Joanne Taylor-Stagg, General Manager, The Athenaeum Hotel & Residences, London
Updated: May 6
Joanne Taylor-Stagg, General Manager of one of the few London luxury hotels to remain open during the pandemic, is no stranger to taking risks or rising to challenges. As a management trainee at the five-star Carlton Hotel in Johannesburg, she looked after Nelson Mandela the night he was elected President in 1993, then headed to the UK with nothing more than a backpack and thirst for adventure.
Working around England, Joanne earned her stripes with Marriott, rising through the ranks to become General Manager. Then, just to be near the action for the 2012 Olympics, she moved to IHG to run a Crowne Plaza in the Docklands. What followed was a regional role overseeing several properties, but the lure of her true love of luxury hotels drew her back to London, where she now runs The Athenaeum, the legendary hotel and residences on Green Park that’s been called “Tinseltown on the Thames”… a stone’s throw from Buckingham Palace. Yet, like so many others we recently spoke with, this has been the most heart-wrenching year of her career. But she credits her South African value system of “ubuntu,” the idea that we are all connected, for her ability to cope and her success. Here’s Herstory.
What drew you to the hotel business?
My first job was as a part-time waitress at 16 to earn spending money. When I went to university to study law, I kept waitressing. Partway through my second year, I realized I was speeding to get to work and dawdling to get to lectures. Conflicted, as my parents had spent a lot of money to send me to school, I asked my grandmother who I was very close with for advice. She reminded me that when I was a very little girl, I always wanted five-star afternoon tea while my friends wanted fast food. She said, “You were born to be in hotels” and I never looked back.
What was your first hotel job?
Once I decided to pursue hospitality, I applied to the Carlton Hotel in Johannesburg, which at the time, was the very best hotel where all the rich and famous stayed in South Africa. It was a grand hotel with 663 bedrooms and 12 kitchens. The hotel had an exclusive graduate program, basically, a three-year apprenticeship that had six weeks of classes each year and then worked you through every department in the hotel. I was selected as one of five management trainees.
While I worked there, the hotel served as the campaign headquarters for Nelson Mandela in the buildup to the election in 1993. He was the most remarkable man. He remembered everyone’s name. If you ran a function for him, he would always come to you at the end and ask permission to speak to the service team, then thank each person individually and shake hands. People would hug him because he was such a hero, and he was always so gracious. I have kept his example with me my whole career.
Do you consider yourself an introvert or an extrovert?
Definitely an extrovert. I do believe either personality can thrive in hotels though. It doesn’t matter, we have a job for you.
Are you hospitable? Are you born with the “hospitality gene” or can it be learned?
Yes. I think there is a “hospitality gene” and for some people, it comes more naturally, for others it takes a bit more effort.
Given the nature of hotels, the ability to work well with others is paramount. What are your tricks for engaging and motivating team members?
Knowing your team is critical to motivating them, what I mean is a leader must connect with the team as individuals. Every person wants to feel valued and important. I make a point to really get to know each person, their interests, and strengths. We all feel more motivated when we think we are doing well at something, so I try to play to each person’s strengths.
How have you moved from job to job?
I always wanted to spend time abroad, to see the world beyond South Africa. When the training manager at the Carlton Tower left for the UK, to run a small restaurant with rooms which she and her husband had bought, I went with them thinking I would just stay a few years. I just took a backpack and my dreams, but I soon learned I wasn’t a backpack kind of girl and managed to get in with Marriott. I stayed with Marriott for 13 years working my way up to GM in Swindon, a small city in southwest England.
After a few years in Swindon, my regional manager actually said to me, Joanne you need to move on to something bigger. Though I liked Marriott, I started applying to positions in London because I wanted to be near the 2012 Olympics. When I saw they were looking for a GM at a Crowne Plaza in the Docklands, very close to three of the sports venues, I had to go there. Running that hotel was a great experience, we won “Hotel of the Year” several times for the management company RBH, and I was promoted to look after a cluster of three hotels, then a region of 10.
Why do you think you kept getting promoted?
I’m a fan of the famous Thomas Jefferson quote, “I'm a great believer in luck, and I find the harder I work the more I have of it.” You also have to put yourself out there, find opportunities.
Have you ever had to work through a professional plateau?
The Swindon Marriott is a small provincial property, absolutely perfect for my first GM role, but I probably should have left after two years. I was inventing projects for my team and me to work on. While in Swindon, I became the President of the Chamber of Commerce, I went to the Cornell Hotel School for a General Managers course, I kept myself busy.
What is your tip for when things slow down?
Never lose sight of the big picture and keep building your skills, knowledge, and experience. I encourage this in my team, and in the larger hospitality community.
Have you had mentors to help you?
Yes, I have been fortunate to have many mentors. Interestingly, I have only had male bosses, but women I’ve worked with tangentially have shown me what is possible. I am blessed to have ended up where I am because of all the help I’ve received. I have been very involved in the Worshipful Company of Innholders and Master Innholders, it is through those organizations that I attended Cornell as a St. Julian Scholar, which paid my tuition and travel.
So grateful for the opportunities I’ve had through Master Innholders, I am dedicated to helping others. At the moment, there is real concern about the people that lost their jobs during the pandemic, in the UK hospitality used to hold 10% of all jobs in the economy, yet a third of the redundancies were from our sector and people under 30 making up over half of all the job losses. We set up MIDAS (Master Innholders Developing Additional Skills) a program aimed at Millennials to keep them engaged with hospitality, creating a network and opportunities to build life and work skills. Topics include things like personal finance, resilience, motivation, and performance. It’s worked well so far and hopefully, we will have jobs to offer soon once travel resumes.
The fear of failure can sometimes keep people from even trying, what are your thoughts on failure?
I embrace failure. If you are not failing, you are not trying. This is what I constantly tell my team. I mean, we’re not pilots or neurosurgeons, and with few exceptions, we are not in jobs where we are going to kill anybody. The worst that can happen is you lose time, money or face. I just want people to learn from their mistakes. Another quote I love is from the inventor and CEO of IBM, Thomas J. Watson, “If you want to increase your success rate, double your failure rate.” Which I tell my team along with: fail fast, learn quickly and move on.
Have you ever taken a big risk at work? What happened?
I take a lot of big risks, but I also believe you need to have a safety net, something to fall back on that isn’t starting over. This past year we took a huge risk by staying open through COVID-19, though others closed. Shutting our doors just felt inherently wrong, the hotel has residences, so we were one of a few luxury properties where staying open was an option. We calculated the costs and our breakeven point, which we knew was going to be difficult, but possible. We had 12 occupied rooms, taking in various people that were stranded in London. This risk paid off in three ways. First, it allowed us to serve the community and keep a small team working. Second, we learned how to operate during COVID-19 and everyone had the chance to do some cross-training which built up confidence. Third, the guests that stayed with us didn’t know us before and have since become loyal customers.
This has been a crazy tough year, have you cried in the office since the pandemic? Absolutely. This has been the hardest year of my career and I cried many times going through the redundancies and furloughs with my team. I was very aware that I was taking away someone’s job, they had families and responsibilities. I wear my heart on my sleeve. I don’t regret crying. Perhaps it is comforting to the team to know that you don’t make the decisions lightly.
Often to move up in the hotel business, means moving around, long hours, and working holidays. How do you manage your personal life?
I love what I do and I am lucky to have a partner and family that understand how important my job is to me. Sometimes I get it wrong and the balance is off-kilter, but what I do is part of who I am, and people that love me understand that. My partner used to be a chef, so understanding that holidays are workdays. On Christmas, we open one present before going off to work. I have been working on Christmas day since I was 18. For my family, Boxing Day was the day we celebrated together.
If you had to pick one characteristic, just ONE, you feel is the reason you’ve been successful, what is it and why?
Passion. Because when you love what you do, you do it well. Though for me there is an additional characteristic or inherent value system that comes from the African word “ubuntu” which means: I am because you are. We are all absolutely connected. To be successful you have to see the greater good, you can’t be successful if you only think about yourself.