While many couples approaching retirement age are trying to wind down their careers, one couple has done the opposite, buying an historic hotel in the Blue Mountains, West of Sydney, and launching an exciting new career this year. But how they found their new career is not how you’d expect.
Denise Douglas, 52, and Garry Wilson, 61, were on their way to a funeral in Orange in Western NSW from their home in Paddington in Sydney when they decided to stop in the Blue Mountains suburb of Blackheath for a meat pie. Little did they know, that meat pie would change their lives and catapult them into the world of hospitality.
“We saw in the window of a real estate agent that there was an open house and we thought, ‘We’ve got time to go to that,’” says Wilson.
“Ten days later, we raced up the highway from Sydney with a cheque in our hands to buy the place,” says Douglas.
Soon after the contract was exchanged, the reality of the decision hit home as the couple realised they both had only limited hospitality experience and had taken on an enormous task, since the hotel needed doing up. “We thought what have we done?” laughs Douglas. But the pair has no regrets.
Denise and Garry on holiday in Spain
What they had done was bought the Mount Victoria Manor (formerly Blue Mountains Manor) in Mount Victoria, a grand Victorian home with 13 ensuite rooms, three apartments and featuring elegant sitting rooms with Rococo style fireplaces, a restaurant and even a croquet lawn.
The hotel was originally built by John R Fairfax, the founder of the Sydney Morning Herald, as a mountain retreat in 1876. Since then it has hosted famous identities such as the Duke and Duchess of York who later became King George VI and the Queen Mother.
So why did the new custodians take the leap into a new industry after years of working in other ones? “It was the culmination of a series of fresh new beginnings in the last couple of years,” Douglas says. The pair has raised 10 children between them and had been searching for a new challenge.
Previously a palliative care nurse, Douglas spent a year trying new things after graduating from her degree at age 47. She worked on an organic goat farm in Melbourne, and taught at a school in Bali, but it was on a trip to Europe that she realised her limitless potential.
Wilson was helping her try on shoes for her trip and said he’d come along too. The duo who have been together four years, embarked on an epic journey along the famous 900km El Camino de Santiago trail through the Spanish countryside. It was here that Douglas had a profound realisation that anything was possible and that she was ready for a new challenge in life.
“Walking across Spain we came to a place called Cruz de Ferro where you have to leave something of your life behind. I used this opportunity to let go of my past. The next day I realised I could do anything. That this new challenge, I can do this,” says Douglas.
The restaurant renovation at the Mount Victoria Manor
(Image: Facebook / Mount Victoria Manor)
Douglas was also influenced by her time as a palliative care nurse, and the realisation that life is too short to be indecisive. “You see so many people with regrets. You’re dealing with people who are facing the end. I realised I had to embrace life and do what I most wanted to do” she explains.
Taking possession of the hotel in August this year, the new owners have started a two-year-long momentous task of renovating it – which in this case is made all the more difficult by the fact that the hotel is heritage-listed and requires careful planning and coordination with the local council.
Their grand view of the hotel is to infuse some new life into what is an ageing structure, by modernising it but also retaining the hotel’s beautiful heritage elements, while also accommodating guests.
Since the hotel is such an historic landmark in Mount Victoria and the greater Blue Mountains, the couple understands the significance of the place to the many guests and staff who have memories spannig more than 100 years of history.
“We don’t see ourselves as owners. We see ourselves as custodians. We realise that there are so many people with stories about coming and staying here and we want to preserve that history and make them a part of the hotel,” says Douglas.
Douglas recalls one lady that approached her while working in the front garden one day. “She used to stay here with her brother back in the 30s and sit in a chair and look out at all the guests arriving in their fancy cars. She said her parents met here all those years ago, so the hotel has a special significance to her.”
On the list of things to do is painting the interiors, clearing the gardens and the building of tired old vegetation, and refurnishing the rooms in a classic, elegant style with the help of their interior designer James Stein.
The process has only just begun but already the new owners are discovering hidden secrets about their manor. “We found antique kauri pine floorboards hidden under the carpet. We’re going to polish them up and showcase them because those period features shouldn’t be hidden away,” says Wilson.
The Manor in the 1920s (Image: Facebook / Mount Victoria Manor)
Rooms will be renamed to represent some of the previous owners, for example one room will be the Fairfax room. The pair also has an innovative plan to hold regular special events that showcase the local produce in the hotel’s restaurant. This includes holding a regular event called the ‘long lunch’.
In winter they will hold a ‘Yule fest’ event. In spring there will be a ‘Spring Racing Carnival,’ and in summer a ‘Summer Soiree’ event will allow the couple to invite locals into the hotel and give thanks to the community for their support.
But adapting to their new life as owners hasn’t been without its challenges. The couple has had to relocate from Sydney to the Blue Mountains and adjust to the cooler mountain weather.
They have had to find a new home in the mountains, hire staff and most importantly, they have had to quickly learn the fundamentals of the hospitality industry.
“One of the biggest challenges is learning all the legislation there is to renovate a heritage listed building. I’ve learnt more about heritage buildings and legislation than ever before in my life,” says Douglas.
Getting quotes from tradies has been a bit tough outside of Sydney too. “We’re used to getting tradies out on the day and quotes right away but things are done a bit differently around here,” Wilson says.
Luckily Wilson, who was a truck driver, also worked in the building industry and is able to coordinate the labour for all of the renovation work himself.
The historic Mount Victoria Manor as it stands today
(Image: Facebook / Mount Victoria Manor)
Douglas is doing a certificate in hospitality to upskill, but she is also confident that her time working as an airhostess will be an invaluable asset in customer service and relations, and her time working for charities will help with arranging a number of promotional opportunities for guests with other organisations in the area.
The community has rallied around the pair even offering to volunteer their services and asking Douglas onto the local committee. “The community has just been so positive and supportive,” says Douglas.
“They’re just so happy that we’re taking the time and effort to restore the hotel to its former glory,” adds Wilson.
Convincing the kids might be a bit harder, the couple admits. “We’ve heard ‘you’re crazy’ a thousand times. But our main objective is that life is there to be lived and this is just another challenge,” Douglas says.
Wilson agrees. “And when we’ve looked after the place, one day we’ll pass our legacy on to the next worthwhile person, whoever they may be.”
As to what will be the cornerstone of their success, the couple both agree it will be “good teamwork.”
That includes doing complimentary jobs. Wilson will take care of the external jobs that Douglas affectionately calls the ‘butler’ and ‘valet’ services and she will take care of the internal operations.
“We agree on everything,” says Wilson.
And when it comes to running a grand old heritage-listed hotel, we think that can only be a good thing.
Have you ever dreamed about running your own hotel? Let us know below.