Mike McAuley FIH shares insight from his role as Operations Manager at Aspinall Foundation, responsible for two wild animal parks in Kent. Discover how the organisation has been impacted by the pandemic and their plans for recovery. We also discussed Mike’s career and his pride in being a Fellow of the Institute of Hospitality.
Tell us a little bit about your career history in hospitality including your current role.
My first ever event was the 1990 British Grand Prix at Silverstone, whilst studying at Thanet Technical College in Broadstairs, Kent. I was able to work at some major events through the college links, Troon for the open golf, Wimbledon, Twickenham, Buckingham Palace to name a few and it was through my education I fell in love with Hospitality. Once my college years finished, I went to work for a company based in Brackley. To this date I still believe they were the best mentors ever to grace British hospitality. Patrick Gilmour and David Peather taught me how to deliver perfection, both FOH and BOH through planning and service. It is with Gilmour and Peather in the mid-90s I excelled in my personal development.
I worked consecutively at Silverstone for 27 British Grand Prix serving over 139,000 guests in hospitality. In 2014 I joined the Silverstone team as Operations Manager, to then be promoted to Head of Catering at the circuit in May 2015. A very demanding but rewarding role and the team around me in those years I do believe were the ultimate in Hospitality in Great Britain. Both employees and contractors, showing the world what we are capable of together.
I joined the Aspinall Foundation in January 2020 taking the position of Retail Catering Manager. By June I was Parks Manager and in December 2020, Managing Director Tony Kelly promoted me to Operations Manager for both foundations’ parks, Port Lympne Hotel and Reserve in Lympne near Folkestone and Howletts Wild Animal Park near Canterbury.
What was it that attracted you to the tourism sector?
Whilst at school I carried out two weeks work experience in a local hotel as a cook, I loved every minute of it, the buzz, the demand, the mixture of people and ability, all with the same common goal, being the customer. Where I lived in Kent, tourism is a major part of the local economy, be it in a hotel, in a restaurant or bar, historical venue of tourist attraction, Folkestone and Kent have it all and the sector was vibrant.
How has your organisation been most impacted by the pandemic?
The Aspinall Foundation’s wildlife parks, Port Lympne Hotel & Reserve and Howletts Wild Animal Park have now been closed for six months over the last twelve. The biggest impact is financial, it costs more than £300,000 a week to operate both parks and with 1,300 animals needing to be fed and cared for, this is impossible without the income generated from the parks being open and with no means of accessible financial aid from the government. It is now, more than ever that the Port Lympne and Howletts team need to generate urgent donations to allow them to be able to care for the animals and continue their crucial conservation and rewilding projects.
Despite the challenges raised by Coronavirus, the team at Port Lympne are continuing work on their most ambitious UK project to date. In spring 2021, they hope to rehome a family of brown bears from Andorra and rescue a group of lions in desperate need. Custom built sanctuaries are underway at Port Lympne and £51,000 of the £250,000 target to complete the project has already been crowdfunded. Donations to support this exciting rescue mission can be made via Port Lympne’s JustGiving page.
We did have some really good news last week, the birth of two lion cubs at Port Lympne which is a wonderful start to 2021. The whole team here at Port Lympne have been glued to Cub Cam all day. You can follow the adventures of the two little cubs and watch as they interact with their older brother and two sisters on our live Cub Cam.
As an operations manager, how have you kept staff motivated during this time?
This is a great question and one I do believe we would all answer differently. For me it was 100% communication between management but more importantly between team members. I made sure I spoke to the vulnerable personally at least once a week, this was a good way of them knowing we care. For me I also benefited from the conversations by learning about the team who work in the parks. Something we often miss out on we all discovered Zoom, online meetings and live chats, we created groups on the phones for chats and updates to make sure the team knew what was happening and how the parks were holding.
The animal department updates really helped motivate the team too, knowing that when we returned, we would see all our amazing animals and some new arrivals in the parks.
Have you seen any positives to come out from the pandemic?
Loads, from a team perspective I have noticed we all look out for one another more now, we all know we are a service provider in a live pandemic, but our safety and mental health is so important. I have seen an increase in staff productivity, openness and willingness, a lot of this is because we as a business tried to make sure every staff member was protected, educated and reassured on returning, be that with gloves, masks, signs, screens and inductions. We all worked tirelessly to make sure the team were protected.
What’s your top piece of advice for coping during such challenging times in this industry?
Reach out, I have spoken to management, family, my sons about every feeling I have had since March 2020. I sunk myself into online learning both within the business and IoH. I have buddied another manager through the past year from another department. It helped me to understand I was not the only one in this situation, which we often think we are, but I also gained comfort in the knowledge I had helped someone out by listening to them and giving a different prospective on their issue or situation.
I am fortunate to have some good friends in IoH, fellows who have always answered their phone or replied to an email, even having a coffee on Zoom. So yes, I would say buddy up with someone who isn’t in your department so you not only gain an unbiased opinion, but you will also grow in knowledge in another department and who knows you may see ways of developing departments together. I know I did.
What are your plans to help the business recover from the pandemic in 2021?
We have some amazing developments in the parks. We have committed to the rescue and rehoming of a family of brown bears and lions, separately of course, and we have only this week had new lion cubs delivered. This will bring the customers as the world reopens and I honestly cannot wait to welcome them back.
That said they will all demand safety, so first and foremost we will brief, train, and reassure the team members we have them at the forefront of our thoughts as they return to the parks. We have a new training manager, and I am so excited with the plans being put in place to better prepare the teams for the years ahead, focusing on the customer, quality and service excellence.
We are launching new menus in all retail outlets to make the parks a cost-effective place to come and eat. For too many years customers have been charged high prices for average products. Me, the exec chef and management have worked hard in the past few months with suppliers to ensure we are going to be ready to offer a cost effective alternative to our guests, so that they feel the food we provide is value for money and of a high standard. It really is exciting to be in these parks at the minute because when we reopen our doors, and we will, our customers will experience a new level of customer satisfaction.
You have recently been promoted, what advice do you have for getting to the top of your chosen field in hospitality and tourism?
Never stop learning, always be humble and believe in yourself. I have always pushed myself to develop and learn something every day, if I have not got it right first time, I have learned from it and developed. If you keep that mindset you can only achieve.
Never accept second standards, I have been fortunate enough to have worked for with some very informative Managing Directors in my time. One trait they all had was to never accept anything but the best in customer service and delivery. So, I employ this in my behaviours, frustrating at times when others do not see the benefits, but I will carry on and not drop my own standards. This is how I do believe I have excelled in my career.
What’s been the most memorable day of your career so far?
I have been blessed in the career I’ve had. I have met some amazing people and been to some amazing places. I think if I look back now, in life we all have special moments in our careers. I’d like to mention two if I may, July 2015 I drove my two sons around Silverstone Circuit moments after the end of the British Grand Prix. Their faces as we took every corner and waved at the crowd made the 18-20 hours a day worth every minute. Fast forward to September 2020, I am at Port Lympne Hotel and Reserve in a part of the park we refer to as ‘Africa’. Once again I am driving my two sons around and the family of giraffe calmly walk by as I sit and smile at my two sons. Those two memories, to me anyway, are the pinnacle of my career.
From a professional side, eating Pizza with Jenson Button and his father in their motorhome, escorting Kylie Minogue at the Grosvenor House in London, helping deliver the first Abu Dhabi Grand Prix in 2009, having a food fight with Nigel Mansell and Ayrton Senna at Silverstone in 1991. I’d say to date I’ve had a good innings and there is more to come for sure.
You are a Fellow of IoH, which elements have you found the most valuable??
I have found the support offered to one another the most beneficial part of being a Fellow. The network is enormous and it is amazing to be part of an institute that every Fellow strives to improve in. Not only their own business but they are all open to assist other members as we all try to maintain and improve the operation in the hospitality world.
Training is also second to none, if not for yourself, for your employees and their development. Where else in the UK can you get that help at this level with this recognition.
What does the recognition of being a Fellow mean to you?
To me, to be a Fellow means I have been recognised by a professional body for my efforts, contributions, and support of the hospitality industry over my career and it is something I am extremely proud of to have achieved. I wear my pin with pride. To be a fellow subconsciously tells me I have done the best I can at every point and strived for perfection, nobody can ask for more from themselves.
What would you say to someone considering joining IoH?
I would say do it, what you put in you will get back. My professional network is now so strong that no matter what situation I find myself in, I have either the solution, or I know the member that does. This puts me in a very good position to offer our customers the very best Britain has to offer in Hospitality.