Two collegians have turned around a run-down motel, dramatically increasing occupancy and earning accolades in the industry.
Nick Fitzgerald (Sargood 2000 – 2004) and Josh Ireland (Fitchett 2001 – 2003) purchased Havana Motor Lodge in Rotorua last year. An extreme makeover transformed the 23-room 1960s motel into Aura – a modern complex with state-of-theart facilities targeted at domestic families and international tourists.
Aura has been selected as a finalist in the 2017 Hospitality New Zealand Awards for Excellence in the category ‘Best Newcomer, Accommodation’.
At the start of 2016 Nick, a primary teacher, and Josh, a builder threw in their respective careers to start the joint venture.
“We started talking about these ideas and having a project and finding something we would turn around. We needed scale, we needed to be in a high demand area, it needed to be run down and performing really badly,” says Nick.
Nick, 30, drew on experiences during extensive world travel. “You stay in these wonderful lodges and you start getting a feeling about what makes good accommodation places tick, so the seed was being planted there.”
“By the start of 2015 in South Africa I was quite set on doing a lodge of some sort, thinking about what sort of experiences I had had in accommodation, and started looking at what I could do when I got home.”
From personal experience he knew what worked and what didn’t and what contributed towards a great stay. They looked in places like Ohakune, then someone pointed out an old motel called the Havana Motor Lodge in central Rotorua. “As soon as we looked at it, based on location alone, we knew this should actually be the best place in town.”
It was what they could afford, so they purchased the lodge and set about transforming it with Josh using his practical tradesman skills, first gained as a school leaver when he did a plumbing and gas fitting apprenticeship in Hamilton. Josh, 31, sold his share in his Waikato residential construction company All Aspects Construction, to invest in the old motel.
“We ripped out gardens and rejigged pools and outdoor areas and tidied up rooms and stripped them back and made them quite basic. We had to be pretty crafty about how we did it, so we did a lot of our own stuff,” says Nick.
They overhauled the “drab, brown” interior of the units and introduced bright colours. The place was given a new look with modern branding, and an exterior paint job. There are free lawn games, branded bikes and scooters, trampolines and storage. A geothermally heated pool is one of the key selling points.
“We are trying to create something instantly very different for our guests when they come in. We want to create that really inclusive atmosphere from the start and have it flow through our property.”
This is how the place is described on the Aura website: You’ve stumbled upon something pretty special, just that little bit fun and that little bit funky – Welcome to Aura Accommodation. A centrally located, geothermal Rotorua hotspot, splashed with life and vibrancy down to every little detail. Aura’s website has an instant chat function.
They did their research and even worked for the large hotel chain Quest to learn about housekeeping systems. While many of the changes were physical, it was also a transformation of traditional motel systems which makes Aura stand out from its competitors. Instead of a person handing over milk and a room key from a reception desk, check-in is done via touchscreens.
“All our systems – our booking systems, our security, our phone systems – are cloud-based so we have absolute control. All our systems now are at the forefront of the accommodation industry,” says Nick.
Occupancy has shot up, and they aim to increase it even more in their second year of trade. Plans were being put in place this year to manage the facility remotely.
Nick, who grew up in Clevedon, has travelled extensively and also played cricket overseas. He did a gap year in England playing cricket and stayed with former St Paul’s Headmaster, Steve Cole.
He went to university firstly at Waikato then Otago where he completed his Bachelor of Teaching. Nick did a three-year stint at Elm Park Primary in South Auckland. He has always done relief teaching as a good money earner to work in around trips. He has done several working holidays on ski fields in the United States and Canada.
Josh, who grew up in Hamilton, spoke to Network from Kawau Island, where he was doing a private job building a wharf. Both Josh and Nick enjoy the outdoors and love the lifestyle Rotorua offers.