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18/05/2011

Duration:
27 minutes
First broadcast:
Wednesday 18 May 2011

John Waite examines why schools across the UK have been left without the skiing trips they paid for. He speaks to the schools, parents and councils left to pick up the pieces and he investigates the business behind the trips.

  • TRANSCRIPT

    THIS TRANSCRIPT WAS TYPED FROM A RECORDING AND NOT COPIED FROM AN ORIGINAL SCRIPT. BECAUSE OF THE RISK OF MISHEARING AND THE DIFFICULTY IN SOME CASES OF IDENTIFYING INDIVIDUAL SPEAKERS THE BBC CANNOT VOUCH FOR ITS COMPLETE ACCURACY.

    FACE THE FACTS

    School Skiing Trips

    Presenter: John Waite

    TRANSMISSION: Wednesday 18th May 1230-1300 BBC RADIO 4

    Waite
    This is Reading School, a state funded boys' grammar, indeed founded originally in 1125 one of the oldest schools in England, set in 20 odd leafy acres of Berkshire, it was from here three months ago, during February half term, that over a hundred pupils and staff were supposed to travel to Switzerland. But like so many other skiing trips we'll hear about today courtesy of Chris Reynard those plans went downhill fast.

    Student
    I'd been thinking about it for months and I really couldn't wait - I'd organised trips to snow slopes so I could have practise, for Christmas most of my presents were ski things.

    Waite
    This week we're on the trail of an old friend of the programme, in his new guise. These days, Chris Reynard - whom Face the Facts first investigated in 1995 - is the man behind Devon based Skiing Europe, which has no connection with other companies with a similar sounding name. It arranges school trips to places like Switzerland and Austria. Except this year for hundreds of youngsters, they never left their school car park. Because of Skiing Europe's financial notoriety, coach firms won't carry them, hotels won't house them and ski-hire firms won't equip them. None of this the luckless schools know, however, until it's too late.

    Student vox pops
    Nearly every day of school where everyone was discussing oh what film did you get on your iPod for the trip and who's going to sit next to who and it all sounds a bit like stupid but even that was a big disappointment, we wouldn't be getting the coaches the next day, we wouldn't be seeing our friends.

    I was so disappointed because I'd been waiting for so long and I was just really upset.

    I sort of felt the sort of rush of anger and frustration and really - I felt kind of let down, not by the school but by the company because we'd trusted so much in them.

    Waite
    Reading School handed over around £85,000 to Mr Reynard, who - in turn, or so they believed - would pay for all the necessary accommodation, transportation, ski-hire, passes and food.

    But, almost as soon as the cheque had cleared - according to John Weeds, the school's principal - alarm bells began to ring.

    Weeds
    Six weeks before we were due to go we were told by Skiing Europe that we'd have to change our accommodation and move into another hotel and it made us want to check that, for example, the transport had been organised. One of the staff here checked with the coach company and we were told that the coach company was just about to ring us to say that they couldn't go ahead - they hadn't been paid for previous jobs with Skiing Europe.

    Waite
    So what did you do?

    Weeds
    We went back to Skiing Europe and said can you confirm that we will have transport and we got no confirmation back, in fact just the opposite - we began to hear from other schools who were going with the same company that they were experiencing similar problems.

    Waite
    150 miles away, in Devon, another 112 pupils from Tavistock College were also due to travel to Switzerland over the February half-term - courtesy of Mr Reynard to whom they'd paid around £90,000. But - as with Reading school - when he couldn't even guarantee where they'd be staying, they pulled out. Ditto Tonbridge Grammar School in Kent; when Mr Reynard couldn't say with certainty where they'd be staying, the 33 girls, who'd each paid £800, stayed put, and didn't travel to Switzerland either. So Reading's principal John Weeds was far from alone in cancelling a trip, leaving youngsters disappointed and their parents out of pocket.

    Weeds
    You ought to have absolute confidence in the organisation running it that they know what they're doing and that was not the case on the Friday before we were due to go.

    Waite
    But according to Mr Reynard, who was speaking to the Reading Post, the local newspaper at the time, he said: "We did not cancel the trip. Two coaches had been paid in full. The hotel was waiting - awaiting them."

    Weeds
    Well all he had to do in that case was ensure that we were given the necessary guarantees in the days leading up to departure and we simply could not get that and it would have been irresponsible to have gone ahead on that basis.

    Students
    It seems a bit selfish that we were worried about the things that we'd done because it's really our parents who get let down because they're paying lots of money and they're expecting some kind of trip but they got nothing.

    Waite
    Whereas Devon County Council has reimbursed parents who shelled out for trips with Tavistock College - that's around £90,000 of public money - and Tonbridge Grammar School has repaid parents to the tune of circa £30,000, Mr Weeds has been advised that he can't recompense parents from his school funds because they're intended to benefit the education of all students.

    What checks did you do on this company before you hired them?

    Weeds
    We always risk assess our visits. The governing body were involved in the checking process. We had a local authority advisor have a look at our arrangements, there was nothing to suggest that this would collapse in the way that it did.

    Waite
    For the record, many schools had travelled with Chris Reynard's company before and were happy enough to book again. Indeed, some schools did get away on trips last half term without incident. But the list of those which did have problems is still a long one.

    Read
    Tile Hill School in Coventry.

    Waite
    Travelled to Austria but had to pay again for the cost of their coaches.

    Read
    Alcester Grammar School in Warwickshire.

    Waite
    Had to fork out an extra £14,000 to get things like coach travel and accommodation that they'd already paid for.

    Read
    Chinthurst School, Surrey.

    Waite
    Cancelled its trip for 47 staff, pupils and their families due to lack of confirmation of accommodation. A group of 10 went ahead anyway but had to pay again for their hotels.

    Read
    St Thomas Moore school, Bedford.

    Waite
    Told us they had to pay again for a sizeable chunk of their hotel booking.

    Read
    Flint High School, Flintshire.

    Waite
    Had to pay again for part of the cost of their coach travel.

    Read
    St Edwards School, Essex.

    Waite
    Had to stump up another £7,000 for accommodation.

    And Somerset council told us:
    Read
    Crispin and St Dunstan schools proceeded with a school ski trip in February. There was considerable expense incurred for the accommodation and in the immediate short term, the schools have covered the costs.

    Waite
    And it wasn't only schools who found themselves faced with paying large bills out of their own pocket. Some of Chris Reynard's own staff did, too. Phillipa Smith from Sussex was one of Mr. Reynard's "tour reps" who would actually travel with a school trip to ensure all went smoothly. Phillipa had worked for Skiing Europe last year when she'd encountered no problems but this February, she says, there were problems right from the start.

    Smith
    Before we even made it onto the ferry we had a phone call saying that we were no longer going to Kitzbuhel and we were now staying in a place called Imst because the hotel in Kitzbuhel was no longer available.

    Waite
    So that meant that the parents of every one of the 36 youngsters on the trip had to be phoned and informed that their child would now be staying 80 miles away from where they'd expected. But things were to get even worse. Because, even in the new resort, Mr Reynard's reputation was clearly not snow white and when Philippa and her party parked their coach next to the local police station she found herself hauled inside after being approached by a very angry ski-hire man demanding that Phillipa herself stump up the 1800 euros Skiing Europe owed him.

    Smith
    If you don't pay me this amount of money right now then I'm going to take you into the police station and you're not going to be allowed to leave. I thought right, okay, I don't have 1800 euros, let me see what I can do for you. Five police officers come up to me and said you need to come with me now and they ended up taking a statement from me, I was crying my eyes out, I was so scared that I just didn't know what happened - like you're in a foreign country, you don't expect to be taken to the police station.

    Waite
    And what was the reaction of Mr Reynard?

    Smith
    Oh his reaction was oh there's nothing that I can do for you, I can't walk across the channel, I'm in England, you're in Austria. Tell them that I'll send them a cheque.

    Waite
    In the end, Phillipa was only allowed to leave after one of the teachers on the trip paid the bill on his personal credit card. Then, two days later when the party discovered that their ski passes had been blocked, another school teacher had to pay to have them restored. Altogether these unexpected "extras" cost the school an added 12,000 euros to settle - besides the £25,000 they'd already paid for the trip.

    So who is this Chris Reynard whose very name can land you in police custody? Well, whatever Mr Reynard's reputation - and financial track record - you'd never know it from the glossy boasts of his current brochure.

    Reading
    We are a financially sound, family owned business whose reputation is outstanding. For 40 years now, Chris has been involved in caring for skiers and his knowledge as a skier and an administrator must be nearly unequalled.

    Waite
    Well, Face the Facts is used to Mr Reynard's boasts. And to us he does indeed have an "outstanding reputation", though not perhaps in the way he'd like. We first came across him - and his then glossy brochures - 16 years ago when he was running an outdoor activities centre in Dorset.

    Promotional brochure - 1995
    Hyde House has been voted the best activities centre in the country. Devon and Dorset Adventure Holidays. No one has our experience or expertise.

    Waite
    Mr Reynard's latest skiing brochure talks of his appearances on TV, film and radio. Well, we can certainly confirm that he appeared on radio - sitting opposite me on an edition of Face the Facts in February 1995. And, well, mostly not responding to criticisms that he'd been misleading people in his promotional material.

    Clip from Face the Facts 1995
    Waite
    Parents, children, teachers will look at that see quite clearly - voted, you say, best centre in the country - I'm asking you now by whom? Is it by anyone?

    [Silence]

    Waite
    Eventually, however, I did tempt Mr Reynard to address some of the issues. He was facing legal action, I said, because, without permission, he'd been littering his brochure with the official logos of impressive and well-known sporting bodies and claiming endorsements by them that they had never given.

    Clip from Face the Facts 1995
    Waite
    Did these bodies - did they in fact endorse you?

    Reynard
    I believe that they were very impressed with what we were trying to do. Had we got it in writing then there would have been no dispute about it.

    Waite
    Well I have a letter here from Alan Cottle of Surrey County Council who says about you carrying his name in your promotional material: "I consider you've acted in a dishonest and devious way."

    Reynard
    I understand that that's his opinion, it was a misunderstanding.

    Waite
    Well, our programme on Mr Reynard prompted not one but two mentions in Parliament, with MPs hearing about what were described as his "lapses into Trappist silence". He was later prosecuted by Trading Standards for false claims in his literature. His business - Howglen Ltd - went into administration in 1996 and - in 2000 - he was struck off as a director due to his lack of "commercial probity". The High Court heard how he'd continued trading…

    Read
    When creditors' claims were not being met.

    Waite
    And...

    Read
    He failed to ensure holidays paid for in advance were provided.

    Waite
    Sounds rather familiar, doesn't it?

    Banned from being a director for five and a half years, when Chris Reynard launched his current school skiing trip business, it was as a sole trader. And Skiing Europe was soon attracting attention. With, in 2004, the Times Educational Supplement no less reporting this endorsement - in the company's brochure - from a well-satisfied council official.

    Read
    We feel that your organisation has achieved great things. John Askew from the County Borough of Bootle.

    Waite
    Except, the county borough of Bootle had been abolished 30 years earlier in 1974, and at its successor, Sefton Council, they had no knowledge of a Mr Askew. Mr Reynard says he wasn't trying to mislead; the quote was genuine, but had been given in relation to a previous business.

    Then there's the claim in his latest ski-trip brochure:

    Read
    Our flights are scheduled flights and are booked through our agents Trailfinders.

    Waite
    Except Trailfinders told us:

    Read
    Skiing Europe was not and has never been an appointed agent of Trailfinders Ltd. As soon as we became aware that Skiing Europe was holding itself to be an appointed agent a letter was sent to Chris Reynard ordering him to comply with the removal of all mention of Trailfinders Ltd forthwith.

    Waite
    Trailfinders has now reported the matter to the Civil Aviation Authority.

    When we e-mailed Mr Reynard about all the problems he's been causing with his ski-trips, his reply said simply that:

    Reynard [read]
    There is a consequence to so many schools being so much in arrears with their payments.

    Waite
    Which is a bit rich coming from Mr Reynard, according to Carol Watts. She runs a Cardiff based coach company which transported two school trips for Mr Reynard last year. The bill was over £10,000. When Mr Reynard claimed he'd only be able to pay after he'd remortgaged his house, the consequences for Carol's small firm looked serious.

    Watts
    Then he rang and said would it be alright if he sent £2,000 as the mortgage still hadn't come through. So I said well Mr Reynard we've waited rather a long time for this money could you not manage a little bit more. "No I couldn't, but don't worry it'll all be there." I rang him one day, I was nearly in tears, and I said: "Look," I said, "you're talking about remortgaging yours," I said, "we've had to remortgage ours to help pay off some of these debts." "Oh, oh well," you know and he just sort of was very offhand about it. It doesn't sound a huge amount perhaps to a big business - £10,200 - but it's a great deal to us, I mean when you take the cost of fuel for a coach and what it costs to pay wages, he's had the money, so where has it all gone?

    Waite
    One year on, and after using the services of a debt collection agency, Carol Watts has finally been paid £8,000 of the £10,000 she's owed by Mr Reynard.

    So how is it that so many schools could end up doing business with a man like Chris Reynard? Ian Pearson has some sympathy. He's general secretary of the School Travel Forum, an industry body of tour companies that's working to set new and more transparent standards to replace the somewhat vague advice on choosing travel operators that schools receive at the moment.

    Pearson
    There are guidelines, they're somewhat out of date these days but the guidelines are issued by the government, they're not statutory, they're just guidelines and specifically say that the teacher has a responsibility to make sure that that tour operator is reputable - which is the word that's used - as does the head teacher, as have the governing body and for a local authority school - the local authorities. And it's actually very, very difficult for them to be able to do that.

    Waite
    Why?

    Pearson
    It's very easy to appear to be sound and straightforward, particularly if there's a history of successful trips but it's very, very difficult without the benefit of industry knowledge to be able to properly identify how well a company is doing.

    Waite
    Some schools who booked trips with Mr. Reynard no doubt were reassured by his membership of the Association of Independent Tour Operators, AITO, which represents many specialist travel firms. How come they'd admitted Mr Reynard though, acting as a sole trader, having been previously struck off as a director and a trader moreover who's become something of a legend among alpine hotels, coach companies and ski-hire firms? AITO spokesperson, Sue Ockwell, told me about some of the checks they'd done.

    Ockwell
    We ask for a statement of assets. In this instance Skiing Europe these assets were considerable. We circulate details of the applicant to all members of AITO and we received no adverse feedback about Skiing Europe at all.

    Waite
    And Sue Ockwell isn't wrong when she talks about Mr Reynards "considerable assets", including his 80 acre estate in Devon, complete with private golf course - AITO reckoned he had assets of four and a half million pounds. And the latest accounts he showed to them revealed a profit of £400,000 on a turnover of just under £2 million. Even so, 13 weeks ago, Mr Reynard got in touch with his trade body to say he had "a cash flow problem" which was affecting some of his client schools. Concerned, senior AITO officials set off for Devon to find out more. Sue Ockwell says they needn't have bothered.

    Ockwell
    He was evasive I'm afraid, he didn't answer all the questions that were posed to him.

    Waite
    What were they asking?

    Ockwell
    All manner of things - how many schools were affected, how many children were affected, what's happened to the money that those schools have paid to you upfront, why aren't you keeping in touch with the schools and telling them what's the problem?

    Waite
    Mr Reynard, who'd told his visitors from AITO that he was getting a loan to help him out, resigned his membership with the organisation a few weeks later. After all, he was a busy man, what with the Easter holidays now coming up.

    [Bleeper noise]

    No old fashioned bells at the Quintin Kynaston school in north London, but an electronic bleeper to mark the end of classes. Nestled in St John's Wood, among some of the most expensive real estate anywhere in the country, this is no well-heeled public school though, some 67 languages are spoken and over 50% of its students get free schools meals. So their planned ski trip at Easter, courtesy of Mr Reynard, was truly extra special according to assistant head Tina Ward.

    Ward
    For a lot of the children on the trip it would be a once in a lifetime experience. It's not just the money for the trip, it's the clothing hire, the spending money - you're looking around a thousand pounds and when you've got single parents trying to find that money and they're finding the money it's so important that a trip like this happens and they really, really, really were looking forward to it. Even a month before the kids were saying they were nearly packed.

    Waite
    As you might imagine, though, what happened at Quinton Kynaston was depressingly familiar. With the trip getting ever nearer, Tina Ward became concerned when Chris Reynard was unable to confirm travel details. Then, with just a few weeks to go, he changed the departure date. So when Mr Reynard dropped by the school to update them - Tina and her colleagues prepared to pounce.

    Ward
    He didn't have the money to pay for a coach so would we be prepared to book and pay for a coach.

    Waite
    You had presumably already paid for a coach?

    Ward
    Paid all the money, that was all inclusive in the cost and also that we would need to pay for the lift passes but he would pay us back and he said: "I've got an agreement with another school, they're already doing this." And while he carried on the meeting with my bursar I went and rang that other school. They had paid the money for a coach and ski passes in order to have their holiday but when they'd got out there not only was there no equipment for the kids to use the hotel hadn't been booked or paid for and the teachers were having to pay for it themselves and then claim it back. I took that information back into Mr Reynard who said: "Well you didn't ask about the hotel." Which you know - and I think he thought he could come in, because he's got a posh accent, and fob us off and then I asked him how he was going to make sure that the ski hire stuff, which he told me was in Switzerland, was going to be in resort in time for us to ski, he said: "I don't know." At which point that was his only answer to every single thing - I don't know. Overnight, from his meeting, we received an e-mail from the hotel saying that he hadn't paid them since February and they weren't holding our booking. So even when he sat in our office he knew that we didn't have a hotel to stay in. He was going to put us in a situation of being in a foreign country with 21 people that didn't have a roof over their head - the youngest child was 11!

    Waite
    Just three days before they were due to travel, the school received a letter from Mr Reynard suggesting they postpone their ski-trip to Austria as the snow there was melting fast. And, if they couldn't postpone the trip, it would be cancelled. On this occasion, the school's head decided to find another tour operator and finance the holiday out of school funds. So it went ahead, but no thanks to Mr Reynard. We understand that at least 18 schools were due to travel with Skiing Europe over Easter and though not all had paid in full, only one did get away. And even then, it ended up in a different resort and having to pay again for ski passes, instructors and equipment. Among those schools who went nowhere with Skiing Europe...

    Read
    Kingsmead Community School, Somerset.

    Waite
    Paid £41,000 for their group of 53.

    Read
    Girvan Academy, South Ayrshire.

    Waite
    Paid £11,000 for their group of 21.

    Read
    Beachwood School, Hertfordshire.

    Waite
    Paid almost £25,000 for 39 pupils and six staff.

    Read
    Cardinal Henan Catholic Sports College, Liverpool.

    Waite
    Twenty three students - £17,000.

    Read
    Mount Gracew, Herfordshire.

    Waite
    Eighty pupils and staff, £63,000.

    By law, all tour operators have to have insurance to protect clients but schools hoping to claim against Mr Reynard have discovered that he has what's called tour operator failure or "insolvency insurance", which only pays out if he becomes insolvent. Which he isn't. So they will have to take him to court, adding extra expense to the money they've already parted with. Ian Pearson of the School Travel Forum again.

    Pearson
    The problem with Skiing Europe is that it was operating as a sole trader, which is very unusual and the insolvency insurance that he's allowed to have by law will only kick in if the sole trader is declared bankrupt. Now that's a very tortuous process and it's not one that provides particularly good consumer protection and I do think that that lesson could well be learned - insolvency insurance for sole traders is something that maybe is no longer acceptable.

    Waite
    For AITO, too, the trade body of which Skiing Europe was briefly a member, Mr Reynard has posed problems that are unique in their experience. Spokesperson Sue Ockwell.

    Ockwell
    This is the first time that anything like this has happened, it has been established for 35 years, only five companies have gone into liquidation before and all of those were promptly refunded or continued their holidays or whatever was concerned without any problems whatsoever. I think the whole industry will be reviewing these insurance policies to make sure that this - what looks extremely like a loophole will be closed.

    Waite
    Can I quote to you some of your own sayings - "You can relax when you book an AITO holiday because AITO members comply with the highest standards of consumer protection." As I say not my words but AITO's and in this case they're not true are they?

    Ockwell
    I would say they are true quite honestly. AITO is determined to lobby and fight with whichever level of government, people at the insurance company, whatever it is, AITO is very confident that no one will lose out, it's just regrettable in the extreme that they have to go to court.

    Waite
    So what of our old friend Chris Reynard, activity centre owner and ski-trip-organiser who's caused so may problems in both incarnations?

    In another e-mail he told us: "We are currently in the process of taking action against those who are responsible for this situation."

    But, since that enigmatic one-liner, silence. Mr Reynard remains silent about the schools who've paid over tens of thousands of pounds for nothing. Silent about the youngsters who've been the casualties of his broken promises. On the tour guides, coach and ski hire firms who are all out of pocket - silence. It's all so reminiscent of the last time we met - 16 years ago - when his claims about his activity centre were similarly bogus. And Mr Reynard had to lapse then into what's clearly become his trademark, "Trappist" silence.

    Clip from Face the Facts 1995
    Waite
    And another point on your recent brochure was that your headquarters at Hyde House was voted the best activity centre in the country - by whom?

    [Silence]

    Why do you put things in a brochure if you won't say by whom?

    [Silence]

    I mean what sort of an advert is that?

    Waite
    Oh, and a quick P.S. Getting answers, as you heard, from Chris Reynard can be hard going. Let's just hope the police, who've now begun an investigation, will have better luck.

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