Written by John Williams
Local couple and Ponsonby advocates Gerry Hill and Sally James were well aware of this gap in the market and, with both their careers at a crossroads, decided to throw in their jobs, take the plunge and open a new kind of hotel in Ponsonby – one that catered for a new breed of cosmopolitan, international tourist who was used to a different level of accommodation and wanted more than the faceless corporate hotels were offering. They also wanted to give their guests a taste of the real New Zealand – something the larger chains couldn’t deliver.
“Sally had a flare for colour and a liking of people, and I knew a little bit about marketing and hospitality,” says, Gerry.
“We’d both travelled extensively, so we had a lot of good ideas, and we knew what we wanted to achieve,” adds, Sally. The pair spent the following two years scouring the streets of Ponsonby, looking for the ideal property for their new venture, eventually settling on an 1898 villa on Ponsonby Terrace.
“The original old house had to be virtually rebuilt, not only to accommodate the new bedrooms, bathrooms and layout we had planned, but also to bring it into line with the fire and safety requirements to become a hotel,” remembers, Gerry. The new design was sympathetic to the existing architecture, and they recycled the existing Kauri and used environmentally friendly materials, such as wool insulation.
“We didn’t realise it at the time, but when we first set this place up, we were the only bed-and-breakfast of any size in New Zealand that had en-suites in every room, demist mirrors, Sky, internet… and WIFI when it came in,” recalls, Gerry.
Modern facilities and gadgets are all very well – and expected these days – but what really sets the The Great Ponsonby Arthotel apart from its rivals is its character and heart, and sense of place. From the moment you walk in, down the long blue hallway, you are taken on an historic journey along Ponsonby Rd, via a series of marvellous black-and-white photographs by renowned photographer, Robin Morrison. There are also wooden carvings and paintings adorning the walls by local artists, including John Papas, and pottery by Jeanie and Andrew Van Der Puten.
“We don’t do beige,” says, Sally. “The colours and art represent the Pacific. And some of our treasured tribal rugs are also in the hotel.” But the décor is not exclusively influenced by local culture – the inspiration for the courtyard, for example, is based on Sally’s recollection of the yard at Frida Kahlo house in Mexico City.
The couple are understandably as proud and enthusiastic today as they were when they first opened their doors back in 1996. Since then, they have hosted an incredible 80,000 guests – yes, eighty thousand – giving each and every one of them a unique Ponsonby experience.
They tell me they have a lot of repeat business over the years, with a couple of guests – An American and a Swiss gentleman – having visited them an incredible 19 times each. On occasions, they’ve even hosted political dignitaries and royalty.
“The King’s daughter said it was the most friendly place they’d ever stayed.”
“We had the Belgian royal family stay back in 2007,” says, Sally. “They were great. There were no formalities. We met them at the front door and it was, ‘kia ora, Astird, ‘kia ora, Lorenz… none of this princess and your highness stuff,” she laughs.
“And, during one APEC summit, Nobel Peace Prize winner Jose Ramos-Horta came to stay with us,” pipes up, Gerry. “There was TV everywhere. CNN in here, BBC over there in the lounge, and the ABC waiting out in the garden.”
So, do they have any advice for the new owners?
“You’ve got to like people and you’ve got to have an open mind,” say, Gerry “And if you’ve got strong views about a particular person, country or topic, just zip it!
A wise man once said, a good innkeeper listens to his guests, but never says too much.”
“Occasionally you have to learn to breathe very, very deeply,” adds, Sally.
“You’d be buying into an established business that’s had a huge amount of business over the years. We have a new website, bookings past July next year, and a marketing plan that takes you through to 2020,” says Gerry.
Gerry and Sally love living in Ponsonby and will continue to be proud ambassadors of the area. Their only regret is, due to health reasons, they have to sell their beloved hotel. We can only hope that the new owners have the same passion and character as these two Ponsonby icons.
To view the property listing click here.