Monday, 9 May 2016

Managing a Backpackers in the Catlins...simply by chance!

So we wee WWOOFing in the Catlin's for 2 months, which is a long time to sum up in one blogpost, but I'm going to try. It will basically just contain the important parts of our experiences there.

So we left Dunedin and arrived at our new hosts house, in Surat Bay, North Catlins, around the 6th March. They were Ester (from the Philippines, 55) and Jack an 80 yr old Kiwi, who were looking for people to help out with a lodge they had just purchased. They also owned two self-contained units as a Bed and Breakfast, so we also helped out with cleaning or checking in guests for those occasionally. Little did we know that this lodge would be a busy backpackers right beside the sea, which they wanted us to manage full-time. We only learnt this upon arrival! We were rather excited but also a little nervous as we didn't really know much about how a Backpackers is run.

Our first few days were just settling in and working with the other French WWOOFer Laurent, we also went down to Hina Hina (a bay across from Surat Bay), where we went Cockling (in our area you could fish for Cockles, Mussels and Paua - a NZ only Shellfish, kind of an Abalone). We also saw plenty of Sea-Lions on our walks along the bay - Surat Bay is a Sea-Lion haul-up beach, along with Cannibal Bay, the next beach down. You can see Sea-Lions everywhere, there is a colony of around 20 of them. They will just be lying on the beach covered in sand and you'd almost trip over them! But they are super easy-going, they just look at you; 'oh there goes another human', and plop back down to sleep and cover themselves in more sand. The only time they would get territorial is if they have a pup with them or you block their path to the sea, then, they can run at you at terrifying speeds!

On the 10th March was the handover with the old owners, to Jack and Ester. The old owners we basically eventually found out, were assholes. A French couple who had come from New Caledonia and we eventually found out, after all the local community did for them to try and help them to stay, had basically been kicked out of the country (unable to get permanent visas) and we realised after taking over the lodge from all the letters, that they owed thousands of dollars in debt and hadn't paid their taxes properly!!

The day Ester and Jack were taking over, was also they day they were going on a 4-day holiday!! So not only did we have to take over a new business which we didn't know much about, we had to do it without the owners and on the worst day weather-wise! We were supposed to go and view and learn about the Lodge a few days before the takeover but the old owners Sylvianne and Christian wouldn't let any of us enter until 'they said' (Jack and Ester had to get a lawyer to negotiate things because they were being that difficult). So we ended up doing a quick and very brief session the day before, where Christian (who didn't speak much english after 7 years being in the country), basically insulted Jack, wouldn't let him see where the important things like the electrics board, gas, and water tanks were etc, and then came in and almost had a fight with Pierrick while his wife was teaching us the computer system (Pierrick held himself back and just ignored him but Christian put his wife in tears over it).

So the day we took over we had severe gale-force winds, rain and the electricity went down for about 4 hours! So we had to take over, just as check-in started, without really knowing what was going on, while Jack and Ester had to rush around before their flight left to Auckland in 4 hours. Then just before they left, the electricity went down, so we had customers which weren't happy, couldn't cook, there was no wifi and no lights....ahhhhh! Apparently the power went down across half of the south island but it was back up and running before night hit thank god!

That weekend was a busy weekend and we managed to deal with it ok, we basically taught ourselves everything and managed to keep the place in one piece until Ester and Jack arrived back. We moved into the lodge, so we had our own double room there with sea-views - lush, and then we would just go to the house every evening for dinner. Laurent was around to help us with the cleaning in the morning and then we got to work on things around the place like cleaning, making sure the kitchens were equipped, putting up signs, labelling cupboards, moving furniture, adding furniture, gardening (the garden was a mess!), basically making the place ten times better than it had been left!

Once Jack and Ester came back we got to work on the projects they had in mind, like moving reception from the tiny cupboard, and putting it back into the old reception area which they had used as an illegal living space (it had never been cleared by the council). Moving the linen into the actual linen cupboard rather than the laundry room, we got the electrician and plumbers out to take a look at things - everything was illegal and dangerous basically! We got new appliances, new matresses, new beds; changed the 7 bed dorm into an 8 bed dorm and eventually the 3-bed dorm into a family room for 5 people. There was so much to do it kept us all very busy!

And there will still be lots to do over the coming months. Jack wants to get planning permission to convert the old illegal living space next door to reception into a self contained unit for future wwoofers/managers. Make the outside sheds more stable so he can move all his tools into it. They want to eventually convert our double room into a 6-bed dorm and with our input, we suggested they will need to do some renovating - such as more bathrooms (as currently there is definitely not enough for the amount of people in high season), they needed to replace the slated windows with plane glass to stop the drafts, they also need to get more heaters, insulate the place and eventually double-glaze all the windows of the lodge. There is alot to do but they just don't have the money to do it all this winter so it may take a couple of years, but they trusted us to take our knowledge of other backpackers on board to help renovate and update it. It was almost as they they had started this hostel from scratch, we helped them build everything - the foundations of the business! All the admin side, all the advertising, helping to get reviews up, creating social media pages, investing in customer needs, adding services (like in summer, having a little shop with basic food and toiletry items as the nearest shop is a 5min drive away in Owaka), setting up the booking system, installing a hotel management system and channel manager, adding us to, all things we had never done before but we took the initiative and just got on with it and trained ourselves up and learnt as we went!

In the end, we knew more about the business than Ester and Jack, and so we suggested they should live in it over winter while its quieter, so they would know the priorities and understand the daily running of it. As, they were quite stubborn people and insisted what they thought were priorities (like getting rid of a perfectly good couch because it looked 'ugly' to them, or getting rid of the perfectly good linen for all new things - which would be money wasted) were what needed to be done, and we knew they weren't priorities yet, that there were much bigger things to think about than wasting money when they needed to save money for the bigger projects. So we clashed (not argumentatively) but we had to try and try and try to drum into them what they should be doing, and luckily, when Jack's son and daughter came to visit, they also sat them down as they were concerned like we were, and drummed into them that we were right in everything we were saying. So they eventually began to realise.

It was just hard as Ester was a full-time nurse who worked only night shifts, they had their own B&B to run, plus the lodge to think about so they didn't really have their heads in the right place, plus they were taking over a very risky and very different business to their current one - 23-32 beds in a lodge is very different to two units! Plus, they didn't realise (and im not sure they still do yet to be honest), that their main customers were backpackers, not older richer people. They need to really understand the business better, so I really hope they do this winter before summer hits. Also, towards the end Ester was adament she was going to control reception herself...but we were trying to tell her you just can't, especially when your working nights and needing to sleep in the day, you need people there permanently for the emails, cleaning, checking in, phone calls I really hope this winter teaches them that its not the same as owning two self-contained units! Bless them, they were so lovely but just a little naive about what they had bought.

When we had a frank discussion with them, we got the feeling they had gone into it as though they were buying their dream home...not a business and they hadn't budgeted for what it would need done to it and that one day, especially in the summer, they would need to employ someone permanently as you can't have wwoofers running it every 1-2 months, it needed stability. Plus, unfortunately, even though we are very trusting, some other people wouldn't be. It was a business that was mainly taking cash, and in the first week alone when they were on holiday we had almost $2000 in cash in our keeping - if we hadn't have been trust-worthy people, we could have taken it and run! And thats also what Jack's family are worried about with having WWOOFers come and go, they are very trusting people but they just need that one person who's not and their business will fall because of it. They need to employ someone full-time even if just for the 6 months of summer, and then run the business themselves in winter.

But enough about all that! So, Laurent left just before Easter and then we had a week before the next WWOOFers, Camille and William (also french) came. In that time we had a full lodge hire over Easter - a group of friends and their families came to stay, it was an annual tradition to go on holiday in around NZ - they came with boats, instruments (most of them were Irish married to Kiwi's) loved a good sing-song and a drink! It was nice to see the place so lively! During those 5 days we only really had to clean the bathrooms and kitchens. So the rest of the day we had off and so we went sight-seeing a few times. Jack and Ester lent us one of their cars so we went out with that sometimes, but that weekend we planned on going down to the south Catlins, and only managed to get to Curio Bay (where we by chance happened to see our mate Becci from Dunedin again on a day out with her family!)

As, on our way to Slope Point, we had a wee little car accident. When I say wee, I mean, we were fine, but the car wasn't! It was on a gravel road, and basically we lost control of the car, it swerved towards a concrete pole, but Pierrick managed to steer it away, but consequently into a ditch...full of muddy water, on an area where the tide came in pretty high sometimes, in the middle of nowhere! The car landed, on it's side, so we were pretty panicked as at first we were stuck and couldn't get out. Luckily there were people behind us when it happened and they had all stopped and called the emergency services and eventually got us out. We had to wait for the fire engine and police to come out. Luckily they managed to tow the car out of the ditch and get it working again, but unfortunately when Ester went to get it road worthy again a few days later, she got told it would have to be written off as the suspension was too badly damaged! Grrr. So $300 excess later, plus a police fine of $150 (they have to fine you out here for an accident to make it worth their while being called out) it was a pretty costly crash! After the crash the volunteer firemen gave us a lift back to their house where we waited for Ester and Jack to come to take the car back. They were lovely and gave us coffee and chocolate as it was Easter Sunday. The next day we spent the whole day helping to clean the mud out of the car - it stank! It was a nasty job but it was the least we could do to say sorry. They were both so nice about it though and were more concerned about us!

The next month was spent with the new WWOOFers Camille and William, where they helped with various projects while we continued to run the backpackers. We did some good dinners like crepes and other french dishes. I started putting the great kitchen in the backpackers to use by doing alot of baking french baguettes, pizza's cookies etc - I forgot how much I missed baking! We did a bit more local sight-seeing, going for walks and hikes. We had Ivanna and Adrian come to stay with us for a night so we did some sight-seeing with them and had a great catchup and movie night. And we continued to better the backpackers, making slow but steady progress and enjoyed meeting the people who came through and getting some good reviews on TripAdvisor. One couple loved the place so much they stayed for 8 days!! I really would love to see it when it's all finished and looking it's best.

Camille and William left after a month - they stayed longer than intended as they had to spend $2000 getting their car fixed. And we spent the next week on our own, finishing up our stay with them. 3 weeks had turned into 2 months and we really had to leave to find paid work - we would have loved to have stayed but they couldn't afford to pay us. So we decided to continue and finish the rest of our Stray Pass as we had enough money to, then we would need to settle somewhere and find work until our visa ended. Ester and Jack had invited us back in the summer to pay us, which we may well come back and do but it would mean extending our visas, so until they are 100% sure they need us we won't plan anything just yet as for me its a good $500 for an extra year as I have to get a medical etc.

We managed to find Jack and Ester an experienced couple to come help them for another month and so we stayed until they arrived so we could give them some quick training. We also managed to secure (hopefully it stays that way), some work for accommodation in Dunedin, where we will be night managers in a hostel (2 hours a day in the evening each), to cover our accommodation, internet and laundry while we work, so that when we do find work, we don't have those expense to pay out for - we can save more! It also entitles us to work during the day - so hopefully no restaurant or bar work - yay! I don't mind a cafe but I really didn't want to go into hospo again. So although it means working and then working in our evenings, it's only light reception work and it means we can save more, so it will benefit us in the long run. So I guess after our two weeks of travel, Dunedin is our city of choice for work - wooo! Awesome city! I'm actually looking forward to living and working in a city for once, (as my jobs in Australia were in the middle of nowhere) plus it means me and Pierrick may actually have a normal relationship for the first time in our relationship as we will be working separate jobs.

So, I will update you on our travels soon, in the meantime, enjoy the pictures on Facebook (and instagram). Our first destination was Invercargill, then Queenstown and Mount Cook. We are now in Lake Tekapo, then on to Rangitata, Christchurch and ending in Kaikoura. Then we will slowly make our way down to Dunedin where we will start the next chapter of the NZ Working Holiday...the work part... :-(

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