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Exploring The Oaks

An understated and cramped entrance on busy Courtney Place comes as a surprise for first-time guests staying at the capital’s newest international hostelry, Oaks Wellington Hotel.

But personable attention from staff members, hailing from places such as Puerto Rico and India, the tidy airy rooms and the low-key but quality Oak and Vine Restaurant and Bar confirm this is one property that is already popular.

“We are needed here,” GM Jamie O’Donnell tells iT.

“It’s not often that, when a hotel opens in a location, you feel the need for yet another property. But Courtney Place definitely needs us.

“There are few internationally-branded hotels in Wellington. So, we are bringing a whole new element to Courtney Place.”

The $33.5 million, 226-room hotel is part of the Australian-based Oaks Hotels, Resorts and Suites, which has properties in Auckland and Queenstown.

The main partner is Minor International (MINT), originally launched by William E. Heinecke – son of a US General – and now representing 530 hotels with 80,000 rooms in 53 countries. It was so named because when the first hotel opened in 1978 Mr Heinecke was but 17! He is now chairman and CEO of the empire.

For Mr O’Donnell the Wellington launch in November represented the 27th move in 20 years for his wife and four girls, aged 8-14.

“The injection of our inventory for this city is a good thing. It’s a place with a lovely country-town vibe, where people say ‘gudday’ and look you in the eye. We intend settling here.”

Despite his Aussie accent, he is originally from Invercargill. His family moved to Queenstown in 1988 and he studied for a double degree in management, finance and computers at Otago University while also playing competitive golf.

But he became ill and was unable to continue.

So Mr O’Donnell joined Millennium Hotel Queenstown, as a housekeeper, moved to cleaning rooms, doing the laundry, then bar, kitchen, conference, reception, restaurant and finally night manager work.

His first overseas job was at the Sydney Hilton before moving to Cairns, Queenstown, Port Douglas, Narita then returning to Sydney as GM at Raddison Hotel and Suites. He was just 28.

A move to the Gold Coast and Darwin before deciding to return to New Zealand when his brother-in-law became a tetraplegic in a Southland car accident. Mr O’Donnell took over Novotel and Ibis Ellerslie, Auckland.

He is also area manager for Oaks and tells iT the company would like to be involved with 10 other properties in the next few years.

“The goal is a couple of hundred across New Zealand and Australia.”

Oaks can see potential for suites and boutique properties in regional New Zealand, as well.

“We have a broad range of brands and, given opportunities, we can apply various modelling.”

Asked his opinion on claims New Zealand already has too many overseas visitors, Mr O’Donnell says the challenge is finding people willing to work in the industry.

“The number of arrivals is not a problem. But, if we can’t service them properly…

“If this hotel has 100 percent occupancy every day of the year we need a team so we can operate properly, we become successful and there would be future investment.”

The city’s tourism collective does its best to provide service, experiences and outcomes to attract more clients.

“The future is bright. But we do need more people working in the industry.”

“There are a number of 'businesses' in hotels with f and b having a different mindset than housekeeping or reception. Each has different things which make employees ‘tick’.

“So, being able to manage and communicate in that environment teaches invaluable life skills. We need to talk more about the opportunities and experiences we create.”

His secret to success? “Don’t focus on what everyone else is doing, focus on what you are doing.”

Oaks Wellington’s other points of difference include the building’s history. In 1922 it became the country’s first vertically integrated assembly plant – for Ford cars!

It is also adjacent to the site of a marae and Te Ara Pa. So, there is potential for more Maori involvement in the property.

“Given the fact that the harbour used to lap right up to where we are today this is where Maori gathered their food. I’d like to introduce a Maori element into our menus.”

Samoan executive chef Kit Foe has already included Pacific dishes.

Mr O’Donnell would also like to introduce international staff members to more things-Maori.

Contact: Jamie O’Donnell 027 286 5323; [email protected]

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