With its cobbled streets and ageing buildings covered in greenery, Demirci Reşit is much like any other street in the city of Istanbul – except it’s not. Home to an ancient Greek stadium which was once upon a time used for chariot and horse races, Demirci Reşit is steeped in history. But it’s not the ancient stadium or hippodrome which has attracted thousands of tourists to the area every year. Nor is it the almost unlivable dilapidated wooden building next door, occupied by two middle-aged women with a habit of blowing kisses to passersby. It was the Ayasofya Hotel run by 68-year-old Australian woman Gaye Reeves (above) which continually saw tourists flooding into the area.
Housing thousands of travellers every year from all reaches of the globe, the Ayasofya Hotel has been a melting pot of cultures. From burqa-wearing Middle Eastern women to Aussie men with shorts around their bums, the Ayasofya is known for bringing unlikely groups of people together. Much like its clientele, the hotel’s owner is just as unlikely. Gaye Reeves, a sixty-eight-year-old expat from Melbourne, has run the Ayasofya for the past eight years. A former company secretary for an exporting business, Gaye signed a lease for the hotel on a whim while visiting Turkey eight years ago. “I was living around the corner and I saw this beautiful old hotel for lease so I thought ‘Yeah, I’ll do this,’ and I walked in and did it.”
Just another adventure
With no prior experience in the hospitality industry, and limited knowledge of the Turkish culture and language, Gaye was taking an enormous risk – a risk that not all of her friends and family supported. “I remember having dinner at a friend’s place and this financial advisor was there and he said, ‘Oh you can’t possibly do this because it’s a foreign country,’ and I simply thanked him for his advice.”
For Gaye however, moving to Turkey and opening a hotel was just another adventure. Not content with staying in one spot for too long, she had spent the previous few years before relocating to Turkey renovating and moving houses. “I was always doing mad things, this was just another mad thing.”
With a laissez faire attitude and a chirpy outlook on life, it’s easy to interpret Gaye’s positivity as a sign that her transition to Turkish life has been easy. This however, couldn’t be further from the truth.
From growing up in Australia in a council home and escaping an abusive marriage, to working as a single mum and eventually opening her own business, her life hasn’t always been smooth sailing, to say the least. Even so, the Melbourne entrepreneur has always managed to maintain a positive outlook. “It was never ‘woe is me, look at what’s happened to me’. I was always just doing things.”
Time to change
On Turkey, Gaye adds, “I hadn’t been in the hospitality industry and I didn’t realise how hard it was…in the early days I’d come in at seven am and I’d leave at ten or eleven at night and it was exhausting. There were times where I went four months without a day off,” she says. “It was really, really hard work. I’ve worked harder at the end of my life than I have in the beginning.”
Despite such long hours, Gaye says she’s been happier than ever. Not one to sit at home counting her superfund, the sixty-eight-year-old is definitely not a fan of retirement culture. “All they [baby boomers] talk about is how much their retirement plan is and I just don’t like talking about that,” she explains. “I haven’t done so well financially but I don’t really care about that…if I lose all my money I don’t care. I’m probably not your normal sixty-eight-year-old.”
Indeed, Gaye left behind a successful career in exporting to pursue her dream of living and working in Turkey. For thirty years the Melbournian worked for a family-owned exporting company, slowly working her way up the ranks from typist to company secretary. A role she thoroughly enjoyed, Gaye insists that in spite of her dramatic change in careers, the move wasn’t due to a lack of enjoyment. “I just feel like sometimes you hit a time when it’s time to change,” says the sixty-eight-year-old. Determined to see more of the world, a then sixty-year-old Gaye set off on a two-year trip through Africa and the Middle East before settling in Turkey.
“I’d never been to a place like this before and I immediately I just felt very much at home here,” says the ex-company secretary. “There’s just something about it… Turkey’s got so much history and nobody ever gave it the kudos that it deserved. The people are great, the food’s great, the people have a real sense of humour, they’re generous, they laugh.”
After embarking on a Thelma-and-Louise style road-trip through the east of Turkey, Gaye began bringing friends from Australia to the country, eventually creating her own touring company and opening the hotel. Driven by her love of the country and her passion for people, she was determined to make it work, despite knowing little to nothing about running hotel. “You have doubts every day. I’d go home tired and wrecked. Maybe there was some problem I’d be worried about but the next day you get up and get on with it.”
Problems there were. From language barriers to sexism (just 30 per cent of Turkish women are in the workforce), Reeve’s hotel journey has been full of ups and downs. Now, after eight successful years in the business, it has just come to an end. Sadly, the Ayasofya Hotel closed its doors in September due to the decrease in tourism caused by the country’s recent terrorist attacks. “People are just more fearful of travel in Europe” explains Gaye, who says she has seen a sharp decline in both customers and tourists within the past year.
Saddened by the situation but grateful for the experience, Gaye says she has no regrets. “I did the downturn, I lost some money which is not anybody’s fault,” says the Melbournian hotel manager, who is adamant she would still risk it all again. It’s not the money that’s been the most valuable part of her experience – it’s the people. “The most rewarding part has been making new friends and introducing people to each other and seeing people from different cultures interact,” she says. “People made a lot of friendships there and I don’t think that’s normal in a hotel.”
Already looking towards her next adventure – a possible book release and continuing her tourism business – Gaye Reeves is far from settling down with a retirement fund. Her advice to others considering launching their own business in a foreign country? Do your homework and just get on with it. “Go with your instincts about the decisions you have to make. Everything’s a risk. Many businesses fold in the first year. If you want to do something I’d just tell you to go out there and do it.”