DALE MACPHEE HAS TRAVELLED THE WORLD TO MAKE HER MARK IN HER SPIRITUAL HOMELAND.
Dale MacPhee has been the General Manager of the five-star Waldorf Astoria Edinburgh – The Caledonian for four and a half years, and during that time she has definitely made her mark. But then that probably wouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone who knows Dale.
She’s dynamic and forthcoming and pretty frank too. When I met her, along with head of marketing Marina Cruz in the Peacock Alley, she told me, “I moved from Canada to Europe 20 years ago, but my background is definitely Scottish. She explains, “My great-grandparents emigrated from Scotland to Nova Scotia in the 1800s and I grew up in a household where Gaelic was spoken. We grew up singing Gaelic songs, and when I was at primary school we also learned Gaelic as our second language.”
She was one of six children but was orphaned at an early age, when her mum died of cancer, and then her father was killed in a car accident a few years later. Says Dale, “It was all very traumatic and tragic. My sister Bonnie, who had just graduated, came back to Halifax to raise us. I definitely think the experiences I had when I was younger made me the way I am today. I have always been determined to do things better and be the best.”
Dale has accomplished quite a few of her ambitions, the main one being that she always wanted to work overseas, but the hotel industry wasn’t her first choice. She explains, “I wanted either to go into law or join the diplomatic corp because I wanted to travel overseas. At the same time, I was heavily into politics. My dad had been into politics, and after he died I really got into it. I was studying Political Science at University when I got an internship with the Government of Canada. I worked in communications for members of the legislative assembly. After working hard on an election, which we subsequently lost, the members of the legislative assembly who had won their seats, invited us to lunch at the Hilton in Halifax. I was obviously now out of a job and at the lunch, someone suggested I got a summer job at the hotel. The very next morning I got a phone call from the Front of House manager, who remains one of my dearest friends today. I was invited in for an interview and a few days later I started on reception. It definitely wasn’t a career path that I had picked. I deferred law school because you know what it is like when you start earning cash… and stayed there for two years. Then I was offered a promotion in Toronto and two years later I went to The Windsor in Ontario – which was my first casino hotel.”
In 1997, six years after her first hotel job in Halifax, Dale received two phone calls – one of which was to change her life irrevocably. She turned down an offer to go to
St Lucia in the Caribbean. She says, “What 29-year-old single girl wants to go to a honeymoon resort?” Instead, she accepted a job in Bucharest, Romania. Dale reveals, “I will never forget my first night in Bucharest. We were opening a brand new hotel, so I stayed in a poorly run hotel across the road. When I arrived late at night the guys on reception were watching football on TV, drinking and smoking! I couldn’t believe it. The following day I got food poisoning in a restaurant … and I cried, in fact, I think I kept crying for the next 90 days. I couldn’t believe I had left my lovely life in Windsor for this!”
The hotel that Dale was re-opening was the famous Athenee Palace. Dale tells me, “It was a very famous hotel during the war – the Russians, Germans and English had all stayed there. There have even been books written about it.”
She continues, “I was looking to fill 50 jobs, and I had 1,000 resumes, many of which had photographs, I had never seen that before. It was 1997, eight years after the revolution. We screened the resumes then I did speed dating interviews with 400! I hired 50, four of whom had experience which meant 46 did not. I hired purely on attitude and fire in their eyes. But anyone that applied from the first hotel I had stayed at was immediately crossed off the list. Instead, I had people that worked for aerospace companies, car rental companies, even lawyers. They were not your typical hotel types. That was August and by October we opened.
By the time Dale left Bucharest, after three years, she had been promoted from Director of Sales and Marketing to Director of Business Development. She also met her now husband-to-be there. He had flown in from Switzerland to take up the training manager’s job in Bucharest before being posted to Sudan in Africa. Dale’s next position was in Prague where she stayed for a further two years, during which time, she became a mother.
She adds, “My son was born in Prague, and I spent a couple of months maternity between Sudan and Khartoum before being offered my next post in Istanbul as Director of Business for two hotels.”
Roll on another two years and London beckoned. A call came offering Dale a position at the Hilton on Park Lane. She says, “I went on to spend nine years in the city. Firstly at the Hilton Park Lane (four years) – which was a great learning experience, then at the Trafalgar House in Trafalgar Square, directly opposite Canada House. It was at Trafalgar House that I got my first General Manager role. It was more a lifestyle hotel than a Hilton. It had a really funky bar – and sales were less about the rooms and more about the bar.”
Next on the career path was a role opening the new Waldorf Astoria at London Syon Park. Dale explains, “This was the hotel on the estate of the Duke of Northumberland. I stayed for two years, then a call came asking me to go to Edinburgh, and who was going to refuse Edinburgh?”
She says, “I absolutely love it. It has been five years in January and I just think Edinburgh is a super fantastic city – from a hotel perspective, from life to schools. The balance is just right here. “
Talking of balance Dale is quite adamant that you can have a work life balance and run a hotel. She says, “It’s nonsense that you cannot have a work life balance. I always knew that I wanted to get married and I always wanted to have children, and my life would be so different if I did not have my son. He and my husband balance me out.
Waldorf Astoria Edinburgh – The Caledonian was refurbished just before Dale came on board, but the key difference over the last five years has been the re-emergence of the hotel as one of the Edinburgh’s most luxurious hotels, with service to match. However, Dale admits that getting the right staff is her most pressing issue. She explains, “We employ over 200 people. Most of the senior management now comes from a luxury background, and if not their number two does. She continues, “I prefer to hire people that want to be here.” She illustrates her point by asking me to observe a nearby member of staff, Shiva. Says Dale, “Just look at the smile on her face. Do you know a guest actually called me last night to compliment Shiva on her demeanour?”
Training, of course, is also a big issue. Explains Dale, “It’s all about training, training, training but staff have to have a bit of a personality too. The big thing at the moment is getting my team to say what they would like to see, and how they would drive it forward. I do know most of my team, and I think I have good communication with them. I try and meet with every new team member within six weeks of them joining. We give staff recognition and I think this helps – they know if they do a good job they will get recognised. We have team members of the month, we have rising stars and such like.” At this point, Marina interjects, “Dale is very good at giving staff their first departmental head roles. Some GM’s wouldn’t take the risk.” “But”, says Dale, “Somebody once gave me a chance.” She adds, “I think one of the problems is that people still don’t think hospitality is a career, but I think I have had a fantastic career. You can get some challenging locations but you can get some great ones.”
Dale acknowledges that hotels in Edinburgh are generally having a good year, despite January, February and November being low. She says, “Over the five years I have been here we have expanded the window, and it is getting greater. I do wish we had more direct flights from China, the Middle East and America. However, I have to say in the years that I’ve been here the changes at the airport have been astronomical and it can only get better”.
It’s not just the airport that is improving, Dale has plans for the hotel too. She says, “In September it will be five years since we became a Waldorf, and I think it is now time to re-think and re-group. I’ve currently got a number of different bedroom projects on the go, as well as some new dining projects. I’ve also had a number conversations around design which would be a multi-million pound spend.”
As for Dale, after five years at the helm, and it has been her longest appointment, but she has no plans to move…yet.
She tells me, “It’s funny. I had wanted to take my son back to the States, but now that he has turned 15 I have promised him I will not take him out of school – so that will be another three years! I am very loyal to my organisation.The Hilton has given me a lot of chances – unique destinations and great hotels. I’ve no desire to look outside
my organisation but I would like to try different markets.”
She continues, “Part of me would like to open my own place where I grew up. I would love to own my own inn with a ranch – my family owns land on the sea… whether we do that I don’t know. But I do know that one day I will go to law school. I will be the 60-year-old at the back of the class.
She concludes, “I am proud that I have presided over the repositioning of the hotel, and of my other hotel achievements. I am proud of my son and my husband. But it has not been an easy ride, I have had to work hard for everything that I have got but I am very proud of the fact that I did it on my own with a number of mentors along the way. But most of all I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t enjoy what I do.”