Some forty years ago Zoe Jenkins began her hospitality career at London’s iconic Dorchester Hotel for work experience while studying for a degree in Hotel & Catering Administration. Upon graduation, she joined the team full time and really hasn’t looked back. Zoe has risen through the ranks, continually being promoted, often taking roles where she was the first woman to hold the position. For the last 12 years, she’s been General Manager of the five-star Coworth Park in Ascot, where she’s looked after royalty and many other guests, for whom discretion is paramount. Her pride in being part of the Dorchester Collection, which boasts a 50/50 gender balance and actually has more female GMs within the company than men, is evident. We chat with Zoe about the lessons she has learned along the way and what she sees taking shape post-pandemic in luxury travel.
You must love working for the Dorchester Collection, as that is where you have spent the entirety of your career! How has the company kept you so engaged and challenged for so many years?
I do. Dorchester Collection is an exceptional company to work for. They put the welfare of all their people first, which in our fast-paced and often demanding industry is essential. I also love that I have had the chance to grow within the company and develop my career under the guidance of some of the best leaders in the business. I am now the oldest management trainee within Dorchester Collection!
Have you had any roadblocks or struggles along the way?
I think anyone who says they haven’t confronted challenges during their career would be fibbing. It’s overcoming them that builds you up and gives you the strength and experience to tackle the next one that comes along. Being in luxury hospitality means being at the top of your game 24/7. Our guests expect and deserve the very best delivered intuitively and seamlessly, and that is what we strive to provide whatever the day may throw at us.
What was it like to be a young manager where you presumably had employees who were older than you and maybe men?
I’ve been lucky to work for a company that has diversity, inclusion, and belonging as the core beliefs of what it calls its ‘We Care’ philosophy. The basis of this is to create an environment within the company where all employees feel valued and respected and can flourish, allowing positive engagement to prosper. One of the many achievements across the company that I’m particularly proud of is that we have a 50/50 gender balance at all levels within the company. I always felt supported as a female manager and feel incredibly supported in my role as a senior female leader within the company today. In fact, Dorchester Collection has four female general managers in a collection of nine hotels.
You’ve been running Coworth Park for the last 12 years, what changes have you seen in your team?
I have a strong and passionate team behind me at Coworth Park, many of who have been with me for a long time, some as long as since opening in 2010. We’ve always attracted a young workforce at the hotel, which often means they are hungry to learn and develop, sometimes within our own company and sometimes in other locations. It’s always a pleasure to see them grow, develop, and celebrate their successes. Knowing that they have spent time at Coworth Park within their career makes me very proud.
What lesson has been most valuable in your career trajectory?
That I can’t expect everyone who works within the business to view their work as I do. In motivating and inspiring a team, you need to understand what makes people tick. I believe that managing a team requires individual relationships in order to get the best out of people. You can’t treat everybody the same.
How do you describe yourself as a leader?
I am incredibly hands-on. I’m not the kind of leader who takes a step back and directs but one who is there on the ground with my team at all times. We’re a family at Coworth Park and we all muck in and do whatever it takes to ensure our guests are looked after and are offered the very best during their time with us. I’m also passionate, loyal, and tenacious, and anyone who knows me will tell you that what you see is what you get. Finally, I’m never one to give up!
What is the most important skill for effective leadership for those who aspire to become leaders?
Communication is key. I’m renowned for my three-hour morning meetings where we go through every guest detail with a fine-tooth comb. It’s essential that everyone is fully up to speed and ready to deliver exceptional service to every single guest who walks through our doors.
What would you like to see change for women in our industry?
Since I began my career at The Dorchester 40 years ago, when there were no women in the front of house, I have seen dramatic changes. I’ve moved through roles as banqueting manager, F&B manager, and now general manager within DC, all roles that were previously only held by men. I hope that the progress continues at such a pace for years to come across the industry.
We’ve recently interviewed Kate Nicholls, CEO of UK Hospitality, about the labor shortage and how the industry can be better positioned to attract more talent. What do you personally love about working in the hotel industry and why do you think young people should work in hospitality?
For me, being in hospitality is all about the connection you feel with people, whether that’s your colleagues or your guests. Ultimately, we are in the business of making people happy and creating everlasting memories for them so for those seeking job satisfaction, there is no better industry to be in. Within Dorchester Collection, we are privy to some of the most amazing events, which is a true privilege, as many would never have the opportunity to experience such things.
Countryside hotels ran very high occupancy during the pandemic and remain busy. Has that been the case for Coworth Park, have you had staffing challenges? Are you fully staffed?
We have seen very high levels of occupancy, particularly throughout 2020 and 2021 once everything opened back up again and yes, we remain busy. We’ve just had an incredibly successful Royal Ascot week with record numbers and business is looking good for the rest of summer. We've faced the same staffing challenges across the industry, but this hasn't affected the quality of service we offer at Coworth Park. We’ve had to focus on creativity and innovation when reviewing our recruitment strategies. In particular, we work very closely with universities and colleges to identify talent and offer them diverse placements whilst living with us in the countryside.
How do you motivate and empower your team to work well under pressure?
It all comes back to what I’ve said before, that we are a family at Coworth Park and the level of support across our team network is truly admirable. We all have enormous pride and passion for what we do. I also believe that hospitality as an industry attracts people who thrive off pressure rather than sink under it. There’s nothing better than seeing our hotel alive with guests all having a good time in the countryside.
What is new at your property and what changes have you made to meet new traveler demands post-pandemic?
We are lucky enough to sit in 240 acres of stunning Berkshire countryside so our guests are able to come and do as much or as little as they like during a stay with us. Post-pandemic, it was very clear that people were seeking the kind of experience they would have otherwise had if traveling to a far-flung resort, but in their own country. We had to enhance our offering even more so to make it a real ‘resort’ experience with everything available to them within the estate.
We expanded our outdoor dining with beautiful terraces for both The Barn restaurant and our Drawing Room, we introduced more wellness activities as part of our spa, and we added a new standalone gatehouse cottage, North Lodge, providing yet another perfect base within our grounds for a family stay. We’ve got an exciting year ahead too as we refurbish our main restaurant under the helm of Michelin-starred chef, Adam Smith, to be reopened this autumn.