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Dakota Hotels take off

Just a few years ago, the idea of high quality luxury at affordable cost was strictly nonsense. But the visionary behind the Malmaison and Columbus hotel chains just wouldn’t give up on making this dream become a reality –and it has. With the 4th Dakota Hotel opening just near Farnborough Airport in Hampshire, about 70 kilometers outside of London, in June of this year, this is definitely one innovative hotel chain to watch.

Ken McCulloch could have just been happy with the successfully sell of its Malmaison hotel chain to Marylebone Warwick Balfour, and the launch of Columbus hotels and retire to Monaco, which was what he briefly did. But boredom set in for the active entrepreneur and he quickly came up with a revolutionary concept that would change the luxury hotel scene as we know it: luxury accommodations at anything but luxury prices. Thus was born the idea for Dakota, named after the low-cost airplane, which made travel accessible to all in the 1930’s. At just £89 for any room (about 125 ), one cannot complain that one is paying too much for luxury.Perhaps the expansion isn’t happening at the breakneck speed that was the ambition in the beginnings, but the hotel itself has impressive occupancy rates and consistently good customer feedback. These are all good signs that the brand has a real chance at carving its niche in the luxury business market worldwide. “Dakota is a dynamic brand which has been very successful in the UK. We hope to take the concept to the USA and are always on the lookout for exciting new sites. The main focus of our expansion within Europe will be the UK, however, we won’t rule out other European markets if a good opportunity arises, nor will we rule out third party collaborations in future.” So the next time you see a strange giant black shiny square in the middle of a business park, don’t let the appearance fool you. It may just be the best place for you to get a good night’s sleep for a bit less money.You would expect to see anything but a structure like the Dakota in the middle of Sherwood Forest. The sleek black façade provides a stark contrast to everything else on the M1 Motorway between Glasgow and Edinburgh. You might think it houses an important government high-security facility, or maybe even a not-so-secret lair. The latter is closer to the truth, as once inside, it becomes obvious that the purpose of this building is all about privacy, relaxation and just plain taking care of yourself during your business trip.In fact, that’s exactly where the idea came from. While travelling, McCulloch had the gutsy idea to build a hotel for business travellers who want luxury at economy prices (Who wouldn't, right?). Of course, this idea goes against everything the hotel business model stands on: a fluctuating rate scale which changes depending on season, occupancy, method of booking and what seems to the average traveller as any whim. By basing Dakota’s pricing on the retail model, everyone is treated equally in all aspects from cost to quality.Unlike chains that offer “nofrills” luxury, Dakota offers all of the frills, but without the hassle or hefty price tag. The rooms themselves are fully equipped with the inevitable plasma screen and broadband Internet access, but instead of paying an expensive amount per minute to connect to the net, there is a flat daily rate. Minibars and room service are replaced by larders loaded with food and drinks on every floor, where guests simply swipe their room card and serve themselves. Yet even though the classics have been replaced by even more efficient and cost-cutting means, this doesn’t stop Dakota from leaving a fresh-baked cookie in your room which might just bring a tired smile to your face after a long day at the office.The inside is by no means dictated by the imposing “Darth Vader” exterior of the hotel. Once you enter, you are greeted by a warm-fuzzy type of atmosphere, with oversized leather sofas surrounding a cosy fireplace and a welcoming cream-coloured lounge just within range of the stylish bar area. Rooms themselves reflect the Dakota credo of simplicity and comfort, often with the omnipresent Dakota airplane itself in all its glory gracing a wall. Since the hotels are often in highly-frequented areas that are not-so-fun for tourism (such as business parks and airports), the attention paid to turning Dakota into a haven of peace is well appreciated by the business-weary traveler and makes it almost a home away from home. The fact that the food at the bar and grill in each Dakota are actually well thought-out menus with modern twists on down home comfort food also adds to the warm welcome.As for design, McCulloch’s wife, the award-winning designer Amanda Rosa, has put her finishing touches on everything about the concept, and one cannot say it is not well executed. Everything from the colour schemes to the decoration to the product choices, down to the books on the shelves are her decision. The rooms, decorated for a decidedly masculine crowd, seem spacious, even though the average room size is just 25m2. Not only is it great to be married to a world class designer because the execution is flawless, but it also cuts down quite a bit on externalised costs –another reason why the hotel can more easily afford luxury design concepts, since there is no need to pay a pricey design studio.That McCulloch chooses alliances that are both sentimental and strategic is also illustrated in his partnership with pro Formula 1 racecar driver, David Coulthard. The champion McLaren driver has an excellent track record for success and himself knows how to pick his team members. The Monacobased, Scottish-bred team takes on the challenge of developing their “different” style of hotel marketing worldwide like they’re on the racetrack. McCulloch and Coulthard began working together on the first Columbus hotel in Monaco, which opened in 2001. The idea was to build an affordable luxury hotel in a city where average room rates cost a small fortune. The result is a stylish and comfortable luxury hotel with all the finishing touches (candles lit in bedrooms for guests arriving late…), and all for a price which rivals upmarket average rates even in a less expensive city.Why would McCulloch team up with Coulthard? Besides being a world-class championship racecar driver, Coulthard has a fair amount of business sense, and has more in common than just being Scottish and an avid fan of racing. Both prefer to think “outside of the box” in order to do the da ring deeds that everyone says they will never achieve, and not only do they accomplish their goals but they thrive at them. Coulthard has also turned out to be an excellent business partner for a major reasons: they both have the same aversion to big business practices and traditional finance like VCs. It’s a completely untraditional approach in the industry, and one cannot say it doesn’t work.Okay, so claiming that Dakota would open 100 new hotels over 7 years back in 2005 was an ambitious goal. The terrain isn’t so easy. Dakota is a concept that thrives on location –always in a hightraffic area with a rather “captive” audience. According to Bruce Robertson, Operations Manager, “The Dakota concept is unique, and the right location is paramount to its success. We won’t compromise where location is concerned and will ensure the expansion project.” The next opening is an interesting project. Dakota Hotels are to convert the former RAF Officer's Mess at Farnborough Airport into a 176 bedroom and suites hotel, scheduled to open June 2008. The Dakota Farnborough hotel will feature two wings flanking a central hub with aluminium and dark solar-controlled glass panelling and will include a nine-room conference suite, a Dakota grill restaurant and bar, a residentsonly gymnasium and free parking. It is located a short distance from the M3 at junction 4 and is within an hours drive of central London.Perhaps the expansion isn’t happening at the breakneck speed that was the ambition in the beginnings, but the hotel itself has impressive occupancy rates and consistently good customer feedback. These are all good signs that the brand has a real chance at carving its niche in the luxury business market worldwide. “Dakota is a dynamic brand which has been very successful in the UK. We hope to take the concept to the USA and are always on the lookout for exciting new sites. The main focus of our expansion within Europe will be the UK, however, we won’t rule out other European markets if a good opportunity arises, nor will we rule out third party collaborations in future.” So the next time you see a strange giant black shiny square in the middle of a business park, don’t let the appearance fool you. It may just be the best place for you to get a good night’s sleep for a bit less money.

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