Farmstay – team play!

He says she’s a wonderful cook. She says he’s a wonderful story teller. Modesty prevents either of them accepting the other’s praise – which may well be the secret behind Alan and Helen-May Burgess’ highly successful Catlins farmstay. This affable couple have been welcoming guests into their home for the last 27 years and one thing they both agree on is that they could never do it unless they were both fully committed to the cause.

“If one of us said ‘Enough; I want out,’ that would be it,” says Alan. “Because it takes two of us to run this show.”

Helen-May agrees. “Although we love what we do, there’s an awful lot of work involved and we both have our separate roles to play.”

It’s Helen-May who’s responsible for taking bookings (almost of which nowadays come through agents or via Greenwood’s website).

“Whereas, once, guests simply dropped in off the road, now they book months in advance. Many are referred to us by agents who have contacted us after personally visiting or staying a night, or who have viewed Greenwood’s website. With their referrals comes a certain expectation. We’re busy throughout the year, with the quietest period being winter, which is when we see the most Kiwis.”

Helen-May is also in charge of preparing the guest rooms. (There are three, one with a private bathroom and two en suited – something which guests always enquire about. Two rooms have their own living areas.) Although Helen-May insists Alan is a top-notch cleaner of bathrooms, she prefers to handle bed changes herself.

“There has been the odd occasion,” she laughs good naturedly, “when beds have been left to Alan and I’ve come home to find the sheets – well, not quite upside down, but inside out!”

Alan’s forte is entertaining, something which comes naturally to this warm-hearted host who enjoys a good yarn and who also takes pride in sharing the farm’s history (it dates back to his 1907 when his grandfather first moved onto the land).

“It’s those stories that make the Catlins come alive for guests,” he says. “It’s something they won’t find in any books – and we love to share it with them.”

Alan also keeps the garden in tip-top shape and grows the vegetables that guests enjoy if they are dining at Greenwood (something that isn’t always offered now that Alan and Helen-May are pulling back a little from the preparation and late night dinner can involve). Alan is also the one who takes guests on the coveted farm tours.

“It’s the farm animals people most want to see,” he says. “The sort of things we take for granted become very special memories for visitors. I had a couple of doctors from Germany with me one day and they were lucky enough to watch a hind give birth and see the young one get its first drink from its mother. It’s the natural things that people really enjoy.”

If guests are staying a couple of nights, Alan may also take them across the farm to see the spectacular views from the sea cliffs that fringe the property. And there’s always the chance of spotting a penguin. But whatever there is to see and do, guests must be willing to fit in with daily routine – which is all part of the charm of staying on a farm.

“People have to be ready to take us as they find us,” says Helen-May. “It’s something I’ve always been quite strong about. This is our home. We want to give guests a good time but they have to fit in with our lifestyle. Were a working farm and consequently I don’t do breakfast at 10 o'clock in the morning.”

This understandably practical approach was even more essential in the days when the couple’s children were living at home and were as much a part of the farmstay as their parents.

“We didn’t even have en suites when we first started,” Helen-May reminisces. “We were all living together but it was a different age and guests loved it. They still enjoy it when we have the grandchildren staying – it’s all part of the entertainment! And the children gain so much from the interaction. It widens their world.”

With the sort of success Greenwood enjoys (return guests are a frequent occurrence, some staying for several days at a time) a break for the hosts is essential and must be planned well in advance. Helen-May explains.

“We try to leave ourselves two free nights a week and if we want to take a longer break we need to think at least 12 months ahead. Running a farmstay means you're not free to come and go when you have guests. Once you take a booking that’s it. You have to be here on the farm or in the house mornings and evenings. You have to put aside a lot of your private life. You can’t just accept a last minute invitation to a function.”

Such dedication means that in all the years of offering farmstays, the couple has only twice had to cancel guests due to unforeseen family circumstances, and in both cases reliable alternative accommodation was found.

The enjoyment and relaxation which guests find at Greenwood is there for all to see in the pages of its visitor’s book which Helen-May fondly looks back on.

“We’ve had so many wonderful people stay with us,” she says. “And they’ve provided us with such delightful surprises.”

There was the gentleman who admired a black and white photo of Helen-May’s father with his sheepdog at his side and who asked if he could take a copy of it. He returned to The Netherlands and a few months later a bronze depicting the farmer and sheepdog duo arrived in the mail! Then there was the Russian conductor who arrived in suit and bow tie, didn’t shave for four days, and then donned his formal dress when the time came to face the world again. They’ve had guests arrive in chauffeur-driven limousines and others who’ve turned up on bicycles. One guest who had faced a raft of recent tragedies sat traumatised in front of the fire for three days while Alan kept it fed with logs.

“Eventually she came right,” he says. “I think it was just resting and watching the flames that did it.”

Offering guest accommodation is not a cushy number, whether it’s a farmstay or a
B & B. And if you think all that’s required is fitting out a room in order to make money, you should, in Helen-May’s words, ‘think again’. It’s personal interaction that travellers are after and in the end, being happy to provide it is what will make the difference to your business.

Relating on a personal level with guests takes considerable time and energy and it has to be something you love doing. This is so obviously the case with this genuinely warm Catlins couple for whom offering a farmstay experience is as much about enjoying their guests as it is about their guests enjoying their stay.

“There are just so many wonderful people in the world,” says Alan, “and we've been very lucky to have met thousands of them.”

Top-tips

  • Don't aim to spend the whole day with your guests but do give them ideas of what to see and do in your area. And provide them with a map.
  • If you live off the beaten track, advise guests they will need to arrive as free and independent travellers.
  • Guest wifi is essential.
  • Always ask about your guests’ dietary requirements prior to their arrival.
  • Plan ahead for breaks – the busier you become, the more you will have need of them.
  • Welcome to the house your agents and those on familiarisation tours – word of mouth is your best recommendation.
  • Develop a website.
  • You can start simply and improve your home as you go – just be sure guests know what to expect.
  • Personal ‘escape’ areas in a house with guests are essential (Helen-May has her office and butler’s pantry).
  • If you’re offering an evening meal, bear in mind that the work doesn’t stop with the dining. After guests leave the table, there is still the clearing away to do, and breakfast to plan for the next morning.
  • Check with your local council regarding Health and Safety regulations. If offering meals, you may require a food-handling qualification.

Personal touches

  • Helen-May offers an antipasto selection for guests who are dining with them. This is delivered to the guests’ private living room or in the garden before everyone gathers together for the meal.
  • Guests at Greenwood have their own living spaces which means everyone in the home can enjoy some privacy when they wish.
  • Alan has the garage set up for table tennis and pool.
  • Tea and coffee facilities are set up outside the guest rooms so visitors can make their own hot drinks when they wish.
  • Greenwood doesn’t offer self-catering (and an evening meal only in special circumstances) but its host can personally recommend local dining options.
  • Over the years, Helen-May has been in the habit of sending Greenwood’s guests photos taken during their stay. She says it is a point of contact after they leave, a way of sharing memories, and a reminder the farmstay is there to be enjoyed by anyone guests should care to recommend it to.
  • A library of books is available for guests to share, as is a piano, keyboard, guitar and saxophone. Helen-May and Alan love to hear music being played.

Websites you may find helpful (bear in mind that regulations change over time)

9 things to know before you start a B & B
New Zealand Bed & Breakfast Book
Starting a Small Business - Citizens' Advice

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