Interview: Gabriella and Isabella Howell of The Great House Antigua, The Caribbean Retreat Loved by Royalty and Hollywood Stars

  • Photos by:
    Noor and Zee
  • Published on:
    May 26, 2021
  • Reading time by:
    6 minutes
Interview With: Gabriella and Isabella Howell of The Great House Antigua, The Caribbean Retreat Loved by Royalty and Hollywood Stars womenontopp.com women on topp

Gabriella and Isabella Howell, two Bossbabe sisters, have followed their passions to set up The Great House Antigua, a historic boutique hotel situated in a private paradise. Gabriella and Isabella did not have a background in hospitality but using their strengths and passions, they have created a unique hotel for those travelling to the Caribbean. 

Gabriella and Isabella Howell grew up as Welsh – Antiguans. Travelling between their home in Cardiff and their Grandmothers home in Antigua. They count themselves lucky to have parents who owned their own company and were able to experience first-hand how to grow a successful business. Their parents, Andrew and Janey Howell, own and run BCB International, a Military and PPE manufacturing firm. The two companies have collaborated throughout COVID-19 to make sure all guests and staff at The Great House Antigua are as safe as possible, as well as make donations throughout Antigua.

Gabriella studied history at Royal Holloway University, while also raising money for charity, playing hockey and organising the universities Masquerade Ball. She didn’t stop with a bachelors and masters from Kings’ College London, as is now also undertaking her PhD, focusing on Antiguan History. Gabriella is working on publishing a book about the hotel’s history, which all guests will be given, instead of the current overview booklet. She thinks it is important to share the history so that people can learn from it, and to make sure those that lost their lives through the sugar industry and slavery are not forgotten. From her time at the Civil Service on the Brexit negotiations; Gabriella learnt and excelled at communication and critical thinking, a talent she has brought to her new endeavour.

Isabella brings the creative flare to the pair. She studied at University of the Arts London and specialises in Photography, Journalism and Graphic Design. Working with clients like Royal Mail and Thomson Reuters Foundation she knows how to capture the beauty of the hotel, bringing it to life.  Isabella is a Welsh speaker and worked closely with Rotary. Through the COVID19 pandemic Isabella set to work raising funds for the Welsh NHS working with Welsh stars such as Michael Sheen, Owen Teale and Rebecca Evans. You’ll normally find her learning a new hobby like wake-boarding or roller-blading.

They have shared the joint hobby of travel throughout their lives. Having had the opportunity to travel to over 40 countries, they believe that travel is the only thing you buy that makes you richer.

In 2019, the pair decided to join forces, bringing the academic and creative together. They worked together to convert their Grandmothers house, a 350-year-old estate, and turning it into one of the most unique hotels on the island of Antigua. The house has had many celebrity guests in the past and is filled with character. Gabriella and Isabella have modernised the rooms, while keeping its historic character and showcase the history. Many have described it as stepping back in time, allowing the everyday stresses of life to melt away.

They dove into this project of converting the property into a beautiful hotel with the help of their close family. Emily Howell, their older sister, is on hand to give her videography and editing skills, from her production company ‘Howell Productions.’ Their mother, Janey Howell, is a key part of The Great House Antigua, with unique ideas and insights, supporting the pair throughout their journey.

In 2020, they built four Cottage Suites which are magnificent through and through. With rainfall his and her showers, to super king size beds and walk in wardrobes. The cottages open to a veranda surrounded by nature and singing birds. Gabriella and Isabella are proud to have created such a sanctuary that they know their Grandma would be proud of. Their aim is to share the paradise with as many guests as possible, It really is a once in a lifetime stay.

The sisterhood, What is it like working together as sisters in business?

Fast, Fun and Fearless.

Being raised in an independent family of thinkers the two sisters both strive to achieve their collective and individual goals in every endeavour. Bouncing ideas off each other constantly, the Yin to the others Yang. It is in this fast-paced environment that the two sisters develop their best ideas, from converting the original 350 year old stone buildings into a vegetable garden (for our garden to table meals), to hiring a female based team.

With a base in the UK and Antigua the sisters are constantly changing their office, and scenery, and try to take enjoyment from everything they do.

Together they make the perfect team and feel extremely lucky to be able to run a company with their best friend and the person they trust the most. They get the chance to be excited, stressed and proud together in their everyday working lives. If you think working together every day might be enough, think again. Gabriella and Isabella also live together and have the same social circles. Their partnership shines through into every aspect of their life.

What makes The Great House Antigua stand out from every other hotel in the Caribbean?

Put simply, the history. The Great House Antigua is the last stone estate house open to the public in Antigua. Guests are able to stay in the living history, including the 1800s wrought iron four poster bed or dine at the same table as Greta Garbo. The two sisters have focused on researching and obtaining as much information about the estate’s history, from the past 350 years, and guests are provided with a short historical booklet on arrival to really understand the stories of those associated with this hotel over the past 350 years of its existence. 

The Great House Antigua stands out from other hotels because of its uniqueness. It is a once in a lifetime opportunity. No other Caribbean hotels offer the beauty, easy connections with the UK, and the historic ambiance of the Great House Antigua.

What are the top three things your guests enjoy whilst staying in the Great House Antigua?

Exclusivity: Part of the charm of The Great House is the intimate setting and exclusive appeal. Set within 26 acres of unspoiled tropical gardens, with only 8 suites, the sisters are keen to ensure the private experience is provided to all guests. As Isabella says, ‘There is nothing quite like the early morning wake up with bird song and the palm trees gently swaying in the breeze.’ It is this very charm which they hope to deliver to every guest who stays at The Great House.

Culture: The Great House offers more than just the beach. Though Antigua is surrounded by 365 pristine Caribbean beaches, the hotel has so much more to offer. The Great House Antigua’s focus is providing more than just the beach, an opportunity for tourists to the island to experience the stories behind this historic property, learning about Antigua’s history from its origins with the Arawaks and Caribs.

Unwinding: with complete space and privacy to do as guests wish. The sisters have also implemented a relax and unwind strategy through the hotel, with weekly wellness classes taken overlooking the Caribbean sea, as well as nature walks around the ground. Gabriella adds ‘The nature walks show off the beautiful island, and all it has to offer, from the antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties of the tamarind fruit to hollowing out coconuts. Each tree, bush and fruit, has multiple purposes, which our team are happy to teach to guests.’  

How do you support women that are on top of their careers? 

As a female led company The Great House Antigua is being led from the front by Gabriella and Isabella Howell. Janey Howell, their mother, is also involved, particularly with the restoration work following her recent master’s degree in Georgian design and restoration. Gabriella says, ‘Our team is full of hard-working and ambitious women, all striving to create the best possible guest experience, while constantly learning and adapting.’

The hotel has many solo female guests, or groups of women stay, enjoying the relaxed and safe atmosphere presented at The Great House. Antigua and Barbuda are the safest Caribbean islands, with minimal threats to safety for single female travellers. All solo travellers are offered a discount on all suites.

The Great House offers a range of retreats for guests, from wellness to writer’s retreats, which has a largely female attendance. An opportunity to learn, create experiences and meet like-minded people, while unwinding in one of the most scenic locations.

How do you personally define success? What does it mean to you? What are your next moves or biggest goals?

The definition of success in the hospitality industry focuses on brand awareness and ‘bums in beds.’ The Great House Antigua is nothing like the large resorts of the world, with incredible marketing and branding awareness, and thousands of rooms, across the globe. The Great House Antigua’s success is based on customer satisfaction. ‘As a small hotel with a unique story our focus is ensuring our guests have the most memorable stay with us, it is through guests wanting to return and share their experience with their friends that we will really be able to determine success’ Isabella told us. Gabriella agreed while adding ‘we would also like to increase bums in beds.

Personal success, both agreed, is accomplishing something that makes them proud while also being able to laugh and learn. Their laughs are infectious as they bounce off each other during discussions of their focus and goals. Gabriella’s goal is to be able to pour more energy into the historical research of the hotel, which she is currently working on through her PhD thesis and hopes to be working with government and international support on funding for further restoration of the mill and stone industrial buildings to add a museum to the hotel. The sisters also hope to add further facilities to the hotel, such as water sports and traditional ‘British’ Afternoon Teas. Isabella’s goal is to continue working on The Great House Antigua’s brand image and marketing, while hoping to build a team around her.

Together, the team’s goal is to create a unique brand of The Great House Antigua, which is recognised as one of the historic wonders to stay in while visiting the beautiful island of Antigua.

What do your friends and boyfriends think of your business drive? Do you get any push back and how do you deal with it?

The sisters say that they get the “But what do you actually do” question more regularly than you think. Those who haven’t visited the hotel don’t understand the scale or importance of it, social media pictures only show so much!

“Our friends and boyfriends have all had the opportunity to see the hotel first-hand and are in love with it. Our boyfriends are very understanding of our need to work more than  typical 9-5 hours, with dates frequently interrupted with phone calls or deadlines.’ Then again if I had an opportunity to stay at a 5 star hotel whenever you wanted, I’d be understanding too.  In an industry that continues at all hours, with guests communicating across the world, and numerous moving parts of an ever changing industry, the newbies do not want to miss an opportunity. 

What advice would you give to a younger you just starting out on their business?

Though young entrepreneurs with, as Isabella said, “still a lot to learn”, they both agree that they have learnt 3 fundamental lessons. ‘To learn everything you can, always ask questions and not be afraid to try. Working together, knowing each other’s strengths and weaknesses, and being there to bounce ideas and support each other when an idea does not pay off has been monumental in our partnership.’ Gabriella said.

What events do you host at The Great House Antigua?

The Great House Antigua is the perfect location for a group retreat, due to its land size combined with small room occupancy. The Hotel has hosted a writers retreat, which encompassed spots around the hotel and grounds to take classes or have ‘break-out sessions. The retreat was a tremendous success. The hotel has also hosted wellness and fitness retreats, with classes overlooking the sea, in the grounds, or under the trees. The food for each was carefully curated with the retreat hosts and guests. Isabella mentioned the upcoming retreats in late 2021 and early 2022 which includes two writers retreat, a painting retreat and another fitness retreat.

The sisters enjoy this element of the industry and mentioned the businesses purpose of these groups brings the entire hotel to life.

Weddings and vow renewals have both taken place at The Great House. Gabriella added ‘we work with local wedding planners, or directly with the couple, to plan their dream wedding in the gardens and house. The events have really been remarkable and we have enjoyed every moment of being part of the couples experience.’

What 3 books would you recommend every hotelier should read?

100 tips for Hoteliers. Peter Venison.      

The Ride of a Lifetime. Robert Iger

The Heart of Hospitality. Micah Solomon

What do you both do to recharge when you are feeling drained?

Isabella ‘We both love animals and have a daily recharge with our dogs. Going out for a walk or hike is the perfect way to take a break from the computer, get in our steps and take a deep breath.’

Gabriella ‘Hiking in particularly, I love the climb up and the surprise at the top. Antigua and Cardiff, both have wonderful hiking trails and the views from the top are nothing alike but equally breath-taking. When we are based in London steep hikes aren’t quite on the cards, but we do love re-exploring the city. Every walk takes you someone new and exciting.’

The sisters are both avid readers and have the goal of reading at least one book a month. ‘Though we would love to read more, we frequently end up replying to emails or phone calls, we are not terribly good at turning off.’

What is your favourite dish and drink off the menu at The Great House Antigua and why?

Isabella: A mojito is my favourite cocktail at The Great House, with a fresh stick of sugar cane and mint from the green houses. I enjoy the calamari as a starter and the stuffed Cornish hen as a main.

Gabriella: Our bartender is wonderful, I love the creations she makes and pairs with my meal, though my go to is a cold glass of champagne. I enjoy the fresh fish options that our team creates, one day Mahi, the next Lobster Thermidor, or a red snapper. We work with local fisherman to bring guests the freshest catch of the day for all meals, and I love this.

The two sisters unanimously agreed the chocolate fondant pudding was their favourite ‘what can we say, chocolate lovers through and through’ Gabriella stated.

Who has inspired you both in business and in life?

Our family is a daily inspiration to us. The sisters believe that you should surround yourself with people who inspire you to be better. Their parents, grandparents and sister all strive to be successful entrepreneurs and don’t take no for an answer. We are also inspired by boss women including Whitney Wolfe, the CEO of bumble and Scarlett Curtis, writer of ‘Feminists don’t wear pink and other lies.’ 

How do people reach you to discuss booking out the Great House Antigua for a special event or a book out to reunite their colleagues and friends? 

Gabriella and Isabella are keen to accommodate any events or take-overs. They live by the words “The more the merrier”. The hotel has previously had weddings, retreats and special events, like book openings, taking over the hotel. Every event has the opportunity to book either the main house, with 4 suites, or the whole property, including the 8 suites, pool, 26 acres, and much more. We have specialised retreats advertised on our websites including Girls Getaways. If any client would like a specific retreat or event take over they can email bookings@thegreathouseantigua.com and the sisters will be keen to accommodate them. House takeovers start from US$2,716.

If you could pick any guest to come and stay at The Great House Antigua, who would it be and why? 

Over the years The Great House Antigua has seen idols such as Greta Garbo and Jacqueline Kennedy to Humphrey Bogart and Gaston Browne, the Antiguan Prime Minister. The 1960s was notable in The Great House Antigua history, the house was set to be a honeymoon retreat for HRH Princess Margaret and her husband Anthony Armstrong-Jones until it was suspected that the press had discovered the secret location and they were forced to move elsewhere.

Easy to imagine the young princess relaxing in the turquoise and lime green drawing room which has something of a retro 1950s feel in the colour scheme.  The Princess may have visited The Great House on her first Royal tour of Antigua in 1955 when it was known for its extravagant parties and its eccentric mix of Hollywood and European movie stars. Greta Garbo may never have actually uttered those much quoted words “I want to be alone”, however the constant unwanted attention she received made her visits to The Great House all the more special.  

The two sisters discussed a guest which they would love to have stay at The Great House Antigua, Sir David Attenborough came to mind, his passion for nature and sustainability aligned with the values at The Great House. Though both noted it would have been wonderful to have hosted the likes of Coco Chanel and Audrey Hepburn in the property, their style, enhance and grace are what the sisters aim for the hotel to emulate for all guests staying. 

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