Hospitality trailblazer dies aged 101

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Tributes are pouring in for Queenstown hospitality pioneer Iris O’Connell who died on Tuesday at the grand age of 101. 

Along with late husband Jim, she is remembered by the naming of Queenstown’s O’Connells Shopping Centre which was formerly the site of O’Connell’s Hotel. 

“You’re always welcome at O’Connell’s,” was the hotel motto. 

Iris “was innovative in her business practice long before things like mission statements came into being,” daughter Phil O’Connell-Cooper says. 

The hotel, which was demolished in 1986 to make way for today’s shopping centre, was one of the first to develop ensuites, to suit American visitors. 

“She was a really strong woman who had a very clear mission of where she wanted to go,” O’Connell-Cooper says. 

Iris’s former son-in-law Bryan Douglas says: “In her day she would have been the businesswoman of New Zealand.” 

Former mayor/Cabinet Minister Warren Cooper, whose parents owned the next-door hotel, says Iris and Jim “never stopped improving the service”. 

“Iris, Jim, son Joe and the family all worked together very well with their own and their community’s interests at heart.” 

Iris and Jim came from Invercargill to buy the former nine-room Beach House in 1937, with Jim’s sister Mary. 

“Sometimes I think we must have been pretty foolhardy – it really was stepping out,” Iris told Mountain Scene in 1990. 

Business was a struggle with the onset of World War II. 

After the Japanese entered the conflict, the Government even forbade travel of more than 160 kilometres and Jim had to return to Invercargill for work. 

Business picked up after the war with the Government organising free holidays for returned servicemen. 

Iris and Jim bought the neighbouring Garrison Hall in the ’60s and renamed their hotel O’Connell’s. 

The hotel looked after coach tours and was one of the first in town to host conference groups. 

It grew a lot of its own fruit and vegetables and attracted locals with night-time entertainment. 

The family also provided accommodation for their staff. Iris and Jim sold O’Connell’s to the Vacation chain in the mid-’70s. 

“Looking back, coming to live here has enriched our lives – we set out to do so much, accomplished more than we expected, we made a success out of it,” Iris said in 1990. 

The five-generation matriarch was abruptly shipped off to a Dunedin rest-home almost three years ago because of the resort’s elderly-care bed shortage. 

She was initially distraught at being shifted to Dunedin after 70 years in Queenstown. 

“I miss my home, I’d like to be back there now,” she said on the eve of her 100th birthday. 

Recalls O’Connell-Cooper: “She was always hospitable, gracious and very concerned for other people, right up to her death.” 

Iris, who lost her husband in 1995, is survived by five children. Three others died in infancy and two passed away as adults. She has 27 grandchildren, 37 great-grandchildren and nine great-great-grandchildren. 

Her funeral is at Queenstown’s St Joseph’s Roman Catholic Church on Saturday at 11am.