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Students heading off to 'charity challenge' grounded at Gatwick after travel firm goes bust

Students were due to fly to Tanzania to climb Kilimanjaro to raise money for charity

Charities could lose out on millions of pounds in fundraising after a company specialising in challenges for good causes went bust - leaving thousands of students potentially out of pocket.

Dozens of Nottingham University students converged on Gatwick airport on Thursday evening, intending to fly to Tanzania that evening, to climb Kilimanjaro to raise money for charity. But they were forced to to abandon their plans after the company that organised their trip -  GBCE Ltd, trading as Student Adventures - ceased trading.

A group of around 40 students had gained sponsorship to reach the summit of the highest mountain in Africa. But as they were about to check in for their flight via Dubai, the company they had booked with sent out an email saying it had gone out of business.

The email advised clients that while they could fly as planned, planned ground arrangements had been annulled: “We are unable to provide any services for you as a customer of ours whilst you are in-country in Tanzania.” 

The message added: “We are deeply sorry that we have not been able to meet our commitments to you and it was our honest intention to fulfill [sic] our service and obligation to you.”

One of the disappointed travellers was Tom Parker, an architecture student at the University of Nottingham. He had planned to climb Mount Kilimanjaro in aid of the Meningitis Research Foundation, having suffered from the disease himself.

Hundreds more students are booked to travel to Africa with GBCE, mostly on challenges in aid of the Meningitis Research Foundation. Next month, teams from Oxford, Cambridge, Loughborough, Birmingham, Warwick, Surrey and Kent are due to depart.

Janine Roberts, the mother of a Loughborough University student who was planning to climb Kilimanjaro, said: “All of the students have invested time, money and effort into preparing for the trip and are all very disappointed.”

A group from Plymouth University is currently on a Student Adventures trip to Nepal in aid of Help For Heroes. Their Everest Base Camp trek began last Sunday. The same charity was due to benefit from another such trek, departing on Monday with students from Birmingham, Reading and Warwick Universities.

Many Portsmouth University students are in Peru on a challenge organised by the failed firm. The university’s student union said: “We have had assurance that the students currently on the Inca trip are 100 per cent safe and supported by the charities they are fundraising for and will continue their trip with no problems.”

This weekend, a team from Kent University is due to fly to China for a Great Wall challenge to raise funds for Diabetes UK and the Make-a-Wish Foundation. Many more students from Nottingham, East Anglia, Glamorgan and Cardiff were planning treks next month to Machu Picchu to support the Epilepsy Society.

GBCE Ltd’s acronym stood for Great Britain Charity Events. The firm was founded in 2007 and was based in St Albans. Its slogan was “For those who dare”. Of the Kilimanjaro trek, GBCE promised: “You'll reach the top of the highest mountain of Africa and you'll have completed an adventure that will stay with you forever.”

Next year’s challenges included “Arctic Adventures” on behalf of the Teenage Cancer Trust and the Make-a-Wish Foundation, and a London-Paris cycle ride to raise money for the Breast Cancer Campaign.

In terms of financial protection, the firm’s website asserts: “All payments received by us will be held in a separate client account and held there until the successful completion of the tour.” The company was ATOL-bonded until the end of March this year, but did not renew its licence with the Civil Aviation Authority. It is understood that many of the students who booked did so before the licence was revoked. They should therefore be covered by the ATOL scheme and be entitled to a full refund.

GBCE’s Events Director, Jock Wright, issued a statement saying: “Participants departing today were informed last night by email and text that everything has been cancelled down. This will be true of every group from today forward. Flights have been cancelled to reduce our creditors’ losses as we’re legally obliged to do where possible.” He said there will be a creditors meeting in Nottingham on 23 September: “Under a managed process by Smith Cooper the liquidation process will be concluded and creditors where possible will be reimbursed.”

Rose Labdon, a student at Warwick University, tweeted: “Serious questions need to be directed towards Student Adventures right now. They were pretty appalling even when I climbed Kili last year.”

While most of the charities for imminent trips will have received all the funds raised, revenue for challenges some way in the future is likely to be badly affected.

Comment: It's not just the students who have been let down

The concept of undertaking adventurous challenges in aid of charity took root in the early 1990s, and has been an increasingly valuable source of revenue ever since. Probably most of us have been asked to sponsor someone on an exotic trip, whether to climb Kilimanjaro - a particular favourite, and the trip those disappointed students were looking forward to - hike the Great Wall of China or cycle through Jordan.

Now, there are two components: the fundraising for the charity, which is almost always the larger part, and the actual cost of the trip. Now, even though it might look as though a particular charity is organising a trip through the rainforest of Borneo, the actual heavy lifting - flights, ground arrangements and so on - will be outsourced to a specialist company. However the figures are dressed up, participants are effectively buying a commercially run package holiday - albeit a very adventurous and well intentioned trip. Therefore there is always a risk that the tour operator could fail.

Evidently there were questions raised about GBCE’s financial health in April, when its ATOL licence lapsed. However, it continued to trade, and to promise adventures of a lifetime to thousands of students - who now feel profoundly let down. 

Also let down are the porters, drivers and guides who would have supported the students, and are now left out of pocket with no prospect of recompense.

Simon Calder