Inspirational Woman: Tanya Wheway | Co-Founder & Chairman of Wheway Lifestyle International

Lady in the Hat - Original

Co-founder and chairman of Wheway Lifestyle International, Tanya Wheway is a pioneer of the spa and well-being industry, a formula she, and her late husband Allan, introduced to the UK over 40 years ago. If her name is not familiar, the spas she created and managed with Allan surely must be; these include award winning Champneys UK, the Sanctuary in London’s Covent Garden and Chiva-Som in Thailand. Today, at the age of 67, Tanya is reinventing herself, by running new holistic [email protected]+ programmes at Champneys Tring.

Join Myriam O’Carroll in a conversation with Tanya about positive life principles and discover her advice for giving your life a serious kick!

You started working in the well-being industry way before it was trendy – how did it start?

I went to work in America when I was 19. After a dreadful experience selling magazines door-to-door in Chicago, I ended up in Washington DC. I had always wanted to work in the hotel business, so I knocked on the door of the best and biggest hotel, The Mayflower, part of Hotel Corporation of America. I got a job selling all the hotels in the group… and I never looked back from there! That led to many exciting things… including operating and developing, with Allan, the Champneys Group based at their Tring health resort in Hertfordshire. That was in 1972, over 40 years ago!

You ran Champneys Tring for 16 years and turned it into a world-class spa. What did you bring to it?

I think that if you find something you absolutely love and have passion for, you have a much greater chance of success.

I remember being told by an American business guru that to be really successful in business you need a VPA. It stands for Vision, Passion and Action. Fortunately Allan and I were very passionate about this. We did have a vision and we were prepared to work very hard to achieve what we wanted.

So what was your vision for Champneys Tring?

The model we created was based on 3 objectives. The first was that people should get an immediate benefit from their stay, according to their individual needs and aspirations. The second was that they should thoroughly enjoy the visit, so that the time and money they were investing had a special benefit. We also wanted to show people how health could be fun and enjoyable. We based our programmes on teaching as well as treating, so that people would learn things they could do differently when back at home. That was really the formula for success.

Your adventure with Champneys ended brutally – what happened?

We ran Champneys and developed it over a 16-year period, through 5 different owners with the last one being Guinness.   We weren’t, of course, mainstream business for them, but initially were fortunate to report direct to the Chief Executive Officer. Allan and I had very high profiles – we were often referred to by guests and the media as Mr & Mrs Champneys which was appreciated by the current CEO, but when he went to prison for insider dealing we had to report to a Director of the company who didn’t have a clue about hospitality and ‘the people business’.  Large public companies like to pigeon-hole people, put them in ‘boxes’ and Allan and I did not fit very well in a box!  They also  – don’t like personalities, because it makes them feel vulnerable and exposed. So we basically got fired…. one day we were just called to Head Office, told our faces did not fit with Guinness, they presented us with a good financial package and made it clear there was absolutely no option to stay on running the Champneys Group.  That was devastating to me, because I had put my heart and my soul into it and we had a very close bond with our staff and our regular guests. But my husband was a very strong and pragmatic guy, so within 3 weeks we formed our own company Wheway Lifestyle International and got our first job create a spa. From there we created spas all over the world over the next 20 years.

Your successes included the Sanctuary in London and the award-winning Chiva-Som in Thailand – was it nice revenge?

I don’t think revenge is a good idea because it eats you up with negative energy, but if you can use it as a way to inspire you and achieve more then that’s great! I have to say there is a little bit of good feeling in thinking that the story did not stop there with Champneys. In fact we bought it back from Guinness a few years later with the help of financial partners. Then, shortly after, we received a fantastic offer for it, so we lost Champneys a second time, but on our terms! So we’d been there originally in 1972, we were back in 1992 as part owners and now I’ve just gone back in 2012 – another 20 years on….. albeit ‘wearing a different hat!

What do you currently do?

I now run programmes called [email protected]+; there is no upper age limit.  Although the greater majority attending the courses are in their fifties and sixties a lady attending my last course was 82 and loved it! Champneys Tring gives me the opportunity to do something really holistic.  In addition to the nutrition, fitness, preventive medicine and skin-care offered by Champneys my personal focus is about what’s going on between the ears. What you eat is important, but what’s even more important is what’s eating you!  ‘Attitude is all’ so our first session focuses on this important element, putting the building blocks in place.  Other sessions include ‘Relationship Management with Self and Others’, ‘Stress Management and How to Hang Loose and Have Fun and the final session is the ‘What, When and How’…. what do you want out of life and how are you going to get it!  I help people realise their potential…. to get in the driving seat, rather than just be a passenger in life. There is a lot of work that happens in those 5-day sessions. People go away with a plan of action for their future, which I follow up on with them.

What are the common issues the over 50s talk about the most?

Obviously health and relationships come at the top of the list, but the other key one is time. We have no idea how much time we’ve got, but what is very important is that we spend it wisely and well. It is important to do things which give you purpose and make you feel you’re achieving something and you can do that to a very mature age. The other thing is to make sure you’re having fun. At 50+ you are likely to have a little more time and more disposable income. You have the opportunity to be more ‘me focused’.

I believe it is important to learn and grow until the day you go gaga or to meet your maker! Never give that up, have some excitement, push yourself out of your comfort zone. I have just done a sky dive – what an unbelievable thrill that was!

What have been your personal achievements?

For me relationships are the most important. I have a wonderful relationship with my children and my grandchildren and have very special friends. I had an amazing marriage to the most incredible man for 42 years: we worked together, lived together and played together 24/7. When he passed away, more than 4 years ago, it was like having half of me torn away, so I can totally empathize with anyone who has lost a loved one.  We are all different and need to find out what works for us as individuals, but a realisation came clearly to me just a year ago.  There is a subtle, but important difference between ‘moving on’ and ‘moving forward’.  I don’t choose to ‘move on’ which to me implies leaving behind something that I hold so dear.  However, I do want to ‘move forward’ and not live my life in a time warp.  I still miss Allan every single day, but I have re-built an independent life which I am finding challenging, rewarding and fun – all this can be achieved with the right attitude and some effort.

On the business front of course I feel very blessed to have created wonderful spas around the world that bring health and joy to so many people.

What advice would you give for building a 40-year relationship – if advice can be given?

(She laughs) The first thing is choosing the right person! The two most important things we do in our lives are choose our partner and bring up children and we get no training for either! I was fortunate in choosing a man who kept me on my toes. We shared very similar values, but very different strengths. Women like to be complimented, but so do men, so make sure you are complimenting your man – make him feel good. And we all like to be adored, but it is very important not to be a doormat.

I would say a relationship is a bit like a precious gem: you can chip away at it or you can polish it… and the more you polish it, the brighter it will shine.

You are referred to as the ‘Lady in the Hat’ – how many hats do you own?

Over 300! I started wearing hats when I was 14, so it has become a trademark. There’s a saying that goes

‘If you want to get a head, get a hat’.

I think hats are fun, but do know how to wear them!

About the author

Myriam is the features editor for our Inspirational Women in business. She is committed to raising the voice of women in media and has met some of the most prolific women (and, dare we say it, is as inspirational as those she interviews!). Myriam has been working in the industry for over ten years, with CNN and CNBC Europe. She is also the founder of Smart Content, a boutique consultancy helping brands to express their authentic personality and engage with their consumer groups, through compelling content.

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