Inspirational Women: Isabella Howell & Gabriella Howell | Owners, The Great House Antigua

Isabella Howell and Gabriella HowellGabriella, 26, studied history as her undergraduate degree at Royal Holloway, followed by a Masters at King’s College London in War Studies.

She embodies Sun Tzu’s ideas into six strategic principles for the business executive about gaining market share without inciting competitive retaliation and values efficiency, urgent speed and preparation. Following her MA she joined the Civil Service within the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Department, focusing on Brexit negotiations for the nuclear industry. In her spare time she began to set-up and develop The Great House Antigua, the family home in the Caribbean, which has been transformed into a boutique hotel after learning it was the last stone estate house on the island. She has since made the hotel her focus, while also recently starting a PhD on the subject of the house and lives associated with it through its 350-year existence. During the COVID19 pandemic things took a slight turn and she worked in the family business, BCB International, running operations and the supply for the NHS and key workers through the UK.

Isabella, 23, graduated top of her class from University of the Arts London in photojournalism. She worked for Thomson Reuters and Royal Mail before undertaking a course in Graphic Design in Sydney, Australia.

Her passion for graphic design came about with the work she undertook in setting up The Great House Antigua. During the COVID19 pandemic she returned from Australia and put her new training to excellent use in developing 80% strength hand sanitiser packaging, the main supplier for the Welsh NHS and front-line teams. She also worked with the police force closely in the design and execution of covid personal protection packs. As the hospitality industry slowly returns, she has returned to her work focused on The Great House Antigua. Isabella is strategic and driven as a creative, fearless in fast movement with design, production and new technology. She prides herself on honesty and doing each task to the best of her ability.

Tell us a bit about yourself, background and your current role

GH: Over the past two years, with COVID19 I feel our roles have altered drastically, now where do we even begin!

IH: I agree. I started 2020 as a photographer and journalist, eager to learn more about graphic design and develop my coding abilities. In February 2020 I was in Sydney training as a Graphic designer, and then in April I was in Cardiff. As they say I hit the ground running, putting my training to immediate use with the design of the PPE items we were urgently producing for the first responders who were unable to access vital equipment due to the transport issues and worldwide demand. Recently I have been able to return full time to the work we started at The Great House Antigua, our historic-boutique hotel, which is where my passion really lies and where my initial interest in graphic design stemmed.

GH: Similarly with the stop to international travel and the closure of the hotel in Antigua I returned to Cardiff to assist in the family business of manufacturing life-saving equipment. It was a complete change in work, but I do like a challenge! I took over the operations and production running. We were working shifts to keep the factories open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, just to meet the needs of the first responders. As the main liaison between the Welsh NHS, Police and other medical surgeries through the UK it was a pretty hectic time, I think I was managing on 4 hours of sleep at night! As Isabella said, as supply increased and the demand for PPE became more manageable, we were able to return to our roles in running the hotel together. I am Operations Director of The Great House Antigua, which I have built over the past three years. The role incorporates a slice of everything, as any role of a small business does!

Did you ever sit down and plan your career?

Both: No!

GH: To be honest I have never ‘known what I want to be when I grow up.’ I love reading, research and learning so something that incorporates those items, while also having the freedom to work for myself.
IH: I have always been quite creative so I knew I wanted a creative role, though running a hotel as the head creative was never on the cards!

Have you faced any challenges along the way?

IH: Obviously this past year and the effects of COVID19 have been the biggest challenge the hospitality industry has gone through for a long time, particularly the international hospitality industry.

GH: There weren’t any grants, loans or furlough schemes. International travel is still very difficult with the ever changing policies, so it has been a bit of an uphill battle. Keeping the team in employment during this period was key for us.

IH: As well as keeping everyone motivated and positive. We had weekly calls and check-ins with all of our staff .

GH: We also faced challenges entering the hospitality industry, coming from very different backgrounds. Understanding the mechanics of the industry was a challenge, particularly when we started.

What has been your biggest achievement to date?

GH: The restoration work and physical changes at The Great House Antigua have been staggering. It has taken some time to transform the 350 year old historic home into a professional hotel. The research for the restoration of many of the antiques was led by our mother Janey, following her masters in restoration work. The development and building of new garden suites has also been a fantastic achievement, being involved with a building project like that from start to finish was wonderful. However the biggest personal achievement is self-growth. Understanding what I am capable of within the ever changing environment that COVID19 has brought about, it has been eye opening but I have learnt alot from each experience, particularly about myself.

IH: My biggest achievement has come from stepping out of my comfort zone, realising I wasn’t content with what I was doing and having the confidence and self-understanding to take the time to know what I wanted, and then go and get it.

What one thing do you believe has been a major factor in you achieving success?

IH: Each other first and foremost, we are each other’s biggest cheerleaders! Working in a partnership with your sister means we understand each other’s strengths and weaknesses, and work with them. Gabi is very organised and focused on time management, she also struggles to switch off. On the other hand I am more flexible and people oriented.

GH: That is very true, Issy has a very easy-going nature- she is the key orchestrator to dance parties in the middle of the day! Our network of people is also key to our success. We work closely with our mother in running The Great House, her background in law and more recent historic restoration studies are vital to the work we undertake.

IH: Our older sister Emily, to bounce ideas off and look for support. She runs her own production company in Wales but is always willing to help out, comes to travel shows with us or runs around if we have a last minute panic. Our father and his business advice after over 40 years of running his own business is a brilliant asset.

GH: Finally our boyfriends, not to be too lame, are pretty fantastic. They read documents for us, cheer for us and are always on hand to discuss ideas, however crazy they may be. Most importantly they are incredibly patient with us when we answer calls through a date….

IH: You said you were going to stop doing that! We are really lucky that we have such supportive relationships who are always on hand to let us vent or support ideas.

GH: Our team in Antigua is detrimental to the success of the hotel and restaurant. Having these relationships is key to any company’s success.

Isabella Howell and Gabriella HowellWhat advice would you give someone looking to start their own business?

GH: Having a passion for what you are doing and believing in that business wholeheartedly. There are times when things are tough, nothing seems to be going right, a global pandemic hits and your hotel closes, or you’re dealing with a bad situation when it seems you are fighting fires all day. On days like that, having the passion and belief in your project can be questioned, so you have to start by loving what you do, and that’ll pull you through those days.

IH: I agree, we also love a plan. We always seem to be juggling a lot of balls so having a plan and understanding of your focus areas, what to work on and the goal is critical. Saying that you have to be very flexible with that plan, adaptation is key!

How have you coped/adapted during the Coronavirus pandemic?

IH: Referring to my previous answer here about adaptation, this is exactly what we did with the pandemic. Of course for the hotel at the beginning we closed for international tourism and both of us put our time and energy to the best use with the pandemic. The role I undertook with the PPE manufacturing actually furthered a lot of my work and abilities, it gave me a lot of confidence in the area.

GH: My change was obviously quite big. We have both worked for our parents firm through school and university so we understand the company and role, but the work we were all undertaking was unlike anything anyone had experienced before with the pandemic. It was fantastic to be able to give back and help during this period though, I arranged donations of PPE to Lebanon, Yemen, Guiana and Antigua, as well as for charities through the UK. For the hotel though the effects of COVID19 should have been purely negative. Of course we had no flights coming onto the island and the hotel closed for a period, as we mentioned before. Curfew was introduced but with the low cases across the island things gradually began returning to normal, far quicker than they did in the UK. Our mother Janey, who works with us at the hotel, proposed the idea ‘Sundays at The Great House’. A restaurant which opens once a week for those on the island, giving us the opportunity to showcase the 26 acred tropical gardens and historic house with locals, as well as provide further employment for staff.

IH: Sunday’s at The Great House has really taken off and we are fully booked two weeks in advance. Showcasing a historic site, as well as the research and restoration work, has been fantastic for us. Part of our goal is to provide an opportunity to educate and present this living history, the last of its kind on the island.

If you could give one piece of advice to your younger self what would it be?

IH: To believe in yourself and never give up. It’s so easy to stop when you feel like things aren’t working out for you, but you must remember that there is no successful person who hasn’t struggled at times. Life is about learning from your mistakes and coming out stronger on the other side.

GH: To always ask questions, when I was younger I felt silly asking some questions, like everyone else knew the answer. I have learnt now that this is normally not the case, most people have no clue what is going on 80% of the time. If for some reason everyone does know then you are benefiting yourself in learning something new.

What is your next challenge and what are you hoping to achieve in the future?

GH: The first challenge is the post COVID recovery, we are hoping for that much discussed boom in international travel after the past year of everyone staying in and keeping safe. Obviously the first objective is to beat this virus though!

IH: Once tourism and travel returns I think our focus will move onto further development with the likes of an on-site museum, offering of water sports and hopefully building a private beach on site!

GH: We want to continue growing the hotel and its offering, as well as continue developing what we can offer, through educational purposes on the island. Fingers crossed with the recovery we are hoping for we can continue to expand, without losing the charm of The Great House Antigua.

How do you give back to the community and world?

IH: We recognize our privilege and set out from the beginning of our journey to make sure we give back. Everything we do, we do sustainably. Our job means flying back and forth to the Caribbean, so we make sure that all carbon offset charges are met. We have undertaken work at the hotel itself to make it more sustainable, including the addition of solar panels and the rebuilding of water cisterns, reducing single-use plastic for all guests beverages. We worked tirelessly in the vegetable garden, with efforts for the majority of our vegetables and fruits being grown on-site. We try to give back to the Antiguan island in any way we can. All of our restaurant’s food is bought locally to support the community.

GH: We are very proud of the work we have done to restore and revive historic buildings, which would have otherwise been forgotten about or demolished. By bringing these buildings back to resemble what they once were we can prioritise the teachings and understandings of Caribbean history. We believe that history is of utmost importance, and should be learnt from to stop it from repeating itself. All guests are given a history pamphlet upon arrival and can explore the 350-year-old estate house and sugar mill.

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