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Learning curve

The career path of Donna Johnson of Chalfont Holidays has taken her from student travel to naked cruises. Interview by Paul Rouse.

If anybody could be described as “the accidental naturist” then it’s probably Donna Johnson, Manager at specialist naturist travel company Chalfont Holidays, based in Berkshire, UK. By her own admission, not only did Donna “fall into” the travel bookings industry in the first place, but before taking the Chalfont job, she was also unaware that such a thing as naturist travel existed. “And I had certainly never been naked in public,” she laughs.

Things are definitely different these days. As well as handling the company’s individual travel bookings for naturists, she also helps promote the group holidays run by Chalfont in association with British Naturism, and often accompanies fellow naturists on the trips to locations such as Rhodes, Lanzarote, Fuerteventura, mainland Spain and Croatia.

It’s been an interesting journey in itself, from the time, over 20 years ago, when Donna started out as an administrative assistant working for STA Travel, the student travel association, based on campus at Brunel University in Middlesex. “I kind of fell into making bookings by chance,” she recalls, “as one day I was asked to help out due to staff shortages. It was the best thing that ever happened to me and I have never looked back. I moved on from there to leisure travel and then took up a post working in business travel for Hitachi Europe.”

Chalfont Holidays was the brainchild of Bill Haines, who created it from his kitchen table in 1998. The business grew quickly and in 2013 became part of Eton Travel, a full-service mainstream travel agency with expertise in specialist travel sectors, established in 1969 and now employing more than 90 people in offices in Eton and Wokingham. “I was with Eton Travel at the time,” explains Donna, “and when the company said it was looking for somebody to head up the naturist travel sector, I volunteered. I don’t know if I really thought about it too much at the time: I was just booking travel as usual but for a different clientele. We’re proud to say we are now the largest naturist travel agency and tour operator in the UK. The group has both IATA and ATOL licensing and is a member of ABTA, and as such we provide a full, protected service for travellers, clothed or otherwise.”

On the Chalfont side, that covers a range of naturist resorts, hotels and rental accommodation in well-established European naturist destinations such as France, Spain, Greece and Croatia, as well as one-off venues in countries like Austria, Italy, and Montenegro. “We have also spread further afield,” adds Donna, “and now include South Africa, the USA, Canada, Mexico and the Caribbean in our portfolio, as well as organising naturist cruises and city/spa breaks, with the latter allowing travellers to be naked some of the time whilst enjoying visits to the likes of Berlin, Rotterdam and Birmingham.”

Relations

Chalfont prefers to choose quality over quantity, and does not want to be seen to be simply listing all manner of naturist venues for the sake of it. “Many of the places we feature are long-time favourites,” says Donna. “We then select those that are new personally, and very carefully. We have good relations with all our suppliers, and our standing in the travel industry means we have access to rates and services that the public simply can’t get. And above all, we don't provide brochures: all trips are tailor-made.”

Despite it being a niche, Donna firmly believes that naturist travel offers plenty of scope, and is set to expand. “I get to meet lots of our clients by joining the BN member holidays in person and by attending BN events. I also get to travel as it’s important that I see and know our product well, and as BN’s main sponsor, we get to take advantage of numerous promotional opportunities. Many clients come through to us as a result of these, or via word of mouth. And we don’t believe our target market is limited: there are many people out there who are naturists, but they just don’t know it yet. We can see Victorian values fading, even in the UK, and as the idea that the human body we were all born with is shameful erodes, we will see the market grow. There may be a lot of elderly naturists in clubs, but the holiday market attracts people of all ages.”

Donna illustrates the point by talking about the range of naturist cruises Chalfont offers, covering destinations such as the Caribbean, French Polynesia and the Mediterranean. “Our passengers are of differing ages and nationalities,” she explains, “and whilst on the A category boats we have had a lot of couples and groups of friends, on the more budget-conscious B category boats, younger passengers and backpackers have predominated. I don’t think that opportunity existed when I was booking student travel!”

For more information on Chalfont Holidays click HERE


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