Bill Shaw, who died recently, aged 70, was small in stature and innately modest, but was also a larger-than-life character who had a huge influence on New Zealand’s luxury tourism industry. Philip Chandler examines the Queenstowner’s legacy
Queenstown’s lost a pioneer in luxury tourism, as well as one of its great characters, with the recent death of Bill Shaw.
Best-known in Queenstown for co-developing Eichardt’s Private Hotel, he also co-owned local high country stations Mt Creighton and, till he sold it, Branches.
At Mt Creighton, his legacy is pushing through a tenure review that should result in a ‘Great Walk’ taking in stunning Lake Luna.
In recent years, he became a fixture at jeweller Sir Michael Hill’s private Arrowtown golf course, The Hills, where he was known as ‘the senior pro’.
Originally from South Otago farming stock, Shaw first made his mark on a wind-swept southern Wairarapa sheep farm, Wharekauhau, that he and his brother bought at auction in 1979.
His wife Annette got into homestays to supplement their farming income, which became a hit with wealthy overseas tourists, with Bill playing host and tour guide.
In the late 1980s, Bill’s eyes were opened about the luxury hotel business by a trip to the United States sponsored by travel media company Conde Nast.
With the help of US partners, he developed Wharekauhau’s now world-renowned lodge in the late 1990s.
The architect was Queenstowner Fred van Brandenburg and the interior designer was Aucklander Virginia Fisher, whose husband Steve became a business partner and great mate.
Annette and Bill, hankering to return to the South, soon after shifted to Queenstown.
“One of the things that brought them south was the opportunity to get involved with [the late] Howard Paterson, who was looking for a farmer-type partner,” Steve Fisher says.
In 1999 they bought Mt Creighton, then Branches a year later, bringing US partners into both stations.
After the ’99 flood, Fisher says Bill saw the potential to turn the ravaged Eichardt’s building, due to its history, architecture and unrivalled lakefront location, into the CBD’s first luxury hotel.
As Bill told Mountain Scene, “it’s not often you get an icon like [Eichardt’s] to develop – I can’t understand why some locals didn’t do it”.
When it opened in 2001, Bill’s daughter Victoria became its first manager.
After selling Eichardt’s, he still kept his hand in tourism, running a bespoke travel company, Cloud 9.
Former Mt Creighton co-owner Peter Plaskitt says: “Apart from being a good businessman who was persistent and dedicated to get this land tenure, he’s just a person who everyone liked and loved, and that’s an unusual combination.”
Hailing Bill’s foresight and passion, Fisher says he was “a character, far bigger than his stature – the sort of person who could speak to anyone, from celebrities to the farmer down the road”.
“He would talk with a certain Southern charm, and people believed in him.
“It was that genuine, basic, good honest Southerner, Bill Shaw, people were attracted to and were prepared to invest with.”
Fisher recalls him staying at his Coromandel holiday home.
“I took Billy out onto the golf course.
“He said he hadn’t played since he was at school.
“Anyway, he drove off the first tee and I said, ‘bullshit, Billy, you’ve played this game’.
“I said, ‘you’d better take it up again’, and he did.”
Initially accompanying Deanie Johnstone around Queenstown’s Kelvin Heights course, he then graduated to The Hills.
Owner Sir Michael Hill says: “He could hardly play the game, but with his determination got his handicap down to single figures.
“Once I was out driving around the course in my golf cart and I stopped as I heard some rustling in the thick tussock.
“Lo and behold it was Bill whose head popped up.
“I said, ‘it’s very rare to find a hobbit on a golf course’.
“From then on we called him ‘the hobbit’, and when he became very ill and couldn’t walk well, we reserved him the best parking space with a sign, ‘Hobbit Parking Only’.”
Golfing partner and mate Richard Mehtrens, in his eulogy at Bill’s funeral, said: “Bill spent around 300 days a year at The Hills, so much they were looking at charging him rent or mounting him as an artwork on the course.”
He described Bill as New Zealand’s “most highly-paid amateur professional TV sports watcher”.
“He spent most hours of every day, when not golfing or being a fixture at The Hills, watching any sport.”
Another local mate Stacy Coburn says Bill fittingly won their final sweepstake, on the Highlanders-Lions rugby game.
“His sporting prowess, quick wit and loving nature will be sorely missed, but his contribution to both the Wairarapa and Queenstown regions won’t be forgotten.”