By Joyce DiMascio

Bruce Keebaugh doesn’t mince words – and nor should he. He’s given Melbourne some of its most luxe hospitality, business events and weddings through The Big Group’s exquisite portfolio of venues and event services – but we caught him on a bad day.

Had we spoken to him the day before, his disposition would have been more upbeat and optimistic, he says.

It’s the morning after Victorian premier Dan Andrews’ media conference at which he announced a 26-year-old Melbourne quarantine hotel staffer had tested positive – re-triggering a plethora of safety, tracking, testing and quarantine measures across the country.

While Melbourne is not a declared hotspot, the implications for day-to-day hospitality operations right now, and the restart of business events down the track, are frustrating.

And yes, the see-saw of madness created by the pandemic and the risk-averse responses from our governments continue to pound business events and most of all – business confidence.

Reflecting on the ups and downs, the highs and lows, the optimism and despair – Keebaugh said regretfully – “We’re back down the rat hole.”

And so is the plight of our sector. Every day is a lottery. Any day, any time you could be down a path with clients, and all of a sudden there is a diagnosis and we’re back to dealing with cancelations, adjusting allowable numbers, distancing and also mask-wearing.

While they’ve adjusted to the volatility – it’s the destruction of business confidence that worries Keebaugh most. And this diminishing confidence is also spreading to the consumer market, he says.

The Big Group has relocated its head office to The Commons – a beautiful inner-city series of outdoor spaces that have become a hospitality retail revenue source for the company.

“We’ve moved the business into retail directly to the public – and we’re very proud of what we’ve achieved at The Commons, but 75 per cent of our revenue came from business events – and this has all gone,” he said.

The hospitality arm of The Big Group is gearing up for the Australian Open (AO) with a series of special installations at venues including Glasshouse where he hopes to roll out the AO Chefs Series.

Keebaugh said that the government and health authorities’ risk-averse approach has been good for Australia, but it is devastating for the industry.

The company stood down most of its staff last year so they could be paid their long service and other entitlements. It was a strategy designed to reduce outlays and preserve the business.

He is scathing about both state and federal government saying they have delivered no significant support to the hospitality and business events sector.

“JobKeeper has been just a social security service delivered for the federal government,” he said.

He wants the Victorian and federal governments to provide an extension to assistance beyond March to help businesses in sectors like ours stay open.

“We need real support. The current federal government $50 million funding package and the $100 million outdoor dining program of the Victoria state government were misdirected.”

His other major concern is the skills drain.

“People are leaving the industry in droves – there’s an enormous skills loss,” he said.

“There is no upside to any of this.”

Bruce and his wife Chyka are a resilient duo and they have delivered Melbourne so much of its most creatively styled and delivered events. And venues. Uber chic, cool, edgy.

They are pure Melbourne. The essence of it. Their conversion of The Commons within The Ormond Collective has shown their talent again as they’ve given Melbourne another gorgeous place – but we want their venues and their business to thrive again and be home to business events once more.

Note: Among the venues in the Big Group are: Luminare, The Glasshouse, Myer Mural Hall, Ormond Collective, The Eatery. They are also major hospitality providers to Melbourne’s biggest public events.