VIDEO: Fern Britton hails 'genius idea' to give away free holidays to struggling families
TV presenter Fern Britton drew on her own happy memories of family holidays in Cornwall to help launch a scheme to benefit needy people across the UK.
The star of ITV's This Morning described a plan to ask holiday park owners to donate one per cent of their potential bookings to struggling families as "a genius idea".
Pioneered by Mother Ivey's Bay Holiday Park boss Patrick Langmaid, the thrust of the initiative is to encourage every one of Britain's 3,000 holiday parks to set aside a small proportion of their capacity to families who would otherwise be unable to afford a break. Working with local food banks and other agencies, the aim is to make it as easy as possible for those in need to access.
"One per cent is practical and possible," said Mr Langmaid, who has already welcomed several non-paying families to Mother Ivey's this summer. "I have always been interested in social organisations, but I realised many years ago that businesses are more willing to offer a service for free than to give away money."
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A number of other parks, including Cornwall's largest – Hendra in Newquay – have already joined the scheme.
"I have 60 caravans here and each year I sell around 1,300 holidays," said Mr Langmaid. "I'm open for 30 weeks of the year, so I could be selling 1,800 holidays. That spare capacity equates to an enormous amount of waste – so to give some of those weeks away to needy families makes perfect sense. The real cost of providing holidays is in the infrastructure of having a beautiful park like this and maintaining a fleet of caravans. My business has already absorbed that for its commercial activity and other holiday parks have absorbed those costs for their commercial activity.
"If we, as holiday park owners, can all do something positive for our communities without disrupting our own business model it has to be worthwhile.
"We all want our children to grow up with happy memories – and this scheme has the potential of providing countless positive life-changing experiences for families in need."
Holiday parks would not be left to assess possible need, but instead make holidays available through existing charity networks, such as local foodbanks and groups aimed at military veterans. Parks would not be expected to donate peak season holidays at no charge, but offer breaks at periods when they operate below full capacity.
Mr Langmaid emphasised that the success of the scheme relied on holiday accommodation being completely free, with no hidden extras for bedding, towels, gas or electricity.
"It has to be free of charge to the guests," he said. "What I'm saying is that as soon as a business comes on board to support this, they must agree to absorb those costs so the holiday is free to a needy family. And when the family arrives they will be treated as a valued customer just like everyone else, with a beautiful holiday home in a beautiful location."
Recalling her own first visits to Cornwall, Fern Britton revealed that she and her children had spent ten happy summers at Mother Ivey's, after being introduced to the site by BBC weatherman Craig Rich.
"I first came here back in 1982," she said. "Craig had a caravan here and lent it to me for a weekend. In those days this was just a huge field, with no walls or plants. I had a very happy time.
"I didn't return to Mother Ivey's until about 15 years later when I came on holiday with my twin boys, who were three at the time, and my little daughter. She paddled in the sea for the first time here and later learned to swim here. Everyone was so kind and the place was so peaceful. It remains very family-driven, with no throbbing night clubs and bars, just family peace and the most beautiful beach."
Fern, who is currently writing her fourth novel based in Cornwall, explained that she ended up taking ten caravan holidays at Mother Ivey's.
"I fell in love with it," she said. "Everyone was so nice to us and we'd swim and pick mussels and build sand-castles and my boys fished off the rocks and body-boarded and learned to ride their bikes here. It was bliss."
Fern said she hoped the "one per cent" scheme would give families affected by the current economic downturn a chance to enjoy similar pleasures.
"A holiday has become so hard for some people to afford," she said. "It's hard to imagine not being able to take your family away for a few days, throwing open the door of a caravan and letting them run across the grass and on to the beach. We all need that pleasure, that freedom, that togetherness. A holiday may sound like a luxury, but it's an essential, it's vital.
"Family life is everything to me and obviously to the majority of people. In these difficult times, many families are unable to afford a holiday – and that's why this scheme is so vital."