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They Made a Diamond at Hot Water Beach

In 2008, Cooks Beach Dairy farmers, Grant and Sheree Webster, saw a fabulous opportunity to grow a stronger bond with their young nuclear family, while getting much closer to the beach holiday lifestyle that Sheree treasured in her own childhood. Together, the couple had farmed dairy, then horticulture for over 17 years, and over their farming years, they had seen the continuous flow of campervans and visitors making their way to the Hot Water Beach every day to dig holes. With no camping facilities outside of limited freedom camping in the Hot Water Beach area, there was nowhere for these visitors to stay. The last local campground had been subdivided for private homes in the early 2000’s.

The Webster farm overlooked a piece of land down in the valley, close to the beach which was the former Te Puia Native nursery, owned by Graham Pye. It was 57 acres of beautiful native plants, sheltered in a way that formed its own protected and temperate microclimate. Looking for something new to do, the couple decided to buck the trend at the time in the Coromandel which was selling campgrounds and subdividing land to build luxury baches and summer homes. They set out to buy the land in early 2008 and build a campground. They had visions of a new business which would help their family and visiting families to ‘re-realise’ the Kiwi dream of camping, cooking, laughing and playing together, near the beach. They also had visions of creating year-round employment for the area, which went absolutely quiet from Waitangi Day to Labour Weekend. With not much in the way of building assets, they designed and created a facility which started with a shop, amenities block, four cabins and multiple campsites. Planning towards an opening for Christmas, they worked diligently with the various local and regional consent regimes and regulators to establish their own water supply, waste water plant, and three phase power. At the same time, they mounted the incredibly steep learning curve on the regulations, compliance and regimes to run a campground.

They were three quarters of the way through this massive project, when in October 2008, the Global Financial Crisis hit, causing all New Zealand lenders to pull back substantially. As a result, the bank finance for the campground project was suddenly pulled away. ‘Donkey deep’ into the project, the Webster’s local bank manager travelled to Auckland himself to plead the couple’s case to headquarters. They got the finance back, at a significantly steeper interest rate, but at least it meant they could open for the upcoming summer season. Grant remembers waiting in the reception of the local council late in the afternoon of Christmas Eve to get their license to open. They got their licence and they opened on Christmas Day.

In their first trading year, the couple did most of the work around the place themselves, while still looking after their young family. The campground was operational but since the grass and landscaping had not yet grown, it was a dusty place. The early campers were so impressed that they had a place to stay and enjoy the wonderful Hot Water Beach landscape that they did not mind. In their first year, they provided 30,000 bed nights.

The business grew an average of 13% year over year and was at a turnover rate of 98,000 bed nights, just before Covid. They increased their levels of staff as needed and worked hard to keep those staff employed year round. Many of their staff have been with them for years. With continual growth, came continual development of the facilities and expansion of the campground. They joined the Top 10 Group in 2012 and have won various awards. A few years before Covid, they restructured to take on outside management and consulting, giving Grant and Sheree time to think and become more strategic. The park continued to develop every year and grow in a highly sustainable way. There are now up to 52 cabins, three amenities blocks and they have doubled the waste water plant and developed permanent roading.

Enter Covid. Hot Water Beach is one of those areas in New Zealand which attracts a high level of international tourism. The beach is a significant international draw card and the campground reflected this with over 70% of their occupancy being from overseas. When the first lockdown hit in March 2020, the couple and their family rushed back from holiday in Ohope and started working through the carnage of returning over $350,000 of deposits and figuring out how to repatriate some of their remaining 77 international guests who were stranded here. They say that the German government was much better at getting their people home than the United Kingdom. One British couple arrived with a three month old baby who couldn’t leave until the baby was 6 months. It was hard going, but through the government wage subsidy, loans from the bank, giving up their own wages and cutting back on park maintenance projects, they made it through and the park made a pivot to domestic marketing. They had some good ‘bumps’ when what they call, the ‘Golden Triangle’ of Auckland, Tauranga and Waikato visitors were set free again. This of course, died again with the Alert Level Four lockdown and subsequent regional lockdowns for Auckland and Waikato regions, but through clever events to maximise occupancy, and a hardworking loyal team, they are coming through to the other side. Forward bookings look strong and smaller tour companies seem to be burgeoning. Grant and Sheree are optimistic but this optimism is peppered with uncertainties around the dependability of air travel, overseas staff acquisition and heaven forbid, another lockdown.

Pictured: Grant and Sheree Webster, owners of Hot Water Beach Campground.

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