Jeff O’Hara owns PRA New Orleans, a company that specializes in designing and creating unique and unforgettable experiences for corporate clients who want to host meetings or events in the city. He has over 30 years of experience in the hospitality career, which he continues to bring to bear on his tenure at PRA.
In 1985, Jeff O’Hara began his career in hospitality. He was still a student at Florida State University, but he took on part-time work. Throughout a career spanning over three decades, he has ventured to every corner of the hospitality industry. He has worked in both “luxury boutique hotels and 1,000 plus room ‘supertankers.’” He has also “managed small restaurants and developed B&B’s.”
In 1997, Jeff O’Hara found his passion for “Destination Management.” Since then, he has traveled across the United States and the world to work with other groups active in the industry. In 2002, he bought the franchise for AlliedPRA New Orleans, and he took an active role in developing it to a successful enterprise. Since then, the company has won numerous honors and recognitions from leading industry bodies. In 2016, AlliedPRA was recognized by Inc. Magazine as one of the 5000 Fastest Growing Private Companies in America. The next year, AlliedPRA was featured in the Inaugural Seminole 100 list of fastest growing companies “owned by Florida State University alumni.”
Jeff O’Hara has also launched and developed seven other hospitality businesses and two real estate companies. As an investor, he has also backed several startups in diverse fields, from technology to consumer staples to alternative energy.
Jerome Knyszewski: What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
Jeff O’Hara: There is a concept which I believe gets simultaneously overused and underused, as hard as that may be to grasp. Trust. In our example, my business is a service business. So people contract with us (as a third party) to provide services that they could conceivably source directly with our supplier. So why do they pay us to be part of the equation? They know we have the contacts, resources and operational expertise to ensure their events will execute perfectly. In short, they trust us to achieve their goals. Why do people pay 40% more for Advil than the generic brand that is right next it on the supermarket shelf? They trust that brand. Why do you choose one doctor over another? The list goes on. On the flip side so many companies push their offering from the product side without ever connecting and building the relationship with the customer to build that trust. Yet they throw it around with all kinds of slogans, “America’s most trusted brand”, etc without realizing that nobody trusts them.
Here is a story to illustrate: On April 20, 2010 the Deepwater Horizon oil platform exploded in the Gulf of Mexico, killing 11 people and unleashing the largest off shore oil spill in history. Shortly after this happened, I received a call from a client on a Sunday to say that she needed to set up a bus shuttle system at 7 AM the following morning to transport Coast Guard support that would be inbound to work on the disaster. I asked “How many people?” answer “I don’t know”. “Where are they going?” “I don’t know” “How long will it last?” “I don’t know”. Gotcha, I am on it. So I called my top transportation lead and my top bus company and told them what we needed to do. They asked me all the same questions and my response was the same “I don’t know”. No problem, we’ll make it happen. We started at 7 AM the following morning and the project went on 24/7 for 4 months, ultimately executing 110,000 moves all over the Gulf Coast. Why did this client call me on this Sunday? She trusted that we would be able to get it done. Why did a team of people and a fleet of buses show up with no information on 12 hours notice? They trusted that if I said it was needed, that it was.
You can’t create trust with a marketing slogan, it is developed by the culture that your company lives day in and day out.
Jerome Knyszewski: Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?
Jeff O’Hara: The hospitality industry and the events side of it in particular are tough careers. You have to have the right mettle and a lot of passion for it to succeed. There is a reason Event Coordinator regularly ranks in the top 5 most stressful jobs — right behind Active Military, Firefighter, Airline Pilot and Police. So it is the epitome of the old adage that you have to love what you do (it’s damn rewarding when you do it successfully, too). My advice is to always celebrate the successes when they hit, and never take yourself too seriously.
Jerome Knyszewski: None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
Jeff O’Hara: Two words — Joe West. Joe spent 23 years in the Navy including serving in Viet Nam attached to a Marine Battalion, went on to a career running restaurants and then on to become a college professor and ultimately Dean of the Business School at FIU. This guy had more successful careers than entire neighborhoods. I met him when he was teaching at Florida State and we became lifelong friends. Joe was a storyteller (we have that in common, chalk it up to the Irish in us) and we spent thousands of hours telling stories over the years. But he had so many life experiences, even though he was telling you a story to make you laugh, there was always something to be learned in there too. Joe was tough as nails, suffered his whole life from blood cancer caused by Agent Orange in Viet Nam which left him in constant pain, but you would never know it. He passed away last year and is buried in Arlington National Cemetery. Every day something he said pops into my mind.
Jerome Knyszewski: Ok thank you for all that. Now let’s shift to the main focus of this interview. The title of this series is “How to take your company from good to great”. Let’s start with defining our terms. How would you define a “good” company, what does that look like? How would you define a “great” company, what does that look like?
Jeff O’Hara: A “good” company does a good job at whatever they offer, doesn’t make customers unhappy and generates a modest profit that keeps the doors open and pays the household bills of the owners. In the scheme of entrepreneurship it has to be considered a success by beating the odds and making a bit of money. But it is not particularly memorable most of the time. A “great” company has customers that love it, talk about it and are willing to pay more because they know the results will be top percentile. This company has passionate and empowered employees that love what they do and has margins that fuel growth and provide for its owners. It is memorable.
Jerome Knyszewski: What would you advise to a business leader who initially went through years of successive growth, but has now reached a standstill. From your experience do you have any general advice about how to boost growth and “restart their engines”?
Jeff O’Hara: I will admit, this has happened to me a couple of times. One answer is to bring new blood into the team to look at things in different ways and explore new opportunities. If the founder finds themselves at a standstill, likely the team does to a degree as well. Bringing in people with a new perspective can energize everyone.
Jerome Knyszewski: Generating new business, increasing your profits, or at least maintaining your financial stability can be challenging during good times, even more so during turbulent times. Can you share some of the strategies you use to keep forging ahead and not lose growth traction during a difficult economy?
Jeff O’Hara: You can’t stop marketing. “Out of sight, out of mind’. Even when things are bad you have to maintain presence in the marketplace and that is not free. Although with all of the digital tools at our disposal now, it is a lot closer to free than it used to be. With that said, if times are tough for you, they are likely tough for your customers too. Badgering them to “throw you a bone” or inundating them with constant marketing messages is not going to endear you. They have their own problems. Be present but respectful, and be the one they want to come to when the times get good again (and they always get good again). But the bottom line is, marketing should only be cut right before you close the doors.
Jerome Knyszewski: In your experience, which aspect of running a company tends to be most underestimated? Can you explain or give an example?
Jeff O’Hara: You are on stage 24 hours a day. Even in the darkest of times, you have to portray to your customers, your team and the marketplace that you are doing fantastic. If any of these groups lose faith in you, things will spiral down. People look at you and say “Wow, that guy is a success” and you are smiling and trying to figure out how to make payroll on Thursday. So a lot of this is internalized. You have to have the right kind of fortitude to thrive. Fortunately, most successful entrepreneurs have it.
Jerome Knyszewski: Great customer service and great customer experience are essential to build a beloved brand and essential to be successful in general. In your experience what are a few of the most important things a business leader should know in order to create a Wow! Customer Experience?
Jeff O’Hara: You have to learn how to know your customer and what is important to them. 85% of business out there are product focused or at least product biased. Their efforts go into finding ways to fit customers into their box.
Rule #1: L-I-S-T-E-N. You can be better than 85% of the salespeople in the world by following this one simple step.
Your team spends exponentially more time with your customers than you do. You must ensure they have the skills, authority and resources to deliver amazing service, often on the fly.
Jerome Knyszewski: What are your thoughts about how a company should be engaged on Social Media? For example, the advisory firm EisnerAmper conducted 6 yearly surveys of United States corporate boards, and directors reported that one of their most pressing concerns was reputational risk as a result of social media. Do you share this concern? We’d love to hear your thoughts about this.
Jeff O’Hara: It really depends on what type of product or service you offer. We are a high end B2B service provider, so our customers aren’t looking at the internet to find out about us, they are talking to their respected peers. But a slew of bogus reviews can put a small restaurant out of business.
I am not saying we don’t pay attention to it, and we have tools for monitoring it. But your level of effort should be in proportion to the potential damage.
Jerome Knyszewski: What are the most common mistakes you have seen CEOs & founders make when they start a business? What can be done to avoid those errors?
Jeff O’Hara: I am an active investor in startup companies, and as a result see hundreds of pitches a year from founders looking to raise money. The most common mistake is to be disproportionately focused on their product. You may have the best invention since sliced bread, but you have to prove that there is a sizeable enough market of customers that will actually pay for it. I regularly see companies that have spent years developing a product, but little or no time figuring out if the rest of the world thinks it is something worth paying for.
Another big one is underestimating the competition (I’ve done it myself). Everyone believes they have the secret sauce — and I hope they do think so or they shouldn’t be starting the company in the first place! — but you should take whatever you think of the competition and assume you are wrong by a factor of 10. At least. Competitors that look crappy to you for some reason have loyal customers that you can’t pry away nearly as easily as you think you should.
Jerome Knyszewski: Thank you for all of that. We are nearly done. You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
Jeff O’Hara: Educating the masses on the beauty of the free market system.
Jerome Knyszewski: How can our readers further follow you online?
Jeff O’Hara: You can find me on LinkedIn.
Jerome Knyszewski: This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for the time you spent with this!