When Lucy Challenger struggled to find good domestic staff after her first child was born, she did what any self-respecting entrepreneur would do: she set up her own domestic staff recruitment agency.
Lucy, who lives in Berkshire with her husband, former Olympic high jumper Ben Challenger, and their young son, was no stranger to the business world, having set up her first company at the age of just 22.
Nearly five years later and Lucy’s company, Polo & Tweed, continues to go from strength to strength with a client base that includes A-listers, royalty and captains of industry. All are looking for the crème de la crème of domestic staff, whether that be butlers, chefs, housekeepers, nannies, chauffeurs, estate managers or security.
Around 70% of Lucy’s clients live in the UK, although they include an array of nationalities, among them Americans, Russians and Middle Eastern royal families who are looking for staff proficient in yacht and house management, silver service and British etiquette.
For Lucy, client satisfaction is Polo & Tweed’s number one goal. “Every business has to think about the bottom line but that has never been my driving force. I want clients who will stay with us for the long term. They all get a tailored and bespoke service, and our follow up is second to none, with clients having 24-hour access to my expertise and my team.”
The role of the modern domestic professional has moved on leaps and bounds from what Lucy describes as the “upstairs/downstairs” arrangement, replaced by a growing global demand for staff with an often eye-watering array of skills.
Take for instance the role of today’s butler which has evolved to encompass myriad duties, from the front of house and welcoming guests to planning, designing and executing dinner parties and events, chauffeuring, shopping or even fixing the loo! Small wonder therefore that it can take years, and sometimes decades, to master the art.
Some households like a traditional approach with their butler being the head of the household; others prefer them to become part of the family. Ultimately the most sought after are those who can be extremely flexible and above all discrete.
Over the last decade, the agency has also seen a rising demand for female butlers, particularly in the Middle East where it would be deemed inappropriate for a male butler to serve/work for the female principle.
The lines between master and servant may have blurred over the years (accompanied by continual improvement in employment laws), but that doesn’t mean a client’s desire for excellence has diminished.
“Many still want their home run like a boutique 5-star hotel,” says Lucy. “They expect there to be a turndown service, the linen to be dry cleaned every day and for fresh orange juice and newspapers to be delivered in the morning. All the things that make a certain lifestyle, our clients want. So that’s why there’s such a demand for domestic luxury service. Whether it’s a full-time housekeeper and cook or a big team of staff from a butler through to an estate keeper and multiple housekeepers and maids.”
Needless to say, Lucy and her team have received their fair share of unusual requests over the years, whether for a female butler who has to be a trained yoga expert and flower arranger to someone who could teach an embassy’s security staff the art of silver service. Not to mention the 10 days’ notice they were given to find 45 butlers to fly to Riyadh for Saudi Arabia’s first-ever music festival.
When the Coronavirus pandemic hit earlier this year and the UK went into lockdown, Lucy, like so many others, prepared to batten down the hatches, weather the storm and come back fighting once some semblance of normality returned.
The storm she faced, however, was rather different. Much to her surprise, and certainly bucking the trend, Lucy found herself busier than ever.
For while most of the nation headed into lockdown concerned about running out of toilet roll and pasta, the super-rich found themselves well and truly out of their comfort zone.
As Lucy explains, “People were on the phone to us wanting to know – literally – how to do the laundry. They had never used a washing machine before. We explained how to understand the settings, how to separate the items. One woman in Chelsea called for help because she did not know how to change the loo roll. Another believed that antique mahogany dining tables should be scrubbed clean, and someone else took a Brillo pad to her wildly expensive roll-top enamel bath and was shocked to discover that she had ruined it.”
Then there was the client who lives in a Grade II listed, 15-bedroom mansion in Henley who employs a team of 15 full-time housekeepers who work around the clock. “That doesn’t even take into account the chefs, the groundsmen, the gardeners and the estate manager,” says Lucy. “If you now imagine that none of them is turning up for work, you can understand why the homeowner was starting to panic.”
Housekeeping wasn’t the only challenge people were facing. With all but essential travel restricted, people were not only having to work from home but also care for – and homeschool – their children.
So it was that when the ban on domestic staff was lifted on 11th May, Lucy’s phone began to ring off the hook – and hasn’t stopped since.
Aside from an increase in demand for all manner of help, there were also numerous enquiries from those who were required to shield due to their vulnerability and who wanted Polo & Tweed to find them, live-in staff, to shield with them!
Hotels and boutique holiday properties too are utilising Polo & Tweed’s services, with a number of big-name brands approaching Lucy and her team to get them ‘COVID clean’ and ready to welcome guests.
At the same time as filling all these various vacancies, Polo & Tweed has been training up hundreds of people around the world – from America to the Middle East – who are still in lockdown and who want to take this opportunity to re-train and open up new doors for when they can return to the workplace.
When it comes to training, this has always been at the heart of what Polo & Tweed does.
Ever since the agency launched in 2015, training in everything from silver service and housekeeping to butlering and etiquette have been much in demand, and not just for those starting out in the profession.
Explains Lucy, “We will, for instance, get a lot of requests from clients who have had say a butler or housekeeper for many years and who have built up a strong relationship with them. Maybe they feel, for whatever reason, they’re not quite hitting the mark. But instead of employing someone else, they reach out to us and we send a specific trainer into the home to first assess and then train them in a relaxed and non-judgmental environment. We also provide this service to hotels around the world, even to private yachts, to help step up service wherever it’s needed.”
Taught one to one, privately or in group sessions, Polo & Tweed’s hundreds of modules – covering everything from cleaning marble, crystal and antiques to making the perfect hospital corner – are now also available online on their E-Learning Platform. These extensive courses cover Silver Service, House Management, Yacht Management, Butlering, Front of House, Concierge, Laundry and Housekeeping – with Etiquette, Babysitting and Nanny Training launching later this year.
As Lucy reveals, it is not only respective staff who are taking advantage of these courses at the present time. “Some of my clients are doing the tutorials themselves, the better to instruct their staff when they return. I really think that the lockdown has led to a rise in empathy. Clients might previously have thought the staff could get through the ironing in half an hour but are now discovering that it takes them a lot longer than that.”
In addition, many high-flying professionals have taken advantage of a lockdown or even furlough to perfect new talents. ‘We’ve found a big rise in the amount of high-net-worth people asking to be taught how to cook as well as clean,” says Lucy. “Either their chef has left to self-isolate or they usually eat every meal out. Now they are stuck at home, it’s a case of learning from scratch.”
It’s not just clients who are learning different skill sets. Lucy is particularly pleased to have been in a position to offer new career opportunities to those who previously worked in the hospitality industry. “So many people, particularly those working in the hospitality industry, have lost their jobs. It has been so satisfying to help them put their service skills to use, albeit in a different setting.
“We are also busily training up those in whom we see potential, but who might not yet have the exact experience our clients require.”
Concludes Lucy, “The pandemic has been devastating for so many sectors of society. We are just so happy to have given a huge cross-section of people the opportunity to get back into employment. Moreover, for some, the crisis will, for the first time, give them a chance to re-evaluate their lives – and their careers.”
Visit Polo & Tweed for more information, or call 0203 858 0233 to enrol on any of the courses.