A new deluxe brand is being brought to Leeds by renowned hotelier Ken McCulloch. Reporter Lizzie Murphy checks in for a chat.
When hotelier Ken McCulloch checked into a hotel in Derby for a weekend his friend had organised, it was an experience that changed his life.
The founder of Malmaison was living in Monaco after selling the hotel chain and visiting the UK.
“Everything about it was awful,” the Scottish hotelier says, shuddering at the memory. “The walls were flimsy and when I went downstairs for something to eat, it was the saddest place I had ever been to. The food was awful.
“I phoned my wife and said: ‘you won’t believe this place’. I thought there had to be a market for something for people who were travelling on business and wanted something more than this.”
McCulloch immediately set about creating the Dakota brand on the flight back to Monaco. He took the name from the Douglas DC3 aeroplane, which transformed commercial flying in the 1940s after the Second World War, by making it more affordable to those who wouldn’t ordinarily have been able to experience this form of travel.
His aim is to do the same in the hotel sector. “I do tend to work on the score of ‘why not?’ rather than ‘why’”, he says.
The concept and design is similar to Malmaison. Both hotel chains were designed by McCulloch’s interior designer wife Amanda Rosa.
The Dakota hotels are decked out in muted greys and soft browns. Subdued lighting and subtle music encourage visitors to unwind.
The Leeds hotel is the deluxe brand’s first foray out of its Scottish heartland.
It doesn’t officially open until May 1, although it has already hosted a few corporate events and singer Richard Ashcroft is understood to have stayed there when he played Leeds Arena last weekend.
The hotel is a collaboration between Dakota and Leeds-based Evans Property Group.
McCulloch has worked with the developer for the last 10 years, since he met owner Michael Evans in Monaco.
They initially worked on the Dakota hotel in Edinburgh and have collaborated ever since.
Evans owns much of the property around the Bond Court area in Leeds city centre and was keen to redevelop an old car park as part of a £25m investment in the area.
“We thought it would be amazing if we could join forces and do something in Leeds,” McCulloch says.
He was already familiar with the city. He developed Malmaison in the former Leeds City Tramways office on Swinegate in 1999.
The Leeds Dakota Deluxe is modelled on the first Dakota Deluxe in Glasgow, which McCulloch says ‘has taken off very well indeed’ since it opened last summer.
McCulloch’s aim with the brand is to bring opulence back to the hotel sector.
“Hotels now tend to be dumbing down rather than increasing the experience,” he says.
McCulloch says he is receptive to guest opinions but he doesn’t actively seek suggestions and is not keen on market research. “I don’t know if we have comment cards, but if we did, I would get rid of them. The dialogue you build up with guests is very important but we should be ahead of the guests.”
He adds: “We create hotels that we’d like to stay in and I can’t imagine doing it any other way.”
There are four Dakotas: the two out-of-town “originals” in Glasgow and Edinburgh, the new Dakota Deluxe in Glasgow city centre, and now Leeds.
Manchester is next and McCulloch is currently looking at sites in other major cities.
Dakota Deluxe is primarily aimed at the corporate market and affluent couples.
“One of Amanda’s briefs was to create a place where the first thing someone does when they go up to their room is to phone the person they love and say ‘we’re coming here, this is fantastic’,” he says.
The Dakota Glasgow hotel is currently running at about 75 per cent capacity and forward bookings for Leeds are ‘looking good’, according to McCulloch.
The former bar owner launched Glasgow’s first boutique hotel, One Devonshire Gardens, in the 1980s, attracting stars from Madonna to Bob Dylan. In the early 1990s he created the Malmaison brand in Scotland, acquiring Hotel du Vin before selling up to hospitality giant Patriot America in 1998.
He is scathing about hedge funds who flip hotels for a quick buck and insists he is committed to Dakota for the ‘long haul’.
The hotelier has seen huge changes in the 50 years he has been in the business, including the rise of social media.
He thought the review website TripAdvisor was ‘nonsense’ when it launched. “I’m fine with it now,” he says. “We’ve done rather well with it but I think it’s like asking someone what they think of your children.”
McCulloch and Rosa have a Scotty dog called Bonnie, but no children. “The hotels are our children,” he says.
There has been a huge amount of development in Leeds since McCulloch was in the city with Malmaison, most recently with the arrival of Trinity Leeds, Victoria Gate and the arena. However, he believes the city has still not reached its full potential. “I think there’s more to be done,” he says. “I’d love to sit down with the city fathers and have a wee chat because we should be working together more. No-one is obliged to come to the city so make it attractive and give them reasons to go.” He adds: “I hope Leeds does well with its 2023 City of Culture bid because I know what it did for Glasgow and it was great.”