Joelle Edwards-Tonks: Leading with Unique Strategies

Joelle Edwards-Tonks | Chief Sales and Marketing Officer at Sunlife
Joelle Edwards-Tonks | Chief Sales and Marketing Officer at Sunlife

With over two decades of experience in the hospitality industry, successfully evaluating marketing strategies, and aligning with organizations, Joelle Edwards-Tonks is known for building brand awareness, establishing her as one of the most influential CMOs of 2023.

As the Chief Sales and Marketing Officer at Sunlife, Joelle focuses on making the company a strong employer brand with an inspiring purpose that empowers augmentations with distinct and groundbreaking strategies.

We caught up with Joelle and discussed her professional journey, challenges, and plans in the hospitality industry.

Below are the highlights of the interview:

Brief our audience about your journey as a business leader until your current position at Sunlife.

I have been in the hospitality industry for over 22 years and was fortunate to start my journey as a hotelier at the Four Seasons George V in Paris. Four Seasons at the time had just sixty hotels within the group and only a handful in Europe. Opportunities to learn and grow within the company were abundant, which was a source of motivation for many of us young executives at the time. I was inspired by the company’s philosophy, which was both guest-centric and employee-centric. This is where my passion for leadership was born.

As Reservations Manager, I realised quickly that my team of talented, multi-lingual reservation agents needed much more from their head of department than daily tasks and schedules. I wanted to inspire and motivate them, just as I had been, to grow and learn and, more importantly, to enjoy their jobs. I was lucky to have some fantastic mentors at the time, hugely successful business leaders on an international scale, who shaped me to become a confident manager and to lead by example.

I became Head of Revenue management as ‘yield management’ first appeared on the hotel industry horizon and continued as a Regional Coach in the discipline.

My next move was to join the soon-to-open Shangri-La Paris, the group’s first property in Europe, where I was initially part of a small ‘multipurpose’ preopening executive team before taking on the Head of Sales position. Working with a renowned international brand well implanted in Asia was eye-opening. I grew as a leader from the fantastic exposure to another business culture and management style.

Later, I was offered the chance to join Oetker Collection, a European-based group owning and managing some of the most prestigious hotels in the world. My initial corporate role was a return to revenue management, with the added responsibility of ecommerce, a relatively new discipline in the industry. I could explore unchartered territories and build what came to be the online footprint of the group, from websites to booking engines to CRM and social media. Using revenue management strategies also to optimize distribution, we significantly grew the direct business.

During my tenure with Oetker Collection, the portfolio grew from four to nine hotels as I headed up digital, communications, marketing, and sales. When it was time to move on, I was a member of the executive committee as Senior Vice-President of Sales & Marketing for the group.

My next calling brought me to the beautiful Indian Ocean Island of Mauritius as Chief Sales and Marketing Officer at Sunlife (formerly known as Sun Resorts) with the assignment of a total rebranding and repositioning of this well-respected and well-established group that comprises four luxury resorts as well as a private island.

What challenges have you had to overcome to reach where you are today?

The challenge of being a woman in a male-dominated industry, particularly in senior executive roles, has been a reality throughout my career. Being the only female around the boardroom table has been a common occurrence. Fortunately, the presumption that I was there to take the minutes or, worse, the coffee order is now a thing of the past!

I recognise that tremendous efforts are being made to change the perception of women in business and to strive for gender equality. I am impressed by this in Mauritius and at Sunlife, where I see significant initiatives that are often more advanced than those elsewhere in the world.

Tell us something more about Sunlife and its mission and vision.

Sunlife is a renowned hotel group that has carved out a reputation as one of the leading hospitality brands in Mauritius and the Indian Ocean, with more than 45 years of history and heritage. Last year we embarked on an exciting new rebrand, unveiling the new Sunlife, not just a new name but a reimagined philosophy and culture across all areas of the guest experience and our four luxury hotels in Mauritius: Sugar Beach, Long Beach, La Pirogue, and Ambre, along with the private island Ile aux Cerfs, home to the world-famous golf course Ile aux Cerfs Golf Club.

Our vision, purpose, and values form the foundation of our culture and the Sunlife transformation. Our vision describes the world we see when we look to the future. And at Sunlife, we see a world where Kindness Shines. Our purpose determines Sunlife’s role in creating a world where Kindness Shines. Thus, our goal is to radiate the magic of Mauritius.

Finally, our values support our vision and anchor our aspirations. These are the qualities we esteem above all else. These are the principles that enshrine our beliefs and shape our daily behaviors. At Sunlife, we value love, dreams, and thoughtfulness. With these three values, rich in emotion, we focus on what we want our guests to feel, and these values are extremely human, modern, and adapted to our Mauritian hospitality.

Moreover, we aspire to be a strong employer brand with an inspiring purpose that attracts new talents and motivates existing teams. Sunlife is looking to the future, celebrating a life led in the Sun, a life enjoyed with style.

Enlighten us on how you have impacted the Marketing industry through your expertise in the market.

Marketing was an afterthought in hospitality for a long time. My experience in reservations and revenue management, combined with digital marketing, offered new possibilities, and I chose to specialize in this area. I took on an entrepreneurial approach to build multidisciplinary marketing teams at a corporate level that could support the operation, creating solid synergies between sales, marketing, and revenue management. Along the way, I have enjoyed seeing the careers of many young talents in my teams flourish in newly created departments and positions.

What methodologies do you implement that contribute to new growth opportunities?

There are many ways to leverage growth in hospitality, and in recent years, I have favored diversification in markets and product offerings. This certainly paid off during the Covid pandemic. At Sunlife, for example, we have focused on diversifying our geographical markets and creating new business offerings. Our Sunlife members’ club, co-working lounges, long-stay offers for remote workers, and the development of residences are just a few examples.

Undeniably, technology is playing a significant role in almost every sector. How are you leveraging technological advancements to make your solutions resourceful?

Technology is a challenge for the hotel industry, bogged down by legacy systems making it difficult to be agile and adapt to new solutions. We are also a people business, and the ‘human touch’ is crucial. How to embrace technology while maintaining a personalized service is a tricky balance to find. At Sunlife, we have nevertheless looked carefully at solutions where technology improves guest experience, and our new mobile app allowing guests to check-in pre-arrival, book restaurants and spa appointments, order room service, and live chat with the team is an example of that. Digitalisation is undoubtedly a focus for us and an area where we invest.

What change would you like to bring to the Marketing industry if given a chance?

So many marketing ‘campaigns’ come across as just that. Although we are starting to see more inclusive and meaningful communication, which is refreshing, I believe there is room for improvement. Social media plays a vital role in this, and I am curious to see how this space will evolve. This is why with Sunlife’s rebranding, we took a 360-degree approach, not only addressing the way we want our guests to perceive us but also how we want them to feel.

Where do you envision yourself in the long run, and what are your future goals for Sunlife?

As long as I am contributing positively, I am happy where I am. With the rebranding and repositioning of Sunlife under our belt, we now have the fun part of making the brand come alive. There is so much exciting content to roll out and lots of potentials to seize. For example, we have created an array of new innovative experiences for our guests under the label ‘Come Alive Collection’ that we intend to continue enhancing. Innovation in the guest experience is one of our focuses for this coming year, and we have created two new positions for ‘Guest Experience Designers’ to that effect.

Ultimately, we want Sunlife to radiate the magic of Mauritius as the leading hospitality group on the island, the Indian Ocean, and why not further afield?

What would be your advice to budding entrepreneurs who aspire to venture into the Marketing industry?

I would say that as long as you always put yourself in your customer’s shoes in everything you do, you can’t go wrong. Add a sprinkle of your personality to that, and you will have something unique that nobody can replicate.

What initiatives have you taken to respond to new trends?

Guests are now expecting more meaningful holidays and experiences for their stay. Sunlife’s sustainability program is committed to leading the way in terms of sustainable and impact-driven travel experiences and ensuring Sunlife’s properties function sustainability and responsibly. Embodying the Sunlife vision ‘we see a world where kindness shines.’ The ethos behind our sustainability program focuses on leading with kindness and showing that same kindness to the land, resources and people as experienced by Sunlife guests.

Each resort has adopted a range of colourful Sunlife sustainability initiatives that point to the everyday actions taken to care for the environment and respect the local communities. We have a new mascot called Izzy the bee. Essential to the cycle of life, this important and friendly yellow friend will guide our youngest guests on a journey of learning that encourages their critical understanding and connection with nature.

We are also committed to preserve our biodiversity : we have a marine center in two of our resorts which host a sea base nursery and process a coral restoration programme. We have a full-time marine biologist to engage with guests and join divers are they responsibly discover the underwater world.

In terms of responsible consumption and production, all of our properties use 100% renewable energy to heat water and 90% of our lights are LED. We source at least 70% of our food locally and plan to develop chef’s gardens within each of our properties to increase this percentage to 75%. We have collaborations with the East Coast Planters Association on a farm to folk Climate smart Agriculture programme.