Get the latest hospitality news and inspiration straight to your inbox. Subscribe to our newsletter.

The Caterer Interview: Ken McCulloch

Written by:
The Caterer Interview: Ken McCulloch
Written by:

The hotelier has returned to his old stomping ground of Glasgow to open the luxurious Dakota Deluxe, the latest brand from the man behind Malmaison. Janet Harmer reports

What does it mean to you to be back with a hotel in the centre of Glasgow?

It’s phenomenal. Opening a hotel in your own backyard is quite a different feeling to opening elsewhere. It’s actually trickier – everyone knows you and has high expectations, which is no bad thing. When we got the site, we were
ecstatic – we did a little dance. The response from the city has been amazing.

What are the features of Dakota Deluxe and how does the brand differ from your two existing Dakota hotels?

The Dakota hotels are located in out-of-town sites at the Forth Road Bridge near Edinburgh and the Eurocentral business park on the outskirts of Glasgow. We knew that when we brought the hotels into the city centre we would have to take them up a few notches.

Dakota Deluxe is a bit like the new top-series car from BMW or Porsche. It’s similar to the original, but it’s a better product with more service and increased luxury. Guests’ expectations are increasing and we have reacted.

How do you provide a better product?

It is about creating a more opulent environment with a better grade of linen and beds and bigger TVs, and the staff are also trained to take the service up a further notch. This is, of course, reflected in the price. The starting rate
for the Dakota hotels is around £105, whereas Dakota Deluxe is £120, rising to £270.

And how do you improve the service?

We like to provide an old-fashioned and polite welcome and we have recently been joined by Martin Lawrence, who worked for me at One Devonshire Gardens and Dakota Eurocentral, to help us in this area. I’m really keen for young people to learn traditional skills.

What is the focus of the food and beverage outlets, Jack’s Bar and Downstairs at Jacks?

We wanted to create quite a foxy bar, somewhere that would become a real cocktail venue with a heart, soul and personality. So we positioned the bar on the ground floor with a direct entrance from the street.

The restaurant is downstairs and serves simple food brilliantly. The menu includes smoked ham and pea soup, chicken liver parfait, grilled lemon sole and lemon tart. Tony Tapia, who worked for Mark Hix and Rick Stein before joining Dakota EuroCentral, is the head chef and he serves the type of fresh food that guests really want to eat.

Who is Jack?

I always try to put myself in the place of the guest and choosing a strong, easy name like ‘Jack’ was deliberate – it makes it easy to say: “I’ll meet you at Jack’s”. The bar and restaurant are named after Jack Buchanan, who was one of the most stylish individuals in Glasgow, and went on to become an absolute dude as an actor in Los Angeles. There is a personal connection in that my father brought Jack back from Los Angles to open the TV centre in
Glasgow when he founded Scottish TV.

Food and beverage has always been an essential element of your hotels. Remind us of the chefs who have worked with you?

I’ve been very fortunate to work with some brilliant chefs throughout my career. They include Andrew Fairlie [now heading his own eponymous two-Michelin-starred restaurant at Gleneagles], who was with me at One Devonshire Gardens, Roy Brett at Malmaison and then the restaurant at Dakota Forth Bridge [now the owner of Ondine, Edinburgh] and Allan Pickett at Aviator [who opened Picquet, London, last year].

When I was a general manager, talking with the head chef was one of the most rewarding parts of my job. I don’t think general managers generally do this enough, but I think it’s a no-brainer.

Design has always been an important element of your hotels. How has hotel design changed during your career?

Hotel interiors are massively important. When I started out, there were no hotel designers as such, just architects. But architects generally don’t think like designers and they don’t consider the wow factor. There was so much I didn’t like about hotel design that when it came to One Devonshire Gardens [which opened in 1986]. I decided to do it myself with Amanda [Amanda Rosa, who became his wife].

Things had started to change in the previous decade. Anouska Hempel, who had opened Blakes – probably the first boutique hotel in London – was a huge influence. What she did blew my mind – I loved the individual touches. So we set out to create something that had not been seen before. It did result in mixed reactions. My closest friend told me that I’d completely blown it, and my mother said she couldn’t understand who had measured the curtains because they were spilling on to the floor.

Malmaison was very different design-wise from One Devonshire Gardens. We were aiming for the same standards but at a different price point. We had no money for the design, so we had to come up with something innovative, and that’s how we came up with the distinct black and white theme. We had a different colour on each tread of the stairs – blue, red, green – because we used offcuts. It worked a treat – it was a real statement. You have to be bold when you have no money. Subtlety is more expensive.

Dakota Deluxe, which is located in a converted office block, has the look of a Manhattanstyle loft building from the outside, with vast floor-to-ceiling windows. Inside, it is very chic and moody, and we’ve used a calming palate.

How did your relationship with your collaborator – Evans Property Group – come about?

I met Michael Evans when I was living in Monaco. We got talking and I told him about our plans to expand Dakota – at that stage we had already opened the first one in Nottingham and we had the Forth Bridge site. As a result, Evans came on board as our property partner, and we’re the operator. At a time when everything else was dark and horrible with the Nottingham hotel, our relationship with Evans could not have been more different. It’s built on the fact that we both want the same thing and we communicate well. The company has supported us now for 10 years, 50:50 in ownership. We are both interested in creating a legacy and building something for the future; we are not a pension fund that buys a hotel and then quickly flips it.

The most important factor in getting a business off the ground is working with the right partners. You need to work with people you can trust – it is like getting married. You think you may know someone, but you don’t always find out until much later that you actually don’t know them at all. 

What is your next project with Evans? 

We are opening a second Dakota Deluxe with 93 bedrooms in spring 2017 in an area of regeneration in Leeds. It is going to be a spectacular location, with a newly pedestrianised section. I really expect the hotel will stand out among all the other hotels in the city, and it will have similar impact to what we have seen in Glasgow. We have already been full in Glasgow on the nights of big music performances in the city from the likes of ColdpIay, Bruce Springsteen and Beyoncé. Eventually, we hope to get the stars themselves staying with us. Last week the American singer-songwriter Don Henley stayed after being told about our fine wines.

We are close to signing a deal on a site in Manchester and other destinations we are keen to be in are Cambridge and Bristol. We would love to be in London, but it is difficult because of the costs. You know when you have found  the right site as it is a very emotional thing. Malmaison was ground-breaking.

What was the inspiration for the brand?

I only came up with the idea for Malmaison because I was unable to go ahead with plans to do more hotels like One Devonshire Gardens. It was the early 1990s and the country was in the middle of a recession and every financial institution I went to slammed the door in my face. So I decided I would create stylish hotels that would only cost half as much as One Devonshire Gardens and put them into difficult buildings that no one else wanted.

That’s how the first Malmaison came to be located in a former church. Great service has been a key factor in all the hotels you have created. What is the key to creating the best service culture?

Good service is really not a mystery – it is about employing nice people. It really is the number one priority. If companies recruited better, they would get the right people to fit their culture. There is no formula – people either fit your business or they don’t. If you are an enthusiastic business, you really don’t have to look hard – people will seek you out as they will want to work with the very best. You have got to allow your staff to have aspirations, and then they will deliver. That is why we have introduced our Learn More, Earn More scheme, which provides staff with the opportunity to undertake further academic training and expand their knowledge through visits to suppliers.

It takes them on the promotion ladder and they are also recognised financially. We look for people with a natural instinct for service, who have a sense of humour and who see a future for themselves in the business. I want people on board who want to run the business and work hard. Why wouldn’t you then want to look after staff like that?

My key question to staff is: are the guests enjoying what we are doing? I never ask them how much money we have taken. Of course, that’s important, but it’s not at the forefront of my mind. I know that if guests are happy, they
will be our best marketeers.

Which hoteliers have inspired you over the years?

There are many. Gordon Campbell Gray is a close friend, whose creation of One Aldwych influenced me a lot. I like his enthusiasm and the simplicity in the way he works.

Peter Lederer has taught me a great deal. He told me that it was up to us as hoteliers, not the Government, to get across the message of what we have to offer to potential US guests. It was from this that Connoisseur Scotland was launched. It was an amazing time, in which we spent two weeks every year going to the US, pressing the flesh. My job in the venture was marketing. 

Nick Ryan of the Crinan hotel in Argyll on the west coast of Scotland was also a member of Connoisseur Scotland. He is an amazing individual who is totally committed. Amanda and I were married at the castle across the way from Crinan.

Grete Hobbs, the former owner of Inverlochy Castle was absolutely meticulous in the way she ran the hotel. She was a true stalwart of the industry. And Jeremy King and Chris Corbin have done a fabulous job at the Beaumont. They are such professionals.

You were named Hotelier of the Year by The Caterer in 1993. What did the accolade mean to you?

To receive recognition from your peer group is fantastic. It was a very humbling feeling and I couldn’t quite believe it. It helped me regain my confidence at a time when it was at its lowest – when I was struggling to find finance for
the expansion of One Devonshire Gardens. You often think you are working on your own, but it’s events like this that make you realise that people are watching you. 

Ken McCulloch’s life in hotels

Ken McCulloch was born in Glasgow in 1948 and is one of three sons of impresario and showbusiness writer Archie, a founder of Scottish Television, and the singer Kathie Kay. He undertook training at the age of 16 with the renowned collection of British Transport Hotels, but then became involved with the Glasgow restaurant scene, founding La Bonne Auberge, Charlie Parker’s and the Granary, as well as transforming the renowned Buttery and Rogano establishments.

McCulloch’s first foray into hotel ownership came with the launch of One Devonshire Gardens in his home city in 1986. The property’s flamboyant and luxurious decor was a distinct and exciting look at a time when the competition was largely bland. As a result, the rich and famous, who were attracted by its discreet address and individuality, helped establish it as a global name.

Following its success, McCulloch opened the first Malmaison hotel in 1994, in a former church building, just off Blythswood Square, around the corner from his latest venture, Dakota Deluxe. McCulloch bought the Malmaison name – previously the moniker of the renowned restaurant at Glasgow’s Central hotel – for £100.

In 1998, Malmasion, which by then had grown to five hotels, was sold to US company Patriot Group. Two years later, now living in Monaco, McCulloch created the Columbus hotel in the principality with funding from former F1 racing driver David Coulthard and American property investor Peter Morris. Coulthard also invested in the first Dakota hotel in Nottingham in 2004.

However, a falling out with his partners ended with the sale of both Columbus and the original Dakota. While McCulloch has remained friends with Coulthard, he describe the time as a “very dark period”.

Other hotels launched by McCulloch include the Aviator hotel for TAG Aviation at Farnborough airport and Brooklands hotel in Weybridge, Surrey.

The first two Dakota hotels, launched by McCulloch Unique Hotels – intended to be the first of a chain of stylish, reasonably priced properties – have been joined by their upmarket sister, Dakota Deluxe, which cost £18m to develop. Many more siblings are expected to follow. 

 

Start the discussion

Sign in to comment or register new account

Start the working day with

The Caterer’s free breakfast briefing email

Sign up now for:

  • The latest exclusives from across the industry
  • Innovations, new openings, business news and practical advice
  • The latest product innovations and supplier offers
Sign up for free