Business interview: Marshall Dallas, EICC

THE chief executive of the ­Edinburgh International Conference Centre is confident that 2015 will prove to be something of a landmark year for the venue.
Dallas started at Trusthouse Forte. He now runs the EICC. Picture: Jane BarlowDallas started at Trusthouse Forte. He now runs the EICC. Picture: Jane Barlow
Dallas started at Trusthouse Forte. He now runs the EICC. Picture: Jane Barlow

As well as celebrating its 20th birthday next month, Marshall Dallas insists the EICC – which has contributed about £500 million to the local economy since it opened – is well on the way to moving back into profitability.

In the meantime, the father of two is looking forward to another milestone, as the conference centre’s £30m Lennox Suite plays host to the Edinburgh International Festival for the first time. As well as the world premiere of The Encounter by Simon McBurney, Robert Lepage’s 887 will have its first European outing, and Dallas says: “I’m confident this is the beginning of a long and fruitful partnership between the two organisations.”

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Dallas, who succeeded long-standing boss Hans Rissmann to take the top job at the EICC in October, is proud of the impact the centre has made to both the local and national economies, but he insists he is not yet satisfied with its own financial performance.

A report compiled by accountant EY warned that the centre was facing a deficit of about £1.4m this year, although the hotel industry veteran says that figure is now likely to come in closer to the £400,000 mark.

“In the first six months of the year, our performance has been £1m better profit-wise, but we’re not happy about that £400,000 and we’re trying to mitigate more of that.”

But Dallas stresses that he is not prepared to cut payroll costs as the venue heads back into the black, targeted for the first quarter of 2016, and points to a jump in sales for the main driver behind its improved finances.

“Our sales are up about 40 per cent year-on-year. We’ve been busy and had a complete turnaround in sales and marketing, introducing day delegate rates for corporate customers, so they know there won’t be any hidden costs.”

Earlier this year it was announced that the EICC had been selected to host the Rehabilitation International 23rd World Congress in October 2016, in a move set to bring in more than 1,000 delegates and provide the local economy with a boost of more than £2m.

The venue will also welcome the annual meeting of the British Society of Echocardiography in 2017 and 2020, while the Council of International Schools’ forum, representing more than 1,000 schools and colleges from 100 countries, will roll into town this year and in 2017.

Dallas – a keen open-water swimmer who enjoys donning his wetsuit and taking to the chilly depths of Loch Venachar in the Trossachs – began his career in London, having left his Dumfries hometown to work at hotel group Trusthouse Forte.

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“It was a fantastic company and I worked at three hotels with them – the Cavendish in St James’s, the Waldorf on The Strand and Kensington Close.

“I started hotel work as a barman, and was very fortunate that Trusthouse had a very good training scheme, which took me round those three hotels in a five-year period.” He then moved to Holiday Inn, where he got his first food and beverage management position in Maidenhead, helping its restaurant achieve the group’s first Michelin star. “As a thank you for that, the chief executive sent the chef and myself off to the States for six months to open a hotel in Fresno, California. When I came back I secured the food and beverage manager’s job at Gleneagles, which I did for three years.”

He also had a five-year stint with Queens Moat House, where he ran its flagship hotel in Cheltenham before getting the call from Donald Macdonald to come north and join Macdonald Hotels, looking after the Roxburghe on Charlotte Square and Holyrood Hotel.

From there he moved into the healthcare sector, running Nuffield’s Glasgow hospital and acting as director for Scotland, in charge of integrating the group’s hospitals and health centres. So was switching from hospitality to hospitals as radical as it sounds?

“There are similarities,” Dallas says. “If you take out the clinical aspect, the set-up of a hospital is very similar. You have a sales and marketing team, maintenance, housekeeping – the big difference is the clinical piece and I had more than 400 consultants reporting to me.

“It was steep learning curve, but the skills I had from the hotel industry were fairly easy to transfer.”

He is now in charge of a core team of about 40 people at the EICC, although the number of workers on the site can swell to 350 during a function for 2,000.

A gathering on a more intimate scale was held recently to mark the renewal of a five-year food and beverages supply deal with Leith’s, the hospitality firm that has provided catering for the EICC since it opened two decades ago.

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Dallas says: “We held a small dinner in the EICC kitchens for key figures from Edinburgh’s hotel industry, including the Sheraton, Balmoral, Roxburghe and DoubleTree by Hilton. It was a real statement of confidence that you can put on a quality dinner in those surroundings and they thoroughly enjoyed it.

“I’m keen to build a more collaborative approach, so this was the first of many things I’d like to be doing to achieve that.”

30-second CV

Job: Chief executive, Edinburgh International Conference Centre

Born: Dumfries

Education: Maxwelltown High School, Dumfries

Ambition while at school: I just had a burning desire to get out of Dumfries, which is why I moved to London

Car: BMW 525 diesel

Reading material: Anything that sends me to sleep

Can’t live without: Apart from my wife and kids, it would have to be my wetsuit

Favourite place: Scotland, but I love Perth in Australia

What makes you angry? Not much, other than people saying “we’ve always done it that way”

Best thing about your job: Being at the heart of Edinburgh and contributing to the city