Licensee Interview: Team Campbell

November 7th, 2011

When the guys at Molson Coors suggested that I interview John and Senga Campbell who had a hotel in Cumnock, I wasn’t sure what to expect. I certainly didn’t expect to see a multi-million pound boutique establishment complete with plush banqueting suite, especially when it has a very traditional name…the Dumfries Arms.
John explains, “We bought the Dumfries Arms back in 1997 as an investment, at a good price, and leased it out. Over the years it didn’t get a lot of investment and by the time we decided to take it back ourselves, it really was dilapidated, in fact we closed it for a while because we decided that when we did renovate it we wanted to do it right.”
And there is no doubt, they have done it right. The Dumfries Arms is now a luxury 26-bedroom hotel, with a 250 capacity banqueting suite, cocktail bar and restaurant and private dining room. The couple were fortunate enough to benefit from a CARS grant from the local council. Says John, “We got a lot of support from East Ayrshire Council and this really encouraged us. It also helped that I am a builder, so although we spent a few million pounds we also saved a huge amount, because my company did the work. This allowed us to do the job properly. We didn’t stint.”
They also didn’t change the name. Says John, “We thought about it, and then decided to keep the traditional name, and I’m glad we did.”
It opened back in July and Senga is the first to admit the opening was rather stressful, mainly because they were working to a tight deadline – the date of her daughter Kylie’s wedding to Jordan Lennox!” She explains, “The week before people were calling us to ask if the wedding was still on. Even the photographer was a bit nervous. But I thrive on a deadline, and it was such a great feeling when the day went to plan. Everyone said how much they loved the venue. It made all the stress worthwhile. Despite the fact that we were still cleaning the hotel at 1am the night before!”
The couple first came into the trade in 1991 when they purchased The Railway Hotel in Auchinleck. Says Senga, “We were looking for a house, and John came home and said what about a pub? When we took it on I don’t think I had ever even been in a public bar. In fact the customers there had to help me out with the names of the drinks when we took over. But I loved it, particularly when the pub was buzzing. I gravitated towards the kitchen, and really became the chef, and I have been instrumental in building up that side of our business ever since.”
John continues, “We ran the Railway Hotel the way it was for the first two years and then the money we made was used to refurbish it.”
Senga explains, “When we took it over it didn’t have a function suite and it only had a couple of bedrooms. Once John renovated it we had seven bedrooms and a function suite for 300. The business just came in – we did weddings, funerals, you name it. It really became the focal point in the town.”
While Senga was busy with the day to day running of the Railway Hotel, and bringing up three girls, John built his house building business up, Northkirk Building Co, and got involved in buying and selling properties. Although they are only operating two premises now, with another project imminent, over the years they have bought other pubs and leased them out. But Senga says, “We are not going to buy and put tenants in any more. We made good money in the past from this business model, but as far as we are concerned that time has passed. We want to own and run our own outlets now, and refurbish them to a standard that we are happy with.”
Says John, “The Dumfries Arms project came at the right time. It’s quiet in the building business at the moment and it meant that I was able to concentrate on the Dumfries Arms.”
While John deals with the bricks and mortar and suppliers, it is Senga that handles Campbell Inns interior design. But this is the first time she has worked with designers. Says Senga, “Initially I was going to do it myself. But it was great working with the interior designers because it meant that although I picked the colours, they did all the story boards and sourced everything. So I didn’t have to run about. But I did pick everything. I get ideas from other places. I like seeing different places and with three girls we do go out a lot and try new places. John would prefer to be on the golf course, but I like to know what is on trend. For instance we have used digitally enhanced wallpaper in the reception. I’ve always got a camera in my bag, and I love places that appeal to all age groups.”
John deals with all the suppliers, but that’s hardly surprising considering he also owns a wholesale company which also comes under the Campbell Inns banner. Says John, “We supply about 300 pubs, clubs and restaurants in the West. Obviously I have a good relationship with most suppliers, and if I don’t I stop dealing with them.”
He has been particularly impressed with Molson Coors and his rep Michael McShane. Says John, “We’ve only been dealing with Michael for about 18 months, but in that time I have found him exceptional. He goes above and beyond what you would expect. He comes up with ideas for the business and generally is first to offer support. I’m not surprised that Carling is proving so popular with my customers, it won’t be long before it is my pouring brand.”
He adds, “I’d also like to mention Tom Cullen. What I like about him is that he’s a bit different. He says it how it is, and I really appreciate that.”
Since the Dumfries Arms opened in July they have had dignitaries from as far afield as Hong Kong and Istanbul. Says Senga, “We are the closest hotel to Dumfries House, which was purchased by a consortium of charities and heritage bodies in 2007 after HRH the Prince of Wales, under his title as the Great Steward of Scotland, championed it. As a result we get lots of visiting dignitaries. Dumfries House doesn’t have any rooms and this has been a great opportunity for us to showcase what we have at the Dumfries Arms. But we are now embarking on a major marketing initiative. People still don’t know we are here, and don’t realise what we have to offer. Ideally I would like to be doing two weddings a week here and have the hotel running at maximum capacity!”
The next project for the couple could be the Bellisle Hotel in Ayr. Says John, “We are still ironing the detail out, but I am hoping that we can start work on it soon. It will take about 18 months to complete.”
And Senga is looking forward to it. She says, “I can’t wait to have wedding venue like the Bellisle. Although the Dumfries Arms is great, and its proximity to Dumfries House is ideal, where the Bellisle is situated is perfect. And perhaps it will be ready in time for our next daughter’s wedding!
But meantime the couple plan to get the Dumfries Arms operating smoothly. Says Senga, “We are nearly there, and we are enjoying being here. It gives us both a great deal of pleasure.”
As for slowing down and enjoying the fruits of their labour, says Senga, “I enjoy going on holiday but the stress of leaving the business is sometimes too much, while John is happiest on the golf course. But we both get such a buzz out of the hospitality business that I can’t imagine doing anything else!”

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