How I got to where I am now:
I finished my A levels in South Africa and was thinking about becoming a school teacher, but I saw an advertisement in the newspaper for trainee hotel managers and I decided to go along to a recruitment day they were organising. They were doing all these weird and wonderful interviews and they were looking for five people in the country and they chose me, so I thought, 'ok, this is what I'll do then'.
For the next two and a half years I did everything, from cleaning toilets to working in the kitchen, graduating with a hotel and catering diploma at the end of it. From there I went on to be an assistant front-of-house manager at the Cresta Lodge in Harari in Zimbabwe, which I did for a while, but then decided I wanted to try working in restaurants, so I joined an independent restaurant and from there worked all over Southern Africa, including a back-packing lodge and restaurant at Victoria Falls, where we served everything from crocodile to ostrich steaks.
In 1999, I decided I wanted to work in the UK, so I got my Zimbabwean dollars (all £200's worth) and came to the UK. Because I didn't have much money I took the first job offered, which was manager of the Blue Hawaii restaurant in Kingston-upon-Thames. I really enjoyed that, but was commuting each day from central London and one night a friend came and said 'there's a new hotel opening in London and its going to be cool, you should apply'. I really didn't want to work in a stuffy London hotel - it just wasn't me, but this new hotel was Ian Schrager's St Martin's Lane, so I went for what they were calling 'auditions' and they said to me you'll be perfect as our assistant front office manager.
I worked at St Martin's Lane for two years and it was a fantastic hotel. It was a completely different way of doing hotels - when we wanted to hire some bar staff we went to a modelling agency and asked them to send people over. I stayed there for two and a half years before going out to New York to help open the Hudson where I worked for a few months before coming back to the UK when the company was opening the Sanderson.
At the same time, the not-yet-open Victoria Park Plaza was looking for a front office manager, so I went to meet the general manager who was a really inspirational guy and thought 'I'll give this a go'. We opened the hotel just when September 11th happened and we were really concerned about how it would do, but it actually did really well and I stayed there for five years, during which time I was promoted to rooms division manager.
The company was then looking for someone to help them open a hotel in Leeds, so I went for that. About a month into the job, the general manager left and so I asked them if they'd give me a go. I was given three months to prove myself - I ended up being there for two years.
While I was there I noticed this old building being turned into something and found out it was going to be a serviced apartment called Bridge Street. I went to meet them and they offered me a job. I set up all their systems and started working on building the brand. I loved doing that and introducing the idea of extended stay into the UK where it had not been so recognised. Three months later Bridge Street took on another property and I took on responsibility for that too.
Two and a half years later I saw that IHG were advertising for a manager launch their extended stay brand - Staybridge Suites - in the UK. The role sounded really exciting, so I went for it and got the job of launching the brand into Liverpool, which had just been given City of Culture status. I spent a lot of time in the States working with a number of brand teams there where we discussed what type of staff we wanted.
I was there for five years when the franchising manager said we're going to open next year in London just before the Olympics and we need someone who's opened a Staybridge Suites here before. I knew it would be a challenge. We would open and have to hit the ground running, but we did it and opened on 1 May and by June we had 100 per cent occupancy. The Olympics were phenomenal and I was so pleased to be working where I was when it happened. Now a year on things are still going strong and we've had 94 per cent occupancy for the last four months.
My greatest achievement:
Opening two hotels in time for the Olympics and making them the success that they were. We opened them just a month before the start of the Games so the pressure was on and we didn't have time to get anything wrong. My other big achievement was launching the Staybridge Suites brand into Liverpool in the first place and becoming its brand ambassador in the UK.
My biggest challenge:
Opening a hotel and running at 100 per cent occupancy for the Olympics is stressful enough, but when you have members of the International Olympic Committee staying too, that was a whole different level. I have also enjoyed changing people's perceptions of what extended stay is and what it offers for corporate travellers. We've been getting some really good reviews and good press and it's nice to see that people understand what we're doing.
How serviced apartments differ from hotels:
I went into the serviced apartment sector as a hotelier, but the key difference between the two is that in extended stay, everyone has to be good at sales. I'd reached a crossroads in my career when I was general manager at Park Plaza - I could either go into a bigger hotel, or I could go into the serviced apartment sector and I saw this as the challenge for me. In serviced apartments staffing levels are much lower than they are in hotels where you have to employ lots of people and you're doing much more on a daily basis, so you have to be a real people person. Here, in serviced apartments I'm more a member of the sales team. You have to know how to attract people to your business and how to get them returning for those long stays.
In extended stay you are also creating more of a home type of environment, so when we were recruiting for Staybridge Suites Liverpool, we decided we didn't want to employ anyone who had worked in a hotel before. We held auditions for potential staff where we gave them a number of tasks and watched how they interacted with each other. We were looking for people with personality and we found some really people who we recruited.