The Caterer interview: Tej Walia, managing director, Foxhills

22 March 2023 by

The managing director of Foxhills club and resort in Surrey speaks to Emma Lake about investing in the offering to keep guests entertained 24 hours a day

You've just been promoted from general manager to managing director – tell us about the leadership changes at Foxhills.

From April my role will change to managing director. The current managing director, who is Marc Hayton, the owner of the property, will become the chief executive. I think I'm only the second managing director of Foxhills from outside the family.

What path did you take into hospitality?

Hospitality wasn't my first preference. I was born and brought up in India and my dad had been a colonel in the Indian army, so I wanted to be in the armed forces. I did the entrance exam for a Sandringham-type college but for medical reasons I could not [take a place].

Hospitality was an up-and-coming profession at the time and I joined the Institute of Hotel Management in India and graduated in 1998. My first job was as a waiter for Oberoi Hotels in India and I worked across all departments – barman, housekeeping, receptionist, banqueting, butler in various properties, and worked my way up. I came to the UK in 2002.

What was your first general manager position?

My first general manager position was at Fawsley Hall Hotel & Spa in Northampton, which I took over in 2010. I had come into the country as a restaurant manager with Hilton and stayed from 2003 to 2010. When I left Hilton I was deputy general manager of Hilton Coventry.

At that time Fawsley Hall was an independent, English country house hotel with 58 bedrooms. It was a nice first general manager role, but I had to prove myself as I was the first Asian general manager of a typical country house hotel. There was quite a bit of pressure, but the owner, Simon Lowe, had given me a chance and I stayed for two-and-a-half years until it was sold to Hand Picked Hotels.

After Fawsley Hall I went to Dartington Trust in Devon, where I managed the commercial arms for three years. Then I went to Scotland, to Macdonald Crutherland House and Spa in Glasgow. I then had a career gap of four months when I went home to India because my parents were in ill health. When I came back in August 2018, I joined Foxhills.

What drew you to Foxhills?

When I came back from India I was looking for a good opportunity while doing some jobs here and there to earn a living. I liked the family ethos of Foxhills – it has been owned by the same family for 40 years. After four and a half years I'm still here, despite my wife and two boys being in Edinburgh. I wouldn't have that long-distance family relationship if I wasn't enjoying it.

When we last spoke in 2018 Foxhills was embarking on a £25m programme of investment, how has work progressed?

From January to February 2019 we refurbished our two-rosette restaurant, which we renamed the Fox. We then opened a large yoga cabin and have undertaken various other projects – we spent £250,000 on the car park in lockdown. And we have a continuous commitment to upgrading the existing facilities, such as the spa, changing room and lockers.

Then in May 2021 we opened an £8m family facility, which we've called the Pavilion. This winter we invested just short of £500,000 in the golf courses and we are working on a concept to refurbish 28 bedrooms next January and February.

Have you seen an influx in membership post-Covid and how has the investment supported that?

We started selling leisure membership for the Pavilion in March 2021, while we were still in lockdown. We were pleasantly surprised that the membership flew – at that time people were not travelling, so we had a tagline that you could get family membership for a year for the cost of a two-week holiday abroad.

The Pavilion is great, we have a crèche, a playroom, spa, a heated indoor pool, a heated outdoor pool and a games room, and these things are self-selling to some extent. We have more than 200 classes a week, including yoga, tennis and golf – there's something for everybody. We see families arrive on a Saturday at about 9:30am-10am and they don't leave until 4:30pm.

How has the return of corporate bookings affected you?

Leisure dominates the weekend but weekdays are conferences and corporate bookings. We do activities such as archery and clay pigeon shooting for team-building as well as wellbeing exercises and conferences. It's the perfect location, not too far from London and 20 minutes from Heathrow.

We also use a marketing tagline of ‘working from the club' for members, and that has increased use with more people working from home. In the club house there will be seven or eight members sitting with a laptop. The older, more traditional members don't always like that because the old club rules would have been no caps, no trainers, but things have moved on.

How are you evolving the F&B offering?

The growth of the membership coming out of Covid and the increase in corporate bookings have helped us push the casual F&B spend and we now have five different offerings. We have Fox, which has two rosettes but is still family friendly and led by our homegrown head chef Dan DaCosta, then we have Nineteen, which is the club house for people gathering after a round of golf, yoga or a pilates session for a burger, a club sandwich or a superfood salad. We have Flo's, which is in the Pavilion and is causal, very family friendly grab-and-go, deli-style food, next to the crèche. Then we have Halfway House, our golfer's pit-stop, and the Manor Lounge for afternoon tea. There's something for everybody with those five different offerings – they incorporate everything you could want.

Energy costs must be a real burden with your leisure offering – how are you coping with that and is it being reflected in rates?

To some extent, yes, but we cannot pass on all the costs or we would not have any customers. The team share ideas when they see we can change something. The key is to be efficient and productive and all the team are engaged in that. A lot of members are also engaged so, for example, the outdoor pool in the height of winter was not being used in the afternoon, even though it is heated to 30ºC. People were coming either in the morning or evening so we started to close it in the afternoon for four or five hours – that idea came from our members. There are small things that help, and we have also started a process to change all lights to LEDs and heating and cooling systems will become more energy efficient. But the reality is I don't think any operator can pass on all the costs and we have to find how we can make our operation more productive and sustainable. It's a team effort, it can't come from top to bottom, and we're not perfect – we've only scratched the surface.

What are your aspirations for Fox following the refurbishment?

I do not want the food to be too complicated. Three rosettes is not the ambition, the ambition is that people come regularly and leave happy. If, as a by-product, we get three rosettes, that would be excellent. To allow the chefs to flex their muscles we host wine and dine evenings, where we pair food and wine and our wine supplier comes to speak to a maximum of 50 guests.

What will be the next area for investment?

We have 66 bedrooms and planning permission for 27-30 more. We're now talking about what those rooms will look like. We also have project red star. We currently hold four silver stars and in November we set the ambitious target of getting the hotel to red star-standard by the end of this year. It's very ambitious and I don't know if we should say it [publicly] or not. But we're doing it to motivate the team and to give them something to look forward to. I hope that we get it but the red stars are not as important as the journey and the key result is that we improve and strive to do more.

How are you finding staffing?

We have challenges but our retention is very good because of our values – we belong, make a difference and never stop learning – and also being a family friendly, family-run organisation. Our benefits are also good and if you join as a full-time member of staff, from day one you have full access to the members' area and can join the classes, then after probation your immediate family become members as well.

It is getting new people to join that is challenging. I was honoured to become a Master Innholder last year and I'm a fellow of the Institute of Hospitality and am working with the local colleges and mentoring people. We have a training programme and all our supervisors are developed from within, as are almost all of our assistant managers.

How are rates and occupancy looking in 2023?

It's quite a tricky balance. To some extent we've managed to retain rates. With occupancy compared to pre-Covid the lead period is very short and the pipeline is very different to what it used to be, so it can be hard to say if it is looking great or not. However, the business we have got is giving a strong sense of the summer, but we don't have a crystal ball.

In terms of revenue per room our average room rate has grown by over 20% and our F&B spend is also increasing in the same trend, which is partially down to having members working from here and having enough different offerings so that people don't have a reason to go out. That's all helped us maintain our average daily rate from the pre-Covid era.

Do you think staycations will remain popular?

Pre-Covid our average length of stay was one day, now it is two to three days, which is good. It's also partly down to the fact that what we have enhanced the offer. We're upgrading our website and marketing so we can tell guests coming at the end of March what will be happening, whether there is a children's painting class or pilates or yoga session or tai chi to book. It will make them happy and as an operator I'm happy that we're not letting you out of the club.

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