BLS interview with The Ravington, part 3
Derek continues his interview with Amber Gustafson the co-owner of The Ravington and former celebrity wedding planner from Los Angeles, California.
Amber Talks about the History of Centerton and the Look of the Ravington
Derek: Welcome back to the Business Leadership Series, our guest today is Amber Gustafson, co-owner of The Ravington and a celebrity wedding planner. Amber, let’s talk about The Ravington, the building itself. I see the vision for this, I’m excited about it, I’ve had the chance to actually tour your building, and I think my favorite part about it is just the rich history of this place.
Amber: The history is so deep and so beautiful. So today, Centerton is thought of as a bedroom community, for the community of Bentonville. Bentonville is kind of the epicenter of the business in Northwest Arkansas. Today, Centerton is filled with a bunch of subdivisions but there is this tiny little strip on Main Street of about five historic buildings. As we started digging into the history of our building in particular, and just the town of Centerton in general, we have learnt so much that we’re turning it around and making it part of the story of the renovation of The Ravington. So in the early 1910s, Centerton was booming because of the apple orchards in Benton County. It was a thriving community; there were many thousands of people living in Centerton.
There were hotels, there were banks, there were schools and there was our building, which is 293 North Main Street. It was built as the original mercantile for the town and it was the hardware store, the deli, just kind of the epicenter of where the commerce was happening in Centerton. In the 1910s, an apple blight hit Benton County and destroyed the apple orchards and the town of Centerton pretty much died because this crop died. In the 1920s, the Great Depression hit and further decimated the area and the town shrunk to about 500 people. So over, basically 100 years, the building has stood proud and strong. I mean, we’ve been punching through the concrete in the building, trying to put in walls and it’s the most solid thing anybody’s ever touched.
But over the years it was- some of the older residents of Centerton talk about buying their Levi’s there in the ’40s, in the ’50s. So it was the deli, the hardware store and then in the ’80s, randomly enough, it was a factory that created lucky rabbit feet key chains. And I know we all had them as kids, I had a purple rabbit foot-
Derek: We all had to have one.
Amber: -that I would rub against my cheek. So basically, the owner of this factory would buy dead rabbits from the Pel-Freeze factory here in Northwest Arkansas. They would take these rabbit feet and they would dip them in these huge vats of dye and they would turn them into rabbits feet key chains. I heard, kind of through the grapevine the other day, I met an older gentleman who grew up here; and he used to ride his horse and hitch it out front, there was a hitching post out front here. He said that apparently, I think maybe Peta or some animal rights activists- there was a lawsuit of some sort. So I don’t know the true story on that; all I know is the rabbits feet are no longer made in America, I believe [laughs]. I think they’re now made in China, if they’re still made.
After that factory, there was a beauty salon here, at one point there was a Methodist Church meeting here in the building and there was, when we bought it, it was an antique mall. As we are renovating it, we are utilizing everything that we’re finding in the building. The materials are beautiful and the wood flooring that we’re bringing into the building – we’re bringing in a historical element in the fact that we took old vinegar vats from factories in Benton County, we’re milling them down to eight-inch wide planks, and we’re putting down 6,000 square feet of hardwood flooring. Just the story of the beauty – that we’re using old vinegar vets that were used in this community to kind of – that’s what the community was living on with the apple industry, the apples were used to make the vinegar. Now we’re taking these vats and we’re turning them into floors, people are going to celebrate and dance on them. We’re really excited by just that story, so we’re really excited about the renovation.
Derek: That’s amazing. Tell us a little about the decor that you have with some of the pieces you’re using and where they’re from. I think a lot of that’s really cool as well.
Amber: We are very proud of some of the pieces we’re bringing in. So, first and foremost, Eric and I are borderline obsessed with architectural salvage. For so many reasons, one is, the pieces are so beautiful, these 100, 200 year old things that we’re bringing in. Wood isn’t what it used to be anymore. All the materials are different now because wood is not as gorgeous as it used to be because we’re bringing it in from these pine forests that are just quickly ground and quickly cut down. So the decor in The Ravington is going to be a mixture of really beautiful and historical elements with gorgeous, modern updates.
We’re keeping The Ravington a little bit on the neutral side. In the interior, for instance, we pulled the plaster off the walls to expose the brick walls. We’re painting the original tin tiles on the ceiling white again and hanging chandeliers. Some of the things we’re bringing in- we’re bringing in antique church pews from the church. They’re probably about a hundred and twenty years old and we’re putting them on wheels. We’re painting them bright turquoise and that’s just kind of this little pop of color were bringing in. It’s just kind of a- you can wheel them around and do whatever you want with these pews. You can put them out in a courtyard as benches or you can put them facing each other with a coffee table in the middle and have a seating area near the bar. We are building bars with some of the old 100 year old wood that we pulled off some of the ceilings. The bars will be on wheels so they can be wheeled around and put in any configuration as well.
We are building a backdrop against one wall and that backdrop could be used as either a ceremony backdrop for a wedding or, if it’s a fundraiser or a gala, that could be the stage backdrop. We have this incredible 200 year old door from a palace in India that’s 11 feet tall and we named him the Maharajah. He needs a name because it’s just the most beautiful piece of architectural salvage we’ve ever come across. We’re bringing in these old doors and we’re bringing in old windows. We’re building a wall of windows up in one of our mezzanine areas where you can still see out and people can see in, but it kind of gives it an element of privacy. There are these old divided light encasement windows from farmhouses in America. Everything that we’re putting in is incredibly thought out, very detail heavy, very authentic.
For instance, one of the sink vanities in one of our six restrooms is an antique sewing table. So we’re mounting the sink on top of this sewing table with the big, beautiful iron base. We’re putting the faucet on there as well, so just the sink in itself is a piece of American history. It’s a Singer sewing machine and a hundred years ago women were making their families clothes on it. So every piece going into The Ravington is thoroughly thought out and special and beautiful and unique and we’re very excited about that.
Derek: You paint a beautiful picture; this is more than just a little renovation. This is a big project.
Amber: This is our Magnum Opus, we feel. [laughs] We are building a ten thousand square foot art installation, we feel. We get a little crazy. We will go in at night- we live very close by. So we’ll literally go in with a bottle of wine and we just design, we get a little crazy and it works, I mean it works. We’ll go in one night and we’ll think, “Well what if we put the stained glass windows up here? Oh my God, that’s the most amazing”, like, “Why didn’t we think of that before?”. So it’s really fun and it’s definitely- it’s going to be spectacular and we’re very excited to share this piece of history with our community. We’re really in love with just being back home in Northwest Arkansas. We are really loving just this community of Centerton, it’s very family oriented. It’s a tight community; it has just a great community feel. We go to City Hall meetings, town meetings and everyone is just very excited about growth and about a thriving community. It’s a great place to raise children. We’re so happy.
Derek: So you sold a successful celebrity wedding planning business in Los Angeles. You uprooted, took a bridge, a sabbatical, you came here, you found the building of your dreams pretty quickly. I know there’s always challenges in building projects but were there any big surprises to you that might be of interest? Just through that whole process, that you weren’t expecting or was it harder than you thought? Was it smoother than you thought, to go through? Any advice you have about uprooting and changing your business and going into a whole new market and just tell me a little bit about that.
Amber: I would say the biggest change for me personally has been a bit of an ego blow, but I think that it’s a good thing. I think it’s important in life to be humbled. It’s been very humbling to be the new kid on the block in the wedding event industry. Like you said, in Los Angeles I was a celebrity wedding planner and here, in Arkansas, no one knows who I am. So I’m now courting people and reaching out to people and trying to get them excited about our project. Which they are but it’s like, now I’m courting people, the tables have turned. So that has been interesting and humbling. I will say that another big challenge that Eric and I have faced is commercial renovation is definitely different than residential renovation. When you have two very artistic people trying to- so we’re designing this ourselves. We do have an architect that did the foundation of like, “Here’re the doors”, “Here’re the windows” but all of the actual design, Eric and I are doing ourselves.
So we’ll come up with these incredible ideas and we’ll take it to our architect and he’ll be like, “You can’t do that. That’s against fire code, that’s against code”. And we’re just like- it’s just kind of this crushing blow. Every time we have this amazing idea and he’s like, “You can’t do that” and we’re like, “Oh my gosh, what do you mean? We just had the most incredible design in the whole world”. We’ve had to go back to the drawing board about five or six times, just on one section of the building – our groom’s lounge, our mezzanine upstairs – because we keep hitting this wall of, “That’s not commercial code, you cannot do that”. And I’m like, “Well we’re not a new metal building being built” and we’re trying to build this with a very artistic flair. So we get shot down pretty fast and pretty quickly with regards to staying within the codes.
And that’s been- it crushes the creative spirit pretty quickly. So we go back to the drawing board again and then we go back and present it again and they’re like, “Nope, not do-able”. So then we are crushed and then we do it again, so the design process has been harder than we anticipated. But it’s still going to be- it is going to be spectacular. We are thrilled about what it will truly look like when it’s done because I paint a great picture now. When I give tours I have inspiration photos of what we plan to do, but Eric and I have a lot of surprises up our sleeves. We have some surprises coming that we can’t even put into words what it will be like; we’ll just be like, “Let’s just wait until May first, then people will understand”.
Derek: Who’s your target for this? Who would be a good fit for this venue?
Amber: So, we have a few- what’s exciting about the business model that we’re doing is we have a very wide net. We are currently putting our marketing money towards brides and grooms because Saturday night rentals are substantially higher than a weekday rental. So basically we rent the property out as a whole and we rent it out basically by the day. So we can only rent our property out one time in a 24-hour period. So we have different levels- weekday are substantially less, weekends are higher. So our marketing money is going towards brides and grooms because that’s bigger money coming in. But we are booking really well and really quickly right now in just the non-profit sector.
Northwest Arkansas has the most charities of any other community in America because this community tends to be fairly flush with cash. We are booking a lot of Thursday night and Wednesday night and Friday night events for charity fundraisers. So we’re going to have 300 important people in the community in our building celebrating and donating to a really great cause. Their daughters will be getting married in the next few years most likely, so it’s kind of this great situation. Also, we are setting ourselves up to be very turn key for the companies around that want to do their quarterly seminars. Instead of going to the local hotel and doing a luncheon, you know, their presentation, they can come to The Ravington and have a really gorgeous space to be inspired by and the cost will basically be the same as going to the country club or a hotel. So we have a few different facets that we can- that we’re working with, which is exciting.
Derek: So if somebody wants to learn more about the project while it’s in development or to learn more about you, what should they do?
Amber: We have our website up and running at theravington.com and I host a few photos on our blog of the renovation, but the best way to watch this exciting renovation is our Instagram and our Facebook page. So both pages are @theravington and we try to post a picture daily of just something beautiful or something exciting or something weird and annoying. The other day I posted a big picture of our mud hole outside, basically it’s the mud hole that’s tying our building to the water main for a sprinkler system. Which by the way, yesterday we blew the whole water main in the city and all of Centerton did not have water for two hours and we so apologize for that.
Derek: So for those from Centerton who might be listening to this, now they know why.
Amber: Sorry Centerton, sorry about it. We blew your water yesterday for about two and a half hours. So if you follow us at Facebook @theravington, or Instagram @theravington, you can watch almost daily, the exciting changes that are happening. And for anybody who is interested in taking a hardhat tour while we are under the renovation, I do some tours about one day a week and I can be emailed for those at email@example.com. So people get to come in in a hardhat and kind of poke around during the construction in the construction zone, and sometimes not be able to hear anything because we’re using chop saws constantly, but it’s exciting.
Derek: That’s awesome. Amber thank you so much for being our guest today, we look forward to keeping an eye on The Ravington and the amazing things that you and Eric are doing.
Amber: Thank you so much, we really, really appreciate it and we’re having a great time. So thank you Derek.
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