Joanne Taylor-Stagg, general manager of the Athenaeum Hotel & Residences in London's Mayfair and winner of the 2021 Manager of the Year Catey, tells Katherine Price why she's full of positivity and why others should be too.
You joined the Athenaeum in February 2019 – what changes have you made to the business?
It's been a game of two halves. The first year was about repositioning, because that's what I was brought into the business to do. We were finishing off the refurbishment and doing the last of the bedrooms as I joined. That was really rewarding. We spent a lot of time working on culture, a good set of values and vision. I love all that stuff – giving the team the freedom to make decisions.
I love giving the team the freedom to make decisions
By January 2020 I had bought magnums of Champagne because I knew we were going to make budget way before we got to the year-end and I wanted them ready. I had a really fun first year – and then Covid came around.
I have never been so challenged and had to think as quickly and move as fast. You didn't even know what game you were playing, let alone what rules you had to abide by.
What have been your proudest achievements since then?
What I'm most proud of is that we chose to stay open throughout Covid for our residents and any guests that were stranded. That decision allowed us to look after all our stakeholders in a way that we couldn't if we had shut the doors completely. The results of that guest care are clear. When I started at the Athenaeum, we were ranked 275 on TripAdvisor. When we went into the first lockdown, we were ranked 146; and now we are at 61.
It gave our team the ability to learn, grow and keep busy. The non-furloughed teams were doing roles they'd never done before, making decisions they'd never had to make before. At the end of the first lockdown I wanted them to appreciate what they had gained, so I asked them what they were most proud of achieving and what they had learned about themselves. Absolutely every single one of them said, "I am so much more capable than I ever thought I was", in some way or another. The other two things I got back were "I should have more confidence in myself" and "we are no longer a team – we are absolutely a family and we are all in this together". I was bursting with pride.
In the second lockdown we did daily training sessions on Zoom. Half of it was about learning a skill and half of it was keeping everyone connected. They went down an absolute storm. Now I have people that are multiskilled to a level that I'd only dreamed about.
Keeping the hotel open also meant that we had some revenue coming in, which allowed us to manage our cashflow and mitigate some of the losses for ownership.
The last area we were able to support because we were open was our community – both hospitality and local. We helped Only A Pavement Away throughout the pandemic with donations and support. And we looked after the lockdown team at Christ Church Mayfair, feeding them each day, as they had very limited cooking facilities in the church.
I am, after all, a child of Africa, and in Zulu there is a philosophy known as ubuntu. It literally means ‘I am because of you'. But the translation is not that good – you lose the subtlety. I think Nelson Mandela explained it far better than me when he said: "We are only human through the humanity of others; if we are to accomplish anything in this world, it will in equal measure be due to the work and achievements of others." Living the ubuntu philosophy is absolutely key to who I am.
You warned that the industry might struggle to recruit, and in anticipation you launched Master Innholders: Developing Additional Skills (Midas) in January to ensure a pipeline of managers and to keep young people engaged in hospitality. Can you tell me about that?
In November I ended up on one of the W1 Group [a group of five-star hotels in the centre of London] calls. [UKHospitality CEO] Kate Nicholls was on the call, and she said something about hospitality having nearly 10% of the economy's jobs prior to Covid. And then the unemployment stats came out, by which time a third of all redundancies were coming from our sector. And across all redundancies in all sectors, 56% of people made redundant were under 30. I put those numbers together and thought, holy guacamole.
One of my old guys had worked at a couple of really good five-star hotels. He'd graduated from the Master Innholders Aspiring Leaders Diploma programme, and was a hotelier through and through. He'd been made redundant – and went off to work for Krispy Kreme. I thought, we've got to do something to keep these people connected and engaged and just believing that there's a future in hospitality.
A Master Innholder called Neil Bannister passed away and he left a bequest to the Master Innholders Charitable Trust, so we were able to get seed money from that to set up Midas. I naturally phoned Dr Hilary Cooke [the diploma programme developer] and said, ‘help us, how do we do this?' We kind of made it up as we went along and got it up and running for January.
We knew we wanted to connect people so that they didn't feel alone. We knew that we wanted to give them new skills. We also knew that we wanted it to be ‘of the moment' – everything felt like it was moving so quickly that we didn't want to set an agenda for a year.
We wanted to connect people so that they didn't feel alone, and we wanted to give them new skills
We covered money matters in January. We thought that if we could help people to understand their own personal finances they could understand that, if their role was made redundant, it wasn't about them, it was about the money. We had to disconnect them from feeling they had done anything wrong.
We then knew we would need resilience and wellbeing, and we kept adapting each month and adding another one in response to what was going on. It's been amazing. I remember right back at the beginning having a conversation with Hilary and saying, ‘how many people do we think we'll reach? Like, 30?' We smashed that out of the park in such a big way.
How many people did you reach?
It's hard to say, but on the LinkedIn group we've got 150 and on the Midas programme database we've got nearly 300. We've had more than 1,000 people listen to the podcasts. And the videos have been amazing – over 4,000 views. On the first Zoom masterclass we had 50 people, and we have had on average 80 or so views on each masterclass.
What is the future of Midas?
We've sent out a survey because we really want it to be meaningful to 20- and 30-year-olds – because it's for them, it's for our future talent, and neither Hilary nor I are in that age bracket any more. The survey asked the age-old stuff, ‘what did you like/didn't like?', so that we can adapt the programme. There's definitely a desire for them to keep learning things.
We also realised that as you climb up the corporate ladder, there are more and more opportunities to network, and invariably you're able to network on an expense account. When you're a supervisor or junior manager that doesn't really happen, and that is really important to them. We need to find a way to allow them to network, whether it's virtually or, even better, we find a way to do it in real life but in a way that doesn't cost.
Do you see any solutions to the staffing shortage? Is it realistic to ask the government to change migration policy?
Absolutely, we need the government to change migration policy, but we also need them to be clearer. I cannot see the government putting us in another lockdown – I just don't think there's an appetite for it. Apart from the cost, there was so much bubbling discontent towards the end of the last one. I wish that they would be more positive about the messaging.
We need to start realising that there is life after Covid, and we can get through it. For many years we have not paid our lowest-paid guys enough. Once you climb up the ranks, we pay very well. But at entry level we haven't paid a fair wage for a fair day's work for a very long time, and the shortage will force that to move quickly.
There is life after Covid, and we can get through it
But as an industry we also haven't necessarily set ourselves better productivity standards. We've accepted that we just hire a lot of people and they're not all that brilliantly productive. In other parts of Europe they work fewer hours but they are far more productive than we are. This might actually be a catalyst to help us get to that point. If we can't recruit at the volumes we could before – and I think that's going to be the case for many years – and we're going to have to pay more for the people we recruit, maybe we will become more efficient and effective as a result of that.
I also believe that we as an industry need to talk up what we offer. We offer so many things, we do so much training and development – and we're fun! We always talk about unsociable hours, but we have a sociable time in our unsociable hours. We don't talk about that enough.
We always talk about the unsociable hours, but we have a sociable time in our unsociable hours
Are you increasing your entry-level wages at the hotel?
We have done – there has been a significant increase in what we pay.
How do you ensure your staff are being looked after in your business?
You know that old saying, a fish rots from the head? I think that absolutely starts with leadership and works its way down – it's a product of the culture that you have. What you see and what you acknowledge is what gets done, and if you turn a blind eye to stuff then it just condones the behaviour. As leaders we have to step up and give our teams reassurance, encouragement and confidence.
As well as the wage review, all our chefs and front of house were on 48-hour a week contracts. From all the conversations we've been having and the training we've done, we know that everybody has been spending more time at home and reassessing what's important. I hate to say ‘work-life balance' because it makes it sound like work isn't part of your life, but everybody has accepted that spending more time on other things is also important. So we have changed the contract from 48 hours to 40 hours.
As an industry for a long time we've had no spare capacity. So if someone goes on holiday or calls in sick, the guys can't pick up any more because they're already doing 48 hours. Now, if somebody does go off sick, somebody's quite happy to do 48 hours one week or for a couple of weeks – but not forever. We've got to treat our teams better. We've got to treat the whole person, not just the person who comes to work.
Are you seeing signs of recovery in the London market, and are you making many changes to operations?
In the short term, London is definitely picking up. It's all ridiculously last-minute, but it is massively picking up. I don't think that we're going to get back to any kind of normal London occupancy until probably next summer, because we've absolutely missed the boat for our big markets. American travel is just not there and I don't think it's going to come back at any volume at all this year. It's just too late. For the Middle East, we've seen some business come into London but not in the same volume.
We need to have a much more positive message to the outside world, one that says, ‘we are a great place to come and do business and holiday, and we are safe'.
What do you do to relax and look after your own mental health?
There have been times I've had to put myself on the ‘naughty step' and tell myself to take a time out. I'm commuting in on my bike. I absolutely love it – even through winter and snow. I love the morning ride, it sets me up for the day. It lets me get into my groove. And I've worked through my day by the time I get home, which is important.
I've also been leaning into the network that we have, both within the industry and outside it. When I've gone through a rough period, there are so many amazing women in the industry who you can just pick up the phone to and say I need to offload. And you will get that support from them. We have been that for one another, and they have helped me when I've hit a wall and feel like I can't see through it. It's the same for my family and friends.
- Feb 2019-present General manager, the Athenaeum Hotels & Residences, London
- May 2018-December 2018 General manager, the Capital Group, London
- April 2016-April 2018 General manager, the Trafalgar St James, London
- December 2014-March 2016 Divisional director, Redefine BDL Hotels
- July 2014-December 2014 Divisional general manager, Redefine BDL Hotels
- 2011-2014 General manager, Crowne Plaza London Docklands
- 2007-2011 General manager, Swindon Marriott hotel
- 2008-2009 President, Swindon Chamber of Commerce
- 2006-2007 General manager (task force), Preston Marriott hotel
- 2002-2006 Director of operations, Leeds Marriott hotel
- 2001-2002 Director of operations, Liverpool City Centre Marriott hotel
- 2000-2001 F&B services manager, Marriott Goodwood Park, West Sussex
- 1999-2000 Restaurant and bar manager, Swindon Marriott hotel
- 1997-1999 Conference and banqueting manager, Swindon Marriott hotel
- 1995-1997 F&B manager, the Vale hotel
- 1995 Assistant banqueting manager, the Balalaika hotel, Johannesburg, South Africa
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