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Meet the pioneers of Queenstown – Penny Clark, the first female hotelier

Penny Clark, now a local councillor, was Queenstown’s first female hotelier. Did she think it was a big deal? Read her story here.

This photo is where it all started for Penny Clark in Queenstown. The town’s first female hotelier, here with her, her 18-month old son, who is now 28. Penny has been a local and national pioneer in women’s leadership in the hospitality industry. She has since paved the way for many other female hoteliers, lifting the glass ceiling, and finally bringing her passion for the resort town to council, encouraging more public transport, pest free environments, and a focus on the community first. For Penny, the little things are important as they make a big difference.

The Mountain Scene interviewed me in 1993 because I was the first female hotel general manager in Queenstown, but I also had a young son, wasn’t married and this was around the time that New Zealand was celebrating the 100-year anniversary of women getting the vote. I remember being on the radio with Kim Hill as well [herself a feminist broadcaster] because of my role. I wasn’t only the first female GM in Queenstown, but the first female in management in the New Zealand hotel industry.

I had actually looked at moving to Dunedin to manage a new hotel, but ended up in Queenstown at The THC and created Garden’s Parkroyal, now the Novotel.
I’ve always thought how lucky I was that it ended up that way. More than 25 years later, I still see something new when I look at The Remarkables mountain range. It radiates an energy that sparkles. There’ll never be a time that I don’t look at them and say, “Wow!”

Back in those days, you couldn’t have had a more basic lifestyle. Queenstown was tiny. No supermarket. One police officer. Everyone got totally involved in what was going on.

I had come from the city, and wore suits, and that wasn’t right. I remember on my first day of work, as I was walking down through the foyer everybody stopped to look at me – staff and guests. I realized as I looked around that my suit was intimidating to people. No one wore suits.
Because of that experience, and because wre about to embrace the change with a new general manager, I decided we were going to be a bit more relaxed and target the younger generation, families with young children. I put us all in the same uniform and it was very informal, and not intimidating. It needed to feel like a resort. It was the 90s, and in terms of tourism Queenstown was primarily a ski resort.

Nowadays there’s barely a shoulder season, but it wasn’t like that then. We had coach tours from companies like Australian Pacific Tours and Contiki as well as a major American tour company, staying in town, but it was all pretty small. Of course, there were plenty of Kiwis around but they stayed with family or friends or in their own cribs [holiday homes].

By 1995 we had a lot of women running hotels in Queenstown. All the hoteliers would get together for a monthly meeting, a lunch maybe, and that was a lot of fun. There would be just one or two guys. Sometimes they didn’t even turn up, but us girls were always there. A journalist once asked me why there were so many women employed in management in the Queenstown hotel industry, to which I replied, “Queenstown is a very difficult destination to manage a hotel in – seasonal, finding skilled staff, being snowed in and getting supplies, then there were floods – and that takes major ingenuity!” Well, that fired the guys up.

When people ask why I hire women, I always say “the best men for the job!”

We were always questioned about how we were able to run hotels as well as have children. Honestly, everyone was making a fuss out of nothing. Women have been having babies every day for forever, and still running things. I laugh at the fuss being made by media about New Zealand’s prime minister having a baby. We do it all the time. We just put systems in place, little things that can make a big difference.

For me, it was the microwave. I would carry my breast milk pump pack with me and pop out from work to pump whenever I needed, even during a meeting once. It would then go into the freezer to heat up later. Something so small was revolutionary.

These were exciting times for Queenstown, and for women, however, I was transferred to a hotel in the Northern Territory of Australia. Two years later I returned back to New Zealand to Christchurch to take on the role of South Island area manager for The Heritage, and later Chief Operating Officer for the company.

I didn’t really enjoy the corporate office life, so when the GM role came up for Goldridge, I went for it. It was a challenging position to turn around the run-down property, with staffing issues, particularly around accommodation for them, and no cash flow. There was a lot of time talking with council, and it made me think that instead of whining I should make change from within. I feel I can now do that, as an elected council of the Queenstown Lakes District. It has led me to understand the difficulties from a council perspective too, while at the same time be active in areas I am passionate about.

I fell in love with Queenstown, like many people, and I want to help maintain that community feel. I see the big picture, but I still fight for the little things that make a difference to locals. We live in a marvellous place, at the bottom end of the world. It’s remote and that keeps it small. I remember telling a Chinese couple who were visiting here that there are only 22 000 full time residents in Queenstown. They didn’t believe me. I had to write it down. They said they had as many people living in their apartment building in Beijing!! We have to remember how lucky we are, and to treasure it.

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This is the story of us, and of the people in Queenstown that inspire us. It’s about keeping it real, slowing down, and stopping to talk to strangers. It’s about trying new things, great food, skis on snow and on the water, athletes, architects and entrepreneurs. It’s about living in paradise every day. Click here to read our stories and be inspired.

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