Peter Gordon Lawrence

Founder of the outdoor activity holiday company PGL
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The Independent Online

Peter Gordon Lawrence was the founder and chairman of PGL Travel, Britain's leading operators of children's outdoor-activity holidays and adventure courses for schools.

Peter Gordon Lawrence, businessman: born Enfield, Middlesex 11 June 1935; founder and chairman, PGL Travel 1957-2004; married 1971 Rosemary Barton (marriage dissolved), 2003 Lucile Mazer; died Hereford 13 August 2004.

Peter Gordon Lawrence was the founder and chairman of PGL Travel, Britain's leading operators of children's outdoor-activity holidays and adventure courses for schools.

Over nearly 50 years, Lawrence's company introduced an estimated three million young people to the benefits of outdoor activities. Through his policy of recruiting young, enthusiastic staff, Lawrence also launched thousands of careers in the outdoors, education and caring professions.

Lawrence was born in Enfield, Middlesex, in 1935 and brought up in Letchworth Garden City, Hertfordshire. After the Second World War, he was sent to a boys' prep school where he was most unhappy. During his time there he became ill and was later diagnosed as having had rheumatic fever. This weakened his heart and left him with a condition he had to fight throughout his life.

In 1952 he went to the Regent Street Polytechnic to study for the National Diploma in Engineering and was successful in obtaining associate membership of the Institute of Electrical Engineers. It was during the summer vacations that Lawrence's adventures began.

First he hitch-hiked through Europe. Then, in 1953, he set off for India, travelling 12,000 miles in 90 days for the total cost of £60. In 1955 and 1956, Lawrence attempted his first canoe trips. He travelled down the Danube from Ulm to Vienna and also along the Rhine from Bregenz on the Bodensee to Antwerp on the North Sea.

He enjoyed these experiences so much that the following year he decided to go into business running canoe-camping holidays. For his first holiday location, he chose the River Wye in Herefordshire, because of the free navigational rights. Lawrence was the river leader, his sister Jennifer the cook and his first customers a party of nine nurses. He hired and cleaned out a coal lorry to transport the canoes, tents, pots and pans back to the start at the end of each trip.

Lawrence's fledgling company was called PGL Voyages and he soon moved to Ross-on-Wye to be near his new operation. Although he had no formal business qualifications or training in marketing or management, the business thrived, with a team of young staff working for him in the former brewery that became his offices and stores.

Lawrence had an infatuation with Jean de Brunhof's tales about Babar, King of the Elephants, and his wife Céleste; when in the early 1960s he added a Welsh campsite on the shores of Lake Llangorse to his UK operation, Lawrence named it Celesteville, after Babar's fictional home town, and gave his fleet of sailing dinghies the names of characters in the French cartoon series. He called this expanded product "Three-in-One", comprising a combination of canoeing, sailing and pony trekking.

Initially, Lawrence's market was young, adventurous adults. He also organised canoeing expeditions on the Rhône in France and the Sava in present-day Slovenia. Participants would meet up with PGL staff at Victoria Station in London and take the folding canvas canoes, tents, equipment and provisions out with them. Lawrence developed a profound affection for French food, wine and warm temperatures. When he came across the dramatic limestone gorges of the River Ardèche, he rented an old hunting lodge there as his first permanent base in France.

During the 1970s, school groups started to patronise PGL holidays in the UK and France, with individual children attending PGL summer camps in the holidays (winning the company the nickname "Parents Get Lost"). Lawrence began to develop the business model of acquiring old properties with land to develop as activity centres. Initially, the centres were in the Wye Valley and Wales but, in the 1980s, PGL established a centre near Perth in Scotland and a 250-acre mega-centre near Shrewsbury in Shropshire.

The company continued to expand, as Lawrence snapped up the businesses of competitors as they failed. Through this he acquired a centre in Devon, another in northern France and a campsite on the edge of the Mediterranean on the Languedoc coast. In the early 1990s he also took over two school ski operators.

Lawrence made his biggest property purchase ever when PGL bought the Château de Grande Romaine, a 300-bed, former hotel with extensive grounds, on the eastern outskirts of Paris, which had housed the Brazilian football team for the 1998 World Cup.

Last year, Lawrence had to undergo a major heart operation, but lived to see his greatest coup of all - the purchase in July of his major rivals, 3D Education and Adventure, thus reasserting PGL's position as undisputed market leaders.

Martin Hudson