How we went from 1400 people to zero revenue and the big fight back

Bruce Keebaugh owner of the Big Group "That’s one of the most important things to try and express at the moment, that our industry is different"

Bruce Keebaugh is the owner of the Big Group, a global hospitality agency, which he started with his wife Chyka in 1992 as a catering business. He lives in Melbourne, the most severely COVID-19 restricted city in the western world. In this first of a three-part interview, Bruce Keebaugh talks with Event Organisers about his journey in business, how his organisation managed the crisis and the need to explain the event industry’s point of difference to government and media.

“Well I actually wanted to be a Diplomat, but I couldn’t get the marks for Law because I was too dumb. So, I went into hotel management and ended up working for a leading Melbourne catering company and had a great time. Then the world blew up in the late 80s with a financial crisis and in 1992 I started my business with about five hundred bucks.

We’ve had no outside backers, minimal debt and have used our cash reserves to grow organically. That’s probably been our greatest luxury during this crisis. I can make quick decisions and we are in a strong enough position to survive. Not everyone has that. The ability for swift decision making has been important.

We’ve had a great journey, starting as a catering company and today we consider ourselves more of a hospitality agency, as we now work in multiple sectors. Firstly, major events which are usually sport related, such as the Australian Open, Australian Grand Prix, Melbourne Cup and the AFL final. We have a venues sector for conferences and weddings, and our own full-service hire agency. We also have a strong creative arm as we’ve always believed that, whilst our original product is food, the environment in which that food is put is extremely important. So, Creative has always been a very big thing for us, so we can control the aesthetic of the environment where we put our clients’ personal or corporate brand. The aesthetic business has been amazing, it’s been very strong over the past ten years due to social media, so a large part of the work we do is Creative Production.

The other part of the business is private wealth business. We do a lot of national private eventing – large scale weddings and personal major occasions – and at a crazy schedule. Then we have an international sector and we’ve worked extensively over the last ten years in the GCC region – Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Qatar and Kuwait. It’s an interesting part of our business that not many people know about. That sector is fascinating because we get the opportunity to work with some of the best global partners in the world. And of course, it’s great for Brand Australia to be seen inside that sector – bringing in traders from France UK and United States of America. So that’s us. We do a bit retail but that’s not really our main thing.

When COVID hit we had staff of around 1400 people and significant revenue numbers. And then the opportunity knocked to suddenly have zero revenue! So, on the 15th March I stood down the entire organisation and I put it into what I call ‘Hiatus’. That was a tough thing to do but as we said to the team, we either protect the Mothership, or we are all going down the gurgle.

We took a strategic approach to COVID as we saw there would be zero revenue for 6 months. Our focus for that entire period has been about relationships – relationships with our teams, with our supply chain and relationships with our customer base. That approach has been very beneficial because we’re now coming out of COVID and those relationships are probably the most dynamic they have ever been. Whilst it didn’t bring revenue in the short term, it will guarantee revenue in the long forward period.”

 

Hiatus not Hibernation

“Hibernation is a luxury that I can’t afford for myself. Now I have to fight even harder than ever before, for my team. I’ve got people who’ve got mortgages and kids to get though school, and its only by my core team staying together, networking and getting on those phones, that I can protect them and by default, myself and the business. We’ve probably never worked harder than we have in the past 6 months.

That term [hibernation] makes a really dangerous assumption – that we’re not in a massive time of change. But we are in a massive time of change. Our industry is going to be revolutionarily different, which I find really exciting. So, to be able to be inside that, forecasting the trend and working out what it’s going to be like on the other side – that’s called ‘Business’. And you either want to be in Business or out of Business and I think it’s extremely dangerous not to be close to the front face of that truth.”

 

“It’s been difficult for the events industry to have any voice, when we’re all talking about front line workers, death and all that horror. But there’s a shift in the dialogue now and we’ve just started to make waves.  One of the big things we’re trying to articulate, not only to media but also to government, is that the events industry is not the hospitality retail bar café sector, and most people don’t understand that. There no question that the hospitality sector has had a hard hit, but once they open their doors and the workforce is back in the CBD, their trade will come back. Our sector will have another hit for at least 6 to 12 months, because of the time needed for planning & scheduling major events, special occasions and corporate events. That’s one of the most important things to try and express at the moment, that our industry is different.

The whole thing about the events industry is its flexibility. Nothing ever runs the way you want it to run, it’s never seamless. It’s just like the theatre, the guests arrive and they are having a nice experience, but behind the scenes we’re putting out fires left, right and centre. So, my base state of being is very ‘duck like’ – on top the duck glides along nicely, but the feet are going hard underneath. I love what I do and we’ve been very fortunate (by working hard) that’s it’s been successful. But I’ve never been driven by money. I don’t ‘not-not’ like money and I don’t ‘not-not’ like the things it can provide. But its not my driver – my driver is about the product and the people. So, my concern inside this COVID piece has been ‘How are we going to get through this as a team’. And having the confidence of what we’ve done in the past, has made me confident about what we can create in the future. I’ve definitely had a few shit days where I’ve felt flat about it, but it’s been more about trying to find the tunnel out of this. And I think we’re past that bit now. The hardest days are behind us – although I do think there’s going to be some financial horror out there – but from a personal view, I think the hardest parts are behind us and the best is to come.”

NEXT TIME – Bruce Keebaugh – Coming together to fight for the big issues