From RAF pilot to hotelier
Philip Bowern talks to Adam Fox-Edwards about the challenges of running one of Britain’s top sporting hotels.
Adam Fox-Edwards sits in his comfortable office at the Arundell Arms at Lifton, Devon, surrounded by boxes, bottles and jars of Westcountry produce. The hotel was named recently as Fishing Hotel of the year by The Field magazine and was "Winner of Winners" in last year's Visit Devon Awards. He is about to launch a new online food delivery service.
You were a pilot in the RAF, undertaking operations over Iraq in the years between the first and second Gulf Wars. How does that compare with running a hotel specialising in country sports?
I have been running the Arundell Arms for four years with my wife, Tina. I was very fortunate to have a first career in the RAF, as a Tornado pilot and instructor. I loved flying and my time in the RAF. Subsequently I was a management consultant in London before returning to my roots in Devon. It is obviously very different running a hotel to conducting operations in the Gulf but I have really enjoyed the challenge of building up the business particularly through the recession. Neither job is dull and both require constant attention to detail but the hotel business does not tend to go at quite the same speed as a Tornado!
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The Arundell Arms is a very well known "brand". What changes have you made since taking over?
My mother and father, Anne and Gerald Fox-Edwards, took over the hotel 50 years ago and it has been serving guests ever since. My father sadly died in 1973 and my mother, Anne Voss-Bark – as she became following her marriage to Conrad – ran the hotel until 2008. She was extremely well known in the hotel and fishing worlds and was a tough act to follow. When Tina and I took over, we wanted to sensitively develop the hotel and attract a new generation whilst remaining true to its history and ethos. We have created five new bedrooms and added two self-catering cottages. Tina has built an online country sports and gift business and we have also grown the business conference side of the hotel. Country sports remain at the heart of what we do though. We have made lots of changes to make the hotel more sustainable such as putting in a biomass boiler and solar panels. We cut our utility bill from £90,000 to £30,000 and I now give talks about how to make a business like this sustainable.
What about the staff – they must be the cornerstone of any successful hotel business?
Our staff are absolutely critical to the success of the hotel. Guests might see me, or our restaurant manager or whoever, but they will see much more of our receptionists, housekeepers, waiters and waitresses and bar staff. It is from those people that our guests take away their impression of the hotel and they do a great job. We employ 50 people, which makes us Lifton's biggest employer after the Ambrosia factory. Forty-nine of our staff are local and the one other, Stefan, our restaurant manager, is definitely not from Devon but is something of a legend! Many of our staff have been here for years – we have three mothers and daughters working for us.
Your hotel celebrates the outdoor life, fishing in spring and summer and shooting parties coming in the autumn and winter. Do you get to take part yourself?
I do enjoy the outdoors and country sports. We are extremely lucky to have two great fishing instructors in David Pilkington and Tim Smith, who take our guests out and welcome back people again and again. We have wonderful fishing here at the hotel and also on the coast. I was fly fishing for bass up on the north coast on the Taw Torridge estuary last week with David, a hotel guest, and my son. It was an absolutely perfect day. The tide was coming in and the waves were breaking and you could see the fish, almost like in a cartoon, silhouetted in the wave itself as the sun shone through it. We caught lots of bass – and put them all back – they were fairly small, just school bass, but it was great fun.
Who do you enjoy welcoming to the hotel the most – the fishermen or the shooting parties?
Both groups are very welcome here. The fishermen are passionate about their sport, get up early, are out all day on the river and come home late, often exhausted. The shooting parties, on the other hand, tend to enjoy a good breakfast, head out for a 10am start and are back in before dusk at about 4pm. They eat an enormous cream tea, go off and have a shower or a bath and then come down for drinks, followed by dinner and often stay up late into the night. Shooters are certainly welcomed by this hotelier! But with the fishing we have our own waters and our expert guides. We have 20 miles of fishing on seven different rivers, one for every day of the week. The main rivers are the Tamar and the Lyd and anglers can catch salmon, sea trout, brown trout and grayling. We also have a lake stocked with rainbow trout which is great for teaching as well. We don't own any shooting but we have become well known for organising driven snipe shooting, which is very challenging.
I can see that your newest venture, Devon Hampers, has been occupying a lot of time recently, testing and tasting.
Yes, it has not been a hardship! We are expanding what we do and hampers filled with food and drink sourced exclusively from within the county seemed a natural extension. We are well known here at the Arundell Arms for our food and drink and Devon is famous for great produce. We are using our existing suppliers plus some new ones to put together a taste of Devon in a hamper that can be sent overnight all over the country from an online order. We are really hoping it goes well.