At first glance, sisters Amelia and Lucy Gain seem rather fresh-faced to be the owner-operators of a hotel.
Queenstown’s The Spire is small but it’s at the high end of the market; each of the 10 expansive suites comes with a price tag of more than $1,000 per night.
Hotel proprietorship speaks of long hours and mind-numbing attention to housekeeping detail – not exactly an attractive vocation to most people in their early 20s.
“We’ve always seen ourselves as going out and doing something on our own,” says Amelia. “We’ve been drawing up business plans for a long time, so running a business has always been at the forefront of our minds.”
When The Spire first opened in 2005, the original owners sought to fill a gap in the local market by providing an urban, New York-style alternative to the town’s B&Bs and boutique inns. The building was purpose-built by Archimedia and kitted out with interior details sourced from all over the world: Eames recliners in every room, contemporary art on the walls.
Sadly, one of the owners became ill, and the decision was made to pull out. That’s where the Gain sisters stepped in.
Lucy, 22, who has a background in tourism and hospitality, was in Monaco working on superyachts when she received a call from the hotel’s landlord to ask if she would consider returning to Queenstown to run The Spire. Amelia, 24, was based in Christchurch, where she was – and still is – studying IT.
“I said I’d think about it,” says Lucy. “Then the landlord said, ‘Well, if you need any more motivation, it’s also up for sale.’ And I thought we could really do something with that.”
The hardworking, hard-saving sisters grew up with a naturally entrepreneurial mindset and are surrounded by business mentors. Lucy had been working overseas for some time while the euro was at its strongest.
“We knew it was an amazing opportunity, but we went away and thought about it for a good three months, because we knew we’d have no life once we started,” she says. “We didn’t have any investors helping us out. We were taking on a huge risk and that’s why we’re putting absolutely everything we’ve got into it.”
Their first business plan was rejected by the bank when they approached it for a loan, but the second, which they took a month to fine-tune, was approved. Suddenly they owned a hotel.
When they took over in December last year, The Spire was already fully booked for the summer season. They needed to adapt fast. They hired new staff and shut down the bar and restaurant, which had become moribund over the past few months, to completely overhaul the food and beverage offering.
The reopened bar and restaurant are aimed at locals as well as tourists – an important part of the Gains’ strategy for The Spire to become part of the life of the town, thus keeping things ticking over in the off-season.
“Bars in Queenstown tend to be quite backpackerish, with poppy music,” says Lucy. The Spire will provide a more grown-up offering.
The hotel is involved in annual events such as the Winter Festival and the Winter Games, providing VIP areas and hosting parties. The Gains are also currently working out a fashion sponsorship deal with designer Juliette Hogan, who will create staff uniforms, scarves and branded sewing kits for the rooms.
“We’re going for freshness,” says Amelia. “Youthful, as opposed to young.”
Lucy and Amelia work in every department, learning as they go.
“The big bonus in being owner-operated is we’re here all the time and we know what’s coming in and going out,” says Amelia.
Long-term, their aim is to expand. “Everyone needs a 30-year plan,” says Amelia. She’s only half joking.
“That way you get to throw around some massive ideas and say ‘what if?’ So we’re aiming high, but have small goals to work towards – and right now, that’s getting this business model right. Once we can step back and let it run itself, we’ll know we’ve succeeded.”