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Work, rest and play – behind the scenes at top rated Fairlawns Hotel

Victoria Auty cannot remember a time when the Fairlawns Hotel was not part of her life.

Fairlawns directors Victoria Auty and her brother John Pette Jr
Fairlawns directors Victoria Auty and her brother John Pette Jr

Not quite two years old when her father John Pette bought the business in 1984, she grew up around the hotel, and it was no surprise that she found herself working there by the age of 14.

"My first job was in the kitchen," says Victoria, now 39.

"I was quite shy then, so I preferred to be tucked away behind the scenes."

Victoria cannot afford such reticence today. Along with her brother John Pette Jr, she now takes centre stage as a director running the family business.

The Fairlawns, in Little Aston Road, Aldridge, recently made the headlines as one of Britain's 25 best hotels, according to customer-review website TripAdvisor.

The hotel finds itself among some of the most impressive in the country, such as the Shangri La Hotel in the Shard, London, which came in 18th place and also the world-famous Claridges in Mayfair, which ranked 19th. It is just one of six hotels outside the capital recognised in the sites 20th annual Travellers' Choice Best of the Best Awards.

And Victoria says the family values instilled by her father have been crucial to its exalted status.

"We have always had the mission to 'keep people saying nice things about Fairlawns'," she says.

"We have never had a massive marketing budget, or huge amounts of money to do big developments in one go. We have had to do things as we can afford it."

But while the Fairlawns might never have had the corporate clout of the big international chains, this also allows it to be more nimble in adapting to changing customer demands.

"We do not have any shareholders to answer to," she says. "If we want to do something, we can just go and do it, we don't need to wait for a board to give its approval."

It also helps, of course, to have a loyal customer base of many years, and – unusually in the hospitality industry – a large number of long-serving staff too. Indeed, two of them were already working at the hotel when the Pette family bought it 38 years ago.

For many customers, Annabel Halifax is the first port of call. The customer reservations manager, who joined the hotel in 1993 as a 22-year-old, has held a variety of different jobs over the years.

"It's just like my second family," says Annabel, who is 51. "I have grown up here."

While an increasing number of rooms are now booked online, there are still many customers who prefer to speak to someone.

"The important thing is to listen to what the customer wants," says Annabel, adding that by talking directly to the customer she is sometimes able to offer advice about the different options available.

Receptionist Katherine Mercer was not even born when Annabel joined the hotel's staff 29 years ago. But with eight-and-a-half years now under her belt, Katherine is a fully-fledged member of the Fairlawns family.

"I love working here because of the people, the family that owns the hotel, and the work-life balance," she says.

Katherine, who is 26, says she has got to know many of the customers over the years.

"You get the business customers that come here every so often, and you might also get families that have been coming here for years," she says.

"It's important to give them a good first impression. It makes people feel excited to come to the hotel."

Victoria, who admits that she never seriously considered she would end up running the hotel when she left for university, says the hotel has changed considerably over the years to reflect changes in the market.

"It used to be very much focused on Monday to Thursday, people staying during the week for work, but in recent years it has become much more about the leisure experience," she says.

"We have always had quite good corporate business, but the spa weekends have become a very big thing in recent years."

The Fairlawns leisure club opened in 1998, with just 50 members; almost a quarter of a century on, it is a crucial part of the business with more than 1,100 users. Despite this, manager Sara Allen says it is still vital to retain a personal touch.

"It's the staff that make it," she says. "Most of my staff will know 90 per cent of all members' names."

Among them is 65-year-old Steph Chapman, who joined the Fairlawns team the week before the leisure club opened.

"I enjoy it all, I enjoy the customer relations, the rapport you get," she says.

Fitness instructor Meg Parry, 18, is one of the newer members of staff, joining the team last year. She works with 25-year-old Aaron Wye, who started seven years ago as an apprentice, and is now a qualified personal trainer.

"I first came here when I went to a wedding, when I was about 12 or 13," says Aaron.

"The important thing is that people go away thinking 'I've been to Fairlawns and I really want to go back'. I really enjoy the wide range of customers we have – we have 16-year-olds, and we have got a 90-year-old. It's very rewarding when a 90-year-old goes away from here feeling good about themselves."

Spa treatments are increasingly popular too, as spa therapist Brody Gilbert explains as she demonstrates a Swedish massage.

"By applying light to medium pressure, we can soothe any aches and pains," she says.

"As well as the muscle-ease massage, we also do a de-stress, with lavender and camomile oils to make you feel relaxed."

Another big change in recent years has been the growth in afternoon tea.

"We only started doing it about six years ago," says Victoria.

"Now it's such a huge part of our business, we will do about 90 on a Saturday, but it can be as many as 150-160 if there is a big event, such as a baby shower. It's quite a cost-effective way to treat yourself."

It certainly meets with the approval of regular customer Bryan McIntosh, who has been coming to the Fairlawns for 15 years.

Taking a breather from a business meeting in the lounge, the DJ says he meets his clients at the hotel, performs at weddings, as well as coming regularly for Sunday lunch.

"I love it here," he says.

"It's easy to get to, the staff are always friendly, I think they take pride in the fact that it's a family business."

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