (Umpah to me) and after he died in 1949 her heart was broken.
Nonetheless her fortunes, her hard work and her savings proceeded to grow, now all focused on her son.
So that was the family behind our travel business enterprise.
Within a year of Lavandin’s notable victory the Jolly Party Continental Tours was rocking on to better and greater things. My Dad, as I said, had no business experience, but from a marketing point of view he was doing all the right things. He had created a branded product in a niche market - railway people with free passes and ‘Privilege Tickets’. He had a database - never mind that it was just a big book in which names and addresses of enquirers and bookers were entered in his flowing copper plate longhand. He had a target market and a lot of goodwill from previous travellers. At least twice a year a mailshot was sent out - different coloured sheets of paper each with a different tour were collated, inserted in envelopes, addressed by hand and posted to the database - all the family joined in. The leaflets went out in January and September and the bookings came in February and October. Simple and very effective.
Jolly Party Continental Tours’ holidays were certainly good value but costed to make a profit. The deal was simple - you got an 8 day (7 night) full board Belgium France and Holland tour staying in Ostend for £19 including the transfers to and from the hotel, half day excursions to Meli Park and Dunkirk, Bruges and Sluis, full day excursions to Brussels and Middleburg. The hotel cost £7 for 7 nights, the tours and transfers, operated by the local coach company cost £6, the old man put on a margin of £6 and got a gross margin of 32%. The customers booked in their droves and the money kept rolling in. Everybody loved it. The clients loved the tours. The suppliers loved the business. The old man loved the prestige and the money and the opportunities for enjoying himself. Magic.
Every Monday evening from May to September, Dad went out to have a drink or two. He’d make a little "Pub Tour" around Bristol. It came to be known in the family as "Tjolle Monday" and, although you’d never be quite sure where he was, you’d be pretty certain of the state in which the old man would return. All tours departed on Tuesday and he personally escorted them to Belgium so possibly he was saying goodbye to all his old friends in case he wasn’t going to come back. Who knows? In any case, by Monday night he was always totally out of his head.
He never missed a Tuesday, though, and these followed their regular schedule too. The taxi came in the morning at about 8 (although he drove a train, my father never learnt to drive a car) and took him to Bristol's Temple Meads station. A superb breakfast on the train (tomato juice, eggs, bacon, sausages, mushrooms, fried potatoes, toast, marmalade, tea, coffee - the works) presumably settled his stomach and set him up for the day and at Paddington Station he got a taxi to Victoria. Passengers were met outside the Golden Arrow bar at Victoria Station, given their reservations, ticked off on the list and given a little red Jolly Party badge to wear, then despatched to meet at 2pm. Time for a few drinks and something to eat before joining the group for the journey to Dover and a couple more snifters on the train. All railway and ferry officials were kept in order and onside by the liberal dispensation of alcohol, bonhomie and the handshake transferring the folded ten bob or fifty franc note. On boarding the ferry, Dad would go straight to the First-Class Bar, where he’d hold court and quickly be joined by the ship’s purser and ticket collectors, eager to enjoy the fun and collect their dues. Four hours or so later, on arrival at Ostend, the ship's purser would come to collect Dad to make sure he got off the front of the ship with the first privileged group. Coaches were waiting at the ferry terminal to take the passengers to the hotels, and once they were boarded, Dad would pop off for a drink or two before beginning his rounds.
The passengers stayed in a number of hotels in Ostend. Not very sophisticated by today’s standards but certainly very good value. The £1 a night per person that the old man paid got a bed in a clean room (single or double) with linoleum floor and central heating and full board with packed lunches when on full day excursions. Breakfast was ‘Continental’ - weak tea or freshly-brewed coffee, rolls, butter and jam (eggs and bacon at a supplement). Three course lunches and dinners usually consisting of a home-made soup, or hors d’oevres, English-style main course, and a dessert. Packed lunches usually consisted of sandwiches, the inevitable hard-boiled egg or two and a bit of fruit.
Anyway, the old man liked making sure everybody was happy and having a drink with his mates. To make sure everybody was happy, he would visit the hotels immediately after the passengers had arrived, pay the bill for the accommodation and have a drink or two with the hotelier. Then, he’d go out and have a few drinks.
Our little company's big opportunity happened in 1958 when the World Exhibition was unveiled in Brussels. Amongst other exhibits, the Atomium was created - to this day the major architectural landmark on Brussels’ horizon. Expo 58 marked a surge in public interest and tourism to Belgium. Jolly Party Continental Tours, now offering a £10 weekend and a £20 week was in the thick of it.
At the time the UK government had instituted strict currency controls but never mind the ‘V’ forms that were meant to reduce Brits spend abroad, Dad had the answer. Sterling (Dad’s profit) was paid in the UK and stayed in the UK and the foreign currency content of the tour (the part that Dad had to pay his suppliers) was paid on the ferry to Belgium. Dad recruited his bank manager to assist and they spent their time from Dover to Ostend collecting Belgian francs from the clients which they stuffed into big holdalls. By the time they arrived in Ostend the holdalls were bulging and the passengers were ready to rock. Thirsty work.
Literally thousands of tourists were taken to Brussels by my Dad that year, railway groups, school groups, private groups and nurses’ groups (this was his contribution to the local hospitals - he liked nurses my dad!). Everybody wanted to see this first of the high-tech world exhibitions and explore the exotic continent and Fred was the man to show them - "You lucky people!" Ostend, just two hours or so from Brussels was the base. We stopped at the Sandcarpet cafe - (with its work of art in sand) for refreshments, toilets and to collect commission on the passengers’ spend. On to the Expo for the day and back to Ostend for the night’s revels.
So, what was Ostend like in the 1950’s, and why did we all love it? Like my Dad, since I was very small, I’d spent all my holidays in Belgium. Not at first in Ostend - far too upmarket and expensive - but in the villages of Diksmuide and Wareghem where my grandfather’s family lived. Grandfather Gustave ("Charlie" to his friends) had been a wounded Belgian soldier invalided to the West of England during the First World had fathered my Dad and didn’t want to go home. So, we all went there for holidays instead. It was another world. My first Belgian experiences were of staying in sleepy Flemish towns close to the French border -Wareghem or Diksmuide - with relatives.
What an experience for a kid in the late 40’s and 50’s. These people in the villages were simply different. Life was clearly tough but it was not the same sort of tough that we had. My mum had had to go out cleaning to supplement Dad’s wages and she was good at it. In the Flemish villages where my family lived, they made cleaning into an art form. Gleaming stoves in the middle of tiny rooms, polished floors, and covered furniture - my great auntie had even won the Best Kept Cottage competition in Wareghem two years in a row! These people talked different, they looked different, their interests were different (who’d ever heard of cycle and pigeon racing in those days?) in both of these occupations my family were big - they even owned the bicycle shop and global cycling superstar Eddie Mercx was family too. They dressed different and in particular, they smelt different (a warm musky smell like malted butter biscuits that I remember to this day). My Dad liked pubs, so he often met old mates in one of the local cafes and they’d drink a "pintje" ( a glass of beer - definitely not a pint) or ten, but visiting the cafe was seen as extravagant by my relatives so, often, Mum and Dad and Gran, my sister Marita and I would progress from house to house drinking a tiny glass of liqueur in each. Diksmuide and Wareghem were no more than an hour away from Ostend by car, but even if they’d had a car to take them, my Flemish relatives wouldn’t have been interested in going there. Far too extravagant, but just right for us, the post-war "loadsamoney Brits".
I guess you’d describe Ostend itself ('Queen of the Belgian Coast') as a Belgian version of Bournemouth. Quite upmarket and genteel. Ostend had a posh, exclusive casino, a thermal bath, a Cathedral, a racecourse, a superb promenade complete with a pier and plenty of parked Porsches, a fishing harbour with restaurants, lots of cafes and a marketplace with bandstand. It had amazing ice cream shops, tearooms serving extraordinary cakes, a park with a lake and motorboats-to-hire, chips, tomates aux crevettes, grenadine, interesting looking people, strange sounds and something that felt and looked to me like freedom.
As I said, in these first few years of post-war tourism, my Dad brought small groups of railwaymen to Belgium to play darts with Ostend cafe teams. Now, I’ve always been prone to embarrassment, and these people, our customers, embarrassed me, even though I liked them - and, after all, they were our source of income and standing. The customers possessed a kind of tourism chauvinism which I’ve now come to understand is endemic and not only practised by the Brits.
The host country is always, in the tourists’ eyes, less substantial than the country the tourists come from. From the Brits’ point of view, "they" didn’t know how to make tea or a good breakfast, their money was "funny" (the post-war Belgian coins were described as "washers"), "they" were all a bit "poofy", the local food and sauces were "messy", and the beer was "weak" and "gassy". The Brits, whatever their humble origins, also had a proprietorial air - after all we’d only recently rescued them from the Germans albeit with assistance from the Yanks. The Brits came on holiday with us because it was a good laugh, they could drink all day and night, they could use their strong pounds, it was cheap and they could brag to their mates when they got home. There were a few arguments and fights but generally the Belgians kept their mouths shut and served the beer with grace, after all, they wanted the money.
As British mass tourism to Ostend developed, the local small entrepreneurs spotted opportunities. Establishments like the Cosy Corner Cafe – “tea like mother makes it" sprung up. Guinness and Double Diamond signs became ubiquitous, a "British Ball" was instituted at the Casino, and at Jackie’s marketplace cafe the band became adept at leading the audience singing "There’ll always be an England" or “Inglin” as they sang it.
By 1958, Brits were coming to Ostend in their hordes. I was 13 and it was wonderful. I was helping in the business now and school was going badly - I don’t think that there was much competition. I’d been pretty much exposed to all the benefits of tourism - flocks of envious tourists (some quite young, attractive and fanciable), nice things to eat and drink, status, cash in the pocket. The net effect was tourism ten, school nil. Winter evenings were to be spent stuffing envelopes, summers in Ostend-paradise-on-Earth, schoolwork fitted in between.
My next summer holiday started with my school’s trip to Bavaria, by train via Ostend. Imagine my pride when a local hotelier boarded at Ostend with a specially-prepared chicken dinner so I wouldn’t get hungry on the overnight journey, even more street-cred. Bliss. The next morning, in the couchette cabin, as the sun rose, I looked out of the window while the train chuffed into fairyland. I was simply captivated by all the beauty. I saw green meadows studded with alpine flowers and crossed by little streams, deep valleys and soaring mountains, dinky chalets with geraniums popping out of every window box, clean cows (complete with bells) grazing in the fields, onion-domed churches, lederhosen-clad farmers, dirndl-draped farmers wives. I truly thought I was dreaming; I couldn’t believe that such pristine picture-perfect beauty could exist.
Back to Ostend to work after my holidays (I was 14 by now after all), I spent the rest of the summer learning the basic lessons of tourism in a busy resort. First step was to learn to smoke and drink like the rest of the industry. Smoking was no problem - after all I’d been doing it since I was 8, I just had to choose a local brand that suited me. St Michel were very good, came in 25’s without filter in a flash paper packet and were cheap plus they made me seem even more local for my customer interface. Drinking was a bit more difficult, even in Belgium a 14-year-old serious imbiber was a little frowned upon. I got over that problem by changing my age. From now on. in Belgium, I was a heavy smoking and serious drinking 17-year-old - quite part of the local tourism community.
It is a fundamental and unchanging tourism rule that tour operators can never make sustainable money by sending people on holiday. Tour operators simply do the basics, they create the holidays, do all the research, haggle with hotels and transportation companies. They then fight amongst each other to get the "Best deals for their clients" - to deliver the most product for the lowest prices. Effectively this means that he who has the slimmest and most dangerous margins, and/or he who has screwed his suppliers below the ground gets the most clients. The operator then writes and designs brochures and advertises his "Brilliant" holidays. A few telephone calls, a letter, a booking form and a cheque later, it’s the tour operator’s job to get the clients to the resort, to disburse the money that he’s been looking after and to take responsibility for any screw-ups.
The action really begins when the ingenue tourist reaches the destination. Destinations, generally, have a limited season. That means a limited period of time in which to make the money that’ll keep everybody happy for the rest of the year. Tourists are really welcome. They’ve done their part and shopped for the best tour, now they’ve exhausted (or left at home) their commercial perceptions with their inhibitions but they’ve brought their wallets and they want - and think they’re entitled to - a great holiday which usually means spending as much as they can afford and often more.
So, what do tourists mean to a destination? Tourists simply mean money. At the beginning of their holiday, they’re taken from their secure homes and delivered to a resort that they’ve probably never been to before. To spend! The tour operator probably talked to the tourists a couple of times before they booked, and a couple of times after. The total interchange can last for up to an hour - max. The destination hotel sees the tourist every day as does the resort rep (often a local). Local shopkeepers, bus drivers, guides, cafe owners and a multiplicity of local others have more of a long-term relationship with tourists than the tour operator ever does. All this is added to the fact that however self-reliant tourists are in their home towns, when they are on holiday, they’re dependent. Given all that available and unprotected money, and the need to make as much as possible before the season ends, it’s understandable that tourists are screwed – often in more ways than one.
Successful destinations are efficient money-making machines in which every small entrepreneur - and I include tour operator's reps and guides in this category - play their well-rehearsed part. It’s good for everybody, the tourist enjoys their stay and the local services make a wad of dough. The tour operator who thought he was in charge of the game - after all the tourists are "his" clients - has now fulfilled his purpose in the destination's evolutionary process. As far as the destination is concerned, he’s delivered the tourists complete with money - job done. The balance between destination and tour operator would change over the succeeding years, but the basic process would always remain the same.
So, in Ostend, I went to the port each Tuesday with the transfer coaches to meet the clients (scanning the passenger lists first to see what I could glean from the Miss’s names), meet Dad and take the clients to the hotels. There were frequent hotel overbookings in the high season and often I trooped around from hotel to hotel with a little group of tourists to find them beds. No threats of legal action, no complaints, the clients were pleased to get a nice clean bed and a continental holiday - after all, this was 1959!
Each week the clients were different but wherever they came from, whatever they wanted they got basically the same. As in every destination, all the operators do their excursions on the same day - just in case they need to consolidate and each summer week for the next three years went something like this:
Tuesday evening arrival. Make sure that they’ve all got beds. After dinner they’ll all take a drink at their hotel, make sure they’re all seen and chat them up a bit, particularly any attractive female young person. Maybe they’d like to go out for a drink, to one of the nightclubs perhaps.
Wednesday was free. This is their chance to have a really good look at Ostend and spend a little money also the chance for a local guide to sell them a night out or an extra excursion for cash (known as "Black" in the trade).
Thursday was yet another foreign country. A whole day trip to the market in Middleburg - a chance for the Dutch to get at the tourist-money. The customers would all hop on to the coach at 8 complete with packed lunch - sandwiches, possibly a boiled egg and fruit, and relax to enjoy the day. The guide (often me) or driver’s commentary would start on the outskirts of Ostend - hamming up the foreign accent and trotting out a few unimpressive facts (unimpressive unless you were a tourist of course). Down the coast, past Zeebrugge (the U Boat pen and the mole), Blankenberghe (pass) and the the casino and the millionaire’s residences at Knokke. In no time at all we would be at Breskens, refreshment stop - free coffees and tips for the driver and guide. On to the romantic ferry (well I thought it was and I’m sure the clients did) to Flushing (Vlissingen to the locals) on the island of Walcheren. Main stop of the day was the market in Middleburg. Here, shopping and spending opportunities abound. Cheese, clogs, little Dutch dolls, Delft windmills, lace - plenty of things that would be worth nothing in two weeks and would be extremely collectible in fifty years. Eat your sandwiches with drinks at the recommended cafe (more freebies and tips for the crew) - afterwards you can take a picture with a nice big Dutch lady in National costume - for a fee of course. Personally, I loved the market for one thing - smoked eel, just peel the skin off and suck the flesh - magnificent. And the Dutch beer of course.
Back to Breskens for the afternoon entertainment. A big beerhall and a mechanical band, oompah marionettes playing real Dutch music, what could be better at teatime? The customers satisfied and our bellies and pockets full, we’d drive back along the coast to Ostend, dinner and the night-time entertainment. Good night out...tomorrow’s just an afternoon tour. The White Horse Inn - "in t’Witte Paard", "au Cheval Blanc" provided a riotous night out for the clients. More oompah bands, you could have glasses, big glasses, big glass mugs or enormous steins of beer. These were expensive, even for the British and they had to be told that they didn’t have to pay to get in, but they paid over the top for drinks ...what? They always enjoyed themselves, the more so because they’d been initiated into another quaint continental custom. If they’d gone upstairs into the Weinstube they could have had expensive wine too, but wine would have been a step too far.
My favourite day, Friday. Why? French cheese and white wine in Dunkirk and great big ham sandwiches and big, big hot Belgian waffles with cream at Meli Park - all free, and plenty of booze. So, we’d get the passengers on and usually I’d sit on the coach’s engine to give a "commentary". We’d leave after lunch, down the Belgian coast past Mariakerke and Middelkerke to the border with France, stop for a drink at the border cafe - it’s probably still got the same sign up "NO TOILETS WITHOUT CONSUMPTION" - and nip down to Dunkirk centre. Never the most appealing town in the world, but in those days many of our passengers had left there before - in a hurry, in 1940. So, it was interesting to point out the shell marks in the walls, and they liked coming back in a completely different guise. A few glasses of wine and some cheese and garlic sausage in a cafe, little walk around, another country done. It’s off to Adinkerke.
Mr Florizoone is one of my tourism marketing heroes, one of the greats, if there was a tourism marketing hall of fame - and there should be - Mr Florizoone should be in its top ten of "Great Pioneers from whom everybody learnt". Mr Florizoone (sorry, Mr Florizoone’s bees) made honey. Great honey, in fact. Mr Florizoone and his family put the honey into jars and sold it. Mr Florizoone’s customers liked the honey, very much, as they should - it is very good honey as I said. So far so good, nice business. Now the basic principle of marketing development, one that should never be forgotten is... "Sell new products to your customers, sell your products to new customers". I don’t suppose that he had a marketing degree, but like most of the post-war marketers, Mr Florizoone knew exactly what to do and he had panache and flair (and a wonderful product!). First, Mr Florizoone branded his product. "Meli Park, he called his establishment - French for honey "Miel" - geddit? I imagine Mr Florizoone in his new product department (Like Charlie’s chocolate factory). Here, Mr Florizoone developed a range of honey products that defied belief. Honey with Royal Jelly, honey without, honey sweets, runny honey, firm honey, medicinal honey preparations, Royal Jelly tablets, and my personal favourites...chocolate honey and honey cake among many many more Florizoone-branded honey-derivated delicacies.
So, what about selling Mr Florizoone’s honey-delicacies to new markets? This was Mr Florizoone’s master-stroke. He created a park entirely devoted to honey and to the tastes of those that liked honey. - Meli Park, - Disneyland with a purpose and big-time attractions to draw the tourists... Lovely gardens, wonderful musical tableaux of classic fairytales, floodlit musical dancing fountains and an amazing variety of opportunities to buy an incredible array of honey products. The new markets came to him in their droves. I loved all of the honey-stuff and learnt that Cinderella is Puttefatte (in German), Ashputel (In Swedish), Cendrillon (in French) and Cenerentola (in Italian). I still love the honey.
Why was Mr Florizoone’s coach park always full of coaches? Two basic reasons. He gave the customers a good deal - they loved the park and the honey, and he really looked after the coach drivers and guides. So, after Dunkirk, we’d show up at Meli Park for the rest of the afternoon. The customers were despatched to explore, we’d hive off to the "Chauffeurs Room" in the restaurant. We’d get a pot of quality coffee or a beer, a ham or cheese open sandwich (a thick slice of fresh bread with a thick slice of ham) and a waffle with icing sugar and fresh cream. These were called waffles plus we were in Belgium, but they bear absolutely no relationship with the things sold as "Belgian Waffles" in the nowadays. They were feather light, as big as two paperback books put together, sprinkled with icing sugar, and just warm enough for the cream that you spread to melt in each little recess. They melted in the mouth like sugary, creamy, delicious gossamer. See, Mr Florizoone always delivered quality - even when he was giving it away. Then we played mini-golf and had a beer or two.
And Mr Florizoone had learnt marketing from the bees too. He employed a gang of lads who smacked Melipark stickers on the backs of each car as they left to pollinate Europe with their honeyed message!
Early departure on Saturday for Brussels. All ready and set with the packed lunch, on to the coach and away up the motorway. Were there motorways in 1958? Hitler’d built it. Not much by today’s standards but something really different at the time, and, renewed and upgraded, very effective in getting all those people to Brussels for the Expo 58. First stop, the Sandcarpet Cafe. Works of art in coloured sand plus coffee, tea and beer, then on to Brussels. Park the coach and walk them to the Grand Place "As you can see, the tower is not quite in the middle of the building...when the architect saw it, he jumped off the top" amazing what people will believe. More to the point it’s time to walk to the highlight of the morning...the Manekin Pis. Little statue of a naked, cherubic little boy on the corner of a little street. Peeing. It’s what people want to see, still. What an industry the Mannekin Pis has created. Photographs, models, a museum with its 250 costumes. Tourists buy Mannekin Pis corkscrews (yes, you can imagine where the corkscrew part is!), dolls, chocolate, biscuits, bottles, postcards the lot. You name it, the Mannekin Pis has endorsed it for over 400 years. "You wouldn’t go to Paris without seeing the Mona Lisa, would you? Why go to Brussels without seeing the Mannekin Pis?” Guides with flags/umbrellas/whatever held high leading long lines of camera-clad people to the Mannekin Pis. It’s what tourism’s all about.
Lunch and a few beers, here’s where I discovered Trappist Ale, and it’s off for a quick tour, a panoramic view of Brussels and the Atomium before we’re off again...to Ghent.
Now, to me, in those days, Ghent meant one thing...coffee in the Radskelder - the cellars of the belfry. I guess people wandered around, and I certainly told them about the wonderful sculpture of the "Merchants of Ghent" as we came into the city, but not much else, they liked to have their tea, you see. I’d have a wander in the very close vicinity and a drink. So, it took some 40 years, yes 40 years before I realised what a truly extraordinary city Ghent is. I guess that the customers we took there then never did. On to Ostend for dinner and a night out. Again.
Sunday was delightful always, and to be perfectly honest, a dream Sunday for me has still got to be a nice breakfast, a bit of a wander, lunch and then an afternoon in Bruges. We’d usually go to Sluis just over the border in Holland first, chance to shepherd the passengers into the "Chosen" souvenir shop to stock up on much-needed little dolls, lace and Delft, little musical windmills that lit up, snaps with traditional locals, buy some Advocaat or Cherry Brandy (real delicacies in those days), stroll down the canal, see the windmill, board the coach, off to Bruges - the first and only "Venice of the North". Chocolates? Not in those days - they're a massive moneymaking tourist economy gimmick that arrived really recently. Now try to count the chocolate shops in Bruges - maybe there are even more than Chinese-owned mask shops in Venice (another modern mass tourism phenomenon.)
The customers loved Bruges, they always did and they always will. Yes of course, it’s a World Heritage site, yes of course it’s got loads of churches, museums and wonderful art treasures, yes of course it’s got stunning architecture created during its colourful rich historic past, but it’s got much, much more than all that. In my view, Bruges has got nearly every trump in the tourism pack of cards and, over the years, it’s played them all extraordinarily well.
The two to the 8 of Bruges tourismtrumps are ‘Special Interests’,
In the travel industry ‘Special Interest Travel’ is seen as a powerful magnet for tourists and a real money-spinner. Even to the extent that people are paid to sit around and create special interests where none exist, - think of darts festivals for instance - another example of a tourism consultant making money for his clients.
This is how it works... find a particular place where you only get gingham mice - sell trips to see them to the Gingham Mice Lovers brigades around the world. Niche product, niche market in today’s jargon - the nicher the better! Result... the Gingham Mice fancier not only gets a trip for his money but also, they get to follow their addiction too...and they’ll pay more for it. It all gets a bit dodgy when you make your own gingham mice - but hey-ho that’s tourism for you – ‘Quality tourism’ it’s called, quantity money it makes. Bruges has got lots of Special Interests, at least enough to count from 2 to 7 trumps. Just look at the list of potential clients - History buffs (you don’t get more Middle-Aged-Important than Bruges), religious pilgrims (the Holy Blood in the church of the same name is said to liquify every 10 years), lace makers (a growth industry), beer drinkers (seriously, there’s one cafe in Bruges with over 400 types of beer), architecture enthusiasts (Just look at the Step-Gables) , art lovers (there’s even a Michelangelo Madonna and Child here), antique hunters (Bruges’ antique shops are stuffed with expensive old things and the flea markets are incredible), even chocoholics (believe me, now there are more chocolate shops per square metre in Bruges than anywhere else in the world), if there aren’t Bruges chocolate-making courses for bored housewives in their hundreds now, you can bet your life there will be). Enough? Enough to ensure a steady flow of quality money, that’s for sure.
The nine of tourismtrumps is...visible history,
People like looking at history. Although learning about history in school is BORING! the general public love history facts and stories and they like to be where it happened. Often not to feel or look or indeed see, but to pick up stories and take Instagram and Facebook pictures, go home and retail/retell them to their friends. Also, one of the greatest facets of tourism is right there at the top of Dr Maslow’s "Hierarchy of Needs" - self actualisation. This translates to the following statement "We went for a trip to Bruges, it’s very historic you know – would you like to see the pictures we took – bet you didn’t know we were into history did you – we loved it! Now all on Facebook to prove its veracity. This actualises the speaker in his or her own mind as a lover of all things historic. Lovely - one step up. Also, visible history, in particular the medieval sort that Bruges has, creates a fairytale atmosphere - just like the films - with knights and fair damsels and alchemists and witches and things. Except you’re in it, that fairytale world, just where it all happened. As all the theme parks have discovered, fairytale worlds draw in the clients.
The ten of tourismtrumps...Bruges is quaint, walkable and compact.
You can pack a great deal into half a day in Bruges. You can see the canals (can’t miss them in fact), you can walk over romantic bridges, you can see boats in the water, you can see delightful outdoor cafés with colourful awnings, you can bump along cobbled streets. You can get it all in a very reasonable period of time without missing a lot of the superficial stuff. That’s very satisfying to the tourist. "Been there, seen it, done it" and back onto the coach. Bruges "Drill-down" potential means that there can always be more, too, if you want to look deeper on a second or twenty-second visit.
The Jack of tourismtrumps...there are a lot of things to do in Bruges
This fulfils two very important tourism-industry needs - a) provide the tourist with a fully-satisfying visit - a real experience that they can go home and tell their friends about, and b) provide earning opportunities for the locals. So, in Bruges you can take a canal boat trip (with commentaries in numerous languages), you can tour by horse drawn carriage where you’ll get blanketed-up and trotted about, you can visit lace-making factories staffed with dinky old ladies who must have been damsels in those olden days - and who’ll sell you lace with a fervour, you’ll have opportunities to see and hear the Carillon bells. Enough. Until the next time.
The Queen of tourismtrumps...There are plenty of things to buy.
Tourists, generally, want more than snaps as proof of their visit. They need souvenirs too. Yet another opportunity for self-actualisation here. So, you’ll find the whole range of Bruges souvenir-tat readily available on each and every tourist-street corner. Plenty of Manneke Pis’s for the "Bucket and Spade Brigade", nice bits of "Hand Made" lace for the ladylike ladies, mass-produced prints and watercolours for the artistically-leaning and Bruges chocolates for everyone. Now it’s "Been there, seen it done it AND got the "T" shirt!"
The King of tourismtrumps...close to lots of places
Now, if Bruges were in the depths of Outer Siberia it would have very few tourists and a very small tourism industry. That may seem a crazy statement, but the availability of people-capable-of-spending is critical to the equation. There are places all over the world with just as much, perhaps more, potential than Bruges - they just haven’t been able to hack it...yet. Prague is a classic example. It was always just as glorious, but inaccessible. As soon as it became "Close" twelve million tourists a year. There are many, many more glorious destinations just waiting for the tourism spotlight to shine on them. Bruges was just lucky. The spotlight shone there first, and it’s stayed...why? Because Bruges has played its ace trump very, very well.
The Ace of tourismtrumps...looking after the tourism asset.
Managing the tourism asset is critical in the equation, there are so many people to be pleased and needs to be satisfied that it is very difficult to steer a course that provides a sustainable flow of tourists ...and money! Even if you have all the trump cards, you can still screw it up - bigtime. Just imagine Bruges after the first 50 years of mass tourism. It could have a multi-national in every prime site. McDonalds, all the Starbucks, Holiday Inns and many more. Yes, they’re there, but they’re either outside of the city heart, or they’re tasteful and attractive - and they’re not there in force. Bruges could be full up with tourist coaches and open-top busses - resulting in traffic chaos. It’s not, they’re kept outside, and cars are provided a big underground car park within walking distance of the centre. Why have the burghers of Bruges taken an up-market attitude to tourism development? Because they’re not stupid, and they want up-market tourists providing up-market money for their own homegrown entrepreneurs. Many a tourist city could take a leaf out of Bruges’ tourism development attitude.
So, the tourists get a quality experience, the locals get quality money and quality opportunities.
Back to Sunday afternoon 1958 and we’re bowling along back to Ostend. "Sing Something Simple" is on the BBC radio and we’re all joining in "Goodnight Irene, Goodnight". And it will be.
Sunday night in Ostend. Monday free and "Big Night Out", the whole process will start up again on Tuesday.
Just in time for the 1961 season, I got thrown out of school. At 16, complete with three "O" levels, a smattering of French, Flemish, German and Italian, a nice pointy Italian hairstyle, a sharp shiny mohair suit winkle-picker shoes and a gold identity bracelet the world was my oyster. I was ready for action!
By now things had moved on a bit in our little business. An office had been rented, staff had been employed and Dad had got everybody nice bright red blazers to match with the little red badges that all the clients had to wear. New tours had been inaugurated. You could go to the Rhineland, Nice and Monte Carlo, Switzerland, Paris, or Amsterdam - all, naturally, via Ostend.
My tourist-life had filled up with characters too... Here are my tourism-industry archetypes:
The Hotelier - Roland was 38, complete with a lovely blonde wife, three small sons, a big house, a Triumph TR2, a pretty - and wayward - French mistress with her very own bordello - and the Grand Hotel Georges V in Vlaanderenstraat - Ostend.
At the tender age of 14 (oops 17) it was decided that I was to learn the trade by working for my Dad in Ostend, meeting the passengers, guiding the odd tour and generally making sure that everything was OK. Where was I to stay?
Somewhere pretty cool, I hoped - and where was cooler than in the attic of the Georges V, stamping ground of my mate and glamorous role-model Roland. So, from the summer of 1959, and each summer for the next few years, my continental residence had been a garret in the centre of Ostend - heart of the action! My nights were spent on the razzle or working in the hotel bar listening to the sounds of the street – in those days Elvis warbling ‘Are You Lonesome Tonight’ or Dalida belting out ‘Bambino’ or ‘Quand tu dors pres de moi’ from all the cinemas. My days were spent on daytrips with the customers or drinking coffee with the hotel staff.
Getting up was my biggest problem, but that was solved by the hotel chef Ted - a dour Belgian who spoke perfect Yorkshire English and slaved away in a sweaty basement kitchen. Ted devised the multiple wake-up process. First, he’d knock on the door, five minutes later he’d throw me out of bed, another five minutes he’d wake me up on the bedroom floor and so on.
Here I learnt how a tour hotel works and it’s a pretty simple equation - captive audience + lots of spending money = a good life for all.
Roland used to charge my Dad a quid a night full board for each passenger. That quid had to pay for the room, continental breakfast (rolls, jam, butter, coffee or tea), three course lunch (soup, main course, pudding - or packed lunch on tour) and three course dinner. Even when a quid was a quid this was tight, the lease had to be paid, the laundry accomplished and the hotel cleaned and repaired. So how did Roland make the money to keep a mistress and a sports car? Extras.
So, you want 'Eenglish breakfast' (eggs, bacon etc)- five bob. A Stella in the bar - five bob. A whisky and soda (illegal in Belgium then) - ten bob. Breakfast in bed - two and six, and so it went on. Holidaymakers buy the basics cheap; they then deliver themselves as a captive audience to everybody in the destination. Behind the walls of his hotel, Roland had a monopoly. Plus, this is where you first learn that the tour operation itself is pretty low in the holiday food chain - the holidaymakers actually expose themselves and their soft underbellies (purses) to the hotelier!
The guide - Although I’ve met thousands of Sasha’s since, dinky little Sasha Ravinsky will always be my archetype guide. Sacha was certainly better educated and much more cultured than the rest of the motley mob of tourism hanger-ons. To start with, he spoke half a dozen languages fluently, he had a real interest in music and history and came from a distinctly upmarket background. So why was this tubby, scruffy little 40-year-old waving his flag in the midst of definitely lower-class tourists who would take the piss out of him at every opportunity and call him "Slasher" to his face? Was he writing the definitive work about Kant, a great symphony or choreographing a supreme work of dance (surprisingly, he’d been a ballet dancer once) and just trying to support himself in the meantime? Well he should have been doing all of those and more, but he wasn’t. He was earning his living and devoting his resources to being a poor, downtrodden tour guide. Desperately trying to make sure of his commission at the souvenir shops and living on free meals from the restaurants. Educated, emotional, somehow disenfranchised, part teacher, part joke, part philosopher, wholly disgruntled and downtrodden, Sacha administered to his groups with no deference whatsoever.
Yes, OK there were flash tour guides of that era, earning lots of dosh and getting their ends away with lots of their passengers. Even in the ‘50’s, tales of randy Loadsamoney guides and couriers were hitting the tabloids with unremitting frequency - earnings of £500 a week and more were frequently reported. But these were mainly svelte geezers chaperoning American tourists "Doing" Europe with more money than sense - the real money and the amazing party for guides in the tourism industry came later.
The coach operator
Coachies, whether drivers or owners, are the Sex Icons of the Tourism industry. Macho to a fault, they drive and run their vehicles with a certain panache that seems to beguile their female passengers with absolutely no respect for class, age or type. I’ve seen dour, prim, elderly schoolmistresses aching with passion directed at ugly, crude drivers. I’ve seen gorgeous, sophisticated women falling desperately for ineffably boring, louche uneducated coach proprietors. In what world is the feat of steering a coach with your beer-belly - hands in the air - a come on? When on a coach, lovely ladies seem to enter the world of the hen party, and the driver’s the strip-off policeman!
In Ostend, Roger Ramoudt and his brothers were the kiddies. They owned Ramoudts Coaches, they brought the coaches to the party and they were going to drive them. Dark, sleek, moustachioed, and swaggering the five brothers could have been mistaken for bit-players in a Spaghetti Western. They’d leap into the saddles of their red-and-blue Leyland Tiger Cub Jonkheeres and whisk you away to foreign lands, today Adinkerke, tomorrow Cologne, and then...who knows?
Rather like the airline industry, the masochism of the coaching business has never failed to amaze me. You can buy a superb bit of printing gear for rather less than you can buy a coach and you can charge a much higher hourly rate for printing. There are no real seasons in printing, your machine is dead cheap to run compared with a coach - and it’s not out in all weather and prone to client abuse and accidents. So, if you wanted to make money, why not get into print? Simple...you can’t paint your printing press in flash colours with your own name on it, you can’t drive it around and you can’t pick up babes.
The local tourism oligarch
OK, Ostend had been hosting foreign guests for centuries before the 1950’s, but hitherto they’d all been posh... The "Mijnheers" and "Mijvrouws" of Europe's middle and upper classes had come to Ostend to try the thermal baths and bathe in the sea in the specially-constructed bathing machines. A little horse racing, a promenade along the prom, a turn in the Casino was sufficient for their needs. And, although they spent plenty of money, there weren’t very many ABC1’s then. So, when the first waves of mass foreign tourism hit Ostend, the locals understood the game, but not the new players. At first.
There were, of course, hotels and restaurants. Quite a few of them, in fact. They’d been used to catering for pre-war domestic tourists and during-war foreign tourists, mainly from Germany and mainly in uniform. The domestic market had dried up - they were too busy with re-construction to spend the little money they had, and the foreign uniformed tourists had been defeated and had gone home to reconstruct their own country. The only real market available was over the water - the triumphant Brits, eager to re-bond with their Belgian cousins they’d so recently liberated and to bask in a little hero-worship and sun-on-the-beach.
So, what do you need for (mass) tourism? Basically, accommodation and transportation and a bit of marketing; you’re there. Tell the hoteliers that you can get them business, negotiate rates with a few coachies, rent some coaches yourself, brand the product, make friends with the embryo foreign tour operators to get their business and before you can say "Nello Maertens", you’re the local tourism oligarch. You’ve called your company "Ostend Travel Service" so nobody has any doubts about where you are, who you are and what you do and you’re in control of the game. For a surprisingly long time. The local tourism providers trust you because you’re one of them, the foreign tour operators like you because a) you sort out their on the spot problems and b) you look after them very well.
Nello was young and attractive and quickly powerful. He established an office right in the centre of things beside the Cathedral, leased hotels and coaches, trained and uniformed guides and quickly captured and held the marketplace. Who wouldn’t be impressed and/or envious? There were to be Nello’s all over the world - maybe he sold the franchise and training scheme!
The Tour Operator
My Dad’s first introduction to tourism came around 1928, when he was 10, taking his holidays with his Dad’s family in Diksmuide. Never heard of Diksmuide? Well, it was pretty famous at one time. Slap bang in the middle of the First World War, Diksmuide was razed to the ground - the inhabitants mostly took off to the South of France and came back when the war was over to rebuild their village exactly as it was, complete with medieval market square. You couldn’t tell the difference.
When the tourists arrived for battlefield tours, they could see the Trench of Death, Hills 60 and 62, the Ypres Salient, and various other notable sights. They didn’t come in their thousands, but in a big enough trickle to provide some reasonable remuneration for the locals and the local lads. Here the old man saw that tourism existed - and that it could be a profitable occupation.
In the early 1950’s, a few years after the Second World War, my Dad was working as a railway driver, one of the benefits of which occupation was a limited number of free continental rail passes. Seeing the potential (free travel + cheap accommodation), he organised a few of his colleagues to go to Belgium to play darts and have a good (and cheap) time. Calling his group the "Jolly" Party, they all went, they all played darts with Belgian teams for cups, they all enjoyed it. Dad made some money, he enjoyed himself, so he repeated the exercise, again and again. Pretty soon he had a business - and a market - railwaymen with free passes.
Working on the classic marketeer’s formula (to expand, you sell your product to a new market, and you sell new products to your market), he expanded both his product range and he entered a new market. By 1956, new tours were being sold using Ostend as a bridgehead (Rhineland and South of France) and a new market entered - the general public. Advertisements were placed in the mass media.
Then came a stroke of luck. Dad met Tommy Trinder, a very well-liked comedian of the day. Dad liked Tommy, Tommy liked Dad, and he was kind enough to endorse the Jolly Party Continental Tours in the form of a photograph, which appeared in National Press advertising. Tommy’s catch-line was "You Lucky People" - ideal as an announcement in a travel ad. As far as I know, Tommy did it as a kindly gesture, it was a very generous act, and certainly boosted business substantially. Jolly Party Continental Tours was on the road! And the old man became my archetype tour operator.
Like many, many after him, Tour Operator Tjolle followed a path that began with recognising the tourism opportunity, continued by being able to convince others to believe his vision, then promoting and marketing to create the necessary critical mass. He never went into a bar, hotel, restaurant, indeed any establishment, without leaving brochures, he nurtured his relations with the press, he grabbed any opportunity he saw to promote his brand. He just loved to deliver experiences that he enjoyed to others, but eventually, his enjoyment got the better of him and he went bust in 1967 because he hadn’t paid Roland’s bill.