4 Jun 2021

From hotel to NZ's main quarantine facility - Jet Park quarantine managers give first interview

8:28 am on 4 June 2021

The managers of Auckland's Jet Park Hotel say turning their business into the country's main quarantine facility was nothing short of terrifying.

Jet Park Hotel.

Jet Park Hotel. Photo: RNZ / Katie Todd

They've succeeded in keeping more than 900 Covid-19 cases out of the community - embracing PPE, teamwork and sweet treats hurled through windows during their 15 months on the frontline.

The innocuous family-owned hotel nestled off the main road to Auckland Airport boasts a restaurant, lounge bar, pool and lush green outdoor spaces, yet Property and Assets manager Ashley Schierhout said it now has some of the country's most reluctant people checking in.

"You see people arriving and they are scared, some of them, arriving at a quarantine facility and that stigmatism," he said.

"I think after day two or three it's a complete change of heart. They suddenly realise that we're not treating them like patients, we're treating them like guests."

Group General Manager Nicole Lawson said staff were keen to be part of the country's Covid-19 response when the government put out a call for help in early 2020.

They didn't know how huge their job would be.

"We didn't ask to be the quarantine facility. We just simply said that we were willing to help. So [it's taken] a lot of hard work," she said.

"I still remember that very first day. We were very fortunate to have very incredible people from the Ministry of Health help us set up."

As tall metal fences went up around the hotel and the conference rooms transformed into a medical ops centre, staff took on completely different day-to-day routines.

They've adapted to PPE, daily health checks and briefings, weekly Covid-19 swabs, and a infection prevention and control measures.

"Our team - they stepped up. They were amazing. Hospitality people are not trained to do all that. Yet they've done an amazing job," Lawson said.

They've also started sharing their facilities - and collaborating - with the defence force, police, aviation security, government and healthcare workers.

At any given time, there's about 200 people working at the Jet Park.

Meanwhile Lawson said staff face extreme scrutiny of their health, and they have given up face-to-face interaction with guests.

"That's probably been the hardest thing. When you're in hospitality normally you thrive off that. You thrive off guest interaction. Now of course, we have to maintain our distance. You don't have a busy restaurant and you're seeing guests going 'hi, how are you,' and chatting away," she said.

Instead, staff have found novel ways to communicate with people and ensure they don't feel locked away.

Of the 4000 guests since it became a quarantine facility, most stay for 14 days but some have been there for "well over" a month, Lawson said.

Jet Park has welcome packs for every guest, a special TV channel for quarantine activities and an online virtual assistant.

(L-R) Group General Manager Nicole Lawson,  Property and Assets manager Ashley Schierhout, Group Human Relations Manager Sonja Herrmann.

(L-R) Group General Manager Nicole Lawson, Property and Assets manager Ashley Schierhout, Group Human Relations Manager Sonja Herrmann. Photo: RNZ / Katie Todd

Schierhout said there are opportunities to get out in the fresh air and sunlight in strictly limited numbers, and staff dedicated to helping families through their stay.

"Some people even just ring our receptionists and want to chat. And the receptionists just sit there and take it. And these people want to find out just the most minor things, but it's just the interaction of talking, and being personable," he said.

Group Human Relations Manager Sonja Herrmann said staff celebrate guest's anniversaries and birthdays as well as holidays - and the occasional spontaneous occasion.

"One time we dressed up and we threw ice creams up to the room. We can't go and physically hand them out but we literally pelted them up to the windows. Some fell back down but most guests got an ice cream which was a bit of fun," she said.

Everyone who has stayed at the Jet Park quarantine hotel has eventually walked out healthy.

Herrmann said there are plenty of reminders that make all the effort worthwhile.

"I attended a concert in the town hall some time ago and there was just one moment where I realised that this was not something that was possible in most countries - and that we had been a part of the effort to make a crowd able to get together," she said.

"Then just looking at the artwork on the guests windows when you come into work and seeing the beautiful expressions of creativity and thanks. And we've received some beautiful letters from guests just expressing how exceptional their stay has been ... it makes it worth it, realising we are making a positive difference."

Beyond Covid-19, the future of the Auckland Airport Jet Park hotel is unclear, although staff concede it has probably changed for good.

In the meantime Lawson said she was "incredibly proud" of her team who turn up to work each day, fully committed to keeping the country safe.

"Our people on the ground are the unsung heroes," Herrmann said.

"Cleaning, cooking meals, delivering them up to rooms. Everyone in that hotel has made a sacrifice to be there, to work there. And they're doing it with such pride and such humility."

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