Horizon Holidays for Beginners
The battle to spend money on beer – 1979-1985
Of course, a proper job is only rarely the ideal job. I had expressed an interest in teaching as early as fourteen, but the pressure to bring home the bacon meant that on leaving university, undertaking teacher training would have to be delayed by twelve years. In the meantime, I forged a career in the travel industry.
I am constantly asked if I enjoyed being a travel agent. I always huffily respond that I was never a travel agent, although the line became a little blurred towards the end. I worked in tour operations, which had its roots in the enormously complicated laws that progressively barbaric UK governments imposed on personal travel. Basically, if you discounted airfares (below that of the “approved” fares), you had to package it with something, hence package holidays. As a standard, these came with a flight, road transport to a resort, and a hotel with food. As
time passed, the deals became both simpler and more complex but basically focused on the same ideal.
At the same time, the major tour operators were becoming involved in vertical expansion, buying into airlines, hotel companies and resort ground operations. Quite simply, the tour operators began to take on all the supply chain’s risks, which is one reason why today, the three big boys of the day, Thomson, Intasun, and Horizon, have ceased to exist.
I was the least likely person in the world to be involved in yer fortnight in Benidorm with yer English breakfast, yer Watney’s Red Barrel, and yer lobster tan. I was more of a tents, backpacks, cagoules, and dirty boots sort of guy. However, October 1979 saw me join Horizon Holidays, and within four days, I was sat in a Mini, vomiting into a gutter on the island of Malta. I guess I had joined the in-crowd.
I was never a fan of Malta. I found it hard to appreciate a place that was so English but was also overseas. I suspect today that many Russians have the same feeling. Malta lends itself to what? Well, in my case, a second visit for a football tour just a year later.
Those of you who have seen me play football will know that my talents do not lie in having the ball at my feet; I am liable to fall over it. I am excellent and persistent about running off the ball, but this skill becomes somewhat redundant when the opposition realises my team will not even pass to me. In desperation, I
turned to goalkeeping as a way of satisfying my desire to play and minimising my impact on the flow of any game. This strategy would have been acceptable if I was any good, but I was not. I was reasonable on the ground and useless in the air. My two most significant claims to fame are that I played at Loftus Road, Queen’s Park Ranger’s stadium, which was astroturfed at the time, and at Malta’s old Empire Stadium, which was very well-grassed when I was there.
Horizon proceeded to beat the opposition in this beautiful old stadium, a team that included two Maltese international players, one of whom was their goalkeeper. I was very much Horizon’s second choice of keeper; in fact, I only played if they were desperate; the guy who usually filled the spot could not get the time off. We won 2-1, and I was delighted to shake the hand of my opposite number.
Unfortunately, our boss had bet a bottle of whisky on this match. He had intended this to be a standard 70cl bottle, but his opposite number in Malta had chosen a full UK gallon bottle. I say unfortunate, for we had a second match coming up and felt obliged to consume both bottles the night before the game. In addition, probably under the influence of alcohol, our centre-forward had driven his rental car head-on into a mobile cement mixer. Both vehicles were written off, and our supposed goal scorer was out of action with a bad neck and a cut-up forehead, although it did improve his looks.
The second match was played at midday on a chalk white pitch, with a white ball and one team nursing the hangover from hell. On a technical basis, the opposition was of a far lower standard than in the first match, which made it even more surprising that the bet on this one was now a crate of whisky. It has to be suspected that our boss, safely ensconced in our office in Birmingham, had far less idea about the circumstances on the ground in Valetta, Malta, than his opposite number.
Blinded, confused, and outplayed, we went down 4-0. I chose never to revisit Malta.
Regular trips overseas were a mainstay of life during the Horizon days; the company offered excellent deals, and if aircraft seats were empty, staff could use them. You can imagine that this did lead to some shady staff practices, to say the least. Some visits masqueraded as “educationals”, trips to allow staff and travel agents to learn about the resorts we featured. It was a few years before I was asked to lead one of these outings, and it turned out to be to one of the areas I least wanted to visit; the Costas Brava and Dorada.
I requested the assistance of some ex-colleagues in finding photographs of drunken staff on educational visits. The responses were interesting:
“All I can say is thank God the iPhone didn’t exist then!”
“Pictures of staff pissed on a Horizon educational... never seen anything like that before...”
“Educationals + drink?? Really?”
“I was too busy shagging to get drunk!”
Finally, this quote from 1979, by the leader of an educational visit, Alan Smith, a company legend, who is also name-checked later in this
piece, “Right. There’s your money from the company, now, piss off and don’t bother me until it’s time to go home!”
All of this strongly suggests that Horizon staff on educational visits were probably already drunk when they boarded the aircraft and it is likely they remained that way for the entire time away.
One upside to my planned trip was that I was taking four young ladies; one downside was that I had to carry a suitcase full of uniforms for our representatives working out there. Reus was an old military airport and had bizarre systems. You got onto the transfer buses without seeing your luggage, unless, that is, they wished to search it when you were hauled off, which is precisely what happened to me.
It might sound silly, but back in 1980, things were not quite as easy in the European Economic Commission as they were to become within the European Union; in fact, they were almost as bad as they are today in 2023. I had a bag containing ten uniforms for overseas staff, all for females; this would not look good with Spanish customs.
Fortunately, it turned out that it was the other bag containing my personal belongings, although unfortunately, it also held three boxes of All Bran, a gift for our area manager. She stood next to me as they opened it up, but our relief in realising the case was not full of skirts was immediately turned to dread as the customs examiner said, “¿Y que son estos?”
I have never seen a bag shut quite as quickly in my life. The area manager’s reply was, “"¡Esos son cereales para el desayuno que te hacen cagar!" (Those are breakfast cereals that make you shit!) scared the man so much that we were allowed through immediately.
On the last night of our trip, we were staying at the Samba Hotel in Lloret de Mar, and it turns out we had been overbooked, the result being all five of us were to occupy one room. By this point, I did not think this suited any of us, and it ended up that the four of them used the room, and I slept on the balcony. The four girls had turned out to have little idea as to things to do in the evenings, which surprised me somewhat. It meant that for five days, I determined what we would be up to, but on the sixth day, everything changed. I’m unsure if this happened because of the overbooking, but they had definite plans on where to go for a drink, where to eat, and most definitely, which nightclub we would end up in. I should have sensed a wind-up, but I confess I had no inkling.
It was when we got to the nightclub that their plan became apparent. I had been entered into a Mister Lloret de Mar competition. It turned out that ten other contestants were about as thrilled as me, although one, a Spanish guy, seemed to do this sort of thing professionally. There were only two elements to the competition, the first being to dance to Michael Jackson’s Thriller. In itself, this was not too bad, but you had to perform by yourself for about a minute in front of a drunk, hyper-critical, and predominantly female crowd. I guess I was as average as anyone else.
Eleven of us chatted before the second event and agreed we would split the prize, whoever won; it was a crate of sparkling wine. The second element was a sexy legs competition, which had to be performed in a pair of underpants and nothing else. I have always had decent legs, so I had little concern about this bit, mainly because our faces were hidden, and I do not have an attractive face. I will say, it felt a bit like a cattle market with pissed girls falling over themselves trying to touch us.
What had commenced as a huge embarrassment was not as bad as we thought, except for the Spanish guy winning. He collected his prize but then astonished us all by offering us a bottle each; not once had he agreed to share, and I like to imagine he just did so to be nice. However, it was not very good wine.
The following few paragraphs offer a simple tale that has been made more complex because memory and inebriation are not necessarily comfortable bedfellows. Even though I checked the details with a friend and we applied both our databases, there are still issues that remain unclear. Let us just say there are odd times in your life when you drink far too much. If I was to try and add them up, I am not sure I would need all my fingers, so by definition, this is less than a biennial event. However, it is unsurprising that one such occasion should have occurred at the home of the late great Alan Smith.
Generally, I do not use names in these accounts, usually to prevent the likelihood of litigation. However, in this case, it will help many people both understand the story and to mourn, for Al is very sadly deceased. Let me just say you would not generally expect to leave a party at Al’s house without being pretty slaughtered. One other name comes into the tale, that of Scott Taylor. Scott is very much alive, although the last time I saw him, he was very much the worse for wear, although as I do not say anything derogatory about him, I thought he might enjoy the spotlight.
I am not entirely sure of the excuse for the party, but I do recall we had been slamming tequilas at the White Swan for much of the afternoon. I know I must have been at a party at Al’s because I was woken up lying sideways in his bath, surrounded by vomit and water dripping on my forehead. The scenario was a first (and also a last time) for me, I always knew I was never intended for heaven, but it was the strangest sort of hell I had found myself in. There are far more questions than there will ever be answers.
Al seemed to have fetched Scott, who lived in the same house, to help him extricate me from his tub. It was Scott who not only saved me but also took me outside and sat me on the low wall that separated the property from the pavement. If it seems this might have been an attempt to embarrass me by exposing my frazzled state to the outside world, you may well be correct, and it worked. As I gazed at St. Anne’s Church, Scott mumbled, and a vicar approached.
I have had many good experiences meeting vicars, but it was clear from the outset that this was not to be one of those. For a start, he began lecturing us about introducing Satan’s music to Moseley. I was a little confused, but he continued his attack by denigrating my clothing and physical state; at this point, I started to believe he may have a point. However, it was increasingly hard to focus, and when he began accusing us of devil worship, I felt the need to throw up again. He backed off. It was Sunday morning, and he did have his best shiny shoes on. As he trotted off to church, Scott helped me slip back into his flat so I could tidy myself up.
We believe the broken pipes were a celestial intervention; they did not occur, although they eventually had to be fixed. Some alien being guided Scott to Alan’s bathroom to take me out; Alan’s supposed presence was simply a shapeshifter, called on by the priest to intervene so as to protect his shoes. As can be seen in the photograph, the wall has been repaired, and a small hedge has been grown, we suspect from the tears that fell on that spot.
All else in the world is good. Perhaps.
Market Development, of which I was a member from 1979-83, were the first department at Horizon to use personal computers. They were a little bigger than they are today. I believe we trialled early Apple II computers before going with IBM, but I could be mistaken.
The reason they had a double disk drive is that the IBM 5150 had only 64kb of RAM. One drive held the floppy disk containing the program; the other stored the data, but the disks could only hold 160kb each. To put this into perspective. My current phone, which is five years old, has almost half a million times more storage than this PC and two diskettes. As might be expected, the first software we used were spreadsheets, VisiCalc being the first that I recall, with Lotus 1-2-3 coming in later. For anyone interested, Excel, Microsoft’s spreadsheet, was never as good as its predecessors and Access, the MS database program, is useless compared to software available in the mid to late Eighties. However, I digress.
I was working at one of these IBM machines together with a very competent lass who was a relatively recent addition to the department. We took turns inputting data from a paper source, as it was easiest if one read and the other used the keyboard. Unless you specifically saved your data, then the work remained unsaved. We had not saved our input for a few hours, possibly because our progress was so good. It was a stupid mistake, which was to be compounded by the fact that the office junior came along to entertain us. He was also a sparky team member but was very young. It was like having a puppy; you could feed and stroke him, but you often had to clear up his mess.
On this occasion, the lad was swaying from side to side. As our concentration had been broken, we paused to hear what he had to say. Honestly, whatever pearls of wisdom dropped from his lips, or however urgent his utterings might have been, I cannot remember. He continued swaying, and it became apparent that he was perched on something; his feet were close together. Eventually, his weight and the continuous motion caused his platform to malfunction. As our screen went dark, our data dropped into an entropic black hole, never to return.
I know I said some bad things. I know it was out of order to swear and threaten a sixteen-year-old. I know that four-letter words were rarely used in the Horizon offices. I know these things because I was forced to apologise formally and in writing. I would not have had to apologise if I had killed him, and a jury might have acquitted me on the grounds of justifiable homicide.
Do you remember those floor-mounted plugs in Broadway?
I discussed football earlier, but it is less well-known that Horizon played a game of rugby against Orion Airways. As usual, the finer points of a game linger in your memory, so the stand-out information is that some Orion stewardesses dived into the big communal bath with the players after the game. Not that the girls had been playing; it was 1982, after all; they just decided it would be good for team morale – both teams!
It was not a great game. After five minutes, the referee got us together and asked if we wanted to start playing rugby. I had always been a hooker, although never a very good one. Some people are smiling at this statement, but it’s true. The hooker is the guy in the middle of the scrum who tries to use his feet to get the ball out of the melee towards his own team. They say that the closer you play to the centre of the scrum, the thicker you are, which, when you consider you might have two-thirds of a tonne pushing you from behind and three-quarters of a tonne pushing on you from in front – “they” might have a point.
As the game progressed, it became clear that only two people on the pitch knew what they were doing. It was obvious to me because their tighthead prop and hooker were more than grazing cheeks with me, and their loosehead prop was twisting sideways into the front row, turning our bodies into corkscrews. It turned out that both their props were ringers, imported from Leicester Tigers’ second fifteen. I have no idea what the result of the match was, only that I could not walk properly afterwards and could not assume a fully vertical stance for almost a week. Still, it’s good to find out that some girls get thoroughly excited at the sight of water vapour arising from a decently set scrum down.
Cricket games were more common, and I played for Horizon throughout my employment there. I should point out that the standards were low; otherwise, I would never have had a game. Specific matches do not produce readily re-countable or jaunty tales, but general idiocy was our greatest danger. One night we played so late under the shadows of Dudley Castle that one of our players was struck on the head in the darkness, suffering a fracture to the skull. In another, one of my departmental colleagues bowled a completely innocuous ball, which our director managed to edge straight into his nose, bringing his wife rushing onto the ground.
However, my favourite story concerns a director, a senior manager and yours truly; in a pair of staff versus directors matches. In the first game, I was batting, the director was bowling, and the manager was umpiring. The first ball of the over comes in well outside my leg stump, and I swept it for four runs. The second ball of the over comes in well outside my leg stump, and I swept it for another four runs. The third ball of the over comes in well outside my leg stump, and I sweep but miss. The director appeals for leg before wicket, and the manager gives me out.
This decision is blatantly wrong (see E on the diagram), and the director knew it, but would not reverse his appeal. I knew it and was furious. Only the umpiring manager had no clue, but he was an idiot and knew nothing about cricket.
Revenge is a dish best-served cold. Several months later, the same two sides faced each other, this time at the Edgbaston Colts ground. The difference was that I was bowling, the director, who fancied himself a bit, was batting, and the manager was once again umpiring. I put down an innocuous ball (perhaps A in the diagram), it was certainly missing the stumps, but the director took a big swing at it and missed, the ball ending up in the wicketkeeper’s gloves. I appealed; I will confess, it was instinctive; I knew absolutely that the director was not out; the best thing was, so did he. My appeal was loud and prolonged, and I got right in the face of the umpiring manager; slowly, he lifted his finger. Out! I had waited a long time, but I got even. I believe it is the only time I have cheated while playing cricket.
I worked with some lovely people both within and outside my department. It was the guys from within that often proved the most challenging. Before we wrested control of the pricing function with our personal computers in the early days, we had to use a terminal down in the computer department. Each destination and hotel would have its own data entry sheet, and this information had to be typed into a keyboard. There was no screen, but there was a printer, which trundled out both the input and the output, the hotel’s prices, on computer paper. For anyone interested, these output prices were later cut out and dropped into a pricing grid, such as the one appearing at the bottom of practically every page of every brochure that Horizon ever produced.
We all took turns with the input, which was not engaging in the least; in fact, it was mind-numbingly dull and often took place in the evening when no one else was around. Due to the time lag, it was possible to input several sheets of data and then have a break, but this only worked if every single aspect of the input was correct; a single error screwed up all the input after the mistake. It all depended on how good your reading and keyboard skills were, but just one error and you would end up repeating all of the input. The later it got, the more likely mistakes were.
So, I sat there one night hammering away at the keyboard and praying there were no errors so that I might get home before midnight. Around ten o’clock, I headed upstairs to rejoin my colleagues. The lights were off, and no one was home–a normal mental state for the Market Development staff, but not a physical one. The bastards had all gone to the pub, forgetting I was still in the building.
One subject is mentioned almost every time I get together with friends from Horizon Holidays: the current exchange rate of the Barbadian to the US dollar. It is actually the most boring exchange rate in the whole wide world; for all intents and purposes, it has been two Barbadian dollars to one US dollar for at least forty years and probably longer. In layman’s terms, it is a government-fixed exchange rate. Certainly, in the summer of 1981, the rate lay at that level, as my workmates and I remember so well.
As a tour operator, you bundle together various components and create a package holiday. For the summer of 1982, we were to move into long haul, including the USA and Barbados. A colleague had put the whole thing together, and all he had left to do was to come up with the prices. At this point, he was sent away on a freebie, and Muggins had to step in and complete his job, having not been involved to that point. Although it was a pain in the butt, it should not have been an issue; I knew what I was doing, it did not take long, and a director checked the prices.
It was only after the product went on sale that questions started to be asked, firstly by our sales team. They were wondering if we could increase the capacity for Barbados, as sales were far better than could have possibly been expected. Secondly, and more surprisingly, our competitors chimed in, although they were less than ecstatic. Laker Airways provided the flight, and apparently, their chairman, Freddie Laker, took the time to call our chairman, Bruce Tanner, to tell him we had cocked up the pricing and could we sort it out immediately, please?
You would have thought Mister Laker might have been happy; it was after all the time when his Skytrain operation was getting into difficulties, but no. Sir Freddie also ran Arrowsmith, a Liverpool-based tour operator, and they were competing directly with us on the Barbados holidays. If they had sold anything, Arrowsmith customers would have sat in seats on the same aircraft as our clients but would have been considerably worse off financially.
As it tends to when trouble is afoot, the news came down our chain of command at lightning speed, and I was asked to check our prices. I did so and found them to be entirely correct. Something was clearly wrong, though, and it became evident that only half of the accommodation cost had been included. In which case, how come the calculations were correct?
It turned out that the mistake was elementary, so simple some of you may already have spotted it. The hotel contracts were clearly labelled as being in dollars, not US dollars, not Barbadian dollars, just “dollars”. When I priced the holidays, I assumed that as the hotels were in Barbados, this would mean the contracts were in Barbadian dollars; they were not.
At this point, I made a suggestion that could have changed the course of history. I proposed we stand by the prices and take over the ex-UK market. The result would have had all sorts of consequences, including Laker and Arrowsmith going bust faster than they did, but also Horizon carving an immediate and prominent position for itself in the long-haul market. Baldrick would have said it was a cunning plan, although our management, not known for their adventurous characteristics, failed to see the benefits!
Astonishingly, I was blamed and punished for the pricing error; entirely. Not my boss, who had allowed my colleague to vanish at the wrong time, not the director who had checked the prices, and not the director who had signed the contracts and been non-specific about the dollars in question, but me! My pay rise was suspended, and my bonuses were removed for twelve months; it was a travesty of justice.
Amusingly, Laker’s Skytrain project collapsed only months later. They had tried to protect themselves against currency movement by pre-purchasing aviation fuel in US dollars. Subsequently, the rapid collapse of sterling meant their revenues nowhere near matched their US dollar costs. When PanAm, TWA and BA dropped their prices, Laker’s cashflow halved, and they were done for. To be fair to Freddie Laker, he did take them all to court and won a small fortune, as they had operated as an illegal cartel. I just wish I could have taken my employers to court, for their actions were grossly immoral and probably breached employment law.
Almost thirty years later, I was preparing to teach my first Economics lessons. You can imagine my delight when I found that the US/Barbadian dollar case was used as an example in the textbook. Not being one to miss a learning opportunity, over ten years, every single one of my students left my classes knowing about this fiasco.
The signs that Horizon Holidays were having difficulties were becoming apparent in the few years before I left, although they struggled on as a separate PLC until Bass bought them in 1987. I had gone to a talk at the Birmingham Chamber of Commerce, a rare outing with my father, where the guy who ran Horizon’s Systems Development Department gave a fascinating talk on the paperless society. A few weeks later, we had a very windy Friday night.
There should be no connection between the computer manager’s talk and a windy night in
Birmingham, but you have to believe it; there is. I was working on a Saturday morning, which was quite usual, and also wholly unpaid, and as I drove towards the building, I could not help but notice that something was very amiss. Paper streamers descended from the sixth floor of the Broadway building, which Horizon occupied, into the centre of the traffic island at Five Ways. They stretched an impressive one-hundred metres to the roundabout’s centre whilst falling at least 30 metres in height. It looked like one of those New York ticker tape events or one of the times when they saw off emigree’s cruise ships.
Anyone who remembers the old-fashioned concertina computer paper will know that just like Andrex toilet paper; it was strong and very long, although it is not soft enough for you to want to use it on your ass.
It turned out that the Aviation Department had ordered the end-of-summer season flight reports. They had been stacked five feet high within the department’s area on the sixth floor, occupying half their floor space. Unfortunately, someone must have got a bit hot and sticky carrying the printouts up and had opened a few windows. Bizarrely, they had done so on both sides of the building. Unlike the example in the photo, these windows had no stopping mechanism. Once they began to rotate, they became like windmills in the high winds until one side of the building provided the suction and the other the draught.
The end result was an embarrassment for the Aviation Department, an embarrassment for Horizon Holidays, and an embarrassment for the window manufacturers, but most of all, it was an embarrassment for the System Development Manager and his paperless society.
It was a good run. We had some great times and some that were not so good. As a learning experience, it was second to none, a marvellous apprenticeship for the following stages in my career. It seemed I had hit a wall at Horizon; there were no routes for promotion because the place was bloated with middle and senior management. I got the feeling that they did not trust me either; that matter with the Barbados dollar severely dented my creditability, however unfair it was.
For Christmas 1985, we booked a week of skiing in Austria. I was considering a job offer from one of our competitors, and seven days with some nice cold air would allow me the time to mull it over.
Except, as it turned out, it was not a week; I believe I managed to eke out my time away from the office for almost two months. On Christmas Day, 1985, the last day I ever skied, I came off the mountain and straight into hospital with a severe medial ligament injury to my left knee and a bite mark on my right hand. The game was up.
It was hilarious, really; almost pre-ordained. I had determined I no longer wanted to work there, and something came along to make it very difficult to get into the office. Of course, I could have done so, I should have found a way, but I did not want to. I have had very little time off work in my life, but on this occasion, I milked it for all it was worth.
When I did finally go in, it was to find a reorganisation underway and a new job for yours truly. The powers that be managed to appoint me Assistant Product Manager for the Villas and Apartments programme and very cheekily failed to establish a manager above me! I would not even have accepted the Product Manager position if they had offered it, and I certainly did not want to work in the Marketing Department.
They had hired a photographer especially to get a whole department shot. I suppose they had the decency to allow me to come back to work before they did so. However, I did the more decent thing; when the photographs were taken, I stood right at one end and leaned away; it later enabled them to crop me out without issue; otherwise, I might have had to feel the sharp end of Scott’s scalpel. I left the photo shoot, hobbled into my boss’s office, and handed him my resignation.
Sayonara, Horizon! Sayonara, Birmingham!
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