This month, Business Minds talks to Kate Mitchell, Director/Owner of the City Centre Motor Inn, Armidale, which is owned and operated by siblings: Kate, Anna and Phill. The City Centre Motor Inn is the first accommodation provider in Australia to be certified carbon neutral under the National Carbon Offset Standards (NCOS). Recently, they won the Excellence in Sustainability Award at the Armidale Regional Business Awards and were finalists in the HM Awards for their Environmental Programme.
Tell us a little bit about yourself.
I studied Business in Brisbane, worked in the Army Reserves, and ended up studying part of my degree in Denmark. I then had a very corporate career in Brisbane, but it wasn’t the right fit for me, so I headed off to Canada to learn how to snowboard. I didn’t earn much working in the snowfields, so I applied for hunting lodge jobs out of season. Eventually, I ended up in luxury hunting lodges as a head cook – even though I’d never done it before.
What led you back to Armidale?
My parents purchased the Armidale Tourist Park in 2000. I came to visit to reset after my time in Canada and ended up staying about five years. There was a moment, working for Dad, when I said, “I really want to work for this man. He comes up with an idea and just makes it happen.” That’s the advantage of small business: it allows you to be agile.
How did you end up operating a motel?
When my parents sold the Tourist Park in 2016, I started travelling around Australia in a campervan. Phill contacted me, asking me if I wanted to come in on a motel. So, I headed home for a new adventure. Our parents are part of the business as silent investors, so it’s truly a family affair.
Why the City Centre Motor Inn?
It was built in the 1960s but hardly touched since the 1970s. It is solid, with really good quality furnishings. We saw an opportunity to bring it back to its former glory.
We bought it in 2018 and thought we knew what to expect, but the reality was very different: different customers, trends and expectations. We are still learning!
What have been your biggest challenges?
We’re still in the process of refurbishing the rooms, so cash flow to continue developing is a challenge. So far, 10 rooms have been fully refurbished, including the bathrooms. We’ve done another 10 bedrooms, and another 10 rooms will be completed by the end of the year.
What does it take to be accredited as carbon neutral?
It starts with analysing each area of your business, determining exactly what goes into your emissions, the car you drive, travel, and then you offset to a certified account according to the NCOS. We had help from Pangolin Associates to identify and calculate the emissions.
We offset our carbon footprint by sponsoring a wind farm in India. Then to reduce our emissions, we’ve replaced our antiquated boiler system with an air-to-water Q-Ton heat pump, replaced ducted heating with environmentally-conscious reverse-cycle air-conditioners, installed a 32 kW solar power system, replaced old lights with LEDs, implemented 100% cloud-based technologies to reduce paper waste. Our guests can also choose to offset their stay by donating to the Armidale Tree Group wildlife corridor project.
It was surprisingly achievable.
What are some of the other changes you have made?
We’re trying to push industry boundaries, trying new approaches and technologies. We’ve installed new software and are working with a developer to further automate our coded locks.
We recently commissioned a mural by artist Sarah Hickey, dedicated to the “Amazons”, the first ladies’ fire brigade in Australia, located in Armidale from 1901- 1905 and captained by Minnie Webb.
We’re working with the wonderful Buddha Belly, who are running their own kitchen from the inn and providing our guests with a beautiful and healthy menu. They are currently serving breakfast, which is open to the public and will increase service to lunch and dinner soon.
We are setting up composting, putting in a herb garden and plan to establish a sustainable native plant garden.
Our goal is for Armidale to have the first certified carbon neutral CBD in Australia. We think we can do it if we make it easy for people. We’re in talks with the Department of Environment, One Giant Leap Australia, the Oorala Centre and ARC to hold a carbon-neutral symposium, and other STEAM-related events.
STEAM events are often about space and digital technology. Our approach will be to integrate the wisdom of Indigenous Australian cultures into both space travel and sustainability. We have also set ourselves the goal of sending 48 kids, 24 of whom will be Indigenous, to Space Camp USA in 2020.
What advice would you give someone just starting out?
Just say yes and learn how to do it as you go.
What inspires you?
I think the meaning of life is to find joy in your life as it is now.
Thank you, Kate.