Friday, 12 August 2022

Let's Get Down to Business: Caroline O'Connor, Phyllis Court Club

Let's Get Down to Business: Caroline O'Connor, Phyllis Court Club

CAROLINE O’Connor is commercial director of Phyllis Court Club in Henley. Born in Holyport, near Maidenhead, she attended Newlands Girls’ School in the town and captained the hockey and netball teams. She was also a keen horse rider (until, she says, she discovered boys and nightclubs!) She graduated from Thames Valley University with a degree in hospitality management. Caroline lives in Didcot with her children, Ebonie, 18, who is going to be the receptionist at the new Phyllis Court Club fitness centre, David, 16, and11-year-old Jake. Sadly, Caroline’s husband passed away six years ago but she says the children have been amazing, sharing all the household chores so that she can work full-time, and she is very proud of them.

Describe your business

Phyllis Court Club is a members-only club in a beautiful location on the bank of the Thames in the heart of Henley. It has an array of leisure, recreational and dining facilities, a large lounge, an extensive bar area, a pavilion on the edge of the river and several excellent function rooms and bedrooms. It also has tennis courts and an international class croquet lawn. We are opening a new purpose-built fitness centre later this month.

How many people does it employ?

At the moment we have 73 employees but that figure will rise to 81 when the fitness centre opens.

What did you do before ?

After graduating, I worked in various hotels, such as the Runnymede in Egham and Danesfield House, to gain practical experience in hospitality management. I came to Phyllis Court Club for the first time in 1994 and was here for 12 years. I then joined the sales team at Fox FM (part of Global Radio) so I sold advertising on Heart. Subsequently I worked for seven years at a full-service marketing agency.

When did you start your current role?

I returned in 2017 as Phyllis Court holds a special place in my life. I’ve not regretted coming back.

What was your objective?

Knowing the club as well as I did, I was enthused by the opportunity to make much more of its potential. The product was right but it had become a bit insular. I wanted to communicate and re-engage with a wide audience as to what a wonderful place it is. The members’ vote in favour of building the fitness centre played a big part in my decision to apply for the role.

Who or what influenced you to go into hospitality?

Mike Knapman, a chef and family friend, inspired me.

Do you have a mentor or role model?

I keep in touch with Laurent Petas, who was the club manager during the 12 years I was here before. He had a big influence in starting my career.

What would you do differently if starting again?

Had I been brave enough, rather than spend the first 12 years of my career in the same place, I would have made a move earlier.

How is the business doing?

Very well. We now have 3,175 members, which means with just 50 more we will have to start a waiting list.

How do you market your business?

We have developed a new strategy this year to ensure we are engaging with the right people and organisations in order to reinforce our message. Word of mouth is particularly important to us.

What’s the best thing about your role?

Seeing the change that has come about already.

What’s the most challenging aspect?

Dealing with the misconceptions that some people have about the club and overcoming them.

Where is your business headed?

Achieving healthy and reliable growth while continuing to provide stability and quality.

How important is the internet to the business?

We are installing a new IT system, which will make it much easier for members to be able to find what’s happening at the club and make bookings.

What’s the most valuable thing you’ve learned?

To be patient. Some things take time and it’s important to be sensitive when making changes.

What would you advise someone starting a business?

Invest a lot of time in planning and market research. Make sure you fully understand your market.

What three qualities are most important to success?

Being confident, practical and good at communicating.

What’s the secret of your success?

Enthusiasm and determination.

What’s the biggest mistake you’ve made?

None that I’m aware of, I’m pleased to say.

How organised are you?

I don’t think I’m that organised but my friends and family say that I am. I have lots of “to do” lists.

How do you dress for work each day?

In a way that makes me feel good and reflects my personality. Being smart is essential to making the right impression.

What can’t you be without every day?

A good pair of heels!

Desktop or mobile/pad?


Lunch at your desk or going out?

We have a staff canteen so I alternate between having lunch there and at my desk.

Do you continue to study?

Not in a formal way but I am always learning from experience and doing my job.

What do you read?

I enjoy crime fiction. I’ve read every Jack Reacher novel by Lee Childs.

How are you planning for retirement?

I have a new man in my life who is a bit older than me, so having worked really hard all my life, I’d like to retire when I’m 50 so we can do lots of travelling. At least that’s my plan!

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