A passion for the starkly beautiful MacKenzie country and a commitment to “welcoming every guest as if they were a guest in our own home” underpins Mike and Louise Neilson’s successful approach to running their remote tourism lodge and ski field.
Now the Neilsons’ work has been acknowledged with a prestigious Qualmark Gold Sustainable Tourism Business Award for the charming Lake Ohau Lodge where they have lived and worked for 27 years.
A Gold award recognises the best sustainable tourism businesses in New Zealand, where the delivery of exceptional customer experiences is an integral part of everything they do. Achieving Gold means the lodge excels across economic, environmental, social/people and health and safety criteria.
Mike and Louise have long been committed to environmental sustainability, continuously looking at what improvements they can make. “We are remote and at a disadvantage in that regard but for a long time we have been instigating initiatives talked about by Qualmark,” says Louise.
“Being part of Qualmark and an internationally recognised star rating system was required by some of our tour operators which is how we initially became involved. I have to say at first I did not enjoy the visits but now we actually look forward to the annual assessments. Qualmark was very valuable in setting the guidelines, it has helped us to bench mark our progress and inspires us to do more than the standard required.”
“Encouraging everyone to care about our environment, our land, our water, our air and our future has got to be the number one priority in our opinion and so we totally support the more rigorous criteria that Qualmark have set around sustainability.”
The lodge also has a Qualmark three star rating which means it provides a prescribed range of facilities and services and achieves to very good quality standards.
The couple play a key role in the community as members of numerous trusts and societies that strive for responsible management of the environment, in particular protecting the landscape and biodiversity of the MacKenzie Country. To this end, Lake Ohau Lodge has an entrenched eco philosophy; “It’s part of who we are.”
Amazing food all cooked from scratch and a communal approach to meal times is another plus point. “Our guests are invited to join with others at the table where everyone enjoys the ridiculously majestic views of the lake and mountains - and in the evening the setting sun on Aoraki Mt Cook still blows us away.”
The Neilsons carry this familial philosophy through to their staff which tops 57 in the winter months when their Ohau Snow Fields is operating. “We are a small operation in a remote spot. We live with most of our staff and that helps us to choose good people; people we like; the kind of people that are right for the lodge.”
There are two mission statements at Lake Ohau Lodge. One is to welcome every guest as if they were a guest in your own home. The second is an excerpt from a Mahatma Ghandi speech, posted at reception and included in Louise’s training manual, which talks about the importance of the customer above all else.
The lodge style is very much still in the ’60’s. There’s only one TV in the place, there are stone mosaic walls depicting Maori rock drawings, original ply wall panelling and a big stone fireplace in the middle of the restaurant and when it comes to customer satisfaction, Lake Ohau Lodge provides a unique visitor experience.
When Louise first moved to Lake Ohau Lodge as a young mother, she felt ashamed of the rough and tumble lodge. She wanted to rip everything out and replace it but there wasn’t the money. Today, she says, there are more resources but she no longer wants to replace everything. “The charm of the place is that it’s a bit rumpty and mismatched. Nothing is precious, it’s comfortable and that’s how we want it to stay.”
There have been upgrades and Louise says that any time they do anything they try to do it to the best standard. For example, on the mountain, they have installed a state of the art fully automated snow making system and in the lodge Louise is finally getting the new carpet she has wanted for years. People recommended a nylon carpet would wear best but for the Neilsons it just had to be wool.