Grand Central Birmingham

If I had to list things that I like – after the obvious family and friends – then the following things would feature high up the list:

So imagine my delight when all of the above could be combined into one evening!!

I was invited to take part in a focus group about the new advertising for Grand Central, and offered a behind the scenes nose around the site which is due to open next month.

Grand Central logo

I’d never been involved in market research before – so it was all a bit intriguing.  I arrived at the management suite at Grand Central (the shopping centre that is being built above New Street station in the centre of Birmingham to replace the old slightly grim Pallasades. There were 4 other members of my group, and we were all 30 / 40 something parents.

First we talked a bit about Birmingham and what we all love about it (variety of shops / bars / restuarants, the fact the centre is compact, the mixture of architecture, even The Owls got a mention!) and what we’re not so fond of (the traffic, difficulty parking, how busy it can be)  We then talked more about Grand Central and the advertising that was being proposed for it.

Now I have to confess to not knowing much about what Grand Central was going to be.  I knew there was going to be a huge John Lewis (obvs!) but not much else.  I wasn’t sure what other retail and dining options there were going to be.  I wasn’t sure whether it fitted into the same space that the Pallasades did, or how it was going to connect to other areas of Birmingham. And I have to say 90 minutes into the various discussions we had – and looking at the proposed adverts – I was none the wiser either!  Thankfully today I’ve discovered the Grand Central Birmingham website which gives loads of information – and has made me much more excited at the shops and eateries we’re going to have.

The whole process of a market research focus group was really interesting.  Being able to waffle on about your own thoughts on stuff (rather than just typing it down here into the ether) was fun.  Whilst our overall feelings, as a group, about the adverts was quite similar – we did discuss it all, and changed each other’s opinions at times.  It all felt very ‘safe’ and as if you could say exactly what you thought without fear of being ridiculed.  Whether that was just because we had a lovely group – or the particular facilitator we had – I’m not sure.  But I really enjoyed it!

And once the ‘work’ was over, we got to don our full health and safety personal protective equipment and go and have a look round the site…..

Grand Central

And site it is.  It is VERY much still a working site.  Whilst the main atrium is in, and the escalators down to the station – there is still a lot of work to be done. And I mean a lot.  Floors / walls / lighting and that’s before the shops can even think about shop fitting with their own branding, shelves, stock etc!  And it’s all going to be ready for Thursday 24th September 2015…..

I was ‘slightly’ incredulous at this – but maybe the 3,500 people they have on site at the moment are startlingly more efficient than my workforce??

The frontage to the new John Lewis is hidden from prying eyes by roller shutters – but the width of the frontage is HUGE, it’s got to be 4 times the size of the entrance to John Lewis in Touchwood, Solihull.

The huge open plan space is amazing – and the light that will flood the place is immense – even down to the platforms, for the first time ever!  The roof is made out of the same material as the Eden project domes – and is self cleaning (even from seagull and pigeon poo – of which there is a lot in Birmingham). And throughout the mall, the height of any counters or tables is limited to 1.4m to ensure that people have a clear view around at all times.

Currently Westfield in London has the biggest footfall of a shopping centre at 42 million (2 million more than our very own Bull Ring) but Grand Central is predicting 45 million in the first year of operation!  The key will be to get the dwell time of these visitors to increase so that it’s seen as a proper destination – not just the exit route from New Street.  Maybe people will go and visit our Grand Central like I did as a tourist to Grand Central in New York!

And in exciting news – it will still be accessed by ‘the ramp at McDonalds’ (anyone from Birmingham knows that location!) and you will be able to walk all the way through to the Bull Ring through nice free flowing walkways, not random 90 degree turns like the olden days.

I should point out at this point that all of the above facts were from me paying attention to the lovely ops director who showed us around, and I have not independently verified any of them!  But his passion for the project oozed out of him (as did his excitement at having a Nando’s arriving!!)  The bringing together of a transport, retail and dining hub is incredible – and the fact that one of the (if not the?) busiest station in the UK has kept running through the regeneration is amazing.

However – having been very excited that an off peak return to New Street was only £2.80 from Kings Norton, the train home had a platform change and was delayed by 35 minutes – so let’s hope the trains standards can match that of the shopping facilities above…………

But I can’t wait to go and see Grand Central in all its glory when it opens next month.

Review: Diet cupcakes?!?

A while ago I reviewed some products that Exante diet kindly sent me to try – and since then I’ve bought some of the shakes and bars to have, particularly when I’m in a rush, or need a breakfast before working out that I’m not going to vom back up again after 10 minutes of a cardio workout!!

Anyway – the lovely guys at Exante messaged me to see if I’d like to try some of their new range of cupcakes – well, how could I refuse!

The box arrived and I excitedly opened it looking forward to trying a cupcake – and found out it was packets that you had to make up!  Initially I thought ‘what a faff’ – but I guess it does stop you just stuffing them blindly in your face when you have to think about making them – so maybe that’s a winner?!?

Anyway – whilst I must be the only person in the country (or so it feels from my Facebook timeline on a Wednesday evening) who isn’t Great British Bakeoff obsessed – my daughters are – and what’s the point in having loads of kids if you can’t make use of child labour!  (The day the eldest could make me a G&T was a very proud moment.)

So children 1 and 3 were voted cupcake makers!

Each set of packets (one for the cupcakes, one for the icing) makes 2 cupcakes – so we decided to use 3 of each so all family members could try them.  The 2 cupcakes would be a meal replacement and contain 200 calories and 16.7 grams of protein – so very similar to the shakes and bars throughout the range.

And so – the cupcake baking began:

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Cupcake 1 Cupcake 2

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They didn’t exactly rise evenly – and I have to say that I’m not sure Paul Hollywood or Mary Berry would have been that impressed with the presentation!  But surely the taste is the main thing……

And so – the other members of the Price family verdict:

12 year old ‘They work really well as a diet food, because they are so disgusting you never want to eat cupcakes ever again.’

5 year old ‘I don’t want one, they look funny, can I have an apple instead?’

Husband ‘Oh my God these are disgusting, why would anyone eat these, don’t let the children eat them.’

So not exactly universal praise…….

They do taste very synthetic – particularly the icing (it is the brightest pink I have ever seen!) – but I guess I am more used to ‘protein’ based flavours than the rest of the family.  If you were being hardcore on Exante and were really missing cakes then I guess maybe they would be ok – but they are definitely my least favourite of all of the products I’ve tried.  And the faff of making it all also massively counts against them for me.  I’ll be sticking to the shakes and bars in future.

I was sent this product to review for free, but all opinions (as you can probably tell!) are my own. 

Review: Exante diet products

I spotted a Twitter request for people who are on a diet and like Bounty bars. Now I am on a diet BECAUSE I like Bounty bars – and any other chocolate bar, and wine, and cake, and basically anything you can eat or drink! So I immediately replied! The very lovely people at Exante then offered to send me not only some diet Bounty bars – but also some other of the Exante diet products that are available to trial.  There’s even salted caramel pudding in there – boom!!

Exante

X Factor winner Sam Bailey is doing the Exante diet at the moment with great success and is blogging about it here.  Exante basically offer a wide variety of meal replacement products that are high in protein, fibre, vitamins and minerals.  There are numerous plans you can follow to suit your lifestyle to lose weight or maintain a healthy lifestyle.

I am not following a plan – but thought I would try out the products and let you know what I thought of them!

Day 1

The fist thing I tried was the chocolate coconut bar – the aforementioned ‘diet Bounty’!  I had it post workout, when I needed a protein / energy fix – and at 207 calories and 17g of protein, it seemed like a good plan.  I have to say it was more chocolate than coconut, and didn’t have the consistency of coconut – but was a bit ‘gritty’ – but in a good way, adding texture to it.  It had a typical ‘protein bar’ taste to be honest.  Now a ‘proper’ Bounty is 270 calories but only 2g of protein – so whilst it might not taste quite the same, it’s a better alternative – and way better than no chocolate at all!!

Day 2

Today, in lieu of breakfast, I had the strawberry shake. I was going to go for a run, and didn’t have time for ‘proper food’ to go down and thus a risk of it coming back up over the treadmill – so the shake was the perfect substitute. With 201 calories and 14g of protein, I figured it would power me through my run! I used the shaker that I’d been sent – which had a clever metal spiral ball inside which helped mix up the shake really well. It recommended 200-250ml of cold water – and I went for the maximum amount – but the shake was still incredibly creamy. The powder had been white – but the shake was a lovely strawberry colour (keeping all senses happy!) and tasted really nice. Some protein shakes can have a weird synthetic aftertaste – but this didn’t at all. I really liked it.

Mid morning – I had the choco balls as a snack.  These are fabulous – like super crunchy Maltesers. At 79 calories and 7.5g of protein per serving – not too naughty either!  HOWEVER, a serving is only half of the bag!! This is as ridiculous as the fact that a ‘serving’ of Cadbury’s chocolate fingers is only 4!  Obviously once I’d popped I couldn’t stop and ate the entire packet – whoops.  This lack of self control is another major factor in why I’m 5 stone overweight…….

For lunch I had the tomato and basil soup. I was at work and therefore had neither a blender or whisk to had – as they advise – so had to make do with a fork. Consequently the soup was a bit lumpy as I couldn’t get all of the powder to disperse properly – but it was really tasty – and with similar calories and protein to the breakfast shake, I can positively polish my halo today with eating!!

Day 3

I’m having a shake as an early lunch before a gym session with my PT – and today’s is the creamy coconut shake. This has the same calories as the strawberry one (201) but a whopping 16.9g of protein. The description was perfect – it was very creamy and coconutty – and again, I really liked it.

Day 4

Today I am at home with a poorly daughter – and so even more time poor than usual – and in need of a treat – so I thought I would try the gooey salted caramel pudding.  I mixed this up as per the instructions and it made quite a paltry amount, and when I licked the spoon it had more than a passing resemblance to butterscotch angel delight.  I then had to microwave it.  I did it for 1 minute (as per the instructions) but that was too much in my 900W microwave, and I’ll do the gooey chocolate pudding for only 40 seconds I think.  It expanded brilliantly – and tasted like a proper pudding.  There was no gooey middle (hence the fact I think I’d over zapped it) but it was really tasty.  I had very low expectations, and was concerned I was going to slate it – but I needn’t have worried, it was great! And with 205 calories and 16.7g of protein, should keep me going with playing nursemaid all afternoon.

Now – I still have the aforementioned gooey chocolate pudding, along with chocolate, white chocolate and raspberry, and strawberry cheesecake shakes to try – but I wanted to get this initial review up for you all to read – and I think it’s a pretty safe bet that these shakes will be lovely too!

I was very pleasantly surprised by all of the products I was sent to test.  I’m not sure I could be as hardcore as to do one of the total replacement diet plans – but they are great meal replacements for a busy Mum like me.  Having looked on the Exante website there are loads of different ways to purchase the products that work out very reasonably, so I will be shopping later!  And maybe I should just try it hardcore for a few weeks……….

I was sent these products to review, but all opinions are my own.

Shared Parental Leave??

Shared parental leave had not really hit my radar (after 4 kids, I’m definitely not planning on adding to the brood again!) but when Mumsnet asked people to blog about it, I thought I should probably do a bit of research with my ’employer’ hat on if nothing else!

Mumsnet were asked by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills to find out what Mumsnet Bloggers think about this new policy for parents.

The team there say “From April 2015, parents will have greater choice over how they share time off work to care for their child. Shared Parental Leave allows working couples to share up to 50 weeks of leave and 37 weeks of pay in a way that suits their work and family needs. For example, parents can take time off together or they can tag team, stopping and starting leave and returning to work in between if they wish. You can check your eligibility and how much pay you can get here. ”

Now when I had my oldest 2 children I worked in the finance department of a multinational PLC. I loved my job – and ‘back in those days’ maternity leave tended to be 6 months. I kept my hand in with the odd conference call / visit during my maternity leave (in fact the only time ever I was successful with a breast pump was in the office after I popped out of a meeting as my boobs were about to explode! Obviously nothing was sterilised and I was tipping the milk away – and so that’s why I got loads!!) and went back after 6 months each time – and was totally ready for it!

By the time I had children 3 and 4, I worked in our family business which made things very different! I was answering emails whilst in labour and working very soon afterwards (obviously it was 2 weeks if HMRC are reading this………) Other friends were having a full year off – but my life was one big juggle – so I didn’t get to do the whole ‘maternity leave’ thing at all. The babies often came into the office with me (we had a travel cot set up!) and attended meetings with the bank manager, quality auditor and vat man.

On my desk at a few days old
On my desk at a few days old

My husband has always worked for the family business – and so has been really flexible – which is great when you phone him in tears with a screaming baby in the middle of the day and he can pop home, but not so great when he has to go and sign some contracts in the lobby of the hospital when you’re giving birth! He is a massively hands on Dad – but has said himself that he would find it really hard to be at home all the time taking on full childcare responsibilities. I think a lot of that is the multi-tasking thing! It’s totally gender stereotypical – but I am often doing 27 things at once, not to mention all the things I just know and are in my head – but he has to do things one at a time, and if it’s not written on the list for him to do, then it can be missed. I have been known to write ‘change nappy even if it’s just wee not poo’ and ‘give them a drink during the day not just at mealtimes’ on the crib sheets when I was going out somewhere!!

Before I had kids, I used to see people ‘swanning about on maternity leave’ and think what an easy life they had – until it was me with the baby 24/7 and I realised that going to work would be the easy option. The husband totally sees that too (he used to ‘have a meeting’ and go and have a kip in his car!!)

Who knows, if our circumstances had been different – then maybe shared parental leave would have been utilised – and I guess that is what it comes down to, giving both parents choices to suit their own situations.

Now, as an employer this could affect me much more. We run a construction company – and whilst I’m proud to say we have a couple of female painters in additional to the female office staff – it is still a very male dominated environment. All of the guys who’ve had babies have taken their 2 weeks paternity leave – which I am pleased to see – but I am not sure how many would opt for the shared parental leave. In most cases they are the higher wage earner, and they just couldn’t afford to take the pay cut and still support their families. I also suspect, albeit wrongly, they’d be in for some stick from their workmates on site if they were going to be ‘stay at home Dads’.

I now feel like I know what we need to offer to all of our staff, male and female alike – and I have to say that in a small business like ours, the operational difficulties of losing members of staff for chunks of time could be problematic – but obviously we would work around that.
Although I’m not sure we can allow all of the staff to bring all of their kids into the office like we do sometimes………

Office kids

Life began a year ago?!

This time last year I was about to be 40. I have had friends who have not looked forward to the big four-oh at all – but I fully embraced it (in fact I’ve milked it for the entire year) and the highlight was a party for lots of family and friends at the fabulous Chateau Impney hotel.

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I ummed and ahhed about inviting the kids along – but our family is HUGE – and sometimes it is really nice to celebrate with fellow grown ups – so it was adults only!

With my sisters and our parents
With my sisters and our parents

There was a massive cross section of people there – from my parents siblings in their 70s down to my 18 year old cousin – and pretty much every age in between!

With my sisters and cousins
With my sisters and cousins

There was obviously food and drink:

Stunning cupcakes
Stunning cupcakes
Hazel and Alpesh enjoying the food and fizz!
Hazel and Alpesh enjoying the food and fizz!

And we had a disco and a photobooth which were both great fun – and the fabulous Sharon took loads of photos as keepsakes.

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Friends and family flew in from Germany, France, Northern Ireland and even Chicago – which made it super special.

A selection of 'Pink Ladies'
A selection of ‘Pink Ladies’
Sam and Dan
Sam and Dan

I was ‘slightly’ nervous of my husband’s speech (so deliberately did mine afterwards so that I could apologise if needs be!) but I need not have worried – he was wonderful and didn’t offend anyone (although I look slightly incredulous on the photo below?)!!

Speeches

There was some fabulous dancing – the dancefloor was full all night – ‘Never Forget‘ with my sisters being a highlight.

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Sadly the re-enactment of the lift from Dirty Dancing that the husband and I did wasn’t captured on camera, as it was a sight to behold (and amazingly my boobs stayed in my dress!)

Talking of my dress – the girls at Timeless Couture made me a fabulous couture dress. I’d gone to see them not expecting to be able to have a strapless gown given my ‘ample bosom’ – but they also made me an AMAZING corset which held everything firmly in place!! On top of the gown I had a fabulous sparkly waistcoat which I loved. I’d planned the evening to be Downton Abbey meets Reflex – and I think we achieved it just in my outfit!

Libby's 40th-2003

It was a BRILLIANT night – and I am a little bit disappointed that I’m not having a party for my 41st in a few days.

LOTS has happened in the last year – very sadly one of my friends passed away suddenly a few weeks later, there have been serious illnesses to friends and their children, a couple of relationship breakdowns – and lots of other trials and tribulations. It makes you realise you need to ‘carpe diem’, celebrate what is important to you and tell the relevant people that you love them, as you never know what the future holds.

Thank you to everyone for making it such a wonderful occasion.  I love you all.

Same again in 9 years? xx

Review – Don’t Buy Her Flowers

Don’t get me wrong – I like a lovely bunch of flowers as much as the next girl – but sometimes people can drown in them. When they have a new baby, or in times of crisis where people want to show they care and don’t know what else to do, people often give flowers.  A friend who was going through a difficult time had been given loads of bunches by well wishers – but ended up crying on the phone to me as she’d run out of vases and was surrounded by decaying floristry.

I’d already moved away from flowers and have recently sent cake in the post to friends for various reasons – new babies, marathon run, broken bones, house move, poorly child, divorce – from the very wonderful Very Smart Cookie Company (as well as ordering them regularly for ourselves as they are always fabulous).

But it’s always nice to have an arsenal of present suppliers – so I was very excited when I saw on Twitter a new business venture for Steph – whose blog ‘Sisterhood (and all that)‘ I already followed – and it is ‘Don’t Buy Her Flowers‘.

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This is initially marketed as presents for new mums – and this is what Steph says herself on the website:

“Flowers seem to be a go-to way to say ‘congratulations’ when someone has a baby. Although they are always lovely to receive, at Don’t Buy Her Flowers we wanted to create something that was more thoughtful and useful for mums at a time when they need it most. Something that might encourage her to take ten minutes to herself.

Having babies is amazing, but it’s also a rollercoaster and can be hard. Whether it’s the first baby or the sixth, life is different to before and it takes a bit of adjusting to. Knowing someone is thinking of you can be a huge boost. Most parents have bought everything ready for the new baby anyway and there are only so many cute outfits one baby can wear. It makes sense to get something for mum – she’s pretty central to this whole baby malarkey. We also know how grateful new parents are to receive home-cooked food on their doorstep, which is why we have teamed up with COOK food to offer their vouchers in our packages.

Flowers say “I’m thinking of you”. A gift package from Don’t Buy Her Flowers says ‘I’m thinking of you, if you’re finding it hard it’s OK and I hope this makes you feel a bit better’.”

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There are different packages you can chose from at different price points which contain lots of goodies for the recipient – including dry shampoo / smellies / edible treats / a choice of magazines / a lovely scarf  – and adding on the ‘COOK’ vouchers means the person is getting a few hot meals cooked for them too!  For local friends I’ve often cooked a meal and left it on their doorstep when they have had more important things to worry about (hey – I’ve even got friend’s kids to eat spinach and butternut squash when it’s a meal made by me and not their parents!!) but if you’re further afield (or rubbish at cooking!) how nice still to be able to support them in this way.

I emailed Steph very early on and said I could see this working as gifts at other times too – not just for new mums – and whilst that is still the target market, there’s now a drop down menu when you order so you can send the gift for another reason – birthday, get well soon etc.

I sent my first one earlier this week as a birthday present and the birthday girl loved it!  To quote her exactly ‘Totally love it – couldn’t believe how much kept coming out of the box.  P.S. Am now going to have a to find a birthday outfit that can incorporate my lovely new scarf.’

So any of my real life friends reading this, don’t be surprised if you get one!!

This is not a sponsored post – I just think it’s an ace idea – and wanted to spread the love!!

Lapland UK v Lapland – compare and contrast!!

Back in 2006, when we just had our 2 eldest kids, we took them to Lapland, along with one of my sisters and her family. Now we’ve added two more children to the Price family – we felt that they ought to have the same experience, so we looked at going to Lapland again this year. However, my sister had to visit Lapland UK for work last year (the first year of it operating in Ascot) and said it was brilliant – and like being in Lapland itself – so we thought we’d give it a go!

So here you have our thoughts on Lapland UK v Lapland!!!

1. The Price. This has to be a major consideration. Now Lapland UK is not cheap (we paid £79.50 per ticket – children and adults the same.) But this is a fraction of what we would have paid to take a family of 6 to Lapland with flights / hotels / food etc. We went to Lapland itself with First Choice (who have now moved all of their Lapland trips over to their sister brand Thomson) and everything was included – flights, transfers, accommodation, food, cold weather clothing and consequently it cost thousands. Also, it may have changed in 8 years, but we went for the most expensive hotel we could find in Lapland and it was still fairly basic!

2. Timings. When we went to Lapland we did the 3 day tour. This was great as we could fit loads in – but there did also seem to be a lot of hanging about too. Having said that, I think a 1 day trip to Lapland would be exhausting! Lapland UK was a 3.5 hour experience (although we did get there super early having whizzed down the M40 from Birmingham to Ascot – but there were colouring activities and coffee and cake to entertain us all before going through at our allocated time.) I think such a trip has to be done near to the Big Day itself – and spending a few hours is much easier at this busy time of year than a few days.

Waiting to go into Lapland
Waiting to go into Lapland UK

3. Activities. A lot of the activities are the same – making toys, decorating gingerbread, and meeting Father Christmas

Gingerbread decorating in 2006
Gingerbread decorating in 2006
Concentrating much more at 11 than 3!
Concentrating much more at 11 than 3!
Serious gingerbread decorating
Serious gingerbread decorating
Gingerbread decorating
More gingerbread decorating

– but there were things we did on the snowy plains in Lapland (husky sled riding, snowmobile riding, reindeer sleigh rides, skiing) that aren’t replicated in Lapland UK.

In a Lappish tent in 2006
In a Lappish tent in 2006

There was, however, ice skating – and at no extra cost (which I was impressed by!) – and we were able to meet a husky (real) and a reindeer (person dressed up!) as well as look at some real reindeer too.

I just love skating!!
I just love skating!!
Skating fun!!
Skating fun!!

4. Food. In Lapland we ate A LOT of reindeer! On pizza, as steak, in bolognaise. I don’t recall having it for breakfast – but we probably did!! This was particularly disturbing for the children who weren’t happy at eating Rudolph, thankfully they couldn’t read at that stage so we could lie about the menu!!

At Lapland UK there was a coffee shop in the waiting area before you go in (pretty pricey – but good quality) and then a snack bar once you were in the Village Square. After we’d eaten bratwurst and drunk gluhwein (hot chocolate for the kids!) we found there was also a restaurant (that could have been sign posted better!!)

Hot chocolate (not gluhwein - honest!)
Hot chocolate (not gluhwein – honest!)

5. Meeting Father Christmas. This was done brilliantly at Lapland UK. I suspect there was more than one FC (shhhhhhhh!) – but you weren’t aware of this, as the house we went to was hidden in the depths of the forest – and then you walked back out through the reindeer pen (and shop, obviously!)  Father Christmas really knew his stuff – about what the children had been up to recently, what presents they wanted etc (all completed via the website before you go – shhhhhhhhh again!) There was no queuing, it was all very slick. I remember waiting for ages to see FC in Lapland, and then he could barely communicate!

All seeing Father Christmas back in 2006
All seeing Father Christmas back in 2006
With the lovely huskie presents
With the lovely huskie presents

6. The staff. From the elves, through the reindeer and husky herders, to Mother and Father Christmas themselves – all of the staff at Lapland UK were excellent – and obviously spoke perfect English.

Checking the lists!
Checking the lists!

One of the problems we found with Lapland was that FC himself could barely converse with the children and some of the other staff were definitely holiday reps rather than performers. Everyone at Lapland UK was performing their role with great pride. Having said that, the husband still reminisces fondly about our Elf in Lapland – Candy Cane – who was a very pretty Scandinavian girl………

7. The weather. When we went to Lapland it was cold. The coldest I have ever been in my entire life – about minus 20.

All wrapped up from the cold
All wrapped up from the cold in 2006

Real ‘don’t breathe through your nose it will all freeze shut’ type of cold! You are provided with clothing – but it is still bitter (and you spend half your life stripping off or putting clothes on when you go in and out of places!) Obviously you don’t get that at Lapland UK – well, unless it’s particularly freaky UK weather! We were blessed with a gloriously sunny day – and I suspect that some of the outside areas, walking through the forests / the village square / ice skating – would be much less fun in British drizzle – but it was perfect for our visit.

Walking through the forest to meet Father Christmas
Walking through the forest to meet Father Christmas
In the forest!
In the forest!

The forests and areas you walk through are all dusted in ‘snow’ but obviously you don’t get the metres of snow to play in – but for snow-hating me, that’s a definite plus for staying in the UK!!

Conclusion
There have been lots of horror stories in the press about places in the UK trying to replicate Lapland and failing miserably – leaving lots of disappointed families in the run up to Christmas. Well, I can safely say that Lapland UK is not like this at all – and delivers on all levels. The quality of the buildings / displays / outfits / people / gifts / professional photos / even the toilets are all amazing. We don’t mind spending money on a day out if it is worth it – and this most definitely is.

Family Price!
Family Price!

We would thoroughly recommend Lapland UK to anyone wanting an impressive festive experience for a fraction of the price of a trip to Lapland. Although having looked back at our photos of Lapland – maybe we will need to go again next year………..

This is not a sponsored post – we paid full price to go to both of the Laplands!!

Are tyres sexy?

If you’d asked me 20 years ago about tyres, I would immediately have thought of the Athena poster of the bloke stripped to the waist holding some tyres. Along with the naked man cradling a baby, and the girl hitching up her tennis skirt, these were the iconic pictures of the late 80s / early 90s adorning many a bedroom wall. Oh, and just in case you don’t know what I’m talking about – and in no way an excuse for a gratuitous shot of a semi-naked male model – here it is…..

Tyre picture

20 years on, I’m a mature and responsible mother of 4 (if I write it often enough maybe it will become true!?!) and I realise that tyres are actually quite important!

The folks over at Mumsnet in conjunction with Michelin have done some research and found out that whilst 97% of Mums surveyed think they should take responsibility for tyres, 73% still consider it a ‘blue job’. Here are some more of their findings.

Michelin infographic 27.11.14 v1

I’ve been on a car maintenance course – but I have to confess that when I had a blow out on the M5 / M6 slip road, I called the AA to change the tyre for me.  However I am more than happy to check tyre pressures and pump up if necessary (well, as long as I haven’t had a manicure that day!!)

Now, maybe it’s because my best friend lives in the French Alps and one of my sisters lives in Munich, where winter tyres are the norm, but we have for a number of years swapped the tyres on our cars to winter tyres come November and then back again in the Spring. Our local garage is happy to store the off-season tyres for us free of charge (a bit like packing away your summer clothes come the start of a new school year in September!!) I’d thought winter tyres were primarily so we were prepared for snow – so was interested to learn of the other benefits.

MTOP_SNACKING_UK_DAD+CHILD_M&R3

MTOP_SNACKING_UK_DAD_M&R1

Michelin are always looking at ways to understand more about how we use our tyres (in a driving way – not in a ‘looking manly in a garage’ kind of way) and have produced this video.

So tyres are very important – even if not that sexy most days!!

Disclosure: This is not a sponsored post. The infographic, images, survey findings and video have been provided by Mumsnet/Michelin. I have not been paid for this post, although participating bloggers will be entered into a prize draw (fingers crossed for that!)

Practically Pointless!

A few years ago my Mum and I applied to be on the fabulous quiz show Pointless. If you haven’t seen it (or if you have seen it but still don’t get it – like my husband!) then you need to answer the question correctly – but with the most obscure answer you can think of – so that of the 100 people asked the question before you, the least number of people would also have said that particular answer. The objective is to answer with something no one else at all has said – thus ‘Pointless’.

To be honest, that description is hard work – just go and watch it (and why haven’t you already – it’s brilliant!)

It was my viewing of choice when breast feeding – I would Sky+ it – and then watch it at random times of the day and night. I’ve missed the regularity of viewing since weaning my youngest – but not enough to have a 5th child!

Anyway – back to the application. I thought it was brilliant – it showed how fabulous we were, and our diverse skill sets to cover lots of different topics.  But we were never contacted again – boo. At the time I was devastated – as if you could still write to a bloke to fix stuff for you (dodgy ground I know) then meeting Alexander Armstrong and Richard Osman would be high on my list!

But I wasn’t so devastated I gave up watching #addicted

Well – for the last couple of years one of my friends has arranged a Pointless-esque quiz for his work’s annual party – and I have had the privilege of being one of his 100 people. To be honest, I don’t think he does 100, he does a few and extrapolates it – but shhhhhhh. This morning was this year’s question time (spookily Timehop shows that 27 November is a popular day for it).

Anyway – as with previous years I was RUBBISH under pressure (and so it’s probably a good thing that Mum and I never made it on to TV for humiliation in front of millions). Obviously I can’t reveal this year’s topics (full of my own self importance that people who work for the finance department of AGCO might actually read my blog?!) but I can reveal that my revision of:

  • People who’ve ever sung in any Band Aid single (knowing the names of all the One Direction members was my banker for 5 points here!)
  • African countries (there is usually something geographical)
  • Robin Williams films (picking famous person who’d died this year and their output)
  • Elvis Presley singles (we’ve had Beatles and Michael Jackson in prior years)
  • Previous Soviet republics (as above)

was all completely ‘pointless’!!

Like this Price, the customer is usually right??

Let me start with a disclaimer – I would be rubbish working in the customer service industry where you have to be nice to people all of the time. In fact, my experience of a Saturday job working in WHSmiths (chatted to Billy Idol about that #rockandroll) where I told one man, who’d been browsing magazines (not ‘those’ magazines!!) for half an hour that we weren’t a library. Or when the person asked where the pens were, and I said ‘”you see the big sign on the wall that says ‘pens’, well, they’re there”…. Or in the bar at Uni where I refused to serve Murphys as it took too long to pour and made people wait to be served by another member of staff – all kind of prove a customer facing role wasn’t really for me!!! Therefore the choice of being an accountant, where I can bury myself in numbers, accounts and computer screens was much better for the world at large.

However, as a consumer, and a regular consumer of lots of nice things, I recognise the importance of customer service by those who’ve chosen that career path.

This week I experienced good and bad customer service within hours of each other. As I’ve mentioned (a lot – I am REALLY milking this!) I was 40 earlier this year. On the day the husband and I celebrated at a brilliant Bistro in Brum. The staff were attentive, the cocktails exquisite, the wine list excellent, the food amazing – and yes, they even wrote Happy 40th Birthday in chocolate on a plate – what more could a girl want on her big birthday!! Perfect customer service.

40th birthday

Well, this week we’d booked a table at supposedly one of THE restaurants in central Birmingham (co-incidentally the posher sibling of the one we went to on the actual day) as my staff had bought me a substantial voucher as a 40th gift. I was VERY excited about the whole thing. Husband and I decided to make a night of it and booked a room at a nearby hotel so we could both enjoy the tasting menu and accompanying wines.

However, when we got to the restaurant we were told they were fully booked and they didn’t have our booking. Whether it was the front of house member of staff’s youth, or the fact that English was not his first language I don’t know – but his manner was rude and offhand and made me feel like something he’d scraped off his shoe! He asked if I’d got confused and actually booked the bistro? Or bought a Living Social voucher rather than booking a table with them? All the time being very superior (I thought my new faux fur coat was well classy – but it appeared he thought I was local ‘celeb’ White Dee from Benefits Street or one of her mates). I offered to go back to the hotel to get the printout of our confirmation –  to which he agreed.  Obviously on the walk back I had a slight panic that my usually efficient self had booked the wrong date or restaurant and I’d decided if that was the case I’d phone the husband and get him to walk out rather than me having the shame of going back in!  But no – I was vindicated and had made the booking correctly! But  when the staff member saw it there was no apology, just ‘well, our system doesn’t agree’ and ‘you need to book 3 months in advance for a table here’ like I’d been fabricating the print out in the 5 minutes it had taken me to return to the hotel to get it from my bag.

I should probably put in a second disclaimer here – my period had just started – but at this point I cried.

I’d been soooo looking forward to this meal, tweeted about it in the afternoon, and I was being made to feel like I didn’t deserve to have set foot in a Michelin starred restaurant and didn’t understand how it worked.  At this point the manager was LOVELY – and offered to try and sort stuff out, but it was too late, I’d been made to feel like ‘a piece of sh*t’ in my exact words (later to be thrown back at me by the eponymous owner on Twitter as swearing at his staff was ‘not cool’).  The manager wanted us to stay (although not sure where as they were fully booked), but I felt rubbish – all because that first customer facing front of house person, who has clearly chosen a customer service career path, got it so totally wrong.  No apology, no ‘let me see what I can do’ – just – you’re wrong, there is no space here, and the computer says no. The lovely manager gave me the funds for my voucher, and we went across the road and had a great meal at a restaurant we’ve been to many times before.  The owner of the first restaurant did call and leave a message on my mobile to see if he could sort the problem out – but we’d already ordered at the new venue.  Then a slight Twitter spat ensued – admittedly correcting his grammar on Twitter was probably a little petty (and he could correct my cooking skills indefinitely) but it all left a rather sour taste in the mouth.  This is my bad customer service experience.

Now – the hotel we stayed in was brilliant!  I’d booked directly rather than through a broker website (as I read on a hotel insider’s blog somewhere that this usually results in the best rooms being allocated!) Sure enough this worked – and we were given a fabulous. enormous corner room on the first floor. But – this is Central Birmingham in the run up to Christmas – so there were revelers outside the window until the early hours – and we also appeared to be on a route for skip lorries to a 24 building site in town so the noise was not great and not much sleep was had.  I mentioned this – in a factual not moany way – at check out, and said if we stayed again we’d book a room on a higher floor.  And the lovely man on reception (interestingly also young and with English not as his first language) offered to deduct the cost of the mini bar wine we’d had the night before by way of compensation!  The noise was not the hotel’s fault at all – but this small gesture of excellent customer service left me with a warm feeling about the whole experience.

Customer facing staff are so important – and you never get a second chance to make a first impression………