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Featured Business: Brigit’s Garden
Name: Jenny Beale, Director, Brigit’s Garden – a not-for profit organisation involved in the areas of tourism, education and the environment
Employees: Two full-time, eight part-time, eight seasonal
Just 20km from Galway city lies a tourist attraction that some might think has been there for centuries.
Brigit’s Garden comprises four specially designed gardens representing the Celtic seasons, nature trails, a roundhouse and other features.
The award-winning garden was established in 2004 by Jenny Beale for whom it was very much a labour of love. Jenny grew up in England but has an interest in Celtic heritage, which she believes is a wonderful vehicle for story-telling and another great passion of hers: the environment and nature.
Jenny had worked in adult education for many years, both in the UK and Ireland . As well as serving as a tourist attraction – mainly for the domestic market – Brigit’s Garden does a lot of educational and environmental work and there is a strong community element to the project. It was a finalist in the Environmental Sustainability category of the 2013 SFA National Small Business Awards.
The success of the garden has been enormous, but it was designed to be more than a tourist attraction from the outset. While she had some idea of what it could develop into, as Jenny says, “If you’d known what you’d end up doing, you’d never start it.”
Jenny doesn’t have a business background and had to learn all about the business side things on the job. Her education roots are still strong and she loves giving tours of the garden and doing extra sessions with groups.
Interview with Jenny Beale
What was the inspiration for setting up your business?
Wanting to create a really beautiful place where people could relax in an inspiring environment. The beauty is in nature, but it’s also in the garden design and the symbolism in the garden – if you want to look for it.
How did you initially fund your business?
It was a mixture of personal funding through a bit of an inheritance, which enabled me to buy the land, and support from the Leader fund, which gave support to build the visitor centre and roundhouse: the two main buildings. We’ve had successive Leader grants to help us extend and develop the project over the last nine years.
Have you diversified your offering from your original focus or set up other businesses?
The place has developed enormously. The original idea was a garden based on the Celtic theme, surrounded by natural habitats – I’m now running a fairly major tourist attraction and visitor centre in the west. We’ve a substantial gift shop and a great café that’s in the Georgina Campbell and Bridgestone Guides. We also run education programmes for schools.
Basically, with the gardens, the 11 acres and the visitor facilities that we have, there’s a huge range of activities you can do here. All of the above plus weddings, family parties, community events; you name it, it all happens here.
What have been the highlights to date?
I think the highlights are when people come to Brigit’s Garden and you meet them at the end and they’ve got a smile on their face and say, “I’m having a wonderful time, this is a wonderful and special place.” That could be kids coming out and saying, “This is the best school tour ever.” Or it could be a local family having a brilliant time; it could be an American group on a tour and fascinated by all the Celtic stories; it could be somebody getting married here. The highlight, really, is getting feedback; which we do get continuously.
What’s your favourite part of being a business owner/entrepreneur?
I love sharing my passion with customers; my passion for the Celtic stuff and nature. I also have a fabulous staff team. I really enjoy working with my staff.
How do you achieve a work-life balance?
With difficulty – especially in the summer. Because I love nature so much, my husband and I are great walkers; we go to the sea, we do all that kind of thing at the weekend: cycling and walking. I keep fit and get in contact with nature, that’s the balance. I love being in the garden out of hours, that’s gorgeous as well.
Are you inspired by any business figures or success stories?
I think what inspires me most is people who are passionate about something and go out and do it – not necessarily just in business; in life. Whether it’s sailing around the world or starting something up from scratch and, particularly because I am into the environment, people who are putting themselves out there. For example, the woman who won the Nobel Prize for planting trees in Kenya .
What tools do you utilise that benefit your customers or that make running your business easier or more profitable?
The bottom line is still the bottom line and that’s a challenge. I think for me, having an education background makes me aware that having really good communication skills and being able to talk to people really well is key: with customers, a school tour, or sorting out difficulties with staff. I say to all my staff that 50% of the visitor experience is the gardens and 50% is us. I keep saying that to people all the time: whether somebody is washing up in the kitchen or front of house, it’s just essential they look happy in their job and interact with the customers.
Do you feel you know what your customers really want? How do you stay updated with this information?
We do a lot of customer feedback. We have feedback cards all over the place; people do send them in. We talk to our customers a lot so we do get feedback from them. Extending the play area for kids would be one example.
What has been the biggest challenge your business has faced?
The biggest challenge, personally, was turning myself from someone who had a good idea to set something up into a business person. That was a huge challenge. In terms of the challenge for business, we rely heavily on the domestic market, so it’s a challenge to keep growing. A lot of people are saying tourism has really picked up this year, because they’re dependent on the overseas market. We have some overseas, but we are in the area of discretionary spend for the domestic market – which is a challenging area to be in.
What do you think the biggest challenge to businesses in Ireland is at the moment?
I think the economic situation. And, at the back of it, a big area that people are not addressing is the environmental challenge, which is coming down the road: climate change. There is a need for every business to address its environmental sustainability and its energy usage.
What part of running a business comes to you naturally?
It’s the communications side. I don’t have a problem with written or verbal communications, thank goodness; and I enjoying interacting with visitors to the gardens.
What has been the best reward in running your own business?
I think it’s just the fact that you discover that Brigit’s Garden actually means something to people; they have a really nice experience here. They might only be drifting in once but I am amazed at the amount of people that say, “We were here three or four years ago and we’ve come back to see how you’re getting on.” People with a local membership come regularly. I just love to see those kids growing up with Brigit’s Garden as part of their experience, because they’re going to have nature right there in their childhood in a way that a lot of kids don’t now.
What was the main catalyst for growth?
Reputation is the key one, closely followed by marketing. We put a huge amount of effort into marketing. Since we upgraded our visitor centre with a huge Leader grant last year, we’re on a big marketing drive to attract tour companies.
How did you scale/grow your business?
Attention to detail, because that’s how you grow your reputation; and a lot of effort in marketing. Our marketing is so varied. We have to market to schools, we do tourism marketing, marketing for corporate events, special events; it’s huge and ongoing all the time. We’ve just launched a new website as well.
What obstacles to growth have you faced in the past?
The recession is definitely an obstacle to growth. I don’t have any doubt about that. You have to keep changing; some tourist attractions are static. You go to see an exhibition and you come back two years later and it’s the same. You have to keep the place dynamic. That’s a challenge to keep the place changing, keep it dynamic and have special events to attract people to come back.
How do you get ideas to further your business?
Sometimes customers suggest them; we brainstorm a lot.
What motivates you to stay running a business?
Sometimes I wonder. When you’ve got your heart in something, you just want to make a success of it. It has grown so much. I want to see it through the next phase.
What’s your vision for the future?
I would like it to develop in its two main threads: I would like it to become a really central part of the tourist experience in the west of Ireland and I would also like us to really develop our role as a leading centre for environmental education. Those are the two threads in the place and they’re not mutually exclusive at all. If you’ve got a group in and are doing a tour with them and they can see a group of kids in doing their activities, well-supervised and having a great time, it brings a smile to their faces.
Do you have a mentor; do you find this has positively impacted on your success?
As a result of the AIB business coaching workshops, I am working with ActionCOACH and finding it really good. It’s quite an investment, but it’s very helpful. I think that structured help on a weekly or monthly basis is invaluable for somebody like me who doesn’t have a business background and ends up struggling with all the things you have to do to run a business effectively – whether it’s not-for-profit or for profit.
What’s the best business advice you’ve received?
The best one I had was when I project-managed creating the gardens. I had a wonderful cap that read “Just do it”. I think my best business advice to myself is “Just do it”. I’ve still got it as a souvenir of that time.
What would be your advice to businesses starting out?
I would say to anybody who doesn’t have a business background, don’t just do a six week “start your own business” course; get really professional business support from a company like ActionCOACH right from the start. It would have transformed my life over the last nine years if I’d had that help to start with. I hadn’t a clue what I was doing from a business side of things. I had a strong clue what I was doing about the gardens, but not on the business side.
What’s your favourite motivational business quote?
I would say: Love what you do; be passionate about your team and share that with your customers. I know that’s not a motivational business quote. I also like that book Eat That Frog!: 21 Great Ways to Stop Procrastinating and Get More Done in Less Time. That’s connected to “just do it” – do the awkward thing first, get it out of the way; eat that frog.
What, if anything, would you do differently?
I would get that professional business support early on. I would be better at sharing responsibilities rather than feeling that I had to do it all myself.
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