Couple who met on romantic Asia cruise take on new challenge of running local pub

(l-r) Cllr Malcolm Littlewood, Marie Stephenson, Tom Lilley, Erika Lilley and Cllr Martin Watson
(l-r) Cllr Malcolm Littlewood, Marie Stephenson, Tom Lilley, Erika Lilley and Cllr Martin Watson -Credit:pr supplied

A couple who met on a cruise in Southeast Asia are now running a Warwickshire pub. The Antelope, in Lighthorne, is run by Erika and Tom Lilley.

The couple have been married for 12 years after their romantic meeting on a cruise. Erika subsequently moved to the UK from Peru.

Now the pub is being supported through the cost-of-living crisis with a raft of hospitality industry initiatives. It says it's growing its clientele by adding everything from cocktails to pizza nights to bring in more trade from the surrounding area.

The plan is working and has helped to safeguard 10 jobs at the country pub. Its most recent help came via the Project Warwickshire - Visitor Economy and Hospitality Support Programme delivered by the Coventry and Warwickshire Chamber of Commerce on behalf of Warwickshire County Council the District and Borough Councils.

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Erika attended online masterclasses on search engine optimisation to help drive more traffic to the pub’s website and on social media platforms such as Facebook, Instagram and TikTok. They also received one-to-one support from Chamber Business Advisor Marie Stephenson, who spent time working with Erika conducting a detailed target market exercise to ensure a marketing plan that would appeal to all of their different types of customers, and which included plans to attract new ones too.

The practical support helped the pub to identify ways of increasing takings and turnover to remain profitable at a time when closures have been on the rise across the country.

The couple has previously received support from Warwickshire County Council’s Survive, Sustain and Grow Programme which saw them awarded a £10,000 grant to develop a new pizza oven and preparation area. Both agreed that the support has proved invaluable.

Tom said: “There is no doubt that pubs across the whole country are having a tough time for a variety of reasons – costs have risen, Covid changed habits and people have less money in their pocket to spend. The support we’ve received has, undoubtedly, helped us to survive and look at new ways to increase revenue.”

Erika added: “Working with Marie helped us to see the bigger picture. When it is two of you running a business, it’s easy to keep doing the same thing but Marie gave us new ideas and new ways to think about how we could attract more customers. We’re also making sure our staff feel included and are asking them for ideas of how we can grow and that has helped create a really nice spirit within the team.”

Tom, who is a trained chef, works with the pub’s head chef to regularly refresh the menu while the venue also holds regular special events to commemorate everything from St. Patrick’s Day through to Star Wars Day on May 4.

Erika said: “We feel very positive about the future but we also know it is important to keep our feet on the ground and to build on the support we’ve had by thinking about how to work on the business and not always in it. Also, we know it’s important to be creative about what we offer so that our customers want to come back again and again.”

Marie said: “It’s been a pleasure working with Erika and Tom. They’ve taken on board everything we have talked about in our one-to-one sessions and have put it into practice, with amazing results.

“Every small business owner knows that they get sucked into day-to-day tasks and don’t always get a chance to look at the bigger picture. Erika and Tom have managed to take a step back, plan and target new customers and it’s having a positive impact on the business.”

Councillor Martin Watson, Warwickshire County Council Portfolio Holder for Economy & Place, said: “Pubs are the backbone of local communities as well as being great businesses, so I am delighted to see The Antelope has benefitted from support. The pandemic accelerated lots of trends – from internet shopping to drinking at home – but nothing beats the local pub for bringing people together, especially in our rural communities so it’s great to see Erika and Tom making a real success of this business.”

Malcolm Littlewood, Stratford-on-Avon District Councillor and a member of the Stratford-on-Avon District Council Overview and Scrutiny Committee Task and Finish Group: Public Houses, added: “We have to do everything we can to help our pubs and it’s great to see the positive effect that the business support is having here.”

The Project Warwickshire Programme forms part of Business Growth Warwickshire which is part-funded by the UK government through the UK Shared Prosperity Fund and Warwickshire County Council. It has been developed and commissioned jointly by Warwickshire County Council, North Warwickshire Borough Council, Nuneaton and Bedworth Borough Council, Rugby Borough Council, Stratford-on-Avon District Council and Warwick District Council.

The Coventry and Warwickshire Chamber of Commerce is delivering free-funded business support on all aspects of business. To get started, please email or visit