Phillip Island Oral History Project
TOURISM & BUSINESS: KEITH AND RHONDA JOBE
On Thursday 29 April 2021 Keith and Rhonda Jobe spoke to oral historian Dr Andrea Cleland at their home on Phillip Island in Victoria.
This interview is part of the Oral Histories of Phillip Island project, with the Phillip Island & District Historical Society.
First five minutes of interview
The site of the original ‘Continental’ was Phillip Island’s first livery stable, owned by Mr A. Findlay. There were two huts and on old stable lined along the four boundaries with very tall pine trees. With the decision to build a modern guesthouse in the area, a syndicate was formed to purchase the land with The Continental built in 1923 as a one storey-building containing 42 bedrooms and a 100-foot-long veranda in front. Its official opening on Saturday 8th December 1923 occurred on the same day that Warley Hospital also opened for the Phillip Island Community.
Original Continental Guest House, 1929
Phillip Island and District Historical Society collection
The guesthouse was close to Cowes jetty and the beautiful Cowes foreshore, with several features of Indian and American bungalow adopted in its construction.When The Continental at Cowes came on the market, a wonderful opportunity presented itself to the Jobe family when Keith’s parents, Harry and Kitty Jobe, purchased the hotel in 1957.
Earlier in the 1940s, Harry Jobe was forced to leave his job at Foy and Gibsons in Collingwood due to failing eyesight caused by the chemical used in the dyeing of cloth. Subsequently, Harry’s poor eyesight made him ineligible for military service. To support themselves, the family took in lodgers from Hong Kong who were fleeing the war. The additional money received from the Nelson family allowed Harry and Kitty to repay the mortgage early on their home in Willoughby Street, Reservoir and to start a business, Willoughby Catering, from their home.
Foy & Gibsons Factory building in 2006. Photo: Wikipedia
As Willoughby Catering steadily and successfully grew, the Jobe family were able to purchase an old federation style house on a large block of land in Bell Street Preston. Here they built Willoughby Hall and it included a number of features that were new in Melbourne for that time, including a foyer for greeting guests and a changing room for brides.
The 1950s and a holiday connection to Phillip Island becomes permanent
The Jobe family developed a connection to Phillip Island, as Keith put it ‘purely by coming down on holiday first of all’. Keith recalled his first trip to Phillip Island, which was a camping trip:
We were camping on a block that dad got permission to do. We had an outside toilet. I was sitting on the outside toilet and this snake came up and I asked my brother to do something about it and he was standing behind me laughing, holding a shot gun (laughs). Finally, I was safe. We then purchased a holiday house in Church Street in Cowes. This brought back lovely memories and we would come down from Melbourne and have the odd weekend, generally very late at night, because my parents worked seven days a week in Melbourne, with their catering business.
It was 1957 and Keith who was 17 had just finished year 9 at school when the Continental Hotel was purchased ‘on a handshake’ by his father. Keith recalled:
We were having a picnic on the front lawns and my dad was talking to someone, and they said: ‘The Continental was for sale’. Dad went up the street – and I think it was Miss Smith, who was the real estate agent. He asked if he could buy it, and within a week it was done. Very simple. We went and saw Arthur Jones. He was the owner of the Continental at the time, and on a handshake, it was done.
Keith stayed on the island over winter and was looked after by the Purcell family. Meanwhile, Harry and Kitty, together with their elder son Ron, stayed in Reservoir running Willoughby Catering. Affectionately known as ‘the Conti’, Rhonda described what the Continental Hotel looked like:
It was a weatherboard guest house that accommodated 60 rooms. It was the only purpose-built guest house, in that most other guest houses were homes that had been adapted. The building structure was brought over from Tasmania. It landed on the front beach and was then taken up and assembled. It had beautiful lead lights and there was a lot of brass in it.
The Continental Hotel, c. 1950. Philip Island & District Historical Society collection
From 5 minutes to 22 minutes of interview (minor reorganisation of interview material to flow within themes).
The hotel required a lot of maintenance and as Keith had been to technical school, he had felt comfortable doing all sorts of jobs. Keith reflected on his first job at the Conti that involved soldering pipes:
My first job was crawling under the Continental to wrap up pipes with bandages because we didn’t have a lot of money to replace the pipes. Water was a bit critical on Phillip Island when we took over.
Although essential services on Phillip Island could be considered rudimentary at the time, a hot water service had been installed in 1923 at the Continental. Guests could have their showers and baths hot or (cold, if preferred) available at all times of the day. Harry and Kitty had purchased a farm on the corner of Dunsmore and Settlement Roads in Cowes in the 1950s. Keith set about constructing two dams and drilled bores on the farm to supply the Conti with a reliable source of water. Keith reflected:
We had large concrete tanks which held about 160,000 gallons of fresh water and then we had bores. Later, on we built dams. We bought a farm in Dunsmore Road, where the Penguin Resort is, and we put in large dams and piped water up to the Conti from there.
It was quite funny because most of the locals used to tap into this pipeline.
We’d been wondering where our water was going. One of them was our shire engineer, Jock McKechnie (laughs). It was a lovely time on Phillip Island.
Gradually, the shape and design of the original guesthouse changed. The old weatherboard guest house rooms were progressively replaced with new two-storey brick accommodation featuring private ensuites. The two-storey brick Continental also included a TV lounge and games area overlooking the bay. The original weatherboard structure on the Esplanade was relocated to four blocks of land on the east side of Findlay Street. Two of the original weatherboard structures were also donated to become the club houses for the Phillip Island Lawn Bowls Club. The sport was a passion of Harry and Kitty, and these club houses still stand today off Dunsmore Road in Cowes.
The 1960s and the social years at the Continental
From its early days, features for hotel guests at the Continental included a croquet lawn, bowling green and tennis courts through to later additions such as a squash court, sauna, heated pool, garden spa and volleyball area. Activities such as billiards, backgammon, cards or snooker were also on offer. Social events and developing connections between guests were at the heart of holidays at the Continental. Rhonda explained:
In those days, the guest house environment was different. It meant that there were three meals a day as part of your accommodation package, and there were shared bathrooms and because everyone knew each other, they were all friends. That added to that social connection. It had people who came for about two weeks at a time and it was the same group of people. So that was the comradery, and it was the people who organised the social events like the table tennis competition, the billiards competition and all sorts of things.
Other social events would be at the request made by guests, such as the opportunity to dress up in fancy dress. Over the years, dances and themed nights would take place at the Continental. Keith recalled how much fun was had at the Conti, and Rhonda said:
With the themed nights, sometimes there was a ‘swapped gender night’. And there’s a prominent Melbourne man with a couple of oranges in his wife’s bra, dressed up to the hilt.
With the ‘bad taste night’, the staff used to get into that too. You had black stockings with ladders, blacked out teeth, a few scar marks on your face and do everything that was absolutely horrible and it was fun.
Keith also described how the same guests would come in every year in the same fortnight, and as Keith put it: ‘They would leave, put down a deposit, and see you next year.’ Indeed, routine was very much a way of life at the Conti and Rhonda explained:
There were three meals a day and you would also have a high tea on Sunday. You would have supper. After dinner you would have the ‘porto’ [portable] tray on wheels that you would push out along the rubbers. Everyone had their coffee outside in the lounge room and then someone would play the piano and you’d have a dance. The young guys on the island used to come to the Conti to check out the talent. And initially, you were only supposed to wear dresses.
As Keith put it, his father had ‘felt that girls should not wear slacks’ as part of the dress code for ladies, although ‘the boys could get away with anything’. Keith said:
He would come down. The trouble was that generally the most attractive girls came in wearing slacks and I’d be caught dancing with the girls. Luckily, dad’s eyesight wasn’t that good.
In fact, Keith met Rhonda at the Continental in 1965 and they were later married in 1968 in Preston. Rhonda reflected:
I came down in ’65 and worked as a waitress and watched Keith go out with all the girls. And then at the end when he ran out of girls to go out with (all laugh), he asked me if I’d like to have a game of table tennis and the rest is history.
Many of the regular guests who holidayed at the Continental attended their wedding as deep friendships developed over time. Keith reflected:
The guest houses would have dances where the locals would come, and many locals met their partner at places like ours or Erehwon.Anne Oswin was one who met her partner at our place, and it’s just lovely.
After Keith and Rhonda were married in 1968, they moved into a little flat. Keith recalled what the street the Conti was situated on in Cowes looked like in the 1960s:
There was a lot of open land, just a couple of homes. The homes there on Phillip Island were on large blocks of land because land was very cheap at the time. If you had a block of land, it would be an acre at least. We purchased a property opposite in Findlay Street and used it as staff quarters. Later on, we built apartments there.
Rhonda described how people knew each other within the community:
It was a very strong community. We didn’t have the numbers; the population was quite low, and everyone knew each other. There were a lot of the old families and a lot of newer people coming.
Keith reflected further on the rural nature of the island and his strong memory of the generator in Cowes that powered Phillip Island being switched off:
Phillip Island was extremely rural when we came. It was only farms – they were the main businesses. Because the guest houses only operated over a short period of time, it didn’t have a great effect on the island.
When I first came to the island, I was walking into Cowes and there was a lot of people at this old building. And they were turning off the generator that looked after all the power for Phillip Island. It’s quite a memory (laughs).
The roads to the island were not in good condition and Keith would journey to the island via Dandenong and a gravel road from Anderson. Although it felt like a ‘long trip down’ for Keith he reflected that in reality: ‘We would come down in about two and a half hours because there was no traffic on the roads.’
Rhonda recalled that the single lane road on the highway wasn’t very wide:
The cars were different as they didn’t have high acceleration performance. If you get stuck behind something in the Gurdies, you knew that was going to hold you up. And you mostly stopped at Tooradin and had a cheese sandwich or something to break the trip up.
Rhonda also described how navigating the old suspension bridge onto Phillip Island was tricky:
I was learning to drive and going over the bridge, your tyres would catch a groove. It was like being on tram tracks and it would move. Keith has got a story about that.
The first Phillip Island bridge, showing the 'tram track' effect of the roadway planked surface
Phillip Island and District Historical Society collection
Keith shared his story:
I was driving over in a truck that I had for my brickworks and a bus come the other direction and it was scary. In the truck, you couldn’t see the side of the bridge. It would be nerve-wracking. But the bridge wasn’t a problem for us because any holiday time we were at the hotel. We were busy, so we didn’t even have the thought of driving off the island at any of those times.
The original suspension bridge hindered development on the island due to the load limits that made transporting bricks onto the island difficult. To address this issue Keith started his first business venture in his own right earlier during the 1950s. He set up a brick works on the farm purchased by Harry and Kitty on the corner of Dunsmore and Settlement Roads in Cowes. Keith recalled they used about 200,000 bricks at the Conti from their Brick Works, and Rhonda said:
It (the first bridge) did limit development, initially. For example, I think it was a 6 tonne load limit on the bridge. That meant for bringing over things like bricks or construction materials, it was an issue. It was for that reason, that Keith started a little company, which was the Brick Works. They made bricks and they were used when the Conti was slowly renovated.
Bricks were also made for Harry and Kitty’s house which Keith and their foreman built.
The discussion about the rural nature of Phillip Island prompted Rhonda and Keith to share a funny memory about their cattle escaping from the farm. Rhonda said:
We had cattle. One day, it was a Christmas I think, the cattle got out and they went down what’s now a sealed, beautiful road in Dunsmore Road and headed off. We had to get the staff out and round up cattle, but these things happened. It was very different.
Once a bull escaped from our farm. We got our chef, and a couple of kitchen hands and ourselves, we went hunting for our bull. Hours later we got our bull back but when we were sitting down congratulating ourselves, the local farmers – Trafford Morgan-Payler and his dad – come in looking extremely upset. We’d rustled their Hereford prized bull (laughs). They were not impressed, and we weren’t either because we had to go back out to find where our bull was. We finally found it. That brings a smile back to my face.
At the close of the decade in 1969, Keith and Rhonda continued to develop the Conti, building ten new rooms in a two-storey wing with views of the bay. These rooms increased the hotel’s income from accommodation, especially during periods outside of school holidays and helped to turn declining profits around. The first conference room was also added at the Conti, allowing the business to now cater for conferences.
Commemorative menu for the opening of the expanded Continental Hotel, 1976
Food on the menu for the 1976 commemorative menu
Phillip Island and District Historical Society collection
The 1970s and the start of international tourism, raising a family and rebuilding
In 1971, Keith and Rhonda purchased the Conti from Harry and Kitty and established a new company – The Continental (Cowes). As Phillip Island became more widely known overseas for its penguins, the first international tourists began arriving in coaches to view the Penguin Parade. Keith remembered the funny start that coincided with hosting international guests:
Our introduction to international tourism started on a bad taste theme night. Our waitress saw a couple coming into the lounge and she walked up to see if she could help them. She had her teeth blackened, stockings with holes in it [laughs]. She looked atrocious, and the American couple were a little bit put out. But then the wife actually glanced into the dining room and saw everyone having lots of fun and realised what was happening. They joined us that night and they said that was the best night they had anywhere in Australia.
In addition to running and developing their business, Keith and Rhonda had started their own family. Rhonda described how intrinsically family life was linked to running the Conti:
Life really revolved around the Conti. You didn’t get out and about much. As the Conti changed and developed, what you did changed and developed. As it did when you had your family.
We had our kids at the old (Warley) hospital, and we had a strong connection with the hospital. For our 75th anniversary for the Conti we had a joint celebration with the hospital. There’s always been a strong link with Warley.
Tickets to 75th anniversary joint Warley Hospital - Continental Hotel celebration, 1999.
Phillip Island and District Historical Society collection
Keith and Rhonda’s son David was born in 1970 and daughter Jeni was born in 1972 at Warley Hospital. There was only one doctor at the time who serviced the whole island. In fact, David was the first baby that Dr Ben Weiss delivered on the island. After David was born, Rhonda stayed in hospital for ‘only a couple of days’ as ‘it was out as soon as you could and back to work’ and Rhonda was looked after by Meg, the matron at Warley Hospital. Rhonda described the birth of her second child, Jeni, after going into labour whilst working:
My mum had come over from Perth. I was in the kitchen and I could feel things happening in the afternoon but I wanted to get the dinner finished. And I said, ‘I better go’. I went up to the hospital at 7.30 at night after tea, and I had her at 11 o’clock at night. You did that, your whole focus was on looking after people and running a business. It was full of challenges because it was a seasonal business to start with.
Rhonda further described the seasonal nature of running a hotel and shared stories about the brass gong that was used to wake the guests up and at mealtimes.
Arthur Jones used to run it over Christmas holidays and Easter. Later on, we had the Young Liberals come in and they would take sole occupancy for the June long weekend. Lots of funny stories about that.
Arthur Jones, left in a 1954 presentation of a teddy bear for Victorian Governor Sir Dallas Brooks' grandson.
We used to have a gong and you’d ring the gong to say ‘wake up’ and at mealtimes.
In the guest house, they walked around with a brass gong, and that’s ‘get up’, or that’s ‘breakfast is served’. Well, there used to be three gongs.
The first gong Keith remembered was: ‘Back to your room’. The second gong Rhonda remembered with laughter was: ‘Back to your own room!’, with the third gong being: ‘Now get up’ as the ‘breakfast’ gong. Rhonda further explained how integral the gong was to life at the Conti:
The gong was a huge part of the Conti and it was out the front in the lounge room. The leadlight doors divided the lounge from the dining room and there were rubbers – we called them – runners that ran up the old dining room which had beautiful dark timber. The staff used to have to scrub the rubbers twice a week and polish all the brass, the old-fashioned brass fire extinguishers. It was a beautiful world.
However, disaster was to strike in 1974 when a fire engulfed the hotel. Rhonda described her memories about the tragedy of the fire:
There was a fire in 1974, just after we had done a lot of renovations and put in a restaurant. We’d picked out the tiles and had everything organised. It was going to look beautiful; it had a mezzanine floor. Snow Lacco from Newhaven was building a scale model of a lobster boat to go in there.In November 1974 we lost the central part of the Conti in the fire unfortunately.
Rhonda explained how the previous trauma of fire experienced by one of the guests had been triggered by the smell of smoke:
A Greek couple who were regular guests, the wife Mrs Raftopoulous, sent her husband up to our door and started banging on it and said, ‘My wife can smell smoke’. She’d had a trauma as a child and was very sensitive to smoke. And thanks to Mrs Raftopoulos, I got out of bed and rushed downstairs and found the kitchen on fire. It was an electrical fault, but poor Mr Raftopoulos was coming in to see how things were and went into the wrong door of the kitchen. He came in the ‘out’ door and I smacked him in the nose with the door unwittingly on the way to ring the fire brigade. Well, that fire was a very traumatic experience because it was an old guest house, timber, and the flame went across the top in the void of the ceiling, and our little flat was built into it, as part of it.
My daughter Jeni, her cot was right next to that wall. I rang the fire brigade, rushed upstairs, tried to stir Keith. He’s out of bed, sitting on David’s bed, talking to him and I’m saying, ‘the place is on fire!’ I grab Jeni out the cot, the power’s gone off, rushed out, got both kids, went downstairs, stood out the front of the Conti. Flames everywhere. Very traumatic. And Keith got into it when the fire brigade came, he was involved helping with the fire. Brian Brady from the pub came out and saw me with a child on each hip, and said, ‘look come up to our place’. So that was good, spent the night up there and Keith was able to get his emotions out by firefighting, which was good.
Keith described how his ‘whole world’ disappeared:
I went down to have a look at the fire and I saw nearly 44-foot flames and I was standing there holding a little fire extinguisher. You can just imagine your whole world disappearing and you couldn’t do anything. There was nothing I could have done at that stage. I was thrown, I really was. It must have been a total state of shock. I sat with David, telling him it’s ok and he’s safe.
Rhonda recalled how this took place for Keith ‘while the place was burning around him’, and then reflected on how everyone ‘rallied’ to help them after the day after the fire:
It was interesting because it was a small community, prior to that the Lion’s Club had started – and that’s another story. We did the Lion’s Club Charter Dinner and that was a fabulous time. And the start of the club, and going to meetings, everyone was supportive so the next Lion’s Club meeting, the day after the fire, everyone had turned up with clothes for us because everything was gone or ruined.
Keith went to that meeting with someone’s underwear, pants, shirt, tie, top and everyone rallied. And later on, our chef and best friends got together and rescued all the crockery out of our little flat and scrubbed it up. And then invited us, ‘come around’ and there were your kitchen things they had cleaned up – the crockery – there were broken bits but it didn’t burn, it’s been fired. And there were wonderful stories. Chris Shaw gave me a set of placemats from the prints of Churchill Island and we had those for about 30 years before they wore out. And the tablecloth I still have it. She knew it was important to me – dressing tables and making things look good. Their kindness, it was incredible, and the support that we had.
In the aftermath, Rhonda described how they continued to run their business, including hosting the Lion’s district convention:
We had the little apartments across the road, so we moved into one of those. But we lost the whole centre of the Conti and in the meanwhile, since having purchased it originally, we had built units on the west and a wing on the east. And that was brick so that didn’t burn, but all the old original timber did. I was really cheesed off because we had put so much effort into the décor of this little restaurant we were building and all that went up in smoke.
We had to move the Conti office over to one of the motel units. Our fabulous receptionist, Kay Brewer, would put her gumboots on and show people around because we could still let out the side accommodation once it was all cleaned up.
We’d also had a booking for the Lion’s district convention but didn’t have a building to have it in. The kitchen was relocated to a storeroom in the brick section, and we set up across the road, but it was winter and muddy. They set up big long boards for people to walk on, set the tables in a marquee, and they brought over steaming hot pots of food.
Determined to keep going, Keith outlined the dangers but remembered how wonderful the night turned out:
As a caterer, it was hard and dangerous. You could imagine the amount of hot food you would need for hundreds of people, and we had to walk over planks in a muddy area. It was just the most wonderful night. Seeing the ladies in their beautiful dresses, with their gumboots on (laughs).
The memory of the ladies wearing skirts with gumboots also stayed with Rhonda and that added to the fun experienced on the night. Rhonda said:
We had long skirts on with gumboots underneath, but it was voted the most fun convention. And I think when there is an adversity like that, everyone contributes to make it work, so there was so much fun and laugher and cooperation. The success of that function was incredible.
A remarkable resilience was evident in moving forward with business. Rhonda said:
You have to. What choice do you have? You have to get in and do what’s needed because there is no choice. You had to meet demand or miss business. We had started building the motel units because socially, accommodation was changing in that people no longer wanted to have that group factor. They wanted their own private facilities, which you didn’t have in a guest house.
Rhonda and Keith further described how changing expectations by guests contributed to social changes within the hotel environment. Keith said:
Tea-making facilities was the worst thing we ever put into rooms because all of a sudden you would invite friends to go to your room instead of being in the lounge by the fire. To me, as a host, that made such a big difference.
Rhonda described how guests had more discretion in terms of where they wanted to stay as both the economy and social factors were changing. This shaped expectations for the hotel industry, as well as signalling a loss in the desire for collective guest activities. Rhonda said:
The economy was changing a little in that people had more discretion where they went. Instead of staying for a fortnight, as was the norm in a guest house, or a week because you paid weekly, people only wanted a couple of nights. They didn’t want to have three meals a day, so it became bed and breakfast that was ‘in vogue’ and the start of the motel era. Expectations changed, and I can remember a sign we put up out the front and it was lunch for $1.25 and dinner was $2.50.
Things did change rapidly; expectations, standard of accommodation. The facilities; being more autonomous; and not relying on the guest house atmosphere. But prior to that, what we had lost, was things like the New Year’s parade and all the inter-guest house competitions. You would have your table tennis players and they would go and compete with Yackatoon’s table tennis players or someone else’s. There were little shields and what have you. The social factor changed enormously.
Rhonda reflected on what had changed for guests in the move from guest house to motel style accommodation:
Mostly it was their expectations on standard of accommodation. The old guest house rooms just didn’t cut it.
Rhonda and Keith explained how the tourism focus was initially on the local and domestic market. Yet this changed when Keith read an article about residential conferences and recognised the unique opportunities this presented. Keith said:
I was reading an article about residential conferences. I thought this would be great, because they come down weekdays, and if I could get them coming, it means I had empty rooms I could use. I actually made an appointment with the CEO of the Department of Labour and Industry in Melbourne, and I went and chatted with him. I must have picked a good day because he had a lot of time. He wrote down all the things I needed to do to set up a residential conference centre.
I went back, and I said, well that looks good and then I did to the inch what he asked for. A few months later I went back and made another appointment and I said, ‘look that’s all done’. He couldn’t believe it, he said ‘no one’s ever done what I told them to do before’ [laughs]. He said I’ve got to come down and see what you’ve done. I said ‘why don’t you bring your family down one weekend and have a chance to see, not only what our conference room is, but the natural environment, that wraps our conference room?’
Rhonda described how beautiful the vista of the hotel was in terms of its position, yet that it was being under-utilised:
We had a big sun lounge up top because the façade of the old building had been replaced. There were units with private facilities at each end, with a large sun lounge overlooking Western Port. Imagine facing north. Beautiful! But it was under-utilised. It was used a lot by kids and things like the Lions Ladies Apron Parade and fundraising events.
It’s very rare to have a north-facing beach like that in Victoria. The sun streams in and it’s a beautiful environment. The palm trees. The lawn. The water.
View from the window of the new Continental. Jobe family collection
Keith added how the natural beauty of Phillip Island soon became evident in the conference potential for the Conti:
We took the family of the CEO from the government department to Seal Rocks. Kevin Shaw had a lovely boat, and we went out to the Nobbies. They were just taken away. He’d heard of Cowes; he’d heard of Phillip Island. But to see how beautiful the nature was down here, he was rapt. The amount of work from the government that we got was huge. We had many conferences for 30 people for Monday to Friday. You sell breakfast, morning teas, lunch, everything. It made such a difference to our place.
Indeed, this became a significant turning point for the Conti as Rhonda noted that: ‘It was no longer just the Christmas, Easter period. It became more of a 12 months of the year business.’ This led to the ability to employ people for longer periods, rather than just seasonally and being able to enhance the quality of their service to guests. Keith said:
We could employ people year-round then, instead of only for Christmas or Easter. That made a big difference to the quality of our service because the team would know what was happening and you would build up some really good team leaders.
Rhonda reflected on the ability to provide a relaxed sitting within a natural environment for guests:
One of the aspects of the selling point for conferences at the Conti was that you could turn off your phone, well we didn’t have mobile phones, but you were less likely to have phone call interruptions unless it was really important. And then someone would contact you, but it gave people more of a relaxed environment, so they could take in what they were meant to take in from the conference. And the different styles of conferences. There were grid conferences that were formalised, and there were more relaxed ones like the Fisheries and Wildlife.
As a family affair, things didn’t always go quite to plan. A story Keith and Rhonda shared was the time their son David who was two years old at the time unexpectedly interrupted the special address being given by the top person at the AMP National Conference. Rhonda said:
When we were rebuilding another section – we had to relocate our family from the flat that was being demolished to the other end of the building. And, I had a newborn, bathing her, when the two-year-old decided he’d had his bath, he was naked, and it was warm, and he’s walking around and somehow got into the conference room and sat in the front row. I got him back.
It also highlighted the stressful environment that the family faced and how support was given by the Conti team that included Joy Niven, as well as the extended family. Rhonda said:
There were stressful times with it because we were making do in very limited quarters looking after the kids. Also cooking, preparing and doing a whole range of things. It wore me out. It was quite a situation looking after kids. Feeding my baby as well, and in the kitchen and what have you.
I got crook. I had a knee issue and went up to the doctor’s and Ben said, ‘well you’d better pack a bag and come up to hospital’. It wasn’t very good for a little while. Got over that and got back to work. I was one of the team. It was a matter of bringing in the sister-in-law to look after kids while I wasn’t there. You had business support and Keith’s parents were there so everything flowed. No one can be indispensable. It all worked out.
Rhonda described the cooperation offered between the businesses in Cowes:
If you needed some glasses when you had a huge function, you could get them from the pub. We used to have overflow accommodation to the adjacent properties like Erehwon and Yackatoon which we eventually took over.
Initially there were two main restaurants in Cowes, with the Italian restaurants following as post-war migration from Italy to Australia increased. Rhonda reflected:
The boys at Isola Di Capri were probably the first ones I remember. They went back to Italy and came back with wives. There were more families coming to the island, your staff numbers settling down. People who had been your guests, loving the island, buying land, and building homes. The island started to kick along very well.
Keith added how he felt the responsibility to provide a dining option for guests:
There were two main restaurants there. There was the Koala Café and the Mint Tulip which was up where the chemist was now or close to it.
Koala Cafe, 1938. Cnr Esplanade and Thompson Ave, Cowes. Phillip Island and District Historical Society
That’s all there was. There weren’t many places you could eat, which put a huge responsibility on us. We felt we needed to be open if we were going to have a guest sleeping in our hotel.
Keith and Rhonda also described the services in Cowes which included the National Bank. Rhonda said:
It was basically the main street, a few commercial properties in Chapel Street. The town has spread out a lot. At the same time, the social expectations develop, the discretionary spending is more readily there. So as more people came, you got more services, but originally, the old Co-Op was where you went to do your grocery shopping for the island. And they had the hardware store. But now look at it, we’ve got four supermarkets and in those days, it was the Shire of Phillip Island and it was totally different.
Aerial photo of Cowes CBD c.1970s. Jobe family collection
Fundraising for the community also reflected a time when life was much simpler in arranging events. Rhonda said:
The Lion’s Club were a huge aspect of the island and fundraising was too. I became president of the Lions Ladies’ Auxiliary the day after I had my son in 1970 and finished after I had my daughter two years later. The fundraising covered a myriad of exercises. One of which was when we decided to have a bonfire on the beach outside the Conti. You couldn’t do that these days! We had Arty Murdoch from the fire brigade; we had Jock McKechnie the Shire engineer and everyone else. They built the bonfire. It sat there for a while and we had this great big family night. It wasn’t just for the Lion’s Club people; it was for everyone. We had the community bonfire. Can you imagine doing that now?
Keith added his memory of the night:
Fireworks on New Year’s Eve were set off by the local water ski club. Setting off these bazookas and wondering what was going to happen. I only did it once and it was scary, it really was.
The 1970s saw many changes for Keith and Rhonda including the rebuild of the main building during 1975-1976, with over 2,000 square metres of space and a licence to seat 880 guests. More broadly, the Australian economy also experienced record inflation with record interest rates to follow in the late 1980s.
The 1980s and the rapid growth of international and conference markets
Changes in overseas tourism markets
In the early 1980s, Keith took some of the first marketing trips to promote Phillip Island to Japan and the United States. These efforts were to receive recognition in the Victorian Economic Development Corporation awards. Rhonda reflected:
Gradually into the 1970s and then into the 1980s was probably the main point of our overseas tourism where we were starting to do the lobster meals. Particularly for American and Japanese people. Working with the Phillip Island Nature Parks for promotion and prior to that, Keith went to Japan.
Keith described how marketing became targeted to the Japanese market:
We started doing Japanese tours and we got to talk with the Japanese inbound tour operators’ people in Melbourne and Sydney who sent them down, and they advised me to go to Japan and talk to the outbound tour operators.
The driving interest of the international market was the Little Penguins of Phillip Island at the Penguin Parade. As Rhonda reflected: ‘It was all about the penguins’. The Phillip Island Penguin Reserve Committee of Management was formed in 1984, and the current Phillip Island Nature Parks was created in 1996. Keith described how the Conti adapted their business model to support Japanese tourism and how a trip to Japan helped their approach:
Japanese people would do anything to see a penguin and eat a lobster salad. Later on, we then established lobster sashimi dishes, which was huge. They would pay $60 per person for a lobster sashimi. Now this was a long time ago. It made such a difference to our business. What was surprising to me was when I went to Japan – well, I was terrified when I was doing it because I’m not a salesman. Sitting in the jumbo jet on the start of the trip, looking out and seeing the wing going up and down, and I ordered a little bottle of scotch. And I thought, ‘I need this’.
Japan was just wonderful. The knowledge of the operators there of the Penguin Parade was unbelievable. They had more knowledge than our local council, the Victorian Government and the Australian Government. They knew everything about it, and they were just happy now to actually have a face or someone they could write to. We often hosted really important people when they came down. It was great and we really enjoyed that.
That set off business where sometimes we would look after 600 people in a night, buy lobster by the tonne. We had to relate to seasons, because we could only hold lobster for a little while. Firstly we would use it when we needed fresh lobster, so we’re dealing with Victoria. When that season would close, it would be Tasmania, then South Australia, Western Australia and sometimes you would go up to get your tonne of lobster and find out it wasn’t there because someone talked to the guy on the boat and he got a better price.
That was really an interesting time in business, it really was.
Rhonda spoke about the development of their restaurant the ‘Lobster Pot’ at the Conti and how it was officially opened by Sir Phillip Reginald Lynch (Member for Flinders and deputy leader of the Liberal Party from 1972 to 1982).
Rhonda and Keith Jobe alongside the 'Lobster Pot' restaurant sign. Jobe family collection
After the fire, we had to rebuild obviously, and it was in 1976 that it was opened by Phillip Lynch. With the new set up, we designed it so that there was a huge main dining room which is basically the shape that it is now [at the North Pier Hotel] but it has been altered. You had the restaurant, the Lobster Pot, and that was the one that housed the lobster tank. People could actually come and say, ‘I’ll have that lobster’.
Serving lobster was at times a challenge for staff, and for Rhonda who is a vegetarian. Keith reflected how ‘the lobsters would be dead, but the nervous system was working’ and Rhonda recalled:
There were stories. For example, sashimi which is raw lobster, and the girls having to serve. That was quite challenging if you’re not a hardened meat eater.
The staff at the Conti were wonderful and Rhonda said:
We had fabulous staff, local names like Joy Niven, Pat Jeffery, Mel Marks. These wonderful, wonderful women, and a whole lot of others, who were able to relate with people and look after them to a high standard. They were the making of our business. And when you needed a lot of people, that was interesting too because you would have the people coming down, the backpackers, you had your uni students, you had a great mix of staff.
Yet there were many challenges in being able to adequately staff the Conti to meet peak demands and this had a flow-on effect to the desired standard of service that Keith wanted to maintain. He said:
We never had enough staff when we were busy, ever. It was what made it hard to give the service I wanted. I’d go up the street in the morning to do the banking or just to have a walk out on the street, and I’d see all these young people getting ready to go surfing, and I’d get so wild. To be honest, I was feeling quite buggered going up the stairs. To see them so suntanned, happy and not a care in the world.
Rhonda further explained their service ethos:
But I think it also reflects our ethos with serving people and looking after them. As international tourism grew – and for us it was at its peak in the 1980s, particularly the late 80s. There was big business for the city hotels too, because there were busloads of people, coachloads coming down. Sometimes these city hotels who were accommodating them, wouldn’t open their restaurants at a peak time like Christmas day, because of the inflated staffing costs. The tourists frequently came down, unexpected, and they would land at the Conti knowing they would be least likely turned away from there.
We had people sitting around table tennis tables, we’d put a board on the billiard table, we had them sitting out beside the pool, we had lots of people. In the 80s, it was nothing to have up to 20 coachloads of people coming to have dinner and go to the penguins or depending on the time of the year, go to the penguins and come back and have tea.
A function with guests seated around the pool. Jobe family collection
Keith and Rhonda spoke about some of the cultural challenges faced in serving a ‘big mixture’ of international visitors. Rhonda described the difference in attitudes at the lobster dinners:
America was a big part of the market. The Japanese people were different in that they were very well organised, and they paid a premium price for premium quality. The American people had a slightly different attitude and sometimes because their meals weren’t pre-ordered – they weren’t having lobster – they would get cheesed off when the very well-organised Japanese people came in, had their lobster, and left. Whereas the Americans would be up at the bar, having their pre-dinner drinks…
Keith remembered the Americans saying: ‘…I’ll have a Manhattan thanks…’ and Rhonda recalled they would be:
…taking their time, and then go crook because they weren’t out as fast as the Japanese. There may have been some resentment culturally, Americans to Japanese.
That was a bit challenging, you couldn’t do a thing about it. It was the 80s and the main tourists then were quite elderly, so there would have been more time experiences. When we sat groups, we really had to think about that.
As Rhonda put it, this included the dynamics and the seating arrangements so that everybody would feel good during their visit. Rhonda said:
We had a Japanese lass who was our interpreter who was going out with one of the surfie boys on the islandand we’re still in contact with them. They are now in Queensland. Toki interpreted the orders for us and helped in the bar. Mick got into photography and took local photos, he spread them out in the foyer and was selling them to the Japanese people or any other overseas tourists. There was a lot of enterprise there too.
Keith and Rhonda’s children also took the opportunity to be part of the business. Keith said:
Once our daughter stood at the entrance with flowers to sell to the tourists going past. But Rhonda spoilt that business and killed it [laughs]. Jeni was very heartbroken. She was making good money.
This was due to Rhonda’s approach that guests were welcomed into the hotel and therefore: ‘You give flowers, you don’t sell flowers.’
David was 12 years old and at first reluctant to be of service in the hotel. Rhonda described how David first helped out in the reception:
We were very busy and tried to press everybody into service in a way, and that included our son David. He was asked by Keith, ‘would you like to help out in the reception?’ ‘No not really.’ ‘Well, someone didn’t come in today and guess who’s doing it.’ David learnt very early on the plug-in phones.
We had that for a long time and he managed that, and he was really good at speaking with people and doing the accounts. As he got older, he got even better and unfortunately went off to the Air Force, but he did come back a few years later. He has been an integral part of the business and has changed the direction of the business.
In catering to the Japanese market, Keith highlighted how the tour guides supported the way the Conti interacted with the visiting groups and helped with any language barriers. Keith said:
The main thing you had to watch was the tour guides and they were brilliant. The body language. If they needed attention, our team had to know that and go straight to that person, but they were marvellous. The tour guides supported the business, they helped us enormously, but you had to do it their way. And that was fine, they used common sense.
Rhonda reflected how deep friendships often formed:
They helped you because if you had a big group and you couldn’t get to everyone, or Toki couldn’t, with the language barrier, they would do drink orders with you. They would help. We had a very good friend who was an inbound Japanese tour manager, and he invited us to his wedding in Sydney. You become good friends with these people.
Keith recalled how the Japanese tour manager shared his knowledge with him:
He invited me to Sydney and taught me all about lobster sashimi. It made a big difference. I didn’t realise because I didn’t eat shellfish and there was this big serve of raw lobster in front of me and I had to eat it (laughs). You would have lost face. Honestly, you could talk about this for weeks.
Reflections about the Conti
When asked to reflect about the key moments and whether one period was more memorable another, Keith answered:
It’s a bit like turning the page, and you see a little photo and that brings back so many memories. We lived this business for 50 years and so many changes happened.
Rhonda described how the changes at the Conti were also happening across the country:
I think the changes have happened with the country too, like the development and things like expectations, that guest houses were no longer enough to meet people’s demands. That meant you had to build the right accommodation to get that occupancy and then broadening it with the conferences; using the facilities you’ve got plus refining or adding to them.
In the days just before the fire I think we had a few groups, but we didn’t have a large licence. The kids were very little, that must have been at the time, roughly when David went naked into the conference. It was that era, and we waltzed around with the children, to entertain the older people, the Americans. Grandmas missing grandkids. That would fill in 10 minutes while we were serving their meals.
We used to focus on things like roast lamb and mint sauce and apple pie, and these were big hits with the Americans because it was easy for us to do, and it satisfied their thinking this was typical Australian food. It was relaxed, you had kids there, and you were doing everything. Or someone would hold your child for you while you did that. Or with the conferences, in the morning I’m doing the accounts for the salesmen, and there’s Jeni sitting on the bench and the salesman threading her arms into the cardigan. They were family men, and it was a different time. You might think twice about that now, but you never did then. It was totally different and that’s what I meant about the social shift. You were trying to do your best. People helped you on the way because you were genuine, you were doing your best to help them and that was reciprocated.
Keith added how they looked after the same companies for many years:
The international groups we used to do the roast lamb and apple pie for, later progressed to having steaks and grilled lobsters and we looked after those same companies for 25 to 30 years. It gives you a nice feeling when you deal with companies for that long.
1990s and rebuilding the business
Rhonda described how their business reached a peak and that it was time to lease the business. However, it was impacted by a significant decline in international tourism in 1989. Rhonda said:
If you look at how things have changed in that time. In the 80s, that was the peak time then you got all those coaches coming down. How many were there? I’m thinking 20, possibly more, and they would be head to tail up the Esplanade, up Findlay Street and Bass Avenue. And the business really developed well.
Restaurant at Continental with bus parked out the front. Jobe family collection.
We got to the point in 1989 when we thought Ok, it’s very viable, we’ve got the domestic market, we’ve got the conference market, we’ve got the overseas visitors and the juggling that went with that to manage that all, so we thought we’d sell it. We’d had enough, and we leased it in 1989. The trouble was there was a pilot strike in ‘89 just after that was a big crash in tourism.
Article from The Canberra Times, Thursday 26 October 1989 re downturn in Japanese tourist market.
Keith spoke about the damage sustained to the company after many hard years of work:
It damaged the company and we found ourselves having to go back which was really hard. I went to a conference, and the Japanese Travel Bureau, which is THE travel bureau as you could imagine, the government department in Japan, and they used the Continental as an example of what shouldn’t be done to look after the Japanese market.
That was a hell of a start over, after having such a fantastic relationship. But if you’re selling your place, you’ve sold it. You can’t do much about it.
Rhonda reflected that they had in fact leased out the business but, ‘they went bust and we had to go back in.’ Rhonda and Keith returned to the business in 1991 and Keith remembered:
I went to a conference with no business card, not knowing what we were going to call our place, because we were known as the other people.
The inbound operators that I knew were there and extremely supportive and that was the start back.
It also meant Rhonda now had to juggle motherhood and study, with a return to the business environment:
I’d started uni at Monash and that meant a bit more juggling because I had to go back into the business as well as do that and be a mum. Well, that was interesting! A lot of cleaning up and cleaning out went on at the business and getting things slowly back on track. And regaining the confidence that had been lost.
Whilst Keith tried to refocus on international markets, these markets faced financial constraints. However, a focus on the Singapore market emerged in the 2000s:
We did but at that stage, it had been damaged with the airline strikes and the Japanese market was changing.The financial GFC. China was starting to become a new source of tourists, but it was very young, very amateurish. It just wasn’t organised and that’s when I started to lose interest because it was not as viable. The inbound tourism was really nothing like it was in the ‘80s. It was good, but we were spoilt, I think.
Our residential conferences were our main focus. With our improved accommodation we started to market to individual international tourists and groups from Singapore. We actively worked with the Penguin Parade and from that we did a joint marketing trip to Singapore.
I’m talking now about the later part. We found Singapore a good tourist market.
Keith described the earlier main tourism markets in the 90s, with a focus on visiting the penguins:
For us, it was Japan, Japan, Japan and America. Americans really didn’t get down to Victoria a lot. They mainly went to Sydney and Sydney Harbour and Queensland.
The only reason they came down I think was the penguins. They did like Melbourne, they liked the city of Melbourne, they liked the shopping.
Rhonda described how opal shopping was also popular:
They liked the opals too. The opals were quite a drawcard and that was very highly organised among their community where they would have little buses go to different opal shops.
Keith added further details about the coach tours:
If you wonder why there’s a lot of small coaches that run around with tourists, it’s because you can’t take a big coach to an opal shop. You have to have an amount of people on your coach that can actually fit into a shop. It’s well organised.
Keith and Rhonda returned to the discussion on how they re-established their business to have it running well, before they leased it again: Keith said:
It just wasn’t the same, it was really hard afterwards. When we had to go back after the first time, we leased the business to a group of accountants. It was hard because the business was damaged. I was there seven days and seven nights a week and it wasn’t fun. It really wasn’t.
Keith and Rhonda’s son David helped shaped the business direction at the Conti, particularly after he returned from the Air Force and started work at the Conti in 1995. Rhonda said:
He was in the Air Force and was away for several years, but he always helped a lot in the business. Our daughter with the restaurant, the Lobster Pot, she did the paintings, the murals on big boards that adorned the walls. It was always a family business, but when David left the Air Force and came back here, he changed the direction.
Keith also recalled how a seminar changed the way he approached business and gave him ideas about tools to manage his profits and costs:
I’d gone up to Sydney. There was a conference on and they were talking about the effect of the jumbo jet on Australia, or any long-distance destination. There was two Americans there from Hawaii presenting there. One from the University of Hawaii, that looked after tourist training and the other was the manager of the Kahala Hilton. It was the best seminar I’ve ever been too. It was brilliant. They gave us areas that you could look at, and particularly to be able to manage your business by utilising the numbers, the amount of meals, the costs, the accommodation, the percentages, the profit, the whole lot.
Keith in reception at the Continental. Jobe family collection.
I came home, I started. Got a big piece of cardboard, and drew up all these lines and charts and started filling in this information. Which was good, but it was stationary. You could look at and get a little answer there. We were having a lot of problems because next door, Erehwon, was having it hard too just like we were. Their valuation of their place dropped dramatically. Because that happened, the value of our place, which had steady business, dropped dramatically and it created a lot of problems because I was over-borrowed. At that stage, we were paying 28 per cent interest rates. How we survived, I don’t know.
To build the Conti, we had four mortgages. I was having problems; my accountant was arguing with the people that had the first mortgage. We were in deep trouble. David came back from Western Australia, and I shared with him what was happening, and he says, ‘oh look you’ve got the information there’ so we had a little Apple computer. My big clumsy chart, he fitted all the figures into a program. All of a sudden, I could say, oh if I lift the cost of my lobster, or my rooms by this amount, this is what would happen. I would just push a button and there was the answer.
I didn’t need an accountant to run my business. I needed an accountant to go the Tax Office and all that, but in reference to ‘what is happening to your business Keith Jobe?’, I could tell them. I could tell them if my business only got to a certain income, what profit I would make. It was brilliant.
As Rhonda noted:
The bank people acknowledged this computer-driven data, put credence on it and were more cooperative with the borrowings.
Keith described the changes that using data information brought to their business:
From that time on, everything changed. I was able to do a meeting on my own. If the bank manager asked me a question, I could give an answer. It made such a difference.
Rhonda shared how this brought about changes in comparison to their early days described earlier in the interview:
I guess that’s an example of the changes over the period of time when we were there if you consider that from the 60’s.
Favourite memories of the Conti and challenges faced
Keith and Rhonda were asked to reflect on their favourite periods of time at the Conti. Rhonda said:
They are all different, so you can’t compare, but the social time and connection of the 60s….
Before we had conferences, the dances were fun.The Lion’s Club particularly was probably my highlight because I was so involved in it, and it was so vibrant. We had ‘making lamingtons on Good Friday’ for Easter Saturday morning when the Lion Ladies sold lamingtons. We branched out and included Easter eggs because we knew that Easter Saturday was one of the biggest days in Cowes and everyone sold out of Easter eggs. We had street stalls and fundraisers. I loved that cooperation. I loved how the Lions helped Keith out with clothes, and me too. If I couldn’t go to a meeting, my girlfriend who was also a Lady Lion helped. It was a different time, and every time is different. Almost by the decade. You look at the technology and where it is now.
Keith reflected how Rhonda enjoyed the relaxed conferences with the Department of Agriculture, and also the exhilaration of the racetrack at Phillip Island. Keith said:
I’m thinking of the racetrack. There was the Armstrong 500 which would be run down here, which was like the Bathurst 500. It was done on the Island, and we would quite often have the teams staying here at our place. I remember these guys – they did everything. They were the owners, mechanics and drivers; they did the lot. We’d do a function and we’d cook the first lot of meals around six o’clock. This was before inbound tourism. Then the next sitting would come in and then at the finish, sometimes around 10 o’clock or 11 o’clock.
Rhonda and Keith remembered how the racing teams would come into the kitchen often in the early hours of the morning. Rhonda said:
They would come in and they hadn’t eaten, and I would say, ‘have you had anything to eat?’ and: ‘no’. ‘Well, I’m sure we can rustle you something up. So come out to the kitchen’ and you’d make them sandwiches and if they were desperate, they’d have corn flakes because often we’d run out of things too. And that’s when you could go up to Mr Morrison up the street and say could we get another carton of lettuce or whatever you needed, after hours, and he’d open up the shop and you’d go up and bring back the extra goods that you needed to serve that number. That’s what I mean about cooperation and also people helping, because you were helping them.
Keith recalled the focus and professionalism of those in the racing industry:
One night, after a race, we had all the winners staying with us. And the fun in our lounge. Back then, they would probably go to the Isle of Wight and probably have a beer or perhaps two. But that would be it. These were professional guys. They would come and sit around our lounge, a big open fire. It was just fun, it really was. It was just nice times. We were tired.
Rhonda added how it was an advantage to live in the business, but how the priority was to make sure the staff and good suppliers were always paid first:
When you are living in a business and operating it 24/7 and only having a short break in winter or in between things, it was different. Your main advantage was that you were living in the business so you had your food, but you didn’t have wages or anything because you couldn’t afford to pay yourself. You had to make sure you paid the people who you got your goods from, and your staff. It was different.
Our wonderful staff have always been the highlight. We wouldn’t have had the Conti or been able to run it without what our team did. The roster worked around their needs too – as when the young single people wanted New Year’s Eve off but were ok to work Christmas day, when the family women needed to be home with family, but the family women were ok to balance it and do New Year’s Eve.
Family and staff setting up the tables. Jobe family collection
Keith and Rhonda were asked to reflect on the major difficulties they faced. Rhonda spoke about the debt and the fire:
The debt. The fire was a huge blow and a huge challenge. Maintaining the business with that degree of debt and trying to balance bills and having to run up to Melbourne to get payment from a conference to give to the bank to pay the bills, it was a tough time.
Keith spoke about the difficulty of managing the timing of payments, and how the idea of a ‘lobster bank’ resolved this dilemma:
We had a high interest rate which I mentioned. Also, to buy lobster, you had to pay cash. The business we did with the Japanese, everyone paid 30 days after the end of a month. And your wages had to be paid, your group tax had to be paid, all these things had to be paid. I came up with this crazy scheme with my banker one day. I said, ‘We have to set up a lobster bank’. He said, ‘what’s a lobster bank?’ I said, ‘Look, I’ve got to boil all this lobster, keep it for six weeks before I get actually paid for it, and I have to pay for it when I get it. There’s a problem.’ He looked at that and he came down and he saw what we were doing, and we had the record of the Japanese tourism companies and those who paid regularly. So, I got an extension on my overdraft for a lobster bank.
Keith and Rhonda had managed to keep the Conti going to some degree after the fire using the side wings of the accommodation. By the time of the opening night, the family had moved to their farmhouse in Cowes.
Development of Seagrove Estate and reflections about community involvement
The interview with Keith and Rhonda took place at their home that sits in Seagrove Estate, but originally it was a 120-acre farm owned by their family. Keith said:
Bill Papworth had this farm. When we first came to the Island we had about 19 acres on McKenzie Road where we had a poultry farm and also a small dairy farm and a lovely house. It was really well done and we enjoyed it. Bill Papworth thought it was pretty good. He was the shire councillor, shire president. He had this lovely, big farm. He did a deal with my father and he said ‘why don’t we swap’ and that happened with a handshake. That’s how things were done on Phillip Island then. They also did a little docket. It was two duty stamps on it. It said, with a modest payment. And that was the deal. Things were done so differently then. Bill had a house way down there, and we built a small house, just in front of that.
Cr Bill Papworth addressing the crowd at the opening of the 2nd Phillip Island bridge
Phillip Island and District Historical Society
When their business was facing difficulties, the bank threatened to take the farm but Keith described how they were able to hang on ‘through stubborn, hard work’ and Rhonda reflected:
That of course became susceptible when we were having a hard time financially and the bank threatened to take it. We were very lucky to be able to hang on to things.
That’s the flip side of the coin. I’m so glad people love living here and it’s a great estate now.
Rhonda described how the estate came about after talking to Grant Hailes, a local surveyor at the time and who is now Managing Director at Beveridge Williams and Greg Price a local real estate agent.
Grant had just finished working on a new housing development adjacent to the farm and Greg met with us and asked if we had thought about developing the farm? No, we haven’t, and it went from there. The outcome of it was that our son and his wife set up Southern Sustainable Developments. Because David is into sustainability, he had it designed to work with the flow of the land. All the streets have gentle curves, which is all about the water flow and drainage, the size of the wetland, and he developed it for us. That was the start of his business because he’s doing sustainable development infill properties, doesn’t extend town borders, and that’s become their main business.
Keith added: ‘They’ve done quite a few in Melbourne now, so he’s done very well with that. He’s quite bright.’
This prompted further discussion about education on Phillip Island, the development of Newhaven College and memories of how the Continental was often a hub of community activities. Rhonda said:
Talking about kids and education, we were sitting down in the restaurant in the Lobster Pot after the coaches went one night, when Peter Reith and his wife Julie came in and they were talking about their son and how they were looking at him going to Peninsula Grammar, and they asked us if had we any idea what we were going to do about our kids’ schooling. He had come up with the concept of Newhaven College.
This went the next step where a public meeting was called and hosted at the Conti, and it was in the large conference room up top called the Keith Charles room. The other one was called The Phoenix Room after the fire. We had hundreds of people there and explored the opportunity, what support there would be for a Christian Community college. I recall Penny Manning being there and they must have asked if anyone was interested or qualified in teaching, and she put her hand up, and she was one of the mainstay original teachers at the college. The college got off the ground, was supported by the community, and Peter Reith was the guiding light. The finances were supported by the community buying shares in the college, and it’s grown from humble beginnings in Boys Home Road to where it is now.
Early Newhaven College in Boys Home Road. From the College Facebook page.
I remember when I opened the door for Frank Moore when he was applying for the position of the first headmaster. That was lovely, we had a chat, and I put him at ease, [introduced] ‘Mr so and so’. The community was different.
Keith spoke about the importance of being the community hub to render assistance when the Eagle Star ferry sunk in Western Port Bay:
The Conti was the community. The ferry sunk. Jock or the police, I’m not too sure who, asked if we could open up an area for everyone to go to find out if everyone was still there.
The ferry sank in Western Port Bay just off the jetty. The same day our daughter Jeni went missing after Nippers. The Conti became the tactical headquarters. All the luggage that was found floating, on the jetty or wherever, was delivered at the Conti on a truck by the shire. A truckload of stuff and other things kept coming. Thankfully we’d found Jeni who had been in awe of what had happened. There was a lot of confusion.
Eagle Star sinking off Cowes, with people being rescued from the water. Phillip Island & San Remo Advertiser
Keith said: ‘The ferry was sinking and I was looking for my daughter. I didn’t worry about it.’ Rhonda recalled her memory of the day:
We had the police and the Emergency Services upstairs organising and coordinating from the Conti. The Shire was always there to help in a practical way to support the Island.
Rhonda described another example of help given by the Shire at Newhaven College:
When Newhaven College had their first graduation of the Year 12 class, we organised that at Yackatoon, which we also owned. I asked the Shire to bring in mature trees and they were in tubs and we decorated it using these mature trees. The college was a big part of our lives in its early days.
Their children, David and Jeni, both attended Newhaven College, with three of their five grandchildren currently at the school, with David now serving on its board. Rhonda shared how she felt about Newhaven College:
It’s impressive and we have good memories from our involvement with it and it touches on a lot of areas.
Further reflections about the Conti – from opening night after the fire to winning awards and new opportunities
Keith and Rhonda were asked to reflect on the ‘opening night’ of the Conti on 6 June 1976 after the fire. Rhonda said:
It was one of our most important and long serving staff member, Hazel’s, birthday. We had a plaque in the foyer to mark the opening.
It was in a way a relief that it had actually got to that point. I think because of the political aspect and having people like politicians and Phil Lynch was great, he was our local member. That was good but it wasn’t the normal, relaxed tone. It was more formal than was our style.
Phillip Lynch, local Federal parliamentarian, who supported the 1976 Official Opening night of the rebuilt Continental.
The idea of having an opening night grew and also became a join celebration with Warley Hospital. Keith said:
It just sort of grew. We asked Phillip Lynch, our local MP, if he would be able to open the Conti and Phillip was happy to do it. We made it a charity night by sharing the occasion with the hospital which made it more special. Warley, as you would know when you talk to everyone on this island, particularly all us old fogies, you mention Warley you get that reaction. Everyone loved it, it was so important to us. To actively work with Warley with the joint celebration was good.
Rhonda described how it was like ‘turning the page to the new times’ and said:
It marked an occasion which was a turning point. Now we had the facilities, that somehow miraculously we had managed to finance at a stretch, but we had those facilities, it was no longer the older set up. It was turning the page to the new times where things changed. You had new staff. You had a year-round business. You employed a lot of people. It was more professional. It had lifted it up a notch because you’re providing your facilities and your venue was up there.
We won the award later on for best four-and-a-half-star facility. A lot of that also had to do with David. That was a real feather in our cap.
Keith added his thoughts of how winning the award was ‘unbelievable’ and one that he ‘really appreciated’. Keith also recalled:
We won a gold and a silver award earlier when I started to market the Conti and Phillip Island to the overseas markets and to develop the conference market. It was good for the business and us to have that recognition.
Keith and Rhonda were asked to reflect on their time at the Conti, and whether there was a point that they felt they wanted to move away from the business. Keith described the challenges, but also the highlights:
There were lots of hard times and challenges when you think it’s too much, you get tired and frustrated. Then new opportunities arise which fire you up and you get going again. It made all the difference when David joined the team.
Probably a highlight would be Hewlett-Packard when we had their top regional conference for Australia and Asia. The quality of it, all the organisers were walking around with microphones and tapes. We closed off the front area of our lounge and they created a snow lodge there. We had to put in three-phased power to be able to do it all. It just went so beautifully. They left and all of a sudden, we had lobster meals coming in that night and guests, we had to go from running a really high-level conference, back to basics nearly overnight.
Rhonda described the range of conferences hosted at the Conti:
There was a range of conferences we catered for. One popular local one, I don’t know if it was international, Australian or district, but the Rotary conference. We looked after the meals for the conference people, there were social activities organised for families, and we had accommodation with us booked out and all other Island accommodation was booked out. The shire closed the Esplanade off and stalls and entertainment were set up like a Mardi Gras. It was so good for the island. The expertise of running those international conferences, those high-level ones, meant you had the flexibility to apply to those social style conferences, like Rotary and a few others. We used to also look after different racing clubs and a whole range of groups. They weren’t all businesses.
Ferrari would book out our place for a weekend, as did many other car enthusiast groups like veteran car rallies, and they were good.
Ferrari weekend at the Continental. Jobe family collection
Ferrari club awards set up at the conference with the view of Western Port from the window. Jobe family collection
The interview explored changes in the hotel environment on Phillip Island, including the social change for guests having tea and coffee in the hotel bedrooms, discussed earlier. Rhonda also described other key changes:
That was a social change. That was part of how society in general has changed. There’s less focus on the guest house style because that doesn’t suit modern people. I think the other factor is the island developed and our population grew and more facilities came. Not just with the four supermarkets but everything else. The health services, the whole range of things. We lost the hospital but now you don’t have one doctor looking after the whole island, you have a team of doctors, or different practices. The scale of it has changed enormously, along with expectations.
The new bridge helped to open it up as did our population growth. There are a lot of units now and many retired people have upgraded their holiday homes to live here permanently. Services on the Island have grown, and technology now enables people to work from home and provides more options. The racetrack has been developed and draws huge crowds and the Penguin Parade has grown and developed other attractions. The promotion of the Island and everything is on a bigger scale.
Keith reflected on the early days:
It was hard to build on Phillip Island early because of the bridge. Most homes had cement sheets cladding but quite often you would drive down across the island and see a caravan and a little toilet stuck next to it. And people would have plans to build, but once they got going, they thought, ‘this is alright’ - until the council put a stop to it.
Marketing opportunities and promotion of the Conti and Phillip Island
The discussion further explored marketing opportunities that Keith and Rhonda took to promote the Conti and Phillip Island as a destination. Going back to the 1960s, Keith and Rhonda were involved in the Phillip Island Promotion Association (PIPA).
Phillip Island Promotion Association flyer, Prizes were accommodation, including one week at the Continental Hotel. 1970s. Phillip Island & District Historical Society Inc
I did their first brochure. Keith got himself elected as secretary of PIPA, the Phillip Island Promotion Association. This would have been about ’67 and Keith wiggled out of being secretary by giving the job to me. He said ‘oh you can do that’. The Island didn’t have a brochure. There was only an old one from the 40s or 50s. It had a car and a penguin and people, and has since become a poster. So I said, you’ve got to have a brochure. We came up with a black and white double sided three folded one and most of my text came out of the history of Phillip Island Gliddon book.
Another thing we used to do through the Phillip Island Promotion Association: we had these penguin-shaped rubbish bins, and they were black and white and Dave Cook at Cook’s garage, which you may have heard of, and his brother Jim, they ran the garage. They had one next to each bowser and you would see them around the island and sometimes they would go for a swim when they would be thrown off the end of the jetty. It was early days and now you look at promotion, different times.
Penguin rubbish bin on the Esplanade Cowes. Jobe family collection.
Keith spoke about key marketing opportunities, trips to America and memories of hosting dinners at their old farmhouse:
We got our first colour brochure too during PIPA times. We had a meeting at Kevin Shaw’s house. A gentleman called John Counsel came across and he produced the brochure for us. But that was probably the first colour brochure and where people on the island contributed to the cost of it. We did little things in Melbourne such as Chadstone and also the Royal Arcade, which was good. Bill Hopkins was actually a contact there. We worked with Destination Phillip Island which was is one of the main island groups now. The race circuit and Phillip Island Nature Parks are really the strong driving forces of that side of things. They do a great job. We did marketing with the Penguin Parade, did joint ones.
Trade show stand, run jointly with Phillip Island Nature Parks. PINP and PIPA member John Matthews at left.
Jobe family collection.
On my trips to America, I had to get these stuffed penguins which we used for prizes. The Australian Tourist Commission each year would do a seminar in different areas. One year, it was in Los Angeles and Canada and somewhere else close to that. The following year we went down south to Florida. Another time to New York.
I remember going through New York. I had three or four large boxes of stuffed penguins, with Victorians stamps on the side of it, which I got because I thought it would help going through customs. But you can imagine going on your own, through La Guardia Airport in America with all these stuffed penguins plus my luggage which had a lot of paper information in it. Going to Customs and the guy couldn’t believe it and he just laughed and he said: ‘You’ve got to be honest. This is stupid’. He just sent me through (which was really interesting), and I got into this cab and the driver didn’t get out, he just yelled at me. They are not very polite in New York. There I was in putting everything into the back. I hope he doesn’t drive off without me. That was interesting and challenging.
We worked actively with the Penguin Parade. We did a joint trip which I mentioned before to Singapore which was extremely helpful for us in doing marketing. From that, we did seminars at the Conti which we hosted with Melbourne Tourism and Vic Tour. We did marketing in Melbourne with Tourism Vic. There was also the Melbourne Convention Bureau which we worked hard, we got to know their top marketing person very well who we’d invite down to the island every now and then. The feature was this old pot-bellied stove with a sheet of iron on it and we’d cook steaks on that.
I’d have a bottle of Grange Hermitage. We’d drink the Grange Hermitage, sipping it while the steak was cooking, and then going inside where Rhonda was doing everything so beautifully inside.
Promoting the island’s wildlife and love of its environment
Keith and Rhonda did much to support organisations across the island, including raising funds for the Rhyll Wildlife Reserve and Rhonda said:
I remember half writing this article with Kevin Shaw. You have to look after the island. We ride on its back. We say we ride on the penguins’ back.
Their love of the island’s environment is strong, and Keith reflected:
I walk around in the morning with Heidi our dog, and the rosellas, the lorikeets, the galahs, the currawongs make it a great start to the day.
David has done a listing of birds that are here now and there are more than was previously recorded. It’s our environment – that’s why David and Jane are into the sustainability factor – it’s important to everyone. Even when we were living at the Conti you would see the moon rise from the east over towards Rhyll and come across, shining on the water.
The discussion prompted the memory of koalas being more widespread on the island, and Keith shared:
It’s always been part of the highlight. I remember koalas walking down the passageway of our hotel. Guests hurtling in every direction to get their box brownies out to take a photo. We used to look after a lot of chauffeured cars and we would get to know the drivers. This man was so indignant I don’t know if I can say this, he had Asian people with him, and he said ‘this koala went right past the Asian people and grabbed my leg and bit me’. He was very indignant. Just little things you remember.
Eric Robertson worked with the Victorian government Tourist Bureau and brought school group here from South Australia. And he was standing under a tree and a koala piddled on him. The smell!
With these school groups, we used to take them out to Vern and Nora Johnson’s gardens – Kingston Gardens – and do the barbeque with apple slice and what have you. Using Kevin’s boat, we took groups out and catered on the beach at Red Rocks. There were a lot more koalas then. You had them in and out scaring people. A big ‘He Man’ came running into reception saying, ‘I just heard the most horrible sound, someone is murdered’. We settled him down and said ‘it was a koala, mate!’
Keith also recalled that: ‘We had to put a roof on our dog enclosure to stop koalas climbing in.’
Rhonda also described how tourist buses used to take visitors to spot koalas on their way to the Penguin Parade:
The tourist buses used to crawl along Ventnor Road to spot the koalas in the trees on their way to the penguins before coming to the Conti to eat. The tourists would get out of the coaches to take photos and would often walk up our long driveway looking for koalas.
Talking about tourists, turned the discussion to marketing brochures used overseas and Keith recalled:
One of the brochures was the best brochure I ever had. The Victorian Government did a photo and they brought down this model – her name was Karen West – in a bikini and blonde, holding a penguin. It was a brilliant photo. I saw the photo and I went up to Vic Tour, and I said ‘Can I use that photo?’ And I did, and it was the best brochure. First of all, all the kids would grab it, all the dads would grab it, I don’t know about the mums, but it really worked wonderfully for us, it really sold our place. I even took it to Japan and it was popular there. But I fell down in America. In America, most of the operators are elderly ladies and they are generally quite big.
Rhonda clarified that ‘They may have been then’ and Keith continued to describe the challenges of locating Melbourne as a tourist spot in different overseas markets:
They’re not big now of course. They’ve all slimmed down. The thought of them handing out this brochure, they would just throw it in the bin. Your market was different too. When you went to Japan, you talked about penguins and they knew exactly where it was in Victoria, Phillip Island, a couple of hours out of Melbourne.
You went to America, to explain where I was, you would first of all say, Australia, Melbourne, Victoria, Phillip Island. It was important in that sequence because if you said Victoria, they would think you were talking about Canada, and this is where marketing in different countries can be so, so different. In Singapore, everybody knew about Phillip Island penguins. America was challenging. All of the brochures I did always featured Melbourne. I’ve got one here. That was important. And nature. It had to have nature.
Rhonda described how the identity of the island is linked to nature:
Nature is what the whole island is about when people think island. They love the fact that it is an identity, and they associate the identity with our natural life, the habitat.
Keith returned to the discussion on opportunities for marketing and the help they received:
With marketing also, the Australian Tourist Commission was a big help for us. They instigated those trips to America where I used these stuffed penguins and also, they would do a trade show in Australia, and they would move from state to state each year. This was a wonderful opportunity to talk to these outbound operators from all over the world. Korea, China, Germany, France. That was people we dealt with to actually get business to us.
Locally, dealing with operators I would go to Sydney, and a little bit in Melbourne, but mainly Sydney, and talk to inbound operators. These are the people in Japan or America or wherever who control the bookings once the tourists are in Australia. I would go and see them every 12 months with prices, and every six months just to say ‘hi, how is everything going?’ We hosted a lot of VIP people who would come to the hotel. Some very special people, top managers in Japan who we hosted at our house. We did dinner at home. It was really nice.
Keith described their most memorable guests as the airline manager from Japan Airlines, and three Texans who had hosted Keith in America, so in turn, Keith and Rhonda reciprocated the favour at their home.
Current business environment and struggles
Keith and Rhonda felt the current business environment on Phillip Island is very challenging. Rhonda said: ‘There are so many different factors, like the reviews on social media. Strewth!’, and Keith added: ‘I’d hate to run a business now. It’s written and that’s what counts.’ Rhonda elaborated on the challenges their own business faced:
Can you imagine all those hard times we went through, when we knew our service wasn’t as nice or as good as we’d like it? We’re doing our best with what we had – staff wise and everything else – but to cop a review that’s negative and to kill your business. There were enough other factors going against you, the financing and trying to find staff. But with the modern challenges that they face now it would be very hard.
Keith talked about how complaints could feel devastating:
We couldn’t do it all properly. It was just too much. We never had enough staff, but we did such huge, huge numbers. And then you would have two people right at the end sit in at a restaurant where everybody has just left, ready to have dinner, and it’s so hard. Just every now and then, and if they would complain, it would destroy you and upset you so much.
Rhonda added ‘They didn’t understand’. Keith also described how they would often juggle the many demands of running a hotel:
We did a transpersonal conference, a group of well over 100 people, it was huge, huge conference. They were here for the weekend, and it was unbelievable. They set up a tank outside on our lawn – a hot tub – and they were running back and forwards with nothing on. We had a squash court and they were doing rebirthing and screaming. Just imaging the screaming in a squash court, the noise! We did 140, I forget the numbers, but it was a huge conference. There was breakfast, morning tea, lunch, afternoon tea, dinner and supper. And in the middle of it we did 300 Japanese meals and public coaches. All at the same time!
Rhonda echoed that: ‘It was a real juggle.’
Rhonda considered whether Covid has impacted businesses on the island:
It has. I felt for all those businesses, but I also felt for them for the school holidays when they had a chance to open, but can they get the staff? Because staffing was always an issue for us. We were lucky we had our key women who were brilliant. You need big numbers if you’re going to look after people, and that’s what we didn’t have.
Keith and Rhonda described how they planned the use of space within the Conti after the fire. This helped to alleviate business constraints to ‘produce miracles’, as Keith said:
We designed our place to be very efficient. All my life was catering and looking after people. We were able to set up a situation with small staff to be able to produce miracles.
Rhonda spoke about the flexibility of the conference rooms:
I remember sitting in the architect’s office when we were doing the original plans for the rebuilding after the fire. Looking at how to divide the space to give us the most flexibility and keeping it simple. That’s why we had a big conference room, called it after ‘His Nibs’, the Keith Charles Room, and then a smaller one for the Phoenix Room, rising from the ashes. We had a recreational area with the table tennis tables, billiard tables and the back stairs. There was a little kitchen up there as well as a dumb waiter that you could use to lift up your food, so you could sit people and cater in that large Keith Charles Room.
Keith talked about the challenges of the fragile supply of power on the island and how they designed the kitchen and adapted their service to solve this issue:
We had walk-in cool rooms for meat, dairy and vegetables so they all needed separate temperatures. This gave us a capacity to look after large numbers. And a large walk-in freezer. The kitchen was designed so half the utility was electric, and the other half was gas. The early days of Phillip Island, the power would go off quite often because there was only one line of power coming across the island and it was really hard. The power would go off and we had lights which we were able to grab and put around the place.
Rhonda recalled the simplicity that candles would bring and a feeling of returning to their earlier days at the Conti:
There were hurricane lamps and then we had boxes of candles in the cellar. And we’d bring those up and you know as soon as you brought out the candles, and you got people moving around to let someone else have light, that feeling got more back to what it used to be in the old days, and people suddenly weren’t expecting to be waited on hand and foot. They were happy to get up and have a go. And everybody helped each other that little bit more and they would always comment, ‘that was fun’. They enjoyed it and that brings you back to the early days when it was like that regularly. As soon as you get candles out and the hurricane lamps, everybody is wondering: ‘What is happening? Are we going to have dinner before we get to the penguins?’
Keith shared his thoughts at the current time about the challenges and hopes for the island. Keith said:
My main concern is that on one side of the island we’ve got a racetrack, which is brilliant, it’s of a world standard. We’ve got Nature Parks and the Penguin Parade, how they do that, how they run it is as good as you can see anywhere. You’ve got to be so proud of it, you really do. What scares me is if ever a hotel is built on the other side of the island, the structure of tourism would be altered for ever because they would just use that side of the island. To me, that’s a big worry until we can get something done with the Isle of Wight site. Cowes to me, the shops in Cowes are great, I love them, I’m so proud of them, but they can only do so much. Because for the Conti to have succeeded we had to do conferences and the conferences gave us continuity of hours to be able to employ people and train them.
The Isle of Wight site, if that was built, hopefully they would do in a sense what we did way back then. It would bring in new people, new experiences and bring people down on a Wednesday or a Thursday and walk around the town. The shops up the street need that continuous trade. You can’t bring up your staff, you can’t go to the bank and do improvements unless you’ve got that [money] turnover.
Rhonda spoke about the changes to people’s expectations:
The other aspect is that tourism is changing. You have a huge number of beds on the island now. You look at the Airbnb’s and all the privately rented accommodation, the number of units which never used to be here, so the number of beds on the island has greatly increased. You can’t go back to the old-fashioned style. If something is built on the Isle of Wight site, it will be international standard, because that’s what is expected. But I don’t think you will ever recapture the days that have gone, and you can’t expect to. Because people’s expectations are so different, and their experiences are different. And they don’t stay two weeks or one week, they come down when they want. That’s a total shift in the whole face of tourism.
Also, with Airbnb’s, there’s no marketing budgets. They just have a website which when you think of it, that’s great for the individual. But for the town, you’re not getting that continuous, professional marketing that the town needs. The Penguin Parade is doing it. The racetrack is doing it. But Cowes is just a lovely seaside town. A friend of ours was in America and they went and saw a town called Carmel and this town, people go from miles just to go to this town. It’s just so well done, the signage, the theme, the whole theme that goes right through the whole town and it’s brilliantly done. Bob Steane, the owner of Erehwon, saw it a long time ago and he said, ‘this is what Cowes needs’.
Carmel City Centre. Image: stayhappening.com
Keith and Rhonda reflected in conclusion that times have changed but that the position of the Conti on the Esplanade maximised business opportunities on Phillip Island. Rhonda said:
If you look at how the times have changed and how that’s reflected in what used to be the Conti and is now North Pier. And you see what they have done with it and how they have opened it up brilliantly, they’re the only ones that never went broke. Everyone else that we sold the business to, or leased the business to, financially couldn’t make a go of it. But these people have been brilliant. Their website shows they have got backpacker rooms which were our old staff quarters. They’ve got a range of accommodation options and they promote it and they’re servicing a need and they’ve brought it up to modern day standards and making the most of that prime location which is what the Conti was all about. That’s why Keith’s dad, Harry, bought it originally. He saw where it was, he envisaged the potential. You don’t have a crystal ball and imagine how things are today from the contrast of those times, but he saw potential and those people running it now are doing a brilliant job, maximising the site and the service and the facilities.
Keith summed it up best when he said:
Dad said it’s got position and it faces north. And you can look at the water. And if you can have the sun coming out at the same time.
Ultimately the instinct of Keith’s father, Harry Jobe, and a simple approach to choosing the best location contributed to the success of the Conti. But behind that, has been pure determination to succeed against many challenges the Jobe family has faced and overcome. Reflecting on the interview which covered so much history on the island since the 1950s, felt for Rhonda like it being ‘a big jigsaw. We’re going backwards, and forwards with different periods, as different memories arise’ and for Keith, it brought back ‘lovely memories’.
We are very grateful that Keith and Rhonda have shared so beautifully their memories of the eras, changes and the trends of business life at the Conti. They also generously shared their thoughts and feelings about the many challenges faced, all whilst raising their family and showing a deep commitment to their staff and community
Additional reference in opening sections
6 March 1999, 75th Anniversary Celebration of the Continental Phillip Island.
Booklet with text reproduced from ‘Guesthouses of Phillip Island’ by June Cutter, 1987.