EXCLUSIVE: Boss of new Dakota hotel in Leeds in mission to bring opulence back to hotel sector

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.

Sign up to our Business newsletter

Sign up to our Business newsletter

“I phoned my wife and said: ‘You won’t believe this place’. I thought there had to be a market 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.

Forward bookings for Leeds are “looking good”, according to McCulloch.