She Shines: Melissa Stoman, operations director at The Mantis Collection

In She Shines, Dina Soliman of BrandFull talks with some of the great minds and personalities that are shaping the world of hospitality today and in the future. We will zoom in, share their insight and celebrate their success stories. What we promise is that they will all be varied, they will be interesting, inspiring and they will all be women. This month we meet Melissa Stoman, operations director at The Mantis Collection.

I meet Melissa at the Draycott Hotel, by Sloane Square, an award-winning classical luxury property in the heart of London. No bells or whistles, yet you immediately get a warm feeling of entering into a world of traditional opulence and a much loved home. For years, The Draycott has been hosting an enviable guest list of celebrities, from Hollywood stars to international royalty, so the staff is well versed in the art of subtle understated service.

Within minutes of arriving Melissa joins me in the living room with a warm smile. Her cool demeanour is both welcoming and professional and through the brief interaction one can sense the level of respect her team holds for her. After offering a drink, we start our talk.

• Melissa, you have been part of the Mantis Collection for quite some time. Can you tell us a bit about the business?
"Mantis was founded by Adrian Gardiner in 2000. The group is committed to the spirit of conservation and restoration, and each property is sensitive to its surroundings in respect of the building, environment and local community. Mr Gardiner began his journey in 1989 with the purchase of an insignificant, eroded piece of land in South Africa, originally measuring a mere 2000 hectares. He rehabilitated the land, increased its extent and reintroduced the game species that once roamed the wilds of the Eastern Cape 200 years ago. It is now the world-famous 25,000-hectare Shamwari Game Reserve."

"The Mantis Collection was formally established in 2000 and since then has grown to 34 properties across every continent. Due to its unique positioning and strength of the brand in Africa, it attracted the attention of hotel group Accor Hospitality. Accor now has 50 per cent stake in the brand, which will allow for scaling up fast beyond Mantis' current resources. Today Mantis is exploring and developing an eco-innovation hub at Founders Lodge, the original homestead of Adrian Gardiner. Once again, Mantis will be pushing the envelope and redefining travel trends."

• So as the ops director, what does your role encompass exactly?
My role is operations director - global, which means that my remit is anything outside of Africa. Our ambition is to grow and expand our global footprint to 30 properties over five years, so quite a high target. We are in a great position to achieve that now due to the franchise model we adopted and Accor's development resource behind us. That is not to say it will be easy, but rather that it will be possible. Of course that also means that I need to divide my time between the existing properties and the pipeline which includes a property in Costa Rica and another in Ras El Khaimah, in the UAE. I am quite excited about the future expansion, and to be anchored in the strength of the vision of our founder, who is my boss and our chairman, sets us well for growth."

• You've been with Mantis Collection for a long time in various roles. Take us through your journey and how you climbed the ranks to where you are now.
"Mantis has been my employer for the majority of my professional career. I went straight to work at Mantis from high school and I remained at a property that Mantis sold in 2005, but it wasn't long until I re-joined and never looked back. I always think my journey here has been one of luck, timing and destiny. Over the last 20 years I have worked across a multitude of departments from reception, guest relations, to events coordinator and many more. I was promoted every 18 to 24 months so my role was constantly challenging and new, and I was always learning and developing. I am hugely ambitious and I work hard but, more than anything, I love what I do. I was lucky to have had a fantastic GM in my first operations manager job; Gaby Gramm, who became my mentor, and she arranged for me to spend time at some very prestigious hotels where I refined everything I had learned over the years."

"There was also Danie Malan, our previous managing director, an unbelievable dynamic leader, who supported my journey early on in my career by arranging for me to work in Jamaica for work experience. These two people and the opportunities they gave me have shaped my career and gave me exposure to some of the best in luxury hotels."

• You are clearly a South African through and through - what prompted you to move?
"The move was triggered by the sale of the Steenberg Hotel where I worked, and it was time for a change. Having grown up on a farm, it had been my dream to live and work in a big city like London. I was in my mid-twenties and the timing was perfect. Initially I found a job in Scotland but it was a disaster. I was alone in a faraway land and I felt lost so I called my mentor Gaby who advised me to call Danie Malan, and he forwarded my CV to John Hanna at the Draycott Hotel - the rest, as they say, is History. I joined the Draycott, which was part of the Mantis Collection as deputy GM for five years and spent another six years there as GM. London is home now."

• So where did this huge drive and ambition come from, is it nature or nurture?
"It is both. My father is a force of nature and has a true work ethic - that has always really inspired me. He put himself through university studying at night and became an engineer while raising three little girls. That taught me about ambition and the value of hard work to achieve what we want. The environment and the time I grew up in in SA also played a big role. In 1994 we had the first democratic election, then there was the Rugby World Cup in 1995. That was a big deal and it absolutely united the entire nation. There was a general air of hope and optimism about the future. The movie Invictus depicts the atmosphere at the time very well. A couple of years after that I started a career in an industry that represented that diversity and opportunity. Hospitality is open to all walks of life. This certainly had an impact on me personally and developed me in ways other industries may not have done."

• So moving to London must have been quite a culture shock. What did you miss about SA, and what would you send over from there if you could?
"When I first arrived to London, I realised quite quickly that SA was behind London in terms of systems and technology and therefore my experience was lacking as well. I spent a year getting myself up to speed, learning a lot along the way, but for me, it was simply another challenge to conquer. On the other hand, the service standard that was offered in SA at the time was world class. And when it comes to people, there is no system to install or a button to push to get it right. It is all about leadership, communication and lots and lots of training."  

• So, let's talk about the industry. As you have always been in the luxury segment, in your view has luxury hospitality changed much over the past years? And what are the major forces and dynamics?
"There is definitely a big shift in the industry. It is a people's business and there is a shortage in staff and particularly the mindset we need for a luxury experience. Staff turnover is so much higher nowadays and  there is a lack of skill in the industry. This calls for more time to be spent on training and retention to ensure staff are able to deliver the service required in a five-star environment. It is not easy, because it is all about the attention to details and how to deliver service in a seamless subtle manner. Unfortunately there is no formula here, it takes time and lots of training on the job until it becomes second nature. It is why it is so important  to hold on to the key staff members we have no matter what. They are the key to keeping our culture alive and ensuring our regular guests keep coming back. We have to be flexible and accommodating. And yes luxury is changing but we try to hang on to our classical traditional style of delivering luxury service. This is who we are, it is our DNA."

• I heard a lot of people describe you as a strong, professional and respected people's leader, how would you describe your style? 
"Leadership for me is all about supporting your team and empowering them to act and take ownership of their area. That does not mean I don't step in. I do but it means working with them to get them to find solutions themselves. I've just finished a systems integration program with Accor - it was complex and incredibly hard work - not something I was expected to do but I could see the amount of time and resource required and the strain it would put on the  team. Leading it allowed my team to continue their focus on the day to day operations and serving our guests. It was also new to me and being that involved will help me support the team with the changes and new system across the properties. When I was still in South Africa we had many power outages due to the shortage in electricity supply. I would go into the kitchen and stand with my team during lunch with no extraction fans so they know that I am enduring the same hardship and level of heat as they are. That may have meant more to me than it did to them, but I felt it was important."

• Being a woman in a leadership operations role, did you face challenges due to your gender? And what tips would you give to other women who aspire to be at the top within hospitality?
"I never thought of myself in my job as a woman. Just as a person; Melissa, doing her best. I'd like to think my gender hasn't held me back, but I don't know - and certainly wouldn't want to dwell on it. Looking back I can think of examples when this might have been the case, but I was oblivious to it at the time and I have reached this position despite it. As for tips to others, three things come to mind:
1- Have a plan. Think about your future and be intentional about your next step.
2- Step out of your comfort zone. Keep learning and challenge yourself. It is the only way to grow.
3- Surround yourself with great people. Find a mentor, join a network, keep in touch with people you admire."

• Talking about people you admire, is there anyone you hold as a role model?
"I am surrounded by incredible women and men.  Michelle de Klerk, the founder of The Women Chapter, is a dear friend, an amazing woman and an inspiration to me. Lizzie Carr who spearheads Plastic Patrol helps me find clarity. Others I met along my career, some of whom I already mentioned like Gaby Gramm, Danie Malan and of course John Hanna who was my first boss at the Draycott. He has been exceptional as he empowered me and allowed me to grow, yet staying true to who I am. Those and many more I owe much."

• What personal values do you hold dear?
"I appreciate honesty, transparency and openness. I stand by those values personally and I think that creates an environment where people are able to communicate effectively. I have a no smoke and mirror approach and I expect the same back. It does not suit everyone but I am a believer in this quote; 'if you don't believe in something you will fall for everything'."

• You have won many industry awards. This must mean a lot to you, can you talk to me about that?
"Of course it is always great to get industry awards and it is credit to the entire team at Mantis Collection. Saying that, there are two awards that we are extra proud of: The Green Award, attained by the Draycott Hotel, which was acknowledged by the New York Times. It is that bit extra special because it talks to the heart of our proposition and eludes to our sustainability approach. This was before sustainability was highlighted as it is now,  so we were ahead of our time and for a building that dates back to  1895, that is quite something. The other one is the BOHOs award and that is because it is based purely on guests feedback so it is as genuine as it can get."
• Melissa, it has been quite a fabulous journey, so having had the time today to reflect on it, what are your last thoughts?
"The talk today made me look back and remember all my steps along the way. I am still on the journey and look forward to what is yet to come. If you ask about my thoughts, then they are simply; 'Wow, I've come a long way'.

Dina Soliman-Pedersen is founder and managing director of BrandFull, a brand and marketing consultancy


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