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International Women’s Day: Being a female co-owner in 2022

Balmer Lawn Hotel co-owners, Alison and Chris Wilson

By Alison Wilson, co-owner of Balmer Lawn Hotel & Spa

 The hospitality sector is the third-largest UK employer according to research by the UK Hospitality Workforce and represents 3.2 million jobs, with women accounting for approximately 60 per cent of its workforce. Nationally, the data also indicates that the number of women in management positions is on the rise, per The Change Group. For example, the number of women publicans and managers of licensed premises increased by 133 per cent, from 9,000 to 21,000 workers. Similarly, the number of women estimated to work as catering and bar managers has grown by 52 per cent to 44,000, while the number of men working in these roles has stayed the same, at 35,000. So, while there’s still clearly a lot of progress to be made in gender equality, it’s incredible to see the hospitality sector leading the way, and it’s a privilege to fall into that bracket.

After graduating with an honour’s degree in Business Studies, I joined the National Freight Consortium as a graduate management Trainee. My early career involved working on some high-profile contracts including Harris Queensway, Argos and ICL, and I went on to run the prestigious BMW parts delivery contract from BMW’s UK head office, in Bracknell. Whilst running the contract we introduced the first overnight car parts delivery operation in the UK.

In 1992, I met my husband Chris Wilson and we acquired our first business, the Rose and Crown Hotel, in Tring. I ran the business as a Proprietor/Manager for three years. In 1997, we acquired Balmer Lawn Hotel, making Brockenhurst and the New Forest our home with three children. Amazingly, we’ve been running the now Four Silver Stars hotel for over 25 years. In that time, we’ve restored the venue and now employ a team of over 90 staff. In the last three to four years, I’ve gotten more involved in the wider hospitality industry, with roles such as Director for the community interest company, Go New Forest, and board Director on the Solent LEP.

In my 25 years of running Balmer Lawn, I’ve overseen substantial change. What I enjoy most is that we are thriving in a dynamic industry, whereby our flexibility and ability to adapt to a constantly changing environment has ensured the hotel’s survival and progression.

Looking at the national statistics, I feel very fortunate to be a female co-owner. In saying that, however, I’ve always believed this to be an achievable goal, regardless of gender. In hospitality, we are working to offer equal opportunities for all, though sadly, more needs to be done. One area I am passionate about is that of female chefs, as it was a sorry reflection to see the latest Michelin guide 2022. Two female-led restaurants were awarded three Michelin stars in the Michelin Guide for Great Britain and Ireland 2021; Core by Clare Smyth and Hélène Darroze at The Connaught. However, this year, despite 19 new one-star restaurants, five new two-star and a new three-star, not a single new star or award was given to a female chef. This has to change!

Gender roles are changing but there is always more that can be done. As previously mentioned, we should be seeing more female chefs, and perhaps more male housekeepers, too! I do feel the hospitality industry is already on the right path to taking women in leadership more seriously. With that in mind, the female leaders in our industry need to continue to nurture and foster strong leadership roles for women. This is especially important for the next generation of leaders to come. Placing women in high-level leadership positions needs to become more standardised and we need to ensure all the tools are in place for the next generation of female talent to succeed. I do think mentoring would be a really positive move to help female leaders in hospitality achieve their potential, which in turn, ensures more successful business.

Overall, working in hospitality is extremely rewarding regardless of gender and I recognise I have been fortunate not to have experienced the challenges of inequality. This is an exciting time to be in the industry as we look to move forward to the next phase with spirited hope. My message to any young aspiring women thinking about pursuing a career in hospitality would be to think big, back yourself, find a mentor, listen, learn, and ultimately, enjoy the ride.

Alison Wilson is the co-owner of Balmer Lawn Hotel & Spa, a 4-star venue nestled in the heart of the ancient New Forest, the National Park’s natural capital. Located at the edge of Brockenhurst, the hotel’s tasteful blend of contemporary and traditional décor ensures the perfect combination of old-fashioned values with a modern twist.