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Date: July 10, 2009
Author: Graeme Stilwell
Images: KAY NELSON.JPG
For further information: Kay Nelson, Chief Executive, Aoraki Polytechnic (03) 684 0846
or Graeme Stilwell 0274 322 590. Email email@example.com
Polytechnic’s new chief executive is
in love with Timaru
Kay Nelson is a toiler who gets results.
The educational innovator who led a Wellington-based hospitality and tourism school to
become New Zealand’s first Centre of Vocational Excellence says being appointed chief
executive of Aoraki Polytechnic has fulfilled her career and introduced her to a “wonderful
and embracing” town and region.
The world-travelled inspirational leader counts visits by culinary celebrities Gordon
Ramsay and Jamie Oliver, who came to her hospitality school to choose students to
accompany him on a New Zealand tour, among her career highlights. But she measures her
success and the success of her students not in celebrity terms but as a direct result of hard
work by their tutors and institutional leaders.
So while she says she has never felt more at home than she does in Timaru – “a place I can see myself living in for the rest of my life” – the move does not represent any slowing in
Quite to the contrary.
“Being appointed chief executive gives me the opportunity to identify even more closely
with the vocation I love and more directly influence the entire institute in providing for the
needs of the community,” she said.
Ms Nelson, 51, who is presently completing a Master of Business Administration degree
through Massey University, took up her position as head of Aoraki Polytechnic in mid-June.
Leaving her position as Director of the School of Hospitality and Tourism at Wellington
Institute of Technology (WelTec), Scottish-born Ms Nelson showed her true dedication to
education some years ago when she turned down a six-figure salary and penthouse
accommodation in downtown Wellington managing a new $50 million five-star hotel. The
owners of the swanky new establishment had sought out Ms Nelson and made several
attempts to “head-hunt” her.
They were keen to capitalise on her extensive career in hospitality that started at the
Royal Garden Hotel in Kensington after the then teenager returned to Scotland for a holiday.
Marriage followed in London and soon after came a return to Wellington where Ms
Nelson took up a position as front office manager for the James Cook Hotel after completing
the Hotel and Catering Industry Training Board’s Diploma in Hotel Operation.
Daughter Sarah was born in 1981 and then followed an illustrious hospitality career that
included a move to Auckland, the ownership of a Wainuiomata suburban mall 65-seater
coffee shop, appointment as manager of the Plaza International Hotel in Auckland, a position
as reservations manager of the Tourist Hotel Corporation, and a managerial position with
Logan Park, part of the Vacation Hotel chain.
“Then came a life-changing event for me. My dear Mum, who lives in Wellington, had a
heart attack. I quickly moved back there to be near her and help her recover.
“That move turned out to be the start of my career in the vocational education.”
Taking a position at the Hutt Valley Polytechnic, Ms Nelson was appointed tutor in hotel
front office management – “without doubt, the best job I had ever had”.
“I had 16 to 18 excited young people into whom I could instil a passion in hospitality training.”
Second daughter, Kelsie, was born in 1995.
In 1999, as acting Head of Department of Hospitality and Tourism, Hutt Valley
Polytechnic, the “worst thing that ever happened” to Ms Nelson came with the death of her
“To grieve, I just threw myself into work.
“I would work 12 hours a day and all day Saturday trying to build the school.”
She was appointed head of the school in 2000.
Following Hutt Valley Polytechnic’s amalgamation with the Central Institute of
Technology to form Wellington Institute of Technology (WelTec), the larger institute
restructured into centres, one centre being the hairdressing and beauty therapy, business,
tourism and hospitality centre. At its head was Ms Nelson.
The 2008 assessment as a centre of vocational excellence followed her and her staff’s six-year focus on that award and came from a panel of external industry, academic and
business experts who judged against a set of internationally accepted criteria based on
those used in the United Kingdom to judge centres of vocational excellence.
It was, in Ms Nelson’s words, a dream come true.
“The team of tutors and support staff had lived and breathed this dream for six years
and we couldn’t be more delighted to be acknowledged for our consistent standard of
Gazing thoughtfully from her new office overlooking Arthur Street, she is delighted to be
“The warmth of the welcome here was so unexpected. I feel so embraced.
“I love this place.”
It is hard to imagine this vocational educator doing anything but work, and by her own
admission she has often been counselled by colleagues “to get some more balance” into her
A keen swimmer and aqua jogger, Ms Nelson is looking forward to Timaru’s new aquatic
centre where some of that balance might be achieved.
“In the meantime, we all have work to do to continue to enhance Aoraki Polytechnic’s reputation as an excellent vocational education provider for this community.”
Moving in to her new office – Aoraki
Polytechnic’s new chief executive Kay
Nelson says her appointment gives her
the opportunity to identify even more
closely with the vocation she loves and
more directly influence the entire institute
in providing for the needs of the