Debrah Dhugga always knew she wanted to work in hotels, and after landing a management traineeship at a young age she hasn't looked back. She explains to Neil Gerrard why it's important to remain focused on what you want, and why women shouldn't think they can't make it all the way to the top
When did you first decide you wanted to work in hospitality? I remember going away to hotels with my parents when I was young and playing "checking in and checking out" in the hotel bedrooms. I always thought something I really wanted to do when I grew up was work in hotels. It wasn't always something that my family encouraged me to do. They wanted me to take on something more of a professional career.
What was your first job? I had finished studying and I saw a position advertised for a trainee hotel manager with Swallow Hotels so I got suited and booted and went off for the interview without telling anyone. At the time, Swallow were really strong and they had a fantastic trainee management programme. The gentleman who interviewed me, Ernie Merrilees, asked me why I wanted to work in hotels and I said because I was really good with people and thought I could do a good job. I don't think I had actually researched in enough depth for my interview when I look back now, but I think my passion for working within hotels got me through the door.
When did you tell your family you had gone into this industry and how did they react to it? After I had the interview I remember getting a telephone call at home. In those days there were no mobile phones. I can remember being in the lounge and my parents telling me there was a call for me - and it was Mr Merrilees offering me the position as a trainee manager. I was so excited I couldn't really resist sharing the news there and then. And I can remember my mum asking me if I was sure it was hotels I wanted to do, and I said yes it really was.
How did you initially find working in the industry and how easy or difficult did you find it to progress? I started off in reception and I gained a love for front of house, so that even when it was my time was to go and work in other departments, I always went back to reception whenever they were short-staffed. In those days, trainee management was very different from what it is now. It's still hard work and it is still very challenging - but, as an example, when I was a duty manager I used to go to bed in the hotel and keep the safe keys under my pillow. Gone are those days now - we have night managers around the hotel, or we have a live-in manager who would stay around a property.
Nowadays, I think the industry has really grown up. It's a lot more exciting, there are a lot more opportunities out there for development and for people to succeed.
And what keeps you interested in hospitality? I have been in the hospitality industry for 28 years but I still wake up every morning and I enjoy coming to work. I actually left the industry for one year. I was chief executive of a small leading boutique hotel and spa group and we sold some of our properties to Von Essen Hotels - and once we had done that, I became a director for a leading spa brand, as head of retail sales. I stayed with them for a year but after three months I knew I was in the wrong industry. Being in an office all day, reading budgets and having no access to guests and no access to the hospitality side of the business just wasn't for me.
Did you have a mentor who helped you through your career? I think it is always interesting and important to have someone outside the business to look up to put questions to - somebody you can call or have that quarterly chat with to share ideas, frustrations and developments. I remember in my early days, working with Ernie Merrilees - he was great and really taught me a lot about people and energy and standards and about the goals you have to have and want to achieve to gain success in our industry.
I then worked for another gentleman, called Bernard Alyward. At the time he frustrated me like anything and I used to go home some days and think "Oh gosh, that man!" But I learnt an awful lot from him and he taught me a lot about the financial side of the business which I still use today.
I also learnt a lot from Ken McCulloch, who founded the Malmaison brand, when I worked for him, as well as from Gordon McKinnon, who was our head of marketing there. At the moment my mentor is a CEO of a leading UK bank and my mentor in the industry is Gleneagles chairman Peter Lederer.
Do you think it is a misconception that women can't get to the top of the hospitality industry? I really would like to see more women coming into our industry and knowing there is an opportunity to get to the top. As a mother of two grown-up children, I'm proof that mixing family life and a career can actually work in hospitality.
As long as you are organised at home, you are prepared to work with childcare for your children and you are prepared to work the odd unsociable hour, it does work for you. People ask if there is a glass ceiling out there, and what opportunities are available for women. You know, it is equal opportunity for men and women.
I'm a founder of Leading Ladies of London, and one of the things that we decided to do was to encourage more people to come into our business and look at the opportunities that there are out there for them. We can do job shares; I have women who work for me at the moment at Dukes in London and they work full time but they work four days a week so it is easier on their lifestyle at home. You do have to make sacrifices on your journey on the way but if you want to succeed in anything in life you have to make a sacrifice.
Finally, what do you feel the hospitality industry has given to you as a person? Having been in the industry for 28 years, when I look back I have no regrets at all. I have had some fantastic times, I have travelled the world, I've met some fabulous people. I think our industry is actually really exciting. I think it is going from strength to strength. If I were 18 years old again, there is nothing I would change, I would come straight back into it. It is a fantastic opportunity and a great way to see the world if that is what you want to do.