TWO weeks ago we featured the outgoing general manager of Jesmond Dene House Hotel, today we profile his successor Scott Davidson who speaks to Peter Jackson.
SCOTT Davidson wanted to be an airline pilot when he was younger, but BA Training School turned down his application.
But this failed pilot has gone on to become a high flier in an industry into which he drifted.
He is the recently appointed general manager of the magnificent Jesmond Dene Hotel in Newcastle, a Grade II listed building, which was transformed from a 19th century John Dobson-designed house into a luxury five-star hotel seven years ago.
It’s a prestigious appointment for this 39-year-old but he wears that authority lightly, even diffidently.
He is a local lad, having been born and bred in neighbouring Gosforth, the youngest of three sons. His father was a bank manager while his mother worked in retail.
After sixth form, Davidson took a year out before university where he intended to read English before becoming a journalist, having been thwarted in his ambitions of becoming an airline pilot. During this time, he was bitten by the catering bug.
“I was working part-time at a small restaurant in the Metrocentre just to give me some money while I was studying A-levels,” he says. “I took a year out and in that time I started working full-time in the restaurant and started of thinking of going down the catering route as a vocation.”
With the support of his parents, he applied for a number of trainee positions and hit the jackpot.
He explains: “I applied to the Savoy Group in London by whom I was offered a trainee management scholarship, one of only 11 taken every year and I was the first one from the North of England ever.”
For a 19-year-old leaving home for the first time, going to live in a Savoy Group hostel in London’s Camden Town was an exciting culture shock.
“It absolutely changed me and made me grow up very quickly, it turned a boy into a man” he says.
He started in the Savoy, in front of house, then Claridges for back of house and finally the St Quintin Brasserie in Knightsbridge where he did 12 months in the kitchen. This was another eye-opener in the highly pressured, macho, even brutal world of an early 1990s kitchen.
“I was given a bit of a hard time because I was from the North of England and because I was a management trainee.” The stress and long hours affected his health, and things came to a head three years into his five-year scholarship.
“I came home one weekend and my mum and dad could see it was affecting my health. It was the pressure of the kitchen work and everything, I wasn’t happy, I was given crazy long hours. I went to the doctor and he said it was exhaustion, so I took the decision just to pack it in.”
So, at 21, he was back in Newcastle, but, with Savoy training on his CV, he quickly found another job as a management trainee at the County Thistle, where, after two years, he was made conference and banqueting manager.
From there he moved onto another city centre hotel, the Vermont, in 1994, again as conference banqueting manager. “That was a tight ship, they instilled very high standards and it was a position in which I learnt a great deal,” he says.
After a couple of years he did a short spell at the Holiday Inn Seaton Burn in the conference banqueting role, followed by a position as catering manager at the Northumberland Lawn Tennis Club in Jesmond.
In 2000, he went to Linden Hall near Morpeth where he spent seven years and reached the position of operations manager before moving back to the Vermont as deputy general manager.
A year later, he was presented with a significant career opportunity when he applied for and was offered the position of general manager at Wynyard Hall Hotel shortly after it opened. In February this year, he moved to Darlington’s Bannatyne Hotel as general manager, lured by the prospect of later becoming operations director with responsibility for all four of the group’s properties.
But then, in September, he was made an offer he couldn’t refuse.
“Jesmond Dene House asked me to join them because the previous general manager Eric [Kortenbach] was leaving. When I heard they were interested in me, it was a bit of a: ‘Wow! Dear me!’
“I was thrilled and delighted and I couldn’t really turn the opportunity down, I really couldn’t, it’s the pinnacle of any hotelier’s career to have a venue like this, in their home city.”
There was also the advantage of less travelling time for Scott who, shortly before moving to Wynyard had married Helen and who by now had a one-year-old daughter Abbie.
His brief at Jesmond Dene is to further develop the hotel and widen its appeal. “I think this hotel in the early days got a bit of a reputation for being an expensive celebration venue. We need to try to change that by making the venue more accessible to more people, whether that be an afternoon tea at a competitive price or a burger in the bar at lunchtime.
“We are trying to get across the image that you can just come for a coffee, you don’t have to spend a great deal of money. If you do want to spend a great deal of money, you can, but you don’t have to. The owners very much want to make the hotel accessible to all and that’s one of the things that interests me as well.”
The hotel, which turns over about £3m a year has 40 bedrooms, the restaurant has 60 covers and there are 80 staff. He has big ambitions for it.
“Jesmond Dene House is one of the best hotels in the country and I want to make it one of the best in the world and there is no reason why we can’t be,” he says. “We are very bespoke in what we do, we cater for a certain clientele. To say we are the best in the North East is quite bold but we are getting there.” As evidence, he points to the hotel’s Cesar award from the Good Hotel Guide 2012.
He has been in the business 20 years now and has seen a lot of changes, not just in the region but nationally. “There are so many corporate hotels springing up now in the city centres, what we call these bedroom factories,” he says.
“They serve a purpose, but they show a change I have seen from a more personal experience to a more corporate experience. I think a lot of these hotels have lost their personal touch.” But the public is better informed and more demanding in dining.
“People have become more aware of food with lots of programmes on television, cookery shows and media interest, that has certainly helped the industry.” Having operated at the five-star end of the market, he has met his share of celebrities and even stars, including Kylie Minogue, Robbie Williams and one who particularly made an impression, Russell Crowe, who stayed at Wynyard Hall.
“He is one of my heroes, I’m a bit of a movie fan and he’s one of my favourite actors, so meeting him was a bit of a dream come true. I got a picture with him, which he offered.”
Are such people easy to deal with? “Some can be hard work and some are just delightful and have no airs and graces, and the majority are very quiet and keep themselves to themselves, but you do have to be prepared for all their needs.”
I put it to him that hospitality has notoriously not been regarded as a high status career in the UK.
“I couldn’t agree more and it still isn’t,” he says firmly. “In some European countries and America, it’s held in higher regard. There’s still a long way to go, there hasn’t been enough investment into it being recognised as a career. A lot of people I’ve spoken to say they just fell into catering, in that they were looking to do other things and fell into it as maybe a part-time position or to get through studying.”
He fell into it and he has no regrets. “Hotels and catering are in my blood. People in the trade say, you either love it or hate it, it’s like Marmite.
“If you don’t love it, you won’t be prepared to put the time and effort in because a hotel does become your second home.
“The enjoyment comes from customer satisfaction. I take a very operational approach to being on the floor, to being the face of the business.
“As much as I do need to spend time in the office, I’m in my element when I’m out meeting the guests and motivating and mentoring the team to do better. I’m a very people person, most people say that about me.”
And his next move? “I hope to have a long and successful career here. I’m 40 next year and while you have to move around to further your career, I’ve done that and I think it’s time for me now to look to the future with Jesmond Dene House.
“I don’t see why I can’t commit to the next 10 years here at least.”
What car do you drive?
A Lexus IS220d, a bit more reserved than my previous sports models
What’s your favourite restaurant?
Lui’s in Tynemouth - great wine and tapas, and great fun with friends
Who or what makes you laugh?
My 14-month-old daughter Abbie, and my wife Helen, they both have a great sense of humour
What’s your favourite book?
Anything by Stephen King
What was the last album you bought?
Keane - Strangeland
What’s your ideal job, other than the one you’ve got?
Commercial airline pilot
If you had a talking parrot, what’s the first thing you would teach it to say?
Do you fancy a beer? I can’t get my wife to say it after a hard days work so maybe the parrot could!
What’s your greatest fear?
Spiders, I’m terrified of them
What’s the best piece of business advice you have ever received?
Surround yourself with good people
And the worst?
Let them get on with it, that’s what they’re paid to do
What’s your poison?
A good red wine, Argentinian Malbec or an Italian Amarone
What newspapers do you read, other than The Journal?
Mail on Sunday
How much was your first pay packet and what was it for?
£3.70 a week for a morning paper round I inherited from my brother
How do you keep fit?
Running around a hotel, it’s enough to keep anyone exercised
What’s your most irritating habit?
My wife would say snoring…..I’ve never heard it though!!
What’s your biggest extravagance?
Designer clothes, Hugo Boss in Fenwick’s is a particular distraction
Which historical or fictional character do you most identify with or admire?
Muhammad Ali for his great sporting achievements and fight for civil rights
Which four famous people would you most like to dine with?
Robert de Niro, Cesar Ritz, Bryan Adams, Neil Armstrong
How would you like to be remembered?
As a good husband and father; a loyal friend; a leader, mentor and coach to my employees; and of course….a successful hotelier.