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Avril Owton – My Life in Hospitality

Avril Owton – My Life in Hospitality

Avril Owton is the owner of the Cloud hotel in Brockenhurst, Hampshire.

Avril Owton's "the show must go on" experience as a professional dancer proved to be the perfect preparation for her unexpected career as a hotelier. Having spent a number of years as a Tiller Girl, regularly performing at the London Palladium, she married into hospitality in 1976 when she joined her husband at the Cloud hotel in the New Forest.

Despite her familiarity with working long, unsocial hours, she still describes her first foray into hospitality as a shock to the system. "I was washing up night after night," she explains. "It was very run-down. We had 10 staff and my husband was the chef."

However, it was his sudden and untimely death in 1991 that propelled Owton into the leading role. He left her with four children and a troubled hotel but, unfortunately, no mortgage or life insurance.

"Initially, I wanted to sell the hotel, because I didn't think I could run it and interest rates had hit 13%," she recalls. But by chance she read a magazine article that gave her the confidence to take charge of her own life. The hotel was withdrawn from the market, resulting in some very disappointed estate agents.

Despite a complete lack of business experience, Owton secured the necessary cash to invest in the hotel and carry out extensive refurbishment. "I didn't know a bottom line from a chorus line," she says. "I had to learn it all." She began to attend conferences and training days and employed a chef to give her more time to learn about the business.

Owton credits her loyal, hard-working team - more than half of whom have been with her for 10 years or more - for helping to turn the business around. Her faith in her team is evident when she goes on holiday, despite having no manager. "They've grown with me and helped me through the hard times. I'm a big believer in developing people. By awarding them responsibility they will enjoy the job more," she explains.

In particular, Owton's experience has left her passionate about women achieving their full potential, and she gives up a great deal of her time to be involved with People 1st's Women 1st initiative in a bid to encourage female leaders in hospitality. All too familiar with overcoming obstacles, she says: "A woman is like a tea bag - she doesn't know her strength until she's in hot water."

HIGHS… A recent AA inspection highlighted how far Owton has come when the hotel received a score of 84% for quality. The rating was only 67% before she took over. "It's such a good staff motivator. They feel valued and that their hard work is recognised," she says. And recognised not just with a high score: she rewards every member of staff with a bottle of wine.

Owton's transformation from Tiller Girl to top-flight businesswoman has received wide recognition. A past Hampshire Businesswoman of the Year, she won the prestigious Shine Woman of the Year Award in 2006.

But she says the highest point in her career came in 2008 when she was appointed MBE for services to hospitality and charity work. "It was so totally unexpected. I have to admit, when I first saw the letter with "On behalf of Her Majesty" printed on the envelope my first reaction was ‘Now what?'"

LOWS… The death of Owton's husband was her lowest point. He died suddenly of a heart attack, aged just 45. What followed was "three years of hell" as Owton strove to pick up the pieces.

"It was a very difficult time. I used to sit and cry for hours. It felt like a very long, black tunnel, but I knew if I hung in there I would come out the other side.

"I felt like giving up some days, but I'm glad I didn't. I've now got a thriving business."

Family Four grown-up children, five grandchildren
Age 68
Favourite holidays South Africa, Canary Islands
Drives BMW convertible
Motto Never give up. If you're standing up and breathing, you're on

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TagsHotels and My Life
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Jacobs Media Group is honoured to be the recipient of the 2020 Queen's Award for Enterprise.

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