You know you’re running a hotel in the New Forest when a baby donkey is born outside the window and they won’t let you extend your car-park because of the camomile lawn growing all around it.
Nowadays Avril Owton – Tiller Girl, MBE, Businesswoman of the Year and inspirational proprietoress of The Cloud Hotel at Brockenhurst – can laugh. But 40 years ago, however, she arrived at The Cloud after telling her husband she’d marry him: ‘So long as I don’t have to live in that hotel.’
“I was living in Bournemouth at the time doing all kinds of things, running a dance school, delivering dry-cleaning, and teaching keep-fit but my husband’s parents owned The Cloud and wanted to retire so he bought them out,” she says.
Presented with this fait accompli, Avril learned the hotel trade from the bottom up, starting with the washing up, with a quick promotion to room maid and then helped her husband, who was the chef, with the cooking, as well as caring for her four children. Then, in 1991, disaster struck: her husband died of a heart attack. “I soon found out there was no life insurance – he didn’t believe in it – and that I was stuck with a hotel we couldn’t sell because of the recession at the time.”
Desperate and worried, Avril did not know what to do. Then, lying in bed at the end of another stress-ridden day, she read the magazine article she credits with helping to put her on the path to becoming a leading British businesswoman who received an MBE from the Queen in 2008.
“This article said ‘It’s your life, so get proactive’,” she says. “The first paragraph said that whatever happens, YOU are at the steering wheel of your life and you can either steer it forward or go backwards. It was a Friday night. I decided that I would have a go.”
Deciding turned out to be the easy part. What wasn’t was learning how to run a business. “I always say I didn’t know the difference between a chorus line and a bottom line,” she says, recalling the days when she was a member of the celebrated Tiller Girls dancing troupe, famous for their ladylike attire and high-kicking routine. Avril has many memories of being in the London Palladium, watching from the wings while legends such as Judy Garland sang live, and chatting to the young and friendly Cilla Black. “She was about to go on and asked if I liked her dress – she’d made it herself. We even appeared on the Generation Game with Bruce Forsyth,” she says.
Avril is happy to admit she learned the business the hard way – borrowing from the bank to update the premises: “It was a bit like Fawlty Towers in its décor – my late husband didn’t believe in en-suite bathrooms or TVs in the rooms although I knew this was what people would want,” she says.
She went through the nightmare of successive bank loans to fund a building programme that went way over its budget and timescale: “We were closed for four months and it was so cold I sometimes had to drive around in my old car to keep warm,” she remembers.
But sheer grit saw her through – her hotel’s profits increased by 800 per cent and Avril became Hampshire Businesswoman of the Year in 1995. From then on there was no stopping her: “I attended business seminars and got proper training,” and she was eventually asked to join the prestigious Everywoman network. She also founded the Wessex Women’s Network and in 2008 was delighted to receive her royal gong – and even more delighted to be asked by Her Majesty: “How’s it all going?”
Now in her 70s and still running the hotel and her network, Avril is one of the New Forest’s biggest flag-wavers and has seen many changes in the local hotel trade during her 40 years at The Cloud. “When I started our busiest time was the months of July and August, when people would come for their main summer holiday,” she says.
“Now we’re a top destination for short breaks and the main season extends from March to October, you can drive here from London, or come on the train and be here in time for a walk before lunch,” she says. “I love the fact that we’re so near the sea and you can do anything in the New Forest, from riding on a horse to going up in a balloon. I didn’t want to come here at first but I’m so glad I did.”
Louise Neville, Polymedia, 01329 822866
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