Tony Sillars, co-owner of Barrhead Travel’s Clydebank franchise, has run pilgrimages to the holy French town of Lourdes for more than 10 years. He tells Ben Ireland his story.
Q: When did you first travel to Lourdes?
A: I didn’t know at the time, but my mum was ill and my parents were going to see if visiting Lourdes could help her. They wanted me to go with them but I had no interest at that age. Sadly she died, but I went with my dad a few months after she passed away, when I was 20. It wasn’t what I expected at all. When I got there something hit me, it was more than an experience. It’s hard to describe, but the place is incredible. I get goosebumps telling the story.
Q: How did you get to go back?
A: My dad got groups together to travel to Lourdes. It was on the next one, in 1990, that I told the owner of the coach operator who ran the trips that I wanted to work for him. Three weeks later I went along and made teas and coffees and worked for him for many years. I lived out of a suitcase, travelling to Lourdes from Scotland and back every week.
Q: What was your next move in travel?
A: I went to be a Blue Coat at Warner Leisure Hotels and worked for Thomas Cook, where I became a trainer. I still went to Lourdes every year. When I started at Barrhead in 2004, people who I knew from Lourdes asked me why I wasn’t organising trips there. We were missing a trick.
Q: How did your first trip sell?
A: Yes. On the first trip we did, we chartered a British Airways flight and it sold out in five weeks. I negotiated rates at the Astoria Vatican, minutes from the shrine and the same hotel we use now. After the first trip, we were getting calls from all over Scotland, England and even Canada. So the next year we chartered two flights in consecutive weeks and we’ve run two trips a year since, which are now in May and October.
Q: What does a trip include?
A: It is always full-board and fully escorted and two or three staff join from Glasgow. We are not like other companies that go to Lourdes. Fifteen years ago there were loads, but few exist anymore. We are there all the time. Rather than dropping people off and leaving them we join them for mass, on visits to the holy baths and to St Bernadette‘s birthplace. Guests can do as much or as little as they’d like. Everyone has their own personal experience in Lourdes, we are there to maximise it.
Q: How much demand is there?
A: You’d be surprised. A priest once booked 50 people on and we’ve had people join three years in a row. I book it for Barrhead, but for me its more than just a booking. I want people to experience what I did. The pilgrimages are an extension of my business, so we really take care of people. I’d say 70% are repeat bookers.
Q: Does it help your other business?
A: Definitely. When people book Lourdes with me it’s a platform for my shop. They come back and book other holidays.
Q: Is it just for religious people?
A: Absolutely not. You don’t have to be Catholic to enjoy Lourdes. People go for the history, to heal themselves and other reasons. Whatever their motivation, they come back a different person.
Q: How do you feel when you visit now?
A: I’ve probably been to Lourdes about 400 times and I have the same experience every time. I’ll retire there.
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