The Hotelier Edit: Joanne Taylor-Stagg of the Athenaeum
Image: Joanne (left) receiving the Independent Hotelier Award at the 2021 Independent Hotel Show Awards.
Like many in the world of hospitality, Joanne Taylor-Stagg entered the hospitality industry by chance. In fact, the award-winning General Manager of the five-star Athenaeum Hotel & Residences initially went to university to study law.
“I had a waitressing job and halfway through my second year it dawned on me that I was speeding to get to the restaurant and dawdling to go to class,” she tells us. “In South Africa my parents had spent a lot of money to send me to uni and I was mindful of that. I spoke to my grandmother, and she reminded me that when I was three all my friends would want to go to Wimpy, but I'd want to go for afternoon tea in a 5-star hotel. She told me, ‘you were born to work in hotels’.”
And so that was that. Joanne dropped out of her degree and embarked on her hospitality journey at the five-star Carlton Hotel in Johannesburg City Centre.
“I spent three years working in every single department, from the kitchen to nights, reception to marketing and finance,” she recalls. “I just loved it, and I haven’t looked back. It’s the best decision I’ve ever made.”
Joanne has been at the heart of the London independent hotel scene for a number of years, passionately advocating for her hotel, her team and the sector, and has been recognised by a number of industry bodies, including winning the Independent Hotelier award at the 2021 Independent Hotel Show Awards.
We ask her if she can define the reason for that immediate love of the industry and of working in hospitality, and what sets the industry apart from any other.
“There’s no other industry which gives young people a chance, trusts them and then gives them the opportunity to grow really quickly,” she says. “I was 21 and the night manager of a 663-bedroom hotel, where else do you get such an amazing opportunity?”
“I’ve seen people come into hospitality straight from school, terrified to have a conversation with a stranger. We teach them people skills, the ability to interact and that builds their confidence for life. There are so many transferable skills that help you to become a better human being. We’re also a superbly versatile industry, you can do anything. I have friends that have traditional careers in law or medicine who don’t get up in the morning and look forward to going to work , I couldn’t live like that. I love coming to work, we have fun and we put people at the centre of everything we do.”
British craftsmanship, refined luxury and an Art Deco spirit collide at the prestigious Athenaeum Hotel in the heart of London’s Mayfair, where Joanne has been GM since early 2019. She describes the experience of visiting the hotel as ‘individual: five-star but not stuffy’. This isn’t the type of hotel where you’ll be ushered out for wearing the wrong jacket or no tie.
“We give you the luxury, but we try and make it bespoke and personalised to each guest” she explains. “We spend a lot of time finding out what each guest likes or wants, and they react really well to it. I’m superbly blessed to work for a family business. I’ve worked for big corporations and for hotels that were owned by people more concerned about the value of the asset than the people in it, and I think we’re really lucky to have that family feel."
As any hotelier knows, the experiences guests have in your hotel can make memories for a lifetime. Joanne recalls that as GM of the Swindon Marriot she joined the local college’s board to become more involved in connecting educators with employers and arrived at the first board meeting only knowing the college principal.
“There was some nervousness and reservation that comes from doing something new,” she remembers. “I turned up and this gent came bounding over to me, it turned out I had run their wedding ten years previously. That moment made me realise that we have a unique and special opportunity to create these memories that people cherish their entire lives. When a house is burning down people run in to save their photo album, and those are the moments we help create.”
Campaigning for the industry
We ask Joanne if there are any industry initiatives or suppliers that she wants the hotelier community to learn more about, and the first is the Hotelier’s Charter, launched by Sally Beck in early 2021 to raise the profile of the hospitality industry and promote the sector as a profession of choice to parents, schools, colleges and universities.
“As an industry, we don’t always have the best reputation,” Joanne explains. “We can sometimes see the whirlwind of the celebrity chefs screaming and shouting and bullying in the kitchen and all get tarred with that brush. The Hotelier’s Charter is a way for us to demonstrate that we are a whole lot more than that and that we do a lot of good. It’s a commitment to employ, train and pay people properly and to do your bit for the environment and the community.
“I’d urge anyone who runs a hotel who has that mindset and a belief that we have the power to change things for the better to sign up to the Charter. I’d love to see it become a recognisable kite mark that employees and guests can look for.”
The second initiative that Joanne wants to shout about is Hospitality Rising, a campaign by consultant Mark McCulloch to raise funds for a UK-wide marketing initiative to boost recruitment for the sector. Hospitality Rising wants to bring employers and suppliers together, encouraging us to support the goal of making young people consider a job in hospitality, changing the industry’s perception for the better.
“Mark’s set up Hospitality Rising to showcase what a cool, funky, ever-changing, dynamic, fast-paced kind of environment hospitality is, and he’s done a fantastic job getting pro-bono work from top agencies and funding from all sorts of companies,” says Joanne. “It’s an amazing piece of work to get the message out that hospitality is an amazing industry, and you can achieve so much if you just dive in.”
We ask Joanne how it felt to win the Independent Hotelier award at the 2021 Independent Hotel Show Awards, and how important awards and accolades are for hoteliers in the industry.
“If I’m honest, I always feel a little uncomfortable answering this because I am just one part of an entire team,” she confesses. “Every single person in my team does an amazing job and because of them, I'm getting recognised. It's so important to appreciate the teams that do a great job, reinforce that behaviour and encourage others to emulate it.
“I think it helps to enhance our industry and showcase it for people coming in. We want people to know that they’re coming to work for employers who will give them opportunities, take them seriously and listen to them. I would say the award has been amazing for that; lot of people will come up and talk to you and we’ve been lucky enough to expand our team with some really talented individuals. They see and believe that the Athenaeum is a place they can succeed in."
A hub for independent hoteliers
We conclude our conversation by asking Joanne what keeps her coming back to the Independent Hotel Show each year.
“The great thing about the show is that there’s so much breadth,” she says. “You can be wandering down the aisles and something new will catch your eye. It’s a chance for suppliers to really showcase what they do rather than all the emails we get saying ‘have you got 5 minutes?’ At the show you’re in the right environment and frame of mind to explore new products and ideas, which is really important.
“I also think the topics and debates on the stages give you different perspectives and sometimes a shortcut to learn about a subject you want to be more proficient in.
“And of course, it’s a wonderful couple of days to meet colleagues and friends that you only see once or twice a year, normally at these big events. Because it’s an event focussed on independent hotels it feels very tailored to us and we have everything in one place.”