This is a story ripe for a riveting Australian film or television mini-series.
Along with her partner Luke, Dani Rourke is now the 6th generation to run the Pinetrees Lodge on Lord Howe Island, a world heritage site two hours from Sydney.
Dani’s great-great-great-grandparents arrived on Lord Howe Island in 1842, and acquired the land around Pinetrees in 1848 for 2 tons of potatoes, traded with whaling ships and first took visitors in the 1890s. Each generation had a story to tell, including Uncle Bertie who stowed away on a whaling ship, reached England, and then went down on the Titanic.
Since settlement, generations of family members have worked and lived on the same land, making Pinetrees one of the oldest family businesses, hotels and restaurants in Australia. From 1976, Dani’s mother Pixie Rourke and aunt Kerry McFadyen ran Pinetrees with their husbands for more than 30 years.
Following the passing of her mother is 2010, Dani, Luke and their two young children set off for a sea change to Lord Howe after many years away. Although having grown up on the island as a child, Dani left Lord Howe for boarding school and university, subsequently working as a lawyer for almost ten years.
Taking over the family business was not easy, and Dani describes the still-recent process as emotional.
“It was very hard, and quite an emotional thing. But when it actually came time to make that transition it all fell into place relatively easily. So I was really grateful. I was negotiating with my aunt and uncle who had been in partnership with my Mum and Dad, and these things are quite hard. My Dad is still involved, and a day doesn’t go by when he doesn’t tell me what I’m doing wrong, but what’s infuriating is that he’s often right!” Dani says.
A significant challenge has been acclimatising to the isolation. With no mobile phone reception, and very patchy internet – locals and visitors alike are forced to live on island time. Yet far from being a negative, Dani says most guests see it as an opportunity for a true holiday.
“People come on holidays and really do have a holiday. It’s just like the world used to work. And if someone really wants to find you they can, they just need to call the landline. Occasionally you’re in the general store, the one store on the island, and the phone will ring and it’s for you,” Dani laughs.
In an online world though, there are difficulties that come with running a business. “It’s not that long ago that there weren’t telephones on Lord Howe at all – in fact phones weren’t connected until the mid 1980s. “My parents ran the business using telegrams – they’d ride their bicycles up to the post office and send and receive telegrams. It was really very archaic in those days.” Dani says there are certainly things that keep her awake at night, but she tries to focus on what she can control, and not worry about the things she can’t.
The bookings are all managed out of Sydney, where Pinetrees has a travel agency as part of the business. Currently reservations can only be made via their agency, but Dani says the time will soon come when they investigate a broader web presence. “We’re certainly aware that in looking at booking properties online, when customers realise they can’t book online they look at the next one. So it’s certainly something we’ll be looking at changing soon.”
In transitioning the ownership and management of the business, Dani says her Dad has been a great resource and his knowledge is invaluable.
“He’s seen it all and done it all many times, and he’s got very good judgment and a lot of experience with the technical side of the business, which I have very limited knowledge about. So he knows why the hot water does or doesn’t work, he knows why the bore does or doesn’t work, and he knows exactly what’s happening with the power. So these are things that are all obviously critical when you live on an island.”
Managing a young family is yet another challenge, and with their oldest daughter now just at school, Dani says she is learning to accept that it’s not possible to do everything perfectly. “You can’t do everything you want to do at work, and you can’t do everything you want to do at home – and that’s just going to have to be ok, you just have to accept that ‘good enough’ is going to have to be good enough. Trying to be a perfectionist with all these things would drive you insane,” she says.
Dani also believes it’s paramount to learn to trust that other people can do the job as well as you can, and to believe in your staff.
“The other thing is that working with family does actually make things easier. Working with Luke means we can share work and home, and I think we would probably go mad if we just had to do one or other,” she adds.
In looking to the future, Dani is hopeful that one day her girls will have an interest in taking over Pinetrees. On that point, she says it’s never too soon to start planning for the future, and is conscious of not leaving succession planning until it’s too late.
“As custodians of a family business that has run for over 160 years, we have a genuine responsibility to safeguard this piece of paradise for future generations. It’s very special to have such a long connection to our land and business, and to pass them on to our girls in 30 years’ time would be the proudest moment of my life”.