A baby on the way and a new role at DAKOTA SUSAN YOUNG caught up with General Manager John Dickson to find out more.
They say you know you are getting old when policemen seem very young, the same can be said when you meet General Managers who have both poise and experience and yet are only 30.
The man in case is John Dickson, now General Manager of Dakota Queensferry. I was introduced to John by his Area Manager Martin Lawrence, and I caught up with both of them at Dakota Eurocentral where John has been Hotel Manager for the past few years.
Anyone who is in any doubt whether a career in hospitality is a fulfilling or a real career option should talk to John. His enthusiasm for his role, and his positivity about hospitality, and not just because he was talking to me, shines through.
John has been at Dakota for 12 years – he has come through the ranks from his first role in the kitchen at Dakota Queensferry to management and even acted as caretaker for the hotel during Covid.
It’s been a journey, but one that he has loved every minute of. Dakota, is now owned by the Evans Property Group, and it is Mr Michael Evans himself who presides over the business, taking over from former business partner and hospitality guru Ken McCulloch, who stepped back just before the pandemic. But it is the industry legend that taught John the ropes and it is Ken’s ethos and attention to detail that drives him forward.
But let’s roll back to John’s decision to go into hospitality in the first place. As is very often the case, John came into hospitality by default. “I left school, and to be honest I didn’t really know what I wanted to do, but I went to college to do sports coaching and got a job at Dakota Queensferry to help pay my way,” says John.
“I started in the kitchen running food out and got to know the chefs. I realised that I loved it and sport went out the window. Before long I was out meeting the guests. Then Dakota devised a programme for myself and three others called LMEM – Learn More Earn More. At the end of the programme if you passed or graduated you became a senior server at the grill.
“The programme involved going out and learning about our suppliers and we also spent time in departments throughout the hotel. For instance we went to Campbells Prime Meats, and Mark Murphy’s as well as Glenkinchie.
“We also spent some time working in the kitchen – in whites – and although not cooking we saw how chefs worked and how they perceived you – for instance if I came in at 5pm and was complaining about feeling tired – it didn’t go down well with them because they had been in since early morning.
“We also got to see how food was made and the effort that was put in. It also meant that we could share our new knowledge with guests. We all passed and became senior servers – the best of the best.”
John then moved through the ranks becoming firstly Head Waiter then Assistant Restaurant Manager – all at Queensferry but in 2015 an opportunity came up to go to Eurocentral as Restaurant Manager and he took it.
The following year he was drafted in to help Dakota Glasgow launch – a role he relished. Says John, “I was lucky enough to help open Dakota Glasgow. Although I admit it was the hardest thing that I’ve ever done.
“I got in involved with lots of things I even had to help build tables in the restaurant. If you can help open a place, then you can do anything. I also got to spend a lot of time with my now MD Andrew Ovenstone, who was General Manager there, and of course Mr McCulloch”.
Following the Glasgow opening he bought a house in South Queensferry and took the opportunity to move back but this time his role was in Operations, which he didn’t enjoy as much as Food and Beverage so the role was shortlived.
Instead he took on a dual role looking after both Queensferry and Eurocentral and he was doing that when the pandemic hit. “I then spent 8-10 months doing everything – from flushing the loos to getting rid of beer – it’s amazing the amount of things that need done when a hotel is not being used.”
Since 2021 he has been Hotel Manager at Eurocentral but he now has a new role as General Manager at Queensferry which he begins in May. John says it is a sensible move as he has a new baby on the way.
John has now been with the company for 12 years. He tells me, “You buy into a lifestyle at Dakota and there are people who have been here longer than me, in fact since day one.”
I asked why he thought that was. He told me, “Mr McCulloch was, and is, integral as to why people love working at Dakota. He was also a huge part of my career at the start and I can hear him every day in my ear!”
“For instance it was drilled into us the way to plump the cushions and the importance of hanging people’s jackets up. He used the aconym MALT – Music, Atmosphere, Lighting and Temperature. All these components had to be right to give the guest the right experience. If the music wasn’t right, the atmosphere wouldn’t be right, and if the lighting wasn’t right – it was a knock on effect. Now I even follow the same rules at home!
“And even today if there is a mis-plumped cushion we say Mr McCulloch wouldn’t like that and change it! He is also the reason that I always have a dimple in my tie – he always believed that a tie should have one, and that the tie should hang evenly. Now I can’t come to work without a dimple – or it hanging evenly – sometimes I even have to change my tie.”
John smiles, “He didn’t miss anything. I remember we once changed the beer taps on top of the bar at Eurocentral, and Mr McCulloch came in and immediately noticed, and said they hadn’t been designed that way and requested that they be changed back! So we had to get new beer taps made.”
However the changes John has sought to make at the Dakota Eurocentral, have been welcomed, particularly the idea of a new room category called Deluxe.
Martin believes that John’s initiatives have helped ‘future proof the hotel’. He says, When John identified the new room category, he put together what was required and estimated the return and then presented his plans to the board. It was really a no brainer and the Deluxe rooms have certainly contributed to the hotels’ performance – we are having a record year.”
Says John, “They were bigger rooms, and all had a brick wall, but they didn’t feel special. I had the idea of making them Deluxe rooms – we put in bigger beds, items such as new coffee machines and new console’s – our own workshop made them – and new robes and slippers. Now they are booked out seven weeks in advance.”
He didn’t stop there. Two signature suites on the fifth floor have been upgraded and made more special with shower pods, double vanities and more. Under John’s management the hotel has also put in a swathe of EV charging points in the car park.
“We will soon have the largest number of EV points in Scotland. We have put in Tesla super quick charges which will be universal. We will have 20 bays which can charge any electric car from 10% charge to full charge in 45 minutes.”
It’s not the only green initiative he has embarked on. The hotel now has 400 solar panels. John smiles, “We turned them on for the first time last year on its sunniest day. The great thing is that we now know exactly how much CO2 we have saved or reduced.”
The hotel is also utilising its event space and over lockdown the derelict building next to the hotel has been re-designed as a large sports space. Says John, “We have put up walls and have put in heating. Before it was a just an empty space – now our Smiths Suite, which is UEFA verified, has been refurbished to accommodate football teams and sporting events. It takes up half of the building, and we also have the Douglas Suite on the ground floor which can be entered from the hotel. It is more for weddings and looks incredible, while the first floor is utilised by production companies and musicians.”
However, despite all the progress John is now heading back to Queensferry after having accepted the role as General Manager which starts in May. He says, “I have loved every minute of being at Eurocentral. There is not one thing I would change. The team are amazing and one of the toughest conversations I have ever had was this week – telling my team I was going to back Queensferry. But it is exciting because it is where it all started.
“I will be working five minutes from home and my first baby is on the way. So my wife Hayley is delighted. She is such a big part of Dakota too – she knows I love the job and she she is one of the most supportive people I know.”
There have been others that John credits with the success of his journey – Martin Lawrence is not just his boss but is also a friend. “I have learned so much from Martin and have so much respect for him. We play badminton together and table tennis – but so much for my sports background, he always beats me. We all look up to him as he is, ‘Mr hospitality’. He always looking to get the best out of people and wants what’s best for the guests.
“Whether our Managing Director Andrew Ovenstone knows this or not, he is the reason that I really wanted to be a General Manager. I met him when I was first at Dakota Queensferry, when he was General Manager there. I watched how he operated, for instance he would always shake the hands of all our regular guests. I thought that was a really nice touch.
“He also had a very nice car and a nice watch – and I aspired to be him. I was lucky that when we were opening Glasgow I got to spend a lot of time with him and my admiration grew.
“My love of F&B comes from Andrew Rowley who I first worked with at Queensferry. He now has his own hotel, but he instilled everything food and beverage into me. He also encouraged me to go one step further. Although he used to say I was ‘cocky.’
“Samantha Hamilton-Green our HR Director has also been a massive support particularly when I moved into this role from Restaurant manager – there were lots of little scenarios that I didn’t know how to deal with then, but now I find it so much easier. When I was just learning she taught me to take a step back and look at the bigger picture. And she encouraged me to get more organised, which honestly I am.
“All these people have had such a massive impact on me and they demonstrate what a family Dakota is. I think if I was to work anywhere else rather than Dakota I’m not sure if I would be just as passionate. Here we care about service, we want the very best for our guests and we want them to leave having had the best possible time.
“I certainly have a passion for it. The hours can be long, but it doesn’t feel like they are because I enjoy working with the people I work with. It can be tough dealing with customers all the time, but I have realised it is an art. When I talk to my friends many of them do not love their jobs as much as I do. If you are in hospitality, you can feel it and you live it. It is not just a job that pays the bills – I genuinely love it.”
Ken McCulloch may no longer be active in hospitality but his legacy lives on in the shape of people he has mentored and encouraged like John. John reminisces, “I had my very first cigar with Mr McCulloch. After the opening of Glasgow Dakota he said to me ‘come and join me for a glass of champagne and a cigar,’ I told my boss what he had said, and he told me ‘of course’. Mr McCulloch showed me how to cut the cigar, and he puffed away very elegantly – I didn’t. I will never forget the experience.”
John now has a new challenge not just a new baby, but a new role at South Queensferry. He has come full circle. “I am so looking forward to the future, and to working with the team there. It’s all very exciting.”
It certainly is. Here’s hoping that John’s Acorn award that he received last year is prophetic. He has planted it but he is already a great example of … ‘great oaks from little acorns grow’.