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As you enter the lobby at Pavilions Hotel, first impressions reveal a welcoming, modern hotel. But, if you turn the corner and head towards Jimmy’s Bar, a whole new world begins to emerge. Lining the walls are historic artefacts, nostalgic Kiwiana, memories and news articles. A Chevrolet, a Nash Metropolitan, and a red telephone box line the Papanui Road entrance, begging car buffs and history lovers inside to explore the collection. Great displays bring larger-than-life characters and stories alive, transporting visitors back to New Zealand’s pioneering roots.

Renowned hotelier Graeme Horncastle is the man behind the museum and author of two books detailing his family’s story from the early days of Karamea to the present day. His daughter Debbie is Pavilions’ General Manager and oversees 75 staff and all 92 rooms.

Together, they have created the full package. A hotel, destination and attraction in one, all based on West Coast hospitality and a desire to make sure every visitor feels like part of the family. ‘People from all over New Zealand know Pavilions Hotel as their home away from home,’ Debbie says.

Graeme and wife Maureen were no strangers to the hospitality trade when they headed to Christchurch in 1992 to purchase Pavilions. They’d already owned and run Oxley’s Tavern, The Royal Hotel, Brightwater Hotel, and the Westport Motor Hotel, but this time they were buying a large operation during an unsettling time. ‘The ’87 crash was an absolute disaster,’ recalls Graeme.

The couple had, however, made their first million dollars, selling their 40-unit leisure lodge in Nelson. But purchasing Pavilions Hotel, a prime new spot made up of hotel rooms, studios and cottages, was a huge learning curve. Not to mention the fact computers and fax machines were just being introduced, upending much of what they knew about the day-to-day ‘hospo trade’.

For the first three years, the entrepreneurial couple ran the hotel, before heading to live in Raby Bay, Brisbane, to be closer to daughter Debbie and her children. Different managers operated the hotel for a number of intervening years, before daughter Shelley took over the general manager position in the late 1990s, becoming a much-loved and respected leader.

After a few very successful years, the family was rocked in 2001, when 30-year-old Shelley discovered she had aggressive breast cancer.

Sadly, she only lived for one year after she was diagnosed. ‘I don’t have words to explain this,’ Graeme says.

From 2002–2007, managers were employed to run Pavilions and then in late 2007 Graeme and Maureen returned to Christchurch, followed by Debbie in 2008.

During this difficult time, still reeling from the loss of Shelley, Graeme faced a tough battle with mental health issues, alcoholism and depression. Professional help and treatment were sought and the road to recovery was hard. ‘I lost the plot altogether after losing Shelley,’ he explains. ‘I slowly got back, but it was hard work. Grief and depression are so tough.’

As he edged towards recovery, Graeme discovered a surprising outlet that helped him tackle his grief – the power of writing. ‘They gave me a computer and I didn’t know how to use it, so I thought I’d learn,’ he says. ‘The family encouraged me to put my thoughts down on paper and soon I was writing until 3 am. That’s how it all started.’

The result was Graeme’s first book, the self-published Horncastle’s Suitcase. Set on New Zealand’s rugged West Coast, it’s a rags-to-riches story starting in isolated Karamea that details his parents’ early years. He was inspired after discovering his father’s old suitcase containing historic family documents. With many surprising tales, the book winds its way through Graeme’s own life to the present day. A second book was to follow: Horncastle’s Hero or Hell Raiser. The characters from these books are brought to life in the Pavilions’ Museum.

The Christchurch earthquake of 21 February (2011) rocked the family to its core. As the aftershocks pounded the city, Debbie and the rest of the Pavilions team started the clean-up; handing out beer to traumatised people fleeing the red zone. ‘Many of our staff said they wouldn’t be coming back, they wanted to go home, so we had almost no one here,’ Debbie says. ‘Luckily, I’d employed two guys from Scotland just before the quakes and they were great. They ended up working 80 hours a week each and were actually staying with me because they had nowhere to go.

‘During those first few days, our phones stopped working and because we had no staff, Ryun (Debbie’s husband) and I worked to 3 am. Mum and Dad came in from 3 am to 6 am; that’s when we slept.’ With no water for two weeks – and a hotel to maintain – Graeme managed to pump water from an onsite well, and a smörgåsbord of food was set up using donated supplies from the owner of Christchurch’s Latimer Lodge.

‘By the end of the second day, the Hotel Council started to text me asking what staff we needed,’ Debbie recalls. ‘I would text back requesting, for example, two wait staff, one chef and so forth…People would turn up to work because they couldn’t work at their own hotels in the city. We had general managers waiting tables.’

‘Often, we couldn’t thank people because we didn’t see them the next day,’ continues Graeme. ‘A farmer turned up once with two tankers of water and I never saw him again. We also had police and first response teams staying here because we were the closest hotel to the four avenues. It was hard work.’

‘Because we had no history of trading after a natural disaster we had to rediscover a lot,’ Debbie says. ‘Year-on-year [following the earthquakes] we didn’t know where we should be because not many other hotels were operating. I finally got to the point where I thought I knew what I was doing and all of sudden it would change and we were operating a full hotel with people sleeping in the conference rooms. In the meantime, Dad was involved in an insurance battle that took years to resolve.’

At 68, Graeme retired as General Manager and Debbie officially took over the reins, having learnt the ropes for the previous 12 years.
Today, the family business is going strong. Debbie’s husband, Ryun, works in maintenance and project management. Her son Jared began working as a porter at just 14, and is still an important part of the business. Her daughter Brooke also plans to join the team one day. Debbie’s brother Ryan Horncastle is currently managing a car yard in Nelson while his wife Penny does Pavilions’ marketing and graphic design work.

‘We’ve had the business for 28 years in April 2020, and are keen to carry it on in the family,’ Debbie says. ‘Most staff, especially front-line staff, have been here over 10 years, which is very unusual in the hospitality industry. When you work in a family business you become part of the family.’

Maureen and Graeme have now celebrated 50 years of marriage – a long way from 1969 at 17 and 16 years of age with $50 to their name. These days they enjoy spoiling their seven grandchildren. Maureen retired before Graeme and has supported him every step of the way, including through a recent prostate cancer battle. ‘She is a huge support to our family and our extended family, and still has a keen interest in the day-to-day operation of the hotel,’ Debbie says.

For Graeme, watching his family come together and support each other through thick and thin to ensure Pavilions thrives, has been a proud and emotional realisation. ‘Since Shelley’s death, I don’t place any value on money,’ he says. ‘It’s changed my perspective. What matters is family.

‘Over the years, there’s been a lot of good things happen and a lot of bad things that have happened, but we’ve always been a strong family.’

Words Megan Gnad