The Gables is an establishment that traces its history since 1902. For Managing Director and Business Owner Jessica Souter, it’s a tough and exciting challenge to preserve a significant piece of Melbourne history. The garden was laid out by no less than William Guilfoyle, the landscape architect of the Royal Botanic Gardens in Melbourne.
The Gables has a rich and colourful past, which includes being an illegal gambling house in the 30’s. “It was a sly-grog shop. It was a speakeasy. So, I'm a caretaker of this beautiful venue,” Jessica claimed. In fact, 1920’s famous Australian gangster, Squizzy Taylor, held a lavish 21st birthday party for his girlfriend in this venue. Keeping the genuineness of the place is a tall order for Jessica. As such, “Everything I do, whenever I renovate or do anything around here, I try to do it as authentically and respectfully towards the house as I can,” she declared.
Jessica took over The Gables in 1995. Owning a property like this has been on her mind since she was young, having the entrepreneurial spirit within her at an early age. “When I was a teenager at school, I saw someone building an event venue. I used to drive past it on my way to school when I was being dropped off by my dad in the car. I looked at it and decided then that I wanted to have an event venue of my own,” the entrepreneur and mother of four shared.
Because her dad was an entrepreneur himself, they were encouraged within the family to start and run their businesses. She also had ample training that prepared her for the venture she had to take on. Before The Gables, Jessica studied hotel management and earned a Diploma of Business in Hospitality Management. “I had been working in hospitality in a managerial position before I took over The Gables. I had early training from the American pre-opening team at the Hyatt when it first opened in Melbourne. I went on to work for Kevin Donovan of Donovans before coming here.”
Despite her education and work experience, she found that having a business of her own was a tough responsibility to carry out. The early years were particularly difficult for Jessica as she had to be hands-on with everything around the mansion. “I was here completely alone and did everything myself. I did all the viewings, did all the phones, all the events,” she described. However, doing things by herself also helped her develop a lot of skills. “I run a small business, so I have to do absolutely everything. I am a jack of all trades,” she laughingly added.
Shifting from being employed to having a business of her own was a big transition for Jessica. She remarked, “It was lonely. I used to working and having fun with lots of people around me. All of a sudden, I was alone like literally here in the mansion by myself.”
At that time, she also lived in the mansion. Thus, running the business almost round the clock was quite overwhelming for her. “That's the other thing. I lived here as well. So, I worked seven days a week, day and night for seven years or eight years, living here, working here, until I had children,” Jessica revealed.
The other difficulties she encountered are the increasing costs of prices and the massive shortage of quality staff who want to work in hospitality. As a service-oriented business, she needed to stay on top of her game by getting the right people and leading her team. Also, she had to deal with customers with different personalities and demands, making sure that she caters to their varying needs.
Even when she already had people working with her, the life of an entrepreneur can still be lonesome. Good thing that she found some great company with fellow EO members. “When I joined EO Melbourne, I felt less isolated. It's given me a bit more confidence now that I know what's going on in the world. It’s nice to find out that everybody else is suffering from the same things, so that makes me feel less weird. I've learned something out of every event. I think I still have a long way to go,” Jessica quipped.
Whatever she has taken from EO, she brings them back to her business to help develop her team. Those learnings enabled her to provide a business environment where the family culture thrives in the workplace. “We're a team. We all have a goal, and we work towards it. We're total hospitality professionals, so we have a five-star background that we fall back on to make sure that we're providing top quality service and food. How do I lead them? We are like a family,” she declared.
Jessica and her team have withstood the challenges of the business for decades. It has led them to their wins, growing the business along the way. According to Jessica, “We've endured. We've changed and adapted and developed new revenue streams. We've been profitable every year and increased our revenue every year for 24 years. We have brought in new incentives, like our high tea, and opened up a tea room, other than just events, which have helped us.”
With that, she is hopeful as she brings her team forward to many more years with The Gables. “We have a real niche market. We're going to play on all of our strengths, focus on fantastic customer service and food, try to keep up with technology and come up with some concepts that other people aren't doing,” revealed Jessica.
Now that she’s no longer living in the mansion, Jessica has managed to have some semblance of work-life balance. Also, her kids have grown up, and they help out at The Gables on a part-time basis. Spending time with them, going out with friends, and swimming keeps her preoccupied outside of work. In the winter month, Jessica and the family go away and travel.
Running a business takes a lot of hard work, according to Jessica. But she’s enjoying what she’s doing, particularly that her business helps create fond memories for families. She recalled instances of clients sharing with her their experiences at The Gables.
“It has been running as a wedding reception venue since the 20’s. Yesterday, I had a bride. She got married here in 1963, and she brought her photo in to show me. I almost never do a function here where there isn't someone here who was not married here. We do 60th wedding anniversaries of people who were married here before. Some of them get to come back here, and we get to chat with them. They love it. They feel it's a piece of Melbourne history,” Jessica exclaimed.
Stories like this inspire Jessica to keep going and continue improving themselves for their patrons. Their dedication to the brand is one of the factors that kept them this long in the industry. In fact, they have survived the changing landscape while other establishments like theirs are no longer around. What she loves most is that it’s a family-oriented venue that enables families to celebrate special occasions in their lives.
While startup businesses face the tough phase of going beyond the first five years of operation and grow their venture, Jessica’s challenge was a different kind altogether. For her, it’s making the brand relevant after all these decades. She helps create memories for families who come to her event venue to celebrate milestones in their lives. Not only that, she has the crucial responsibility of ensuring the preservation of her establishment’s rich heritage. Enduring all those difficulties is an achievement in itself for Jessica. Thus, her contribution will always be part of Melbourne’s history, a legacy that will be remembered by future generations.