Lucy Challenger, CEO and founder of Polo & Tweed, is in a buoyant mood. Her latest TikTok post, on the etiquette of eating corn on the cob, has attracted 1.6 million views in less than 12 hours. It is just one of many, which have attracted more than 100 million views, and proved Challenger to be adept at harnessing the power of social media.
Challenger set up her luxury domestic recruitment agency in 2015 while on maternity leave. She was a consultant in the sector, so people were still turning to her for advice. When her son was born and she struggled to find a reliable nanny, she decided to start her own business.
In just two months, Polo & Tweed clocked up 10,000 clients. Challenger puts her initial success down to disseminating brand awareness and having a solid presence on external websites, while offering well-paid jobs in a sector many might not have contemplated before.
‘My clients pay very well, for example, up to £90,000 for a trained house manager. So, people were sending details to each other saying, “Did you realise you could earn so much doing this?” Professionals, from barristers to architects, started showing an interest in being trained for domestic careers.’
In lockdown, Challenger furloughed her staff for six weeks and set about creating training materials that she posted on an online learning platform, offering a variety of Polo & Tweed qualifications, from silver service and housekeeping to front-of-house and etiquette.
She was receiving desperate calls from clients who had had to send their staff home to isolate. ‘I helped one client change a loo roll on a video call. Someone took a Brillo pad to a rolltop enamel bathtub. One person couldn’t find the vacuum cleaner. But if you’ve never cleaned the bathroom or used the washing machine, how would you know? After all, I can’t fly a plane.’
Since May 2020, when the government allowed domestic workers to return to work, the phone hasn’t stopped ringing.
‘Covid changed so much,’ says Challenger. ‘People were moving to the countryside and their staff didn’t want to come with them. Professionals were suddenly working from home with three children under 10 and desperately needed help.’
She’s also seen a rise in the number of homes being run like five-star hotels, so in need of well-trained staff, especially in the Middle East. ‘In one house I stayed in, I never even found the kitchen,’ she says. ‘You rang for anything you needed, and someone brought it on a silver tray. If I left clothes out, they’d be laundered and ironed. I had to ask them to stop washing my jeans because they were shrinking so much.’
Today, Challenger’s training remit has extended to cover luxury hotels, designer brands and offices, particularly private banks.
‘The corporate world takes a more linear approach with all its regulation, but as competition intensifies, they see they need to draw on the skillsets from a top hotel like The Dorchester or Connaught,’ she says. ‘If you’ve got billions invested in a private bank, it’s not good enough being greeted by an off-hand receptionist or to be told they don’t have almond milk. You can’t have cleaners in a big City law firm just entering an office during a sensitive confidential conversation. Employees can be anxious about accompanying their bosses to corporate dinners or events, not really grasping the protocol or dress code. We teach all that and we train younger people how to speak on the phone as so many of them get nervous about it. I grew up being taught manners but so many people have never had them passed down and now there’s a fascination with etiquette.’
Nowadays, via TikTok, Challenger even shows people how to eat soup or a banana in public and use a knife and fork correctly. After a dozen posts, her 13th showed her emptying bins, scrubbing floors and blowing leaves in an evening gown and heels after her husband asked why she never wore nice clothes around the house. It went viral, with more than 3 million views.
‘I keep my TikTok posts on etiquette fun,’ she says. ‘They’ve raised brand awareness and helped connect us with potential recruits, especially younger ones. We’re giving people tools that can enhance their careers. Knowing what the rules are helps everyone to feel more relaxed.’
Now Challenger has moved into surveillance, going incognito into corporations to watch, assess and then advise and train, according to company needs. Meanwhile, following the astonishing growth of her TikTok channel, a television series is in the pipeline, in which she’ll be sent into households to “fix” their domestic situations (‘a bit like Super Nanny’). Her adept manipulation of social media has made her a digital-savvy entrepreneur to watch, and if things go to plan, we’ll be watching her on our TV screens, too.