Managing director at Ufford Park Hotel, Golf and Spa, Tarnia Robertson, talks about the challenges of taking over a family business
- Credit: Gregg Brown
Anniversaries are as good a time as ever to look back, and then forward, and so it is at Ufford Park Woodbridge Hotel, Golf & Spa where managing director Tarnia Robertson has recently overseen celebrations marking 25 years since the property opened to the public.
Back in 1992 it was her parents – Shirley and Colin - who launched the business after her father, having sold his house building company, bought the property and surrounding 120 acres.
Since that time, the business, which in the first iteration consisted of 25 rooms and the golf course, has grown steadily and today boasts a 90-room hotel, spa and indoor swimming pool, with the golf course still as popular as ever.
Tarnia, who became managing director just over two years ago, has seen all the changes first-hand. Prior to taking up the reins at Ufford Park, she worked as marketing manager for 15 years before her parents suggested she should consider running the business after they retired.
Something to prove
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“I knew the business well, so we decided to give it go,” said Tarnia, who spent the next 18 months working in different departments of the business, and visiting other hotels, speaking to general managers about their approach and gathering as much information as possible.
“After that there was a two month handover and, looking back, that was the hardest period. I was supposed to be in charge but mum and dad hadn’t gone, and anything I wanted to do they would query. It wasn’t until they finally fully-retired that I was able to get properly involved and set the goals for the business.”
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You don’t have to speak to Tarnia for very long to work out she is a driven person, determined to build on the business’s success and take it forward to bigger and better things. This determination comes, in part, from a feeling that she must make her own mark.
“I do feel like I have something to prove,” she admitted.
“I think because I’m the second generation, people tend to have this perception that I got the job because of my parents. I didn’t expect to be so passionate about it. I’m really enjoying it and I’m actually better at it that I thought I might be.”
Maybe it is because of this that Tarnia’s style of management differs from her parents – whereas her folks appointed a general manager and took more of backseat role, Tarnia describes her methodology as “driving the business forward.”
She has also built a good team of trusted colleagues around her.
A key part of her team is her PA Claire Flude – a good friend who Tarnia has known since she was 19 when they met working for a shipping company. Husband Stuart, who has been working at Ufford Park as the resident golf professional since the business began, has also been invited to join the board recently.
Tarnia has also employed the services of a finance director on a consultative basis to provide more visibility around the bottom line.
“He works for us two days a month and has set up all the spreadsheets and procedures,” she explained.
“I can now go straight into the system and see a snapshot of the cash coming in from the different channels - the direct debits, card payments, BACS payments - it gives me the information at my fingertips.”
With these important processes in place, Tarnia says she is able to concentrate on her main focus, which is driving up standards of service, particularly in the bar and restaurant.
She continued; “It’s about staff being proactive and not having to be constantly told what to do. I want to develop a team who will take charge and notice the little things.
“It boils down to training. We know our standards are a good three-star level but I would like to see us excel and improve.”
As good as Gold
The business is two years into a five-year plan to attain Silver and Gold ratings from Visit England – a designation that indicates accommodation which excels in hospitality and service and has top scores for bedrooms, bathrooms, food and cleanliness.
“We have chosen the Visit England route [over the AA] because it is more tourism-based,” said Tarnia.
“Once we are up to Gold – we expect that we will have the choice to go up to 4-star or remain at 3-star Gold.
“It will be a difficult decision – if we stay at three-star we can exceed people’s expectations but if we go up to 4-star we might run the risk that we could possibly disappoint – its hard to know.”
A key element of the improvement project is modernising the bedrooms. So far two-thirds of the 90 rooms have been updated.
“People’s expectations of how they use their bedroom are different these days,” said Tarnia.
“You don’t just sleep in your bedroom, you work, watch TV, use devices. You need plugs sockets and a spotlight near the bed.”
She has also just overseen a £50,000 refurbishment of the restaurant which has involved new carpets, chairs and booths and the installation of designer lighting.
Tarnia added: “Because we are modernising the bedrooms, I felt that I needed to do something in the public area.
“There’s a lot more to come – I’d like to put hard floor through the whole of the public area.”
It’s clear, as Tarnia said, she is focussed on driving the business forward.