Saturday, July 14, 2012

The Huka Lodge

           From 1995 through 2004, I visited 38 different countries as I helped my employer build the company they sent me to run from a $49 million business to a $117 million business.  The most memorable of these trips was my second visit to New Zealand in December 2003.  We had recently selected a new representative for the area, and we planned a tour to introduce our products and our new representative to all the helicopter maintenance facilities and operators.  My wife Mary accompanied me as did Paul Glibert, our new representative and their director of maintenance John Kilburn.  John accompanied us through the northern island of New Zealand, Paul the south.

“John, I want you to find us a nice place when we go down toward Wellington,” I said to John Kilburn.  I was concerned that Mary would be terribly bored, and wanted to make sure that she could crash at a nice hotel while John, and I visited the helicopter operators and repair stations.  I love the selling and visiting part of the helicopter business, because it is at the customers’ locations that you can see your products being used.  I continued with John, “My wife is with me, and we like to stay in nice places, and the company’s paying for it, so find us a comfortable place for the night.”
            “I’ll take care of it,” answered John nervously, wanting to make a good first impression on the two of us.
            Mary and I had flown into Auckland two days earlier and spent the remainder of the first day shaking off the jet-lag from the 17-hour flight and the second day visiting Hawker Pacific’s central helicopter repair center that distributed my company’s parts.  The agenda called for a two-day  tour of all the operators on the North Island and then a five-day  tour of the South island.   The north island trip would take us by car from Auckland to Rotorua and then to Taupo and finally to Wellington, from where we would leave by plane for the South Island city of Nelson.  We would then drive by car again down the entire southwest coast to Queenstown.
            The drive from Auckland to Rotorua was quite beautiful, and I used up the battery on my digital camera taking “road shots” of the beautiful rolling hills and pastures and sheep, lots of sheep.  John was extremely quiet and distant for some reason, and seemed to be avoiding eye contact with us, almost as if he were upset.  But, having known him for only a few hours and having had few conversations, I found it difficult to think of any reason that might make him angry with at us.  I wanted to ask him what was wrong, but I was distracted by the many road side stands where he stopped so that we could buy wool, and possum lined items.  In New Zealand, you can buy any type of wool or possum clothing or shoes, from giant puffy slippers to underwear.  
Often, we drove by a small mountain that looked like a partially sheared sheep, with portions of its trees shaved to the ground.  “Tree farming,” explained John.  “They can literally plan their income based on the time it takes for the trees to grow.  The farmers have huge pieces of equipment, like giant lawn mowers that cut the trees down, flat to the ground.  The lumber is sold overseas.  The only thing that can foil their plans is forest fires.  I knew a man who lost his life’s savings, when a fire destroyed all of his trees just three weeks before they were scheduled to be harvested.”
            To my surprise, Mary decided to visit the helicopter operators with us.  Our first stop was a tour company in Rotorua that flew people over the beautiful Huka falls.  We had a wonderful conversation with the owner who told us about his helicopter part usage and a recent crash.  He asked Mary where she was staying that evening.  “I think the name of the place is the Huka Lodge…isn’t that right John?”  John looked quite embarrassed when he replied, “That’s right.”  The reaction of the owner was quite pronounced.  “The Huka Lodge!  That place is really nice, the best of the best.  I’ve always wanted to stay there.  You know that’s where the queen stays when she visits?  And there’s been a bunch of other celebrities like Michael Douglas and Barbara Streisand.  We flew Mr. Douglas.  Do me a favor? Write me and tell me what it was like.
            Mary promised that she would.
            About 4 p.m., after a hard day of salesmanship, we drove down a secluded drive through a beautiful forest and into the well manicured grounds of the Huka Lodge.  The grounds were breathtaking, and the Waikato River was beautiful as it raced in front of the lodge towards the Huka Falls.  John pulled under a covered porch in front of the main lodge, and we were immediately greeted by a welcoming committee that consisted of three bus boys, the concierge and the executive manager.    
            “Mr. and Mrs. Shapiro?”  the manager asked.  “Mr. Kilburn?”
            “Yes,” we replied, and then we each reached out and shook his hand.
            He smiled and said, “I thought it was you.  Most of the other guests have arrived.  Your bags will be taken to your villa, and now, if you have a moment, I would like to personally give you a tour of the grounds.
            “That would be very nice,” answered Mary.
            John remained very quiet.
            The tour took us through the main lodge, which was a large two-story building with dark hardwood floors and moldings. The downstairs was the congregating area for the guests and had a large dining area with 2 tables big enough for about 30 guests, a living room with red leather chairs and green print couches that overlooked the Waikato River, and an office where they conducted the administrative duties of the lodge.    
            “All the meals are community style,” he said.  “Gives our guests a chance to meet one another and to discuss their days,” he explained.
Upstairs was a trophy room that was lined with the heads of beasts from around the world, a study, complete with library and computer, and a balcony with chairs and tables that overlooked the grounds and the river.  All the dark green and red tones blended with the dark woods to exude warmth that made us want to sit and relax.  After we toured the main lodge, our host took us to the wine vault, where he claimed there were 3500 bottles of rare wines.  My accountant brain made a quick count and told me that he was short by at least 1000 bottles.  He mentioned exotic years and vineyards, but not being connoisseurs, it was all wasted on us.  After the tour, we were led to our villa by a pretty blonde girl.
            Our villa was unbelievable!  It was at least 1200 square feet with a bathroom the size of one of our guest bedrooms.  It was completely private from all the other villas and was only about 50 feet from the river.    
            “This place is beautiful,” said Mary trying to absorb every ounce of it.
            “I bet it’s expensive,” I answered.  “How much do you think it is?”
            “I don’t know, maybe $400 a night,” she answered.
            I thought she was probably close.    
            “Let’s walk the grounds,” I suggested.
            We walked along the fast-paced river and found a friendly cat, which seemed to be part of the lodge.  We sat in big white wooden chairs in front of our villa watching the river, playing with the cat and enjoying the beautiful New Zealand weather.  After a while, we strolled back to the main lodge and saw John sitting on the deck with a drink and holding his head in his hands.
            “John, you did good,” said Mary.  “This place is great.”
            “How much does this place cost?” I asked.
            John remained silent.
            “$500 a night?” I continued.
            “More than that,” he groaned, but he would say no more.
            We meandered back down to the river and into our villa.  Mary filled up the Jacuzzi size bath tub, and I plopped down on the bed.  There was a knock on the door, and the same young blonde lady handed me an envelope with Mary and my name on it.  When I opened it, I received the shock of my life.
Dear Mr. and Mrs. Shapiro,

            Please come to the main lodge at your convenience and settle your bill.

            1 Villa with 2 guests                $1,835
            Tax and fees                               176
            Total                                        $2,011

            We accept Visa, Mastercard, American Express (or your first-born…only kidding).

            “Who was at the door?” asked Mary.  “And why do you look so white?”
            “They brought our bill.”
            “More than what you thought?”
            I took it into the bathroom and showed it to her.
            “Oh my God,” she said.  “Surely this is a mistake.  Perhaps they think we’re staying here for a week.”
            “I don’t think it’s a mistake.”
            “How are you going to include this on your expense report?  You’ll get in trouble.  We’re going to have to pay for this ourselves.”
            We both had the same murderous thought: John!!!
            John was sitting in the exact spot we had left him about 30 minutes before.  He looked up and must have realized that we now knew by the look on my face and the speed and focus of my walk.  I started talking before I reached him.
            “John, did you know how much this place was?  I’ll never be able to put this on my expense report.  You should have known better than to put us in a place like this.”
            He pulled a chair out for me to sit down.  “You said that you wanted some place nice, and it’s a long story,” he said.
            John explained that when I said that I wanted to stay in some place exclusive, he called a few folks, and they all said that the Huka Lodge was the nicest place in New Zealand.  So, he told his administrative assistant to make reservations.  When he proudly told his wife that he had booked us at the Huka, she remarked that she thought it was quite expensive and then went to the internet and informed him that this was the prime season and the rate in prime season was $1800 excluding   general sales tax.  He told her to cancel the reservation, but when she tried, she found that there was a 24-hour cancellation policy!  All day long John knew that there would be a terrible confrontation when I discovered the cost, and he was fearful of his job. “If you think you got screwed, follow me,” said John.
            I followed John down a path to the back side of my villa.  He took out a key and opened a door that I thought led to a supply closet.  Inside was a double bed, a small dresser and a television with a rabbit ear antenna and a twist dial tuner.  There were no decorations and no window.
            “This is called an escort room.  Because I brought you to the Lodge, they let me have this room at a discounted rate.  I guess they use these rooms for nannies who come with families with children.”
            “They’re charging you for this?” I asked.
            He nodded his head.
            “How much?” I asked.
            He rested his forehead in his hand, “$875.”
            I couldn’t believe my ears.  $875 would rent a suite in a five-star hotel.
            “I’m so sorry,” he said.
            “It’s okay,” I replied.  “Let’s make the most of it.  Mary really likes it, and it does include dinner and breakfast.”
            “You’re not going to blow me in and get me fired?”
            “Nope, let’s enjoy it.  Weren’t you telling us on the drive up that you had just bought your daughter a used car?”
            “Yeah, a real nice Nissan.”
            “How much did you pay?”
            “Well guess what?  I’m going to be paying more for one night’s accommodations than your daughter paid for her car.”
            “That’s not funny, I thought you weren’t mad.”
            “I know it’s not funny, and no I’m not mad, but I’m still going to get my pound of flesh.”


            Dinner at the Huka Lodge is a very interesting communal affair.  During this time, we had the opportunity to meet all the other 50 guests of the lodge.  You may ask yourself, “What type of people would knowingly stay at an $1800 per night lodge?”  I soon found out that there are three different types.
  1. The Super Rich – these folks are generally elderly and can really afford places like the Huka Lodge, and think nothing about spending thousands of dollars a day on holiday.
  2. The Super Dumb – these are folks like me who make the booking and realize too late just how expensive it is and cannot cancel.  Thank goodness for large limits on VISA and American Express.
  3. The Super Sly – these folks use the Huka Lodge as a means to network with the Super Rich, often trying to find an angle to tap into their wealth.  It only takes them a second to separate the super rich from the super dumb.

At dinner, Mary and I were seated next to a super-rich man on my side, a super dumb couple on her side and a super sly father and son directly across from us.  The meal consisted of a five-course gout-inducing blend of appetizers, entrees and desserts.  Wine was a big seller at the table with the average bottle selling for about $1,000.  Those who ordered the wine refused to share and often one individual drank the entire bottle.  I was enamored of how the super sly worked their game with the super rich.  Here’s how it went:  after a few questions, the father and son directly across from us determined that we were “fixed income” people.  They used this term in a very derogatory way, and were very direct with us that we were “fixed income.”  The best I can understand is that “fixed income” means that my net worth was dependent on a salary, and because of that I was not worthy of their conversation.  The little old man on my right, however, proved to be a worthy game for them.  Their tactics were very good.  The father was also elderly, about the same age as the rich guy, and he worked the conversation until he found common ground through his experiences in war, with wine, or by dropping names like chum in the ocean until the man bit.  Once connected, they got drunk on a $1500 bottle of wine purchased by the super sly old man.  Once the friendship was secured, the father handed the rich guy over to the son to sell whatever it was that they were trying to sell.   And to my surprise, the old, rich drunk fools seemed to be falling for it every time.  It made me wonder how they got rich, or how they were able to stay rich.  With no one other than Mary and the other super dumb couple next to Mary to talk with, I soon became quite bored with the rich food and snooty conversation.
Finally, we were able to return to our villa and crawl into bed.  I jumped in first.  I stretched out my body and reached out my legs, until, until, I felt something furry….it was at the bottom of the bed….under the covers….I screamed as I jumped out of bed, “There’s an animal in the bed!”  Mary came running over.  Reluctantly, we pulled back the sheets.  There on the bottom of the bed were 2 furry things.  Mary grabbed one of them and started to laugh.
“These are just water bottles with a possum cover.  It must be for the old people that get cold feet.”
My heart was now racing a hundred miles an hour, and I couldn’t sleep.  Thoughts of $2,000 hotel bills, being “fixed income” and animals at the foot of my bed raced through my head.
After a nice breakfast, it was time to settle my bill and leave the Huka Lodge.  They gave Mary and me nice leather luggage tags to remind us of our stay.  I munched an apple as the valet brought around my car.  They loaded my luggage and opened my car door.
“Do you have a garbage can,” I asked as I stared at my rotting apple core.
The young female concierge cupped her hands.  “Give it to me," she said.
I put the brown core into her hands, knowing that these folks were trained to do anything for their rich, stupid or sly guests.
All over New Zealand I told my story about the Huka Lodge.  No one could believe how expensive it was and several wanted to see the bill.  A couple of people even made copies of it.  One side benefit of staying at the Huka Lodge is that they must have sold their guest list to a number of luxury retailers, because I began getting in the mail literature on Rolls Royces, islands for sale and fine jewelry, so at least I got to pretend like I was rich.  Was it the nicest place I’ve ever stayed…..yes?  Was it worth $2,000 for one night? No way!