Meeting planning expert Jeff O’Hara lost his home and his business in Hurricane Katrina. His new book details how entrepreneurs can come back from disaster.
In his new memoir Have Fun, Fight Back, and Keep the Party Going: Lessons from a New Orleans Entrepreneur’s Journey to the Inc. 5000 (Greenleaf, December 2018), Jeff O’Hara, president of destination management firm PRA New Orleans, tells of his escape from Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and the determination required to rebuild his business in a city felled by disaster and a meetings and events industry underwater. This interview with InTents has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
InTents: What was your experience in recovering from Hurricane Katrina?
O’Hara: The big problem was the perception of the city by the meeting planning community and the public at large in the years following Katrina. It took a couple of years for the core of the city to be rebuilt—the places where people who are coming for conventions and corporate meetings go. But there was so much negative press that it was really hard to convince people to hold their meetings
or conventions here.
Even as late as 2010, people were asking me if the city was still underwater. It was frustrating, but CNN was still showing videos of New Orleans underwater in 2010, so I had to counter my frustration with the fact that people might not know any better. It was an uphill battle for the hospitality community to showcase to people that we were open for business.
InTents: In all that you’ve weathered professionally, what was a low point, and what was a high point?
O’Hara: Every time somebody was on TV talking about how terrible things were in New Orleans, that was a low point. But at the same time, I never imagined that I would come to a situation where I would throw in the towel. Once you’re an entrepreneur, you’re basically unemployable. You get used to doing things your way. You are not going to go to work for somebody else, so the only option is to figure it out.
And then, once we really started getting some traction back in New Orleans, we had the Great Recession. That impacted not just New Orleans but the global meeting planning industry, so that set us back a few more years. It was really not until 2013 that we were a healthy, profitable, running-on-all-cylinders company. Shortly after that, we were named to the Inc. 5000, and that was probably the high point, because a national magazine recognized us for the work that we had done over the 20 years at that point that I had been an entrepreneur.
InTents: What characteristics do you see in people who are able to get up, dust themselves off and keep pursuing their dream?
O’Hara: You have to have an unbelievable amount of optimism. You’ve always got to see the glass as one-quarter full. Some people consider the optimism of entrepreneurs as being unrealistic, but you’ve got to believe that even though you don’t know what’s coming next, you are going to find a way to make it into a success. That’s the first thing. And the second thing is you need to have just a ridiculous amount of persistence.
Because there are more days where you feel like you’ve got more than you can handle than days where things are all roses and sunshine.
InTents: Natural disasters can happen anywhere. What advice do you have for entrepreneurs to prepare for that?
O’Hara: The frustrating thing about a natural disaster is that it’s out of your control. It’s not like you ran your business into the ground. Usually it’s unexpected. So to the best of your ability, you want to be able to accumulate reserves financially so that you have a backstop if something goes wrong.
But also you’ve got to be cultivating relationships with your customers, suppliers and the decision-makers in your community. Because you can’t build a relationship once your back’s against the wall. Build a solid network and have people who trust you so that when you’re trying to come back from a disaster and, say, you might owe some people money from before the storm, you can tell them that you’ll pay them back on a schedule. You can’t do that on the fly. You’ve got to build those relationships over time.
InTents: What role does the hospitality and events industry have to play in helping a community get back on its feet after a disaster?
O’Hara: In New Orleans the hospitality industry is by far the biggest employer in the city, not necessarily by payroll, but by number of people employed. So the faster those people get back to work, the faster they start spending their money. It is critical to get that volume of people back to work. That’s true of the hospitality industry in every city nationwide, even in non-tourist cities.
The thing is that a lot of entities are invested in telling a really bad story because they’re looking for bailouts or grants. They will continue to say, “Oh, woe is me.” Well, nobody wants to visit the city that’s just been burned by wildfire, or they perceive that the wildfire just happened even though it might have been a year or two ago. The hospitality industry has to be the one painting the picture to the rest of the world that the city is open for business. “We need the business—we’re ready for you.”