Hotel with a history

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A Queenstown hotel with a history as colourful as its award-winning roses celebrates its 25th birthday next week.

The 273-room Novotel Queens­town Lakeside – survivor of three floods plus controversy over its location and extravagant taxpayer funding – is the resort’s largest hotel. 

Originally 150 rooms, it was built by the Government’s former Tourist Hotel Corporation and officially opened in 1988. 

After first buying the site, THC controversially demolished the historic Buckhams Brewery malthouse in 1978 but then sold the land before buying it back in 1984. The state hotel operator then won council planning approval for a 200-room establishment taking in Park Street reserve land by Queenstown Gardens. 

The 200-room concept was thwarted by an opposition group called Guardians of the Reserve, who won an epic planning victory after arguing for the sanctity of the reserve. 

A slimmed-down $30 million hotel was eventually built and officially opened by then-Prime Minister David Lange.

The modernistic design by Wellington architect Roger Walker – featuring since-removed trellises – was panned by many locals. 

THC, which couldn’t fund a normal loan for the $30m construction cost, instead got Euro bond financing from London bankers with interest suspended until the end of the borrowing term. 

This ballooning interest plus adverse exchange-rate changes saw the Government having to pay a massive $100m when the debt deadline arrived in 1993. 

Local MP Warren Cooper branded the loan “an outrageous and scandalous example of Government folly”. 

When THC was dismembered three years earlier, Southern Pacific Hotels had paid just $18m for the property. 

The renamed Gardens Parkroyal, under boss Penny Clark, then added 50 rooms along Earl Street. Clark – who now runs Frankton Road’s Goldridge Resort – says one of her bosses told her THC had designed the hotel so it couldn’t flood. 

That was dispelled by floods in 1994 and 1995 during Clark’s reign, and then the record flood of 1999 which shut the hotel for several months. 

Local project manager Wayne Foley recalls running the post-flood restoration to a tight deadline: “I had builders in there at 2-3am finishing it off while I was rushing out and buying them all takeaways to keep them going.” 

Rebranded a Novotel when the Accor chain took over 10 years ago, the hotel underwent a $13.5m refurbishment in 2007 which saw a fourth floor with 69 rooms added. 

Current boss Jim Moore says nowadays Queenstown hotels get less group tour business and more free independent travelers. 

The Christchurch earthquakes, Japanese tsunami and Rugby World Cup all affected trade in 2011 but business picked up last year “and looking forward it looks pretty positive”, he says. 

Moore pays particular tribute to long-serving staff such as original chief engineer Peter Arnott and resident gardener Bob Gibson. Gibson retired this week after more than 24 years. 

Since THC, the property’s freehold owners – as distinct from chains operating the hotel – have included a Singapore consortium, Australian company Tourism Asset Holdings and, latterly, America’s Host Hotels and Resorts.