Scientist finds her calling in homestay businesses

Creative entrepreneur Julia Charity has launched a digital hotel concept to help deal with hordes...
Creative entrepreneur Julia Charity has launched a digital hotel concept to help deal with hordes of visitors to Dunedin. Photo: Edith Leigh Photography
Dunedin entrepreneur Julia Charity has come up with the novel concept of a "pop-up" digital 1000-bed hotel in the city to cope with the influx of visitors during major events.

Dr Charity is now looking for at least 400 homeowners willing to host guests for summer events, such as the Ed Sheeran concerts, and beyond.

The scientist-turned-entrepreneur is using the principle of the "sharing economy" to offer the accommodation and hopes people will "get" the concept.

In 2011, she founded Look After Me, an accommodation network that helped homeowners convert under-utilised space to "hotel-at-home"-style guest rooms.

The company has now launched a new digital platform where the proposed digital hotel is accessed by a digital reception area. The site will have new "rooms" added to it as new hosts list with the company.

Working full-time on her business is a far cry from Dr Charity’s previous career in science.

Originally from Christchurch, she completed a doctorate in plant molecular biology and  worked in that field for 17 years, mostly for Crown research institute Scion in Rotorua.

In 2009, after what she said she could only describe as a vision, she decided she wanted to start a homestay network — "which was a ridiculous thing for a scientist to say", she said,  laughing.

But the idea persisted and she spent a year at night school teaching herself how to run a business.

In 2011, she ended up having a meeting with start-up investment fund WebFund and was told she was launching in three weeks.

That date was about nine months earlier than she intended but the launch of Look After Me went ahead in July that year, ahead of the Rugby World Cup.

Since then, it has hosted more than 9000 guest nights, typically in furnished rooms where guests are looked after by homeowners who have to meet certain standards.

The majority of rooms are in the North Island and Dunedin will be a new market for the company.

Look After Me had worked with event providers and hosted guests for Ragamuffin and Te Matatini in Rotorua, Womad in New Plymouth, Fieldays in Hamilton, Art Deco in Napier and the Ellerslie Flower Show in Christchurch, Dr Charity said.

She already had nearly 300 people on a waiting list for accommodation in Dunedin, especially for Easter, when Ed Sheeran is performing at Forsyth Barr Stadium.

"It’s a digital hotel so we can pop up as many rooms as we think we need. If the first 1000 rooms become occupied, we’ll pop up some more.

"Even if initial occupancy for Ed’s fans is modest, but the rooms help with other events like Robbie Williams, the Masters Games or for parents coming to settle their kids into uni, then it’s all been worthwhile," she said.

A huge year lies ahead for Forsyth Barr Stadium with the likes of global pop superstars Ed Sheeran and Pink performing.

Dunedin Venues Management marketing and communication manager Kim Barnes said it would be the busiest period for concerts since the venue opened in 2011.

The largest crowds were expected at Easter for the three Ed Sheeran concerts. Previous concerts showed about 58% of concert-goers came from outside Dunedin.

Dr Charity said her business had been a big learning curve, particularly when her initial website "crashed and burned" and she had to start again. The second version was released a year later.

She was fussy about ensuring rooms were pleasant and met minimum standards, and that hosts understood their obligations in terms of hygiene, tax and insurance.

Dr Charity moved to Dunedin last year, following her partner, who moved south several years ago after getting a job at the University of Otago as a mathematics and statistics senior lecturer.

After she moved, it became increasingly apparent that, at times, Dunedin got "pretty full". While that was great news, the question was what to do if the city did reach full capacity.

Dr Charity said every good business looked for an opportunity to serve people.

"I’m the new kid here. I’m an entrepreneur. It’s my job to look at opportunities and realise them for the good of the community."

It had only been through living in the city that she had come to understand that a concept like a digital hotel might work. Her daughter also recently moved to Dunedin.

At this stage, Dr Charity did not intend taking the hotel concept national, preferring to start slowly.

"Let’s try it for Dunedin and see how it goes," she said.

"I’m really looking forward to the ... opportunity and just to test it out. It’s a very big year; all of us are going to need to work together," she said.

New Zealand’s high standards for how it treated visitors needed to be upheld and that was why she was so selective, with a vetting process for homeowners. She urged homeowners to get in touch if they were interested.

Outside of work, Dr Charity "absolutely" loved Dunedin on many levels, including the festivals and the fashion scene.

"After living in a smaller town, it really feels so much bigger and more urban and I think I was ready for it. I’m really loving it.

"Probably what I love most is exploring ... every weekend going and discovering places. I’m having a really great time exploring the region," she said.

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