Over the past few years, we have seen a huge jump in the level of innovation, experience and concepts within the hospitality industry in this part of the world. No longer do we have to jump on a plane to get unique and exciting hospitality experiences. We are creating world-class cafes, restaurants, hotels and developments right here.
On the leading edge of this is an Australian-based New Zealander Dave Galvin who has co-founded a company that is helping the industry create concepts with meaning. From menus, to fit-out, to branding, to tenant mix for centres, Site Hospitality merges creativity and storytelling with the bottom line to create great hospitality experiences that are profitable. We talk to Dave Galvin about Site Hospitality’s journey, their success and what they’ve got planned for the future.
Starting with the gritty question: What do you have for breakfast? Generally I have smashed avocado on toast. So I’ll never afford a house. I’m a smashed avocado, poached eggs, grain toast sort of guy.
Is that for health? Yeah, I’m trying to eat semi-healthy during the day. Because of being in this industry, you’re hosting, eating in restaurants and going to bars a lot. So I try and control myself during the day. So I think it’s probably the cleanest start to my day.
So do things get a little bit out of hand towards the end of the day, in terms of all that hosting? Yeah, they do, they do. Not all the time. But there would be five days a week, I’d be out: dinners, hosting groups, taking people around Sydney to show them what’s hot. It’s part of the job.
Is that conducive to a work/life balance? It’s a challenge. I train, so I’m up at 5.30 every morning, doesn’t matter what time I go to bed. That’s my regime: get up early, train, sit in my café with my smashed avocado and eggs and work for an hour, go home, shower, straight into the office.
Do you find a correlation between the fitness and business success? One hundred percent. If I don’t train, I feel just slower off the mark. It’s certainly a state of mind for me. And I find that if I train early in the morning, by the time the team comes in, I’m 10 steps ahead of everyone.
If you’re all go in the morning and you’ve got this drive and this passion, is it a hard thing to inject that into the rest of your team as well? I’m a really big energy person. So I connect with people at the same energy levels. And the team we have built is based off exceptionally like-minded people, people with huge amounts of energy and passion for the industry and life, because we’re in an industry, in a business, where it is go, go, go. And you get pulled from pillar to post. In the last two weeks, we’ve opened a restaurant [and] we’ve opened an entertainment centre. So, I’m very much about like-minded, good-energy people in the office.
When you meet a potential candidate for your team, how do you know they’re going to be good? They’ve got to love people as much as I love people. They’ve got to have that absolute sort of drive and passion for their craft within hospitality or design. And I understand the dynamic of the office, and who’s going to perfectly fit in. If someone came in that was more introverted, they probably just wouldn’t integrate as well into the team. So I find that we’ve got a nice balance with skill-set and the level of energy in the office.
What advice do you have for the more introverted in terms of being able to step out a little bit? Just be passionate about your trade or your craft. Be vocal with ideas. Be proud of what you’re delivering. I know it’s hard for some people. But if you’ve got something you’ve been working on, or if you’ve got an idea and you’re passionate about it, that will come out. It doesn’t matter if you’re introverted or extroverted.
You’ve carved out a really unique position in the marketplace. How did you see the opportunity to do this? We started the business wanting to build our own brands so to own and operate hospitality venues. We learnt very quickly that’s a very expensive process, and there’s no revenue coming in right away. So we started this hospitality concept and solutions arm. At first, we just needed to generate some revenue so we could pay ourselves and start to pay and build the team. But what we soon realised was there was a big gap of ‘outside the box’ thinking in the market. And a lot of venues or hotels are based off either design or a chef’s name or a menu. No one was really pulling the whole story together and connecting all the dots from the concept through to the people, to the menu.
How do you sell what you do? How do you quantify the value you bring? I’ve got a very strong background. Our team has got extraordinary experience within their sectors. From chefs to head of operations, to head of projects, to our interior designer who’s just come back from the States, doing some of the greatest stuff over there. It’s so important these days for a concept to have a real narrative a strong narrative and story. Because if you don’t have the story, then it’s a lot more difficult to get it by the staff and by the media. Media and PR will pick up strong hooks. So if there are enough strong hooks through a concept, that aren’t contrived – they have to still be authentic to the owners’ vision.
So that’s how we go about it. It is rewarding. Because with the team we have, we’re in a great position, where our work is highly valued. We’re working on some pretty ground-breaking projects in Australia at the moment, and in Auckland as well. So it’s beautiful to come back to Auckland and actually start to work on some projects.
I guess you’re really quantifying things on a number of levels, from, say, the publicity value; all of those things, as you say, are about having strong hooks. But can you define the difference between having you involved, and not having you involved, from a profit point of view? Yes, there are a number of measurables that we have going into a project. It could be in a hotel that is revenue based. We would generally look to double revenue with a new concept coming in. Off a low base of course, in some instances. But we look at pulling menus together that are costed beautifully, so the profitability off the back of the menus we’ve created, the PR that we will create, the eyeballs and ears listening to what is going on, is bringing more people to a hotel. So it’s more bums in beds. It creates a reason for people to come [from] externally, rather than just hotel guests. We did a large pub, turning over great, great revenue. And we had a 40 percent uplift in revenue off a very high base. So there are different ways. It’s generally revenue based, because we can’t control the costs within someone else’s business. So it’s the top line we look at.
What are some of the biggest mistakes you see or make? Cutting costs is always the big one. Generally, if a business or a restaurant or a bar isn’t trading, it’s started to taper off over time. Instead of pumping more money back into it, and working the PR and marketing and design, the natural instinct is to cut costs and cut labour and not repair things and not replace things. And before you know it, the product looks exceptionally tired. So it just cascades from there.
So by the time you come in, businesses could be quite a way down that spiral. Is there a bit of hand holding, in terms of convincing them to invest more? Absolutely. So what we do is spend a lot of time digging into the history. What’s worked in the past? We do a big competitive set. So who are the competitors, who are we up against, what are people prepared to spend? What are the trends locally, internationally? What are the venues that are really working in the local catchment? And then, off the back of that, we start to get some really strong concept direction. So that’s the hand holding piece. We deliver the research, and then we start to deliver the concept direction to get the excitement building. And we sell a very compelling story. It’s a beautiful presentation. It’s very visual. But it’s exceptionally strong in content. And we certainly give any client the tools to be able to realise that. We also have another hand holding piece once we deliver the concept. Our interior designer goes on a design collaboration journey. So she and we will work on collaborating with the architects, the interior designers, the kitchen consultants, the branding – to get the menus, the look and the feel so we can actually realise the concept all the way through to opening.
Does it sometimes feel like you are Gordon Ramsey in an episode of Kitchen Nightmares? Yeah. We have to go in there and sometimes be brutally honest. Which hurts. But by the time we’re getting called in, everyone realises that if it’s a distressed or under-performing asset, then it needs to be flipped. There needs to be a real appetite to engage us because there’s a cost attached to that. And then there’s the design budget to go with that. And then there’s the operating support, if required. So there needs to be real appetite and a real commitment from the owner or asset owner, project team.
In terms of you starting your own business, were you prepared for what you got when you jumped into it? Look, this was years in the making, and there was a lot of loss and sacrifice to get to this point. But I knew I had to do it at some stage. And to do it was a dream. For it to be as successful as it is now is mind-blowing. We’re at a point where we’re just over a year into this business, and we’ve built a team of eight. We’ve got pipeline for the next two years. We’re working with all of the premium, luxury lifestyle hotel brands – large independent operators. And now we’re starting to work with some of the bigger developers.
How will the business be looking in five years? If I had to look five years down the path, we’d have an exceptionally successful hospitality concept and solutions agency that is self-sufficient and held in very high regard. We will probably have – I would say – three hospitality brands that we will be owning and operating. So we’ll have our own venues, we’ll have the agency. And I’ve got no doubt that there will be a property play within five years, and working with some of these developers as well, I would imagine.
Is geographic expansion part of the plan also? Absolutely. I’m looking at setting up a Site New Zealand arm. There’s a huge amount of opportunity here for what we do. There’s a gap in the market for it. We are working on some pretty exciting projects. Asia is another region we can really influence. We’re looking at a couple of projects with a big international hotel group in Bangkok. I would also love to get to the United States at some stage, it’s always been a dream. But at this stage, it looks like New Zealand and Asia will be absolutely achievable within the next 12 months.
Can you talk about what you’re doing in New Zealand? Our first one was Crown Plaza in Christchurch, which opened recently. We created three concepts there for their restaurant [with a] sort of wine bar and cafe-deli. We’re also working on the Civic Quarter development in Aotea Square. So we’ve partnered up with Love & Co and Bayleys Real Estate to masterplan their tenancy mix and create some true community base there. This is one of those moments for me, [where] we can anchor the centre of the city through this development. So there’s a lot of passion and enthusiasm. We also have the new Pullman Hotel at the Auckland Airport underway at the moment.
That’s quite a diversity of projects. Absolutely. I’m very big on not having all my eggs in one basket and we want a spread across the industry. So we will work with anyone from hotel groups, independent large operators to key developers, while at the same time being very selective on who we work with because we need to be aligned in our thinking. So I don’t work with everyone. They need to be very open in their approach and thoughts for us to come into a project. Because we do think differently and that shakes a few people.
In terms of not having all your eggs in one basket, is there some sort of economic rationale behind it as well, in terms of riding out different industry cycles? It happens all too often in business that you have a great revenue stream through your biggest client. Everything’s great, you build your workforce to obviously to be able to manage the expectation and have enough resource for that client. And then the magic carpet gets pulled, and all of a sudden you’ve got a workforce that’s looking at you, wondering what’s next. So we certainly spread that over half a dozen different pots in different areas to make sure we’ve got revenue streams coming through.
If you look at something like the Civic Quarter, where it’s very exciting and there’s a lot of opportunity with it, is there an extra weight of pressure because of that sense of public ownership over such an iconic area? It is. And with that one in particular the focus is to really create that sense of community in the Civic Quarter development. We started out by asking ourselves what does the public area look like and feel like? How do we create the ant trail of how people will move? What is going to bring people there, and how do we transition great venues from breakfast into lunch into dinner – and not be walking in and seeing half the precinct closed, because they’re only cafés, and they close at 3pm. [How do we] make sure there are transitional outlets throughout so there’s reason, from early in the morning to late at night, for the whole precinct to work. There is a heightened expectation, but we love projects like this, especially when they’re in your home town. And if we can do what we think we can, I think we’re in for a pretty exciting ride.
You’ve spent a lot of time in Australia and you’re starting to work back here. How do you rate our hospitality game here, compared with the Aussies? Super impressive. I love coming back and seeing some of the creativity here. That’s the thing about Kiwis: they innovate, they create. They think outside the box, because they have to. Small nation [equals] a lot to prove. But every time I come back, there’s always a new, impressive concept or impressive designs in certain areas. Precincts just so well put together that they feel like they’ve been there forever. They feel like institutions. Yeah, I’m really impressed. And I think it won’t take long, I’m sure. Sydney and Melbourne operators are actually coming to New Zealand to start to get ideas now.
Sales is a really fundamental part of what you do. Was that a big learning curve or did you find you were kind of naturally this sales guy? It’s all about relationships. So if you can build relationships, if you are a natural networker – where you are giving as much as you are taking – you’re going to be successful. The business development side has come very naturally.
What are three tips you have for business development? Don’t be afraid to give away IP. Everyone’s very conscious and protective of what they believe is the most important thing. And if you believe in yourself, and you believe in your product or you believe in what you’ve created – generally not many people will be able to replicate that without your passion and enthusiasm. So don’t be afraid to give away ideas, but never give away too much – where you actually can’t be paid for it.
Be a networker, don’t be afraid of it. Most good business people are very good networkers. So when you hand a business card over and you get one back, reply – just send them a connection note. Just to let them know it was great meeting them, and how you would love to potentially help them in the future or whatever it may be. Whatever your business is.
Don’t be afraid to follow up. If you have a business, you’re generally in sales in some description. And you will meet a lot of people [so] if you think there’s an alignment or a collaboration opportunity with your product or your services, don’t be afraid to put something in front of someone to say, “I think this could work”.
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever been given? It was from my first mentor. And he told me I was going to be exceptionally successful when I started to show more humility. I was young, has just moved to Sydney and was running a bar. And I had a big workforce working with me. I was just cocky and confident. But I realised I needed to just tone it down and just build relationships. And that’s my feedback and advice to any young person or anyone in business. The more relationships you have, the more support you have around you, the more successful – or potentially successful – you will be.