This year, Riviera turned 37. In these extraordinary times for the travel industry that’s definitely something to be celebrated and since we’re all feeling a bit reflective, we wanted to share some of our special memories, as penned by Amy, who has been with us for over 25 years.
We’re extraordinarily proud of our heritage; from humble beginnings with a handful of tents on a campsite in the south of France during the early 1980s, our founder Michael Wright, with his extraordinary passion for travel and history, created the largest escorted tour operator in the UK, and our ethos to provide an exceptional holiday experience to the world’s most fascinating destinations, that’s as educational as it is entertaining, all for the best value you’ll find anywhere, remains as strong as it ever was.
In those early days, our advertising was solely with regional newspapers and the concept of Reader Offers was still very much in its infancy. On 8th March 1984, the very first Riviera Travel coach tour to Paris ran in conjunction with the Burton Mail and of course even today, though we’ve had to upscale a couple of times over the years, our head office remains in Burton-upon-Trent. Our first office, The Manor, was 2 small rooms in the upstairs of a lovely Georgian house; when I arrived for my interview I especially remember (in addition to the vivid sunshine yellow woodchip on the walls) a warm a friendly welcome from the reservations team (of 4!) and the office cat, who spent her days wandering between the marketplace and over and around our desks!
Remarkably whilst we now operate our Paris city break via Eurostar, the itinerary is largely unchanged, and we still work with some of the hotel partners we worked with decades ago. The first local paper we teamed up with was the Bucks Free Press and from there we began working with numerous titles all over the country – from the Newcastle Chronicle & Journal to the Loughborough Echo, Southern Daily Echo to Western Mail, there was virtually no corner of the UK we weren’t working with. Michael would arrive at the paper’s offices with his briefcase crammed with maps and would talk with infectious enthusiasm about our holidays for hours! From 3-night coach tours to Paris, in 1985 we started to operate to the Loire Valley and Le Touquet.
Next came a Paris and Champagne tour which looking back was something quite avant-garde, with a 1-night stay in Paris with a guided tour, then 2 nights in Reims, with its exceptional cathedral in the heart of Champagne country. The tour culminated in a tour and tasting in the Roman cellars at Ruinart, the oldest champagne house in France, followed by an exceptional Michelin one-star standard 4 course dinner, each course served with a different champagne – quite exceptional! We returned to Calais via the World War I battlefields – and all this for a staggering £129 in high season!
Next came a flurry of 3-night breaks: Amsterdam, the Rhine Valley and Brittany – and later Normandy, the Moselle and by 1989, Bruges – which became one of our classic tours, and still operates today via Eurostar. I remember customers who loved Bruges so much they returned year after year – one couple ended up travelling with us 14 times to Bruges, truly amazing! We always collected our customers from local pick-up points and the tour guide – or courier as we were sometimes knows as back then – was always on the coach from minute one so that the guests always felt taken care of, no matter what time of the day or night it was! In fact my very first Riviera trip began at 1am at Leicester Forest East Services, picked up in a car to be taken up the A1 to meet a coach at Blyth – to head up to Newcastle to meet the guests, then back down to Dover-Calais ferry to drive through France and Belgium to Amsterdam. A long day!
At the height of Reader Travel we were working with in excess of 200 publications and magazines, our record number of coaches in Paris over a single weekend was 18 with 9 in Bruges, but as we always advertised under the publication’s name, Riviera Travel, just featuring in the small print, remained relatively unknown as the operator.
All that began to change once we began working with the national papers. In 1992 we began advertising with the Sunday People – part of the Mirror Group. We had a full page advert and filled 35 coaches off a single promotion – needless to say, we swiftly began working with the majority of the nationals and over the next 10 years as our profile increased with the likes of The Telegraph, The Times, The Guardian & Observer, only about 5% of what we did was through the regional press. Consequently, our market began to change, and our tours adapted accordingly. No longer were we offering solely coach tours, as many of our holidays were by air, using as many regional airports where possible for maximum convenience – much as we do today.
It was always our plan to attract customers with a city break and then be able to take them on longer holidays, further afield. Although we’d attempted New York in 1986, it took another 20 years until we operated our first long haul programme in 2006 – a selection of 4 escorted tours to different continents to take account of the varied seasonality: South Africa, Peru, Sri Lanka and Vietnam – to which there were no direct flights at that time, so it really was off the tourist beaten track. Again, all these destinations still feature as very popular holidays in our collection today!
2009 saw us venturing into river cruising. The concept was always that it was ‘escorted touring on water’ and by attracting a slightly older market, it ensured we kept our customers for longer. Our first itineraries along the Rhine and Moselle were designed often to sail overnight as that was what we initially thought our guests wanted but we soon realised quite the opposite – that sailing was very much part of the experience and our itineraries evolved accordingly. Listening to and understanding our guests has always been at the heart of what we do, and we’ll always look to tweak and adapt our itineraries according to feedback. Since those early days of cruising, we have built our own ships and are proud to have some of the most luxurious vessels sailing European waterways. We also launched our first luxury yacht itinerary in 2016 in the Adriatic, and now operate with 5 superb vessels on a variety of routes along the spectacular Dalmatian coast.
By 2014 we were carrying in excess of 110,000 customers on holidays all over the world. On such a high note, our founder decided ‘retirement’ beckoned and we were sold to VC Phoenix, and then subsequently at the end of 2017 to Silverfleet, at which point we were carrying over 130,000 customers – quite an extraordinary achievement and incredible to think that when I first started my Riviera journey nearly 25 years ago, we’d just moved over to fax from telex!
On a very personal level, Riviera has provided me with huge opportunities over the decades; I’ve travelled to some amazing places and worked with some truly outstanding colleagues whose love of travel, history, food and drink (all inextricably linked I realised) knows no bounds. We are a world away from those days we used to spend sitting on the office floor filing booking forms by hand, scribing faxes and meetings over the road in the pub, but as Riviera enters a new chapter in its history, we are so excited about what might lie ahead for us as travel evolves in a post-pandemic world, and we know as a travel-loving bunch, we have truly the most wonderfully loyal customers who will be travelling with us on our journey.
Roll on birthday 38!