Look After Me founder Julia Anne (formerly Charity) on expanding her homestay business into tours and events, navigating the challenges of NZ’s shared access economy, and being one of the few female tech entrepreneurs in the tourism industry.
Look After Me is a homestay network that has provided 17,500 guest nights since it was founded in 2011, just prior to the World Cup. We help homeowners rent out one, two or three guestrooms. Our customers are people looking for short-term stays in beautiful accommodation hosted by genuine people who provide exceptional hospitality.
Our core market is baby boomers, mainly retired women and mostly domestic (70-80%). We don’t have the marketing budget to be able to reach the international market, however, we do get interest from international visitors when they are here as they want to meet local people and enjoy kiwi experiences. Homestays are an ideal way to share the manaakitanga (welcome and hospitality) that Kiwis are known for.
Our headquarters are in Dunedin, with a new branch opening in Rotorua in 2020. We have a team of eight. I own 67% of the business, and there are two co-directors who own 5% each – Colin MacPhee and Mike Johnson. We also have a small group of shareholders who own 23%.
The Look After Me accommodation network has helped support many events around New Zealand: The Rugby World Cup, Cricket World Cup, WOMAD in New Plymouth, World of Wearable Arts in Wellington, Field Days in Hamilton and big concerts like Ed Sheeran, Pink, the Eagles and will be also supporting Elton John and Queen in Dunedin.
We’ve established homestay options on 15 the 20 New Zealand cycle trails and assist administrative professionals organising short term accommodation for visiting guests, particularly universities and polytechnics.
We are expanding the business with the addition of tours and events joining the accommodation network. The tours will take people to events all around the country and focus on creative journeys involving literature and writing, clay, art, yarn and photography.
We will be launching from Christchurch initially. The tours will take people by bus to Dunedin for a 3-, 4- or 5-day workshop event with homestay accommodation, meals and the chance to engage with local people with similar interests as part of the experience.
We have plans to expand the tours all over the country and potentially the world. The Look After Me concept is based on good old New Zealand hospitality at its core but can be achieved anywhere. We are currently seeking investment to explore the international expansion opportunity.
Marketing is a big challenge for us, but we’ve discovered through research and upgrading our offering to tours and events that our best customers are mature, middle-aged and retired women who are looking for a great in-home experience in beautifully clean accommodation that has been checked and vetted to meet our high standards. Our brand promise of ‘looking after you’ is perfectly suited to this market, as taking care of people is at the centre of everything we do.
With our events strategy focusing on creative industries, we may be eligible for event or creative funding – we’re currently in the process of applying.
I’m a real proponent of the shared access economy, which globally has grown 200% year-on-year. Look After Me was recently identified by a New Zealand business magazine as a pioneer of the shared access economy in this country.
It has largely been left to Airbnb to come into the market here, but there aren’t the regulations that I feel should be in place. Anyone can rent anything and there have been some poor experiences which reflect on brand New Zealand.
As a pioneer in the shared access economy space in New Zealand, I would be more than happy to lead the kind of regulatory environment that needs to be established. I’ve been talking with councils about how we can use our software to account for visitor nights and help uphold high standards of hospitality. Quality is very important to us and our customers.
The tourism industry in New Zealand stands unified. I’m a great subscriber to Martin Snedden’s belief that we are a small country and a small industry globally and we should be unifying New Zealand Inc and how can we best support each other. Largely that is the case but there are pockets of protectionism, as with any industry, but I’m an advocate for unifying the New Zealand brand. Tourism New Zealand has done a fantastic job in that space, but I do urge and encourage tourism operators to embrace unification, to continue to put New Zealand on the world stage as number one in the world (together with Iceland) for how we treat our visitors.
Back in 2011, I felt a fair amount of resistance when introducing a concept that shared wealth among ordinary New Zealanders. Look After Me was seen by some as a threat. I don’t see out offering as a threat to already established businesses, as our homestays offer a connection with local people that guests wouldn’t otherwise get. The desire and demand for those local connections and experiences are ever-increasing, and we are able to fulfil that need.
As one of a small number of female tech entrepreneurs in the tourism industry, I’ve received some great support from my peers but also resistance via some old paradigms. Taking a leadership position for a new way of thinking, in a very male-dominated industry has had its challenges, but I’ve navigated them because I believe women deserve to travel, have fulfilling experiences while feeling safe to do so.
It is an exciting time for the industry. I know we’ve got some challenges, but I think that the shared access economy can provide some key solutions to infrastructural issues that New Zealand has been grappling with, like distribution, seasonality, supply issues against the backdrop of an ageing, more technologically savvy population.
If you’d like to contribute to our An Operator’s View column, contact the Ticker’s Jane King at email@example.com.
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