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INTERVIEW: Tej Walia, general manager, Foxhills in Surrey

Foxhills

Fresh from the unveiling of its new dining room, Foxhills in Surrey is driving a £25m expansion plan across its 400-acre estate and facilities in a bid to stay relevant for both its members and hotel guests. We caught up with general manager Tej Walia at Foxhills to discover how he will drive the development to future proof the family-run business for years to come.

Foxhills in Surrey is undergoing a period of regeneration, with its owner ploughing money into an ambitious £25m project that will see the 400-acre resort transition into a real destination.

Just under a year ago, Tej Walia was appointed as general manager to drive this development. Walia, a member of Institute of Hospitality and St Julian’s scholar with more than seven years of experience as a general manager, replaced Jason Adams, who departed earlier in 2018 to join Lygon Arms.

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Foxhills is a vast site, with revenue streams aplenty from tennis courts, to restaurants and golf courses and garners strong trade from its membership base of more than 3,000 members.

Owned by the Hayton family since 1983, the original vision for Foxhills was to create a concept similar to a US country club, which Ian Hayton had frequented in the 1950s. The Haytons previously owned Pennyhill Park before selling it to Exclusive Hotels and Venues in 1982, and Burkes, a Mayfair dining club.

The family took over the site from Aer Lingus, who had converted the private estate to a golf club in 1975, and set about strengthening Foxhills’ reputation as a family-friendly leisure destination that extended beyond its golf offering.

In 2010, Pam and Ian Hayton gave son Marc the title of managing director, and he still oversees the resort today.

Now Foxhills is embarking on its biggest development project yet as it looks to lock-in its longevity for years to come. The Surrey resort, home to two golf courses and the par-three Manor course, 70 bedrooms, three restaurants, 11 tennis courts, three squash courts, four swimming pools, a spa, conference and meeting facilities, a youth club and a weekly cycling club, will invest in its facilities to futureproof the business and build on its reputation.

In June, the first project came to fruition, with the launch of the new Fox dining room in the main 19th century manor house. The new restaurant is a tribute to the life of Charles James Fox, a local resident and charismatic politician of the late 18th century, from whom the club takes its name.

Alex Michaelis – an award-winning interior designer, known for his work at members’ clubs including, The Groucho and Soho House – was behind the refurbishment, with a new menu introduced courtesy of head chef David Village.

With redevelopment momentum in full swing, we caught up with general manager Tej Walia to find out just what expansion plans are on the agenda and how each project will be designed to maximise occupancy and drive revenue.

How has business in general for Foxhills over the past 12 months?

Fortunately because of the mix of the business all of our eggs are not in one basket, so our financial year is April to March, however our ‘year’ starts on March 1 because that’s when our membership renewal comes into play. That then sets the tone for which direction it’s going to go because members renew. We have over 3,000 members on the books – a combination of various memberships from golf, spa, corporate – and the whole idea about investing is to actually improve the facilities and attract more members, specifically the family members. 

One of the things we are concentrating on as well is attracting more younger members.

We have seven conference facilities too and we do weddings as well. We are also planning to invest in that and our manor house too. 

What are some of the development plans in the pipeline?

In the current market where the ‘B’ word is very unsettling and floating about a lot, it is a family-run business and they are investing heavily, which is encouraging to be part of. Yes it is a business so the whole idea is to get the return on the investment, but one of the reasons why I joined is that it would be a challenge from my own personal development point of view. 

We have 11 tennis courts and we’ve just been granted planning permission to create a cover for three of them with a dome so we can make it all season. We are consulting with the members as it is a £500k investment and want to make sure they are happy if we go ahead; anything we do there, we do it for the members.

We also have an investment plan of over £7m the youth club family area and the summer house, which we plan to start after the summer; it’ll be a 16-18 month project.

It will be a completely new build youth club and restaurant and once that is created the current youth club will be flattened; we may then make 15-20 bedrooms as a result following that work.

We are looking to investing in our bedrooms as well, and just signed off on Zip n Link mattresses. Upgrading locks and looking into guest feedback systems to tap into guests while they are still on the premises, are also part of the plans.

Where are your strongest markets right now and where would you like to have more presence?

We are a country house hotel but mid week we are completely corporate – Monday to Thursday we have a lot of conferences. We do many corporate golf days. Weddings is a key market also. I am planning on investing more time into it and that’s another area we can grow. 

The whole idea behind doing the restaurant is to also get more non-resident footfall as well. We have 3,000 members so if every member has got a family or friends of three or four so then we have a potential 12,000 members on our doorstep. If we can get our offering right, we don’t need to go out too much to market. 

We have a lot of different revenue streams so we are not relying on one thing, but membership is our key. 

How long did it take you to get used to the business and establish the changes you wanted to make?

I’m still getting used to it – especially the golf side. It’s a learning curve for everyone. We have a mix of an older and younger team; coming from a mainstream hotel environment, guests will only come once a year but members come three or four times a week on average, they can easily sense good days from bad days, so consistency is the key. 

From the business point of view we are working on the budget – how to get the most out of the team. It is work in progress and the hard work has started; you can constantly improve and need to keep on top of it.

Have the owners set you ambitious targets to meet?

Membership loyalty is key and is a key part of our revenue. They have set me realistic goals but said we need to gradually improve the service levels, consistency and the product, which will hopefully that will translate into money; we shouldn’t be ashamed that we are a profitable business. 

How do you manage the different strands of the business?

Fortunately or unfortunately, due to my appearance I always stand out, so when things are going in the right direction it’s great, however when they are not! You need to be visible. 

As soon as I come in in the morning at 8am I do a property walk and sometimes by the time I’ve been around the whole place and get to my desk it’s around 10am. I don’t walk the whole 440 acres, I go through all aspects of the property, but if you see a member they want to know about plans. 

I try to do walks about three or four times a day so then I capture different people at different times. Being visible is so key to be an effective member in this kind of member-orientated property. 

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Zoe Monk

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