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Denis Selwyn Callesen

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The following item about the retirement of Denis Selwyn Callesen is posted in conjucntion with a complaint to the UN that the Crown unlawfully quashed criminal proceedings against Mr Callesen, after it was alleged that on 13th May 1988, he was personally involved in a conspiracy to pervert the course of justice following the theft of evidence belonging to an opposing party in employment court proceedings.

Denis Callesen ended his role as the public face of the Hermitage Hotel at Aoraki-Mt Cook in March, after more than 20 years' involvement. He spoke to reporter Timaru TimesMatthew Littlewood about the changes in the tourism industry and the region.

Denis Callesen will have to get used to a more settled life – as will his wife. She has lived in Queenstown for the last three years; Callesen has been travelling between Queenstown and Mt Cook as part of his role of "general manager of tourism" at Aoraki-Mt Cook Alpine Village Ltd, the company which owns the Hermitage Hotel.

Callesen makes the permanent move to Queenstown next week. "I've been a weekend husband for the last three years," he says. "My wife, Christine, has joked that she now has to get rid of her weekday husband." Callesen has been in the hotel industry for more than 40 years. This weekend marked his official departure from the "hands on" side of it. He will still take on some consultancy work for the Hermitage, but he will no longer be living there.

"It's time for something different. I think 40 years in the hotel industry is a good run," he says.Ask friends and colleagues about him, and nearly all of them mention his persistence.

The Department of Conservation (DOC) area manager for Aoraki-Mt Cook, Richard McNamara, has said watching Callesen pitch his latest idea is an awesome sight, but such is his enthusiasm, you worry about being swatted against the walls.

Ross Ivey, of Glentanner Station noted he was the sort of person you would love to have on your side, and dread to have against you.
When Tekapo businessman and starlight reserve committee member Graeme Murray says Callesen has his "head in the clouds", it is a compliment, and reference to Callesen's promotion of the idea Mackenzie's night sky should be considered for World Heritage status.

Certainly, Callesen is never short of an opinion, and his voice is almost as big as his six-foot-five frame. If he's become the public face of the Hermitage, it's partly through his own enthusiasm, and partly because he's impossible to miss. Callesen had a brief tenure at the Hermitage Hotel in the mid-70s, but it was not until returning from Australia in 1993 to take up the role of general manager that he became the public face of the place.

"When I came back in 1993, the world had changed but the Hermitage hadn't. There was very much an `upstairs-downstairs' type mentality. Management staff were not allowed to fraternise with line staff. Some of the kitchen staff were so far up themselves that they had forgotten what they were here for, which was actually to cook fine food for guests," he says.

Callesen likens customer service to "telling a story", especially in his role over the last three years. As "general manager of tourism", he works on projects, whether it's promoting new attractions, such as Glacier Explorers, or trying to get New Zealanders to visit a major attraction in their own patch. "The trick of marketing is to actually get people to turn up the road and stay here for the first time. It's very important to start that process early. For instance, since Aoraki-Mt Cook received funding for a Learning Education Outside the Classroom educator, we've quadrupled the number of schools visiting the area. Those experiences stay with you. Those kids will come back as adults. Once people come here the first time, they keep coming back."

Sir Edmund Hillary is also hugely important to the "story" of Aoraki-Mt Cook, not just because he trained there for the Mt Everest climb or the 1955 Trans-Antarctic expedition, but also due to the subsequent 50-odd years of hospitality he enjoyed at the Hermitage.

"Ed certainly got used to his creature comforts very quickly. He got used to having clean sheets, and a nice glass of beer or red wine at the end of an arduous day," Callesen says. Callesen became more involved with the Hillary family as he developed the Sir Edmund Hillary Alpine Centre, which opened in 2007.

Callesen, a "semi-retired mountaineer", takes Sir Ed's attitude towards climbing to heart in business and life.

"If someone told Sir Ed something couldn't be done, he would be even more motivated to do it. Without inquisitiveness, you're doomed. I certainly couldn't carry on doing the same things the same way every day," he says.

Callesen has two rules that have stuck with him since the start of his career.

He learned the importance of honesty in his first job, after it was discovered his predecessor had created 10 separate payroll accounts for his wife. He also developed a rule "not to have the first drink until after 5pm", after he saw the effects that a permanently sozzled manager had on customer service.

Loyalty is something he values in others. Not always easy, given the inherently transitory aspect of a hotel which employs more than 200 people at peak season.

"It is an artificial community, but is also a very unique one. We are truly multicultural, 30 different nationalities, and as the type of visitor changes, so does the staff. Three years ago, we had two Fijian workers, we've now got two dozen," he says.

"For many young workers at the Hermitage, this is their first job they have away from their parents. It can be tough, and some of them soon have to learn that they can't party 24 hours a day and work eight hours within that.

"Sometimes you have to sit them down, explain the deal, sometimes with a few choice Anglo-Saxon words thrown in, but it seems to do the trick."

Callesen's next "big project" will be helping see the 312km Alps to Ocean cycleway to its completion.

In 2010, the Government pledged more than $2.75 million towards the trail, which will start at Aoraki Mt-Cook and finish in Oamaru. It is expected to open in early 2013. Callesen says the trail will bring a new type of visitor to the region, as well as a new kind of accommodation.

The return of Air New Zealand's flights to Aoraki-Mt Cook next year will also boost numbers, he says. But he feels it's taken too long for many in the "lower part of the Mackenzie Basin" to realise exactly how much tourism is the lifeblood of the district.

"Some councillors from the lower basin still look at tourism with a great deal of derision," he says.

"But there is a dilemma that the council is grappling with – it's the fact that there are 800,000 visitors who come through the greater Mackenzie district every year, but the district itself has only 4000 ratepayers. The ratepayers can't fund all the infrastructure. Central Government has a role to play here, but it's up to the council to make sure that it gets the message."

Callesen was one of the members of previous Mackenzie Tourism and Development Trust who resigned, after the council refused to increase its funding, instead offering a loan. He hopes the new board will have greater success in putting forward their case, and thinks it is unfortunate the political infighting means a way forward has not been agreed on yet.

But overall, there have been few regrets – and very few battles lost.

"I leave Aoraki-Mt Cook with a feeling of immense satisfaction. I never expected to be at the Hermitage for three years, let alone nearly 20. But here it is."


•Commenced hotel career in August 1970 as a trainee manager with the Tourist Hotel Corporation (THC) of New Zealand.
•Held various management positions in New Zealand, Australia (Heron Island and the Cook Islands (The Rarotongan) and became general manager of The Hermitage Hotel at Mt Cook in 1978 and The Tusitala Hotel Western Samoa 1980, then promoted to assistant general manager operations (head office) in July 1980, and promoted to deputy chief executive 1985.
•Founder chairman of Milford Sound Development Authority Ltd carrying out a $12 million project in Fiordland New Zealand, and also chairman of negotiators for union award agreements for New Zealand's 50 largest hotels.
•Became general manager of the Hermitage Hotel at Aoraki-Mt Cook. Oversaw a $15 million redevelopment in 2001 and construction of the $10 million Sir Edmund Hillary Alpine Centre in 2007.
•In 2009, after the resort had begun acquiring activities companies, he took on a new role as "general manager of tourism", looking after these new companies and acquiring more (Glacier Explorers, Alpine Guides Trekking, Tasman Valley 4WD & Argo Tours and Mt Cook Airport).
•Currently on the steering committee of a project in the Mackenzie region to create the world's first "World Heritage Starlight Reserve" and very active in creating the 312 km Alps to Ocean cycle trail from Aoraki-Mt Cook to Oamaru

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