As part of my series about the “How Business Leaders Plan To Rebuild In The Post COVID Economy,” I had the pleasure of interviewing Jeff O’Hara. Jeff is the founder and CEO of PRA Business Events New Orleans (www.nolameetings.com), which produces business events, meetings and incentive travel programs.
Jeff began his hospitality career in 1985, working part time while a student at Florida State University. His career has taken him to every corner of the hospitality industry — he has worked in luxury boutique hotels and 1,000 plus room “supertankers.” He has managed small restaurants and developed B&B’s. Jeff moved to New Orleans in 1992, and has made it his home ever since. Since leaving a corporate career, he has started 10 companies in hospitality and real estate. He is the owner of PRA Business Events New Orleans, a company that provides services to the Corporate Meeting and Incentive Travel sectors. His company has been named three times to the Inc.5000 Fastest Growing Private Companies in America and twice to the Seminole 100 list of fastest growing companies owned by Florida State University alumni.
He has backed numerous start ups as an Angel Investor, including firms in the fields of technology, biotech, hospitality, medical devices, consumer staples and alternative energy. He is an active member of the NOLA Angel Network and Lagniappe Angels, and has also backed start ups through the Rockies Venture Club.
Jeff’s book “Have Fun, Fight Back and Keep the Party Going: Lessons from a New Orleans Entrepreneur’s Journey to the Inc. 5000” was released under Inc. magazine’s “An Inc. Original” label in December 2018.
A native of Kingston, NY, he received a BS in Hospitality Administration from Florida State University and an MBA from Tulane University.
Thank you so much for your time! I know that you are a very busy person. Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
I started my post college career working for Sheraton Hotels, and always figured that I would have a long career working my way up the corporate ladder. As it turns out, I did not like the politics of a large company and liked being told what to do even less (should have seen this coming as I left home when I was 16). So, fed up with a new General Manager, I quit on the spot one day with no job prospects in front of me. Given the above, I quickly decided I would be better off starting my own business. Since 1997, I have founded 10 companies and worked my way through the previous economic crashes of 9/11, Hurricane Katrina and the Great Recession — all of which were particularly hard on the hospitality industry.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?
One of the businesses I started was developing a historic mansion in the Garden District of New Orleans into a small hotel. It had been previously owned by a woman known as the “Cat Lady of St. Charles Avenue”, and after she passed away her son had let it turn into basically a flophouse. So it needed a lot of work. Much more than we anticipated. And you could still smell the cats. By the time we got it open, we were a year behind schedule and a million dollars over budget. We were in a rush to get it open in time for Mardi Gras as the parades passed right in front of the property and I had sold out all of the rooms fully pre-paid. We were still painting when the first guests checked in on the Friday before Mardi Gras. All seemed fine over the weekend and everyone took the “just opened glitches” in stride while they enjoyed the festivities. That was until the morning of Fat Tuesday, Mardi Gras Day. It was then that the sewage starting backing up into the bathtubs in the guest rooms. I called every plumber in the book, all of them that advertised 24 hours/ 7 day a week service. After leaving about 10 messages, one plumber actually answered and he said “no chance” on Mardi Gras Day. At a loss, and with guests growing more impatient by the minute, I looked for the external sewage line, and found a drain under the building with a valve on it. I opened the valve and gallons of sewage poured out. I was suddenly ankle deep in it. BUT, the problem was fixed for the moment and everybody could go about their day (except me, who needed a serious cleaning!). All I could do was laugh at myself.
The lesson here is that we really should have had at least a week of a soft opening to work the kinks out, and pushed the contractors to make that deadline. That lesson applies to more in business than just contractors. From software launches to big client proposals, ALWAYS give yourself time to work the out the kinks in front of a friendly audience.
Is there a particular , that you read, or podcast you listened to, that really helped you in your career? Can you explain?
I read books constantly, and everybody should. Most of what I read is about successful entrepreneurs and business people, and how they built their business. There are so many lessons to be learned from others that can lead to your own success. One of my all time favorites is “Winners Dream” by Bill McDermott, it is a real rags to riches success story. This man started his career selling Xerox copiers door to door in New York City. Talk about having the ability to immediately overcome rejection! There are great lessons here about perseverance, becoming great at sales and building teams.
Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven business” are more successful in many areas. When you started your company what was your vision, your purpose?
Well, to be sure the immediate purpose was to generate enough money to keep me in beer and chips! But our early success had to do with providing a very high level of customer service, and we built on that. As we grew and added team members we ensured we were providing a high level of employee empowerment and engagement. My overriding purpose throughout has been to marry these two and create a team that is enriched, challenged, educated and grows constantly out of their expectation box. Amazing customer experiences follow naturally.
Do you have a “number one principle” that guides you through the ups and downs of running a business?
After a few years of being an entrepreneur, you are basically unemployable. Companies would be scared to hire you and you wouldn’t fit in if you are not calling the shots anyway. So you have no choice but to find a way through the downs.
The reward is that the ups become exponentially more satisfying because they are a product of your vision.
Thank you for all that. The Covid-19 pandemic has affected nearly every aspect of our lives today. For the benefit of empowering our readers, can you share with our readers a few of the personal and family related challenges you faced during this crisis? Can you share what you’ve done to address those challenges?
Like a lot of most entrepreneurs, my personal life is very much intertwined with the company and yes, I know it is not healthy, but. So the company challenges we discuss in the interview have been what I have really been consumed with. With that said, my wife works for a fitness center which also had to close down and so we have both lost our incomes.
As far as what to do to address the challenge on the personal front, I just try to keep everyone sane and laughing.
Can you share a few of the biggest work related challenges you are facing during this pandemic?
We are in the business events space, and have lost all of our revenue from March until maybe the end of the year. Companies have put a hold on travel, governments are not letting people out, and even when that ends people are scared to meet in groups. So the revenue problem is the first issue, and how we make people comfortable to travel and meet again becomes the next.
Another big challenge is that most of my team has not been through an economic crisis before. They are understandably nervous about their immediate and long term future. So I have to help them get into a comfortable mindset, to the best that can be done under the circumstances. Oh, and do that remotely.
Can you share what you’ve done to address those challenges?
The kicker about most of the shocks I mentioned is that they all occurred suddenly. There was not a slow drag into a recession, or a slow erosion of a companies business, that you could feel and prepare for. So it requires fast action. The first step in a downturn like this is to conserve cash. We immediately cut our ongoing expenses except for payroll and rent and asked for refunds for anything we had pre-paid for. I also had the team jump on accounts receivable, knowing that our customers would be in the same position and could quickly start to slow pay. We wanted to be ahead of that curve. The next step was to start looking for additional sources of financing before we are desperate for it. It’s always easier to raise money when you don’t actually need it.
The next phase is developing systems to make people feel safe and comfortable attending our events. We have an internal task force working on systems to ensure safety, sanitation and distancing options for our guests from the time they get off the plane in New Orleans until they return home. Systems alone are not enough of course, we will also have a proactive communication plan to bring them to the marketplace. This is very similar to what we had to do after Katrina, when there was widespread belief that New Orleans was not safe for events long after the viability had been restored. We launched a large communication and personal contact plan to address our clients fears and perceptions.
At the same time, taking care of my team. None of this works if the team is living in uncertainty and fear. The news cycle is just reinforcing that fear faster than I can talk to them about it. I have been using examples from how we made it through previous crises while being open and honest about the current state of play. I share stories about what is going on in other industries to demonstrate that we are not unique in our experience. From leadership, the messaging is complete with empathy and honesty. As leaders, we can’t pretend to have all of the answers when we don’t, or else we lose credibility quickly. There has to be a balance of demonstrating confidence that we can pull through, while be honest about what we currently know.
Many people have become anxious from the dramatic jolts of the news cycle. The fears related to the corona virus pandemic have understandably heightened a sense of uncertainty, fear, and loneliness. What are a few ideas that you have used to offer support to your family and loved ones who were feeling anxious? Can you explain?
For family and loved ones, it is very important to give them enough of your time. It is very easy to fall into the trap of managing your business through the crisis and being fully consumed with it. After all, it is your livelihood and your future. But your family is looking to you for leadership and comfort just like your team is, so be sure to spend time with them, listen, and help them understand the crisis.
Obviously we can’t know for certain what the Post-Covid economy will look like. But we can of course try our best to be prepared. We can reasonably assume that the Post-Covid economy will be a trying time for many people across the globe. Yet at the same time the Post-Covid growth can be a time of opportunity. Can you share a few of the opportunities that you anticipate in the Post-Covid economy?
I don’t think that the products/services that may be in hot demand now are going to permanently be part of the landscape — with the exception of personal hygiene, I hope soap and hand sanitizer sales continue to boom! But eventually people will go back to their normal way of doing things, as the risk of getting sick is no more than many other risks we take on a daily basis.
Where there will be an opportunity is in taking market share from weakened competitors and also M&A. In the midst of the financial crises, I scored a big contract to provide transportation for the Coast Guard responding to the BP oil spill. I used that money to go on a sales and marketing offensive that my competitors could not match because they were reeling. Companies that can stay well capitalized will be able to take market share and muscle aside competition.
How do you think the COVID pandemic might permanently change the way we behave, act or live?
I do hope that people will take sanitation more seriously than they apparently were before. But honestly, I think once everyone gets past this initial fear, they will realize that there are risks involved with everything that you do every day. I always say “Live life to the fullest, you never know if you will be hit by a bus tomorrow”, and that is even more applicable in this environment. People are social beings, and the need to connect with other people in social and business settings will outweigh fear of getting the flu.
Considering the potential challenges and opportunities in the Post-Covid economy, what do you personally plan to do to rebuild and grow your business or organization in the Post-Covid Economy?
As mentioned above, we are setting systems in place that will make our guests feel safe and comfortable attending the events that we produce. In parallel, we are looking at alternative revenue streams that will get us through until our regular business comes back, and could well be viable options for ongoing business in the long term. I asked the team to look deep down inside yourself and the company and ask at the core, what do you and really do and what are you good at? Take these skill sets independent of what we currently offer and see how we can translate them into a new market opportunity. We have some really good ideas already and I am looking forward to announcing some new initiatives once we have them vetted and market validated.
Similarly, what would you encourage others to do?
Don’t sit still! Do not presume everything will take care of itself independent of action by you. Keep thinking and driving new ideas, look for new revenue, new ways to improve your business and new ways to present yourself and your company to the market. Ditch things that were already slowing down before the crisis hit. (We did this after Katrina — we had a couple of companies operating at the time, and one was in an obvious downturn but was still providing cash flow to the overall entity. Thus we had held onto it longer than we should have, devoting time and resources to a dying business. After Katrina, we made the decision to drop everything else and focus on the division that had the most potential, and gave complete focus to building that company). And above all, stay optimistic and confident in yourself!
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“It took thousands of skilled craftsmen to build the Titanic. A lone amateur built the Ark.”
It goes to show you that you can do anything you put your mind to. Just because there are others out there that have market presence, better capitalization and who knows what other advantages doesn’t mean that you can’t out perform them.
How can our readers further follow your work?