The hostel’s international reputation has spread so far and wide that most backpackers who turn up on Sarah Meadows’ and Matt Young’s doorstep have been referred by a friend.
Those who choose to pay weekly stay for almost a month on average, and Pacific Coast Lodge has won the ‘best accommodation in New Zealand’ title multiple times in Australia’s annual Golden Backpack tourism awards.
“We’ve got someone staying with us at the moment who’s been there for over a year and half,” Sarah says.
With rooms starting from just $28 a night, and the Mount’s glorious white sand beach close by, it’s no wonder Pacific Coast Lodge is so popular. Sarah and Matt also go the extra mile to make everyone feel at home.
“We organise a big beach games event every year,” Matt says. “And we have speed dating on Valentine’s Day, for example. It’s about breaking down barriers, making friends for life and creating memories.
“We also help people on working holiday visas to find a job. We’ve got tonnes of direct relationships with large scale local employers and they’ll just ring us and tell us how many people they want. We help people get jobs in kiwifruit, construction, manufacturing, painting, gardening, babysitting… you name it. We help fill an important gap in the Bay of Plenty casual labour market.”
The couple are big travellers themselves and both spent their mid-20s doing separate OEs. By chance, they met one night at a bar in Portugal and then crossed paths again four years later back home in Tauranga.
By that time Sarah, with the help of her Dad, had bought the Harbourside City Backpackers business on The Strand in 2004. “I stayed in two really cool hostels while I was on my OE, one in New York city and one in Montreal. I thought ‘I’d quite like to do something like that’ when I returned home so Dad kept an eye out for me and found this business.”
She worked seven days a week – sometimes 18 hours a day – to transform the backpackers but knew the Category 2 listed heritage building she leased would need to undergo seismic strengthening by September 2019 after regulations changed post-Christchurch earthquakes.
“So in 2012 in the middle of the Global Financial Crisis we bought Pacific Coast Lodge,” Matt chuckles. “We could see the writing on the wall going forward with Harbourside because that building would have to close. We wanted to future-proof our family so we took a calculated risk and bought Pacific Coast Lodge.”
In 2015 Matt ditched his job as a milk supply manager in the Waikato and joined Sarah fulltime to run both backpacking businesses alongside their great team of staff. They searched for two years to find a new Tauranga premise to relocate the Harbourside City Backpackers business to – but they kept coming back to the historic location on The Strand.
A hotel was originally built on the site in the late 1800s as a staging post to look after tourists heading to and from Rotorua. It burnt down in 1916 when a nearby bakery caught fire and was rebuilt two years later. In the 1950s it was renamed the St Amand Hotel.
“It’s the oldest historic hotel left standing in Tauranga,” Sarah explains. “We decided to buy the building and do the seismic upgrade ourselves. I don’t think anybody else would have ever taken this project on. It had to be us because we’ve run a successful business in this building for 16 years. It’s amazing seeing our dream come to life.”
The couple and a big team of contractors have worked throughout most of 2020 to strengthen, restore and renovate the building. The backpackers will be renamed Wanderlust NZ when it re-opens in October.
In keeping with the brightly-coloured murals that adorn the walls at Pacific Coast Lodge, Auckland spray paint artist Erika Pearce will create an enormous work of art that will wind its way up the central staircase. Each floor is named after a Māori legend such as Tangaroa (sea god) and Ranginui (sky father). “We’ll have Kingfish wearing crowns coming up the stairwell and a tropical garden painted on the landing as you rise up towards the earth and sky,” Sarah explains.
Wanderlust NZ will have room for 114 guests. Traditional backpacker-style dorms are available alongside double bed or twin share rooms with ensuites. There’s flexibility to cater for school groups, sports teams or families by offering separate areas and Matt says many of the heritage features have been retained and restored.
“Because of the age of the building there’s tonnes of native timber. We’ve stripped the paint off all the doors and doorframes to reveal all the rimu. All the windows are old-school sash windows, there are Roman pillars downstairs and the bathrooms will feature the original mosaic tiles which are pretty special. We’ve also discovered several new windows that had been covered up when we were demolishing the wall linings.”
The beautiful Art Nouveau-style cast iron and timber balustrade remains a feature on the staircase and the pair are justifiably proud of all their hard work to restore the building to its former glory.
“It will be a real asset to Tauranga in terms of accommodation and location. We want this to be an iconic hostel that everybody raves about,” Sarah says.
Both businesses also have a real focus on sustainability and eco-tourism. Guests are encouraged to look after the environment and monthly beach clean-ups are organised at Pacific Coast Lodge. “Travelling’s in our blood and sustainability’s in our nature,” Sarah explains.
“Everything we purchase for Wanderlust NZ is going to be consciously done in terms of the environment. Our key rings are going to be wood; they won’t be plastic. Our bedding will be upgraded to the eco-range where all our pillows and duvet inners are made from recycled plastic bottles. We buy steel pegs, not plastic pegs, and we’ll be selling keep cups and bamboo toothbrushes, things like that.”
The backpacker market has been hard hit by the COVID crisis but the pair are positive about what the future holds. They’ve pivoted their marketing efforts towards Kiwi travellers for now and say it’s an immensely fun business to be involved in.
“Sharing our joy and passion for New Zealand, and especially the Bay of Plenty, is definitely what we love to do.”
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