Debrah Dhugga – My Life in Hospitality

21 October 2010 by
Debrah Dhugga – My Life in Hospitality

Debrah Dhugga is the general manager of Dukes hotel in London.
Debrah Dhugga remembers wanting to forge a career in hospitality ever since playing at checking people in and out of hotels while on family holidays as a child. Her parents initially wanted her to enter a more "serious" profession but Dhugga's mind was made up and she embarked upon a traineeship with Swallow Hotels.

"I really enjoyed that experience," she says. "In those days hotels were so different and when I was a trainee duty manager you would go to bed with a big set of keys under your pillow. It was very much more hands-on."

She started off concentrating on working in front of house but recognising that she also had a flair for sales, so went into that side of the business, working her way up to sales director.

After a stint with Thistle Hotels, she joined the young Malmaison brand in the mid-1990s to open the company's new hotel in Newcastle.

"It was really exciting. I remember when I met Ken McCulloch (the former owner of Malmaison) I just thought he was fantastic. He had such a passion, such a flair," she says. She worked for the company for the next nine years.

But when McCulloch sold Malmaison, Dhugga decided it was time to move on. She was headhunted by Sage founder Tom Maxfield who made her managing director of the Samling hotel in the Lake District and Seaham Hall hotel in County Durham. Dhugga felt she could deliver on Maxfield's ambitious targets for the properties, but also liked the idea of working closer to home.

"If you join hospitality you must be prepared to sacrifice something. And I did - I lived away from home for a long long time," she says.

After achieving everything they had wanted to achieve with the properties, Maxfield and Dhugga looked at selling the Samling to extend Seaham Hall. Von Essen's Andrew Davis put in an offer and turned up at Seaham Hall to talk to Dhugga.

"He landed in his helicopter and said: ‘I love it, I want to buy both'," she recalls.

The sale left her looking for another job, so she tried her hand in retail as director of retail for hair products firm GHD.

"It was a fabulous company but I missed the people and the buzz of hospitality," she explains. She handed in her notice and left after almost a year.

Dhugga was offered two roles as a general manager almost immediately - one for a resort property and one for Dukes. But she decided that having already worked on resort properties, she would try her hand at running the renowned hotel in St James's, London. And in the year since she has joined, she and her team have already won a Catey award for Best Independent Marketing Campaign.

HIGHS… As a director of sales for Malmaison, Dhugga opened the Malmaison in Newcastle alongside the then-general manager Robert Cook (now chief executive of Malmaison).

"It was just so great opening those doors. I remember the night we opened we had the Barcelona football team checking in and Robert had to run up to the court to get the licence because he didn't have it!" she says. "It was a fabulous achievement opening that hotel on time and also being part of that brand development. It is something I look back on and think I really enjoyed that journey so much."

LOWS… Dhugga was "heartbroken" when Ken McCulloch sold the Malmaison brand. "It was so sad," she says. "I can always remember when Ken called all the executive team down to Malmaison in Manchester to tell us that the brand had been sold. We were aware of what was going on but this was the formal announcement. And I kind of felt as if I had lost a bit of my family. I wondered if it would ever be the same again."

Another low was leaving the Samling in the Lake District. "If I had had the money I would have bought it because it was like my baby. I loved welcoming people there," she says. "But Dukes is my baby now."

Age 45
Family One daughter, 21 and one son, 19.
Drives Land Rover at home in Northumberland. Mini in London.
Motto Once you stop enjoying what you do, stop

RECESSION-BUSTING TIPKeep your eye on your costs but don't compromise your standards. It is so hard to win customers back.

TagsHotels and My Life
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