Homestay business takes PM's advice

Look After Me founder Julia Charity
Look After Me founder Julia Charity

Julia Charity says she's had a ''pretty typical entrepreneurial journey''.

''I've been burnt out, ripped off and broke. You just learn to never let anything compromise the dream.''

The Rotorua molecular biologist's goal of creating New Zealand's largest homestay network very nearly came to naught when the website design company she had hired turned out to be not all it claimed.

Charity paid the firm $15,000 - all her savings - to build the functionality for her new online venture, Look After Me.

''They got a student straight out of university to have a crack. It didn't work.

''I had a big lesson in trusting your supplier and doing due diligence on who you hop into bed with.''

The costly mistake was devastating, she said.

Then ''right when I was in bits on the kitchen floor'' a colleague and her mum came to the rescue and provided the funds to get Look After Me launched just ahead of the Rugby World Cup in 2011 and two years after she first hatched the idea.

Charity now has a new private investor on board who will hold a 10 per cent stake (although she has not yet named who it is). That's come after she recently had the business formally valued at $900,000.

She also last month bought out former employee Amanda Hamill who was given 5 per cent of the company in its early days instead of wages and former mentors Dave Moskowitz and Stefan Korn from WebFund who had a 10 per cent stake instead of being paid for their advice.

Look After Me works like other accommodation sites such as Book-A-Bach and Holiday Houses, except that its providers are offering spare rooms, guest wings or self-contained units in their own homes.

The numbers of providers have grown to just over 200 with a further 130 or so pending.

Homestay tourism is a growing trend around the world and appeals to the baby-boomer generation in particular, Charity says.

''There's a tidal wave who will be looking to travel, and they want their travel dollar to stretch further than it used to."

They also want safety and security, amenities of a certain standard, and experiences. ''It's an experiential economy.''

Part of that is activities-based travel, and Charity has high hopes for New Zealand's burgeoning cycle tourism sector.

Look After Me is an official accommodation provider for Rotorua's Thermal by Bike trail, and has its sights set on the country's other 22 Great Rides.

''That means as the cycle trails grow there's a platform or network where home owners can help support the trails.''

Recent figures from New Zealand Cycle Trails show visitor numbers are growing exponentially. Comparing January 2014 to the same time last year, the Hauraki Rail Trail's numbers grew 47 per cent, the Waikato River Trail was up 30 per cent, and the Mountains to Sea trail saw an 81 per cent rise.

Look After Me helps its mostly over-50s providers set themselves up, coaching them through aspects of the business such as guest booking templates.

Charity sees plenty of other verticals to expand the business into, including gay and lesbian tourism, a budget version, and a service connecting indigenous peoples with each other.

But in the meantime she's taking the ''sage advice'' of the cycle trail's greatest champion, Prime Minister John Key, whom she cornered at a Rotorua business meeting.

''He got the vision straight away, [but] he suggested prove it in your local community.''

Charity believes she's got her market right, as Look After Me's advertisements on Facebook targeting women over 50 see the phone running red hot.

But it's been a long, hard road to get to this point, she says.

''I've got dreams bigger than Africa but you have to get real about what's possible and do it, and do it really well.'' 

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