For venue owners around the world, 2020 was the year the hospitality industry grew uncomfortably close to its medical namesake. Almost overnight, the advent of the COVID-19 pandemic meant that the health and safety of patrons was of greater concern than ever to staff at pubs, clubs and other venues that regularly hosted mass social gatherings. As conditions worsened and restrictions ramped up, owners could see their livelihood slipping away, moment by moment.
The stakes were high: one wrong move, the slightest stumble could lead to a potentially deadly outbreak and a devastating impact on the hospitality industry’s credibility. And then there was the spectre of stigma – who would want to return to a club at which an outbreak occurred? Despite copious government support, the onus to do the right thing fell squarely on the shoulders of these venues. Their future depended on it.
Such was the dire situation Momento Hospitality Group CEO Marcello Colosimo found himself in just over a year ago as COVID-19’s initial wave hit Sydney. “You don’t plan to have everything shut down,” he says. “You might have planned to have one part of the business shut at a time, but you don’t plan on everything closing.” Yet in the initial weeks and months of the pandemic, that’s exactly what happened to the business that began almost 50 years ago as a single bottle shop in Sydney’s Hills District.
I think being family owned and operated today is what helps people relate to the business and affects how they trust your business and understand its identity.
OUT OF THE BOTTLE
The tiny Crestwood bottle-o was more than just a business for Marcello’s parents – it was their home. “They lived in a caravan out the back,” he says. “As kids, my five brothers and I worked in the bottle shop quite a lot.” The couple strove hard to turn their foothold in the city’s liquor industry into something more and eventually established the Castle Hill Tavern, the suburb’s first pub in a century. “Castle Hill is essentially known as the Bible Belt of Sydney, but that’s where it started.”
Marcello, meanwhile, was following another path. “I went to school, did a Bachelor of Business and majored in finance,” he says. A choice role at Macquarie Bank gifted him not just experience but also a foundation for further investment. “The share price was just $4 at the time. It was a smart business to be in.”
When given the choice to return to the family business, then known as Colosimo Group, Marcello admits it wasn’t easy. “It was actually a tough decision to leave Macquarie,” he says. “It was early days there; it was a lot smaller than it is now. There were a lot of smart people doing some really good things.” Deep down, however, he felt his inner entrepreneur screaming for a chance to soar. “I suppose I’m more of an entrepreneur than someone working inside a business. On top of that, the hotel game was pretty raw and you could see there were a lot of opportunities.”
Marcello’s return to the family business marked the beginning of a transition for the company. “At that time, we had two pubs, one in Sydney and the one in the Hills District,” he says. “When I moved into the business, we built that Hills pub into one of the top three biggest pubs in New South Wales, if not the biggest.”
The transformation didn’t just affect Colosimo’s portfolio; even early on, Marcello himself felt a change. “I found I was moving from being General Manager of a pub to CEO of a hospitality business,” he says. “We moved along the lines of having a family business to more of a family-owned business, and as that transition took over, I grew into the CEO role along the way.”
Marcello’s finance background was an asset. “I looked at the systems and structures put in place, the analysis of big data, all the little marginal things you try to do to improve,” he says. “The bank showed me how to do that, and if you can then correlate it to hospitality, it works quite well.”
One association that proved invaluable to the young leader was that with The Executive Connection, a business community that encourages leaders to share thoughts and approaches to business. “I’d be surrounded by 12 experienced CEOs at monthly meetings. That was a very good experience for someone that young. I fast-tracked my learning by listening to them solve problems. From there, I was able to develop my own style.”
ALL IN THE FAMILY
The development of that style was firmly centred on the principles and values gained from being part of a family business. “I have them written on my fridge at home, principles for the family, and we’ve printed them and put them on the walls in my office – the principles that we want to lead by,” Marcello says. “Those principles are integrity, action, constant improvement and innovation.”
Today, those values remain at the core of Marcello’s approach to business. “If you break those down, constant improvement is everything, from how I deal with staff, how the staff improve themselves and how we get them to improve to how we’re perceived in the community and the business fundamentals, all the way down to how that helps our bottom line. If I can do that with forward action and integrity, the business and the staff are going to be in a good place. The concept of leading, rather than simply running the business, is very important to me.”
It helps that Marcello has such a personal stake in the company’s fortunes; more than just being his business, Momento remains the family business, a concept Marcello believes holds a unique value to patrons. “I think being family owned and operated today is what helps people relate to the business and affects how they trust your business and understand its identity,” he says. “When you’re in a family business, particularly a large one like ours, you’re lifting others while you yourself rise, and people see that. They remember that connection.”
Early on in his stewardship of Momento, Marcello put up a sign in one venue’s staff room that read, ‘We pick up the papers other people step over’. “You have to live by that and the family too, because you can’t say, ‘Do as I say, not as I do.’ If you live by your values, your staff – and in my case, my family – will live by those values as well.”
The concept of word as bond is another of Momento’s strong tenets and has roots in the business’s family origins. “In a family business, you say what you’re going to do and then you do what you say,” Marcello says. “The community has to be able to put their trust in you to hold their special events. You build credibility over time and you make people feel safe sending their kids to work for you. They have to know you’re going to try to improve not just yourself, but the community.” It’s almost a case of easier done than said for pubs, which are traditional communal centrepieces. “They’re meeting places. The pub is where people go to interact and share special occasions. A pub that’s also a family business adds that emotional personal touch.”
With Marcello at the helm, the Colosimo Group slowly but surely evolved into the Momento brand. “Establishing the Momento brand, its values and culture, and enabling it to become one of the leading hospitality groups in NSW, that’s probably one of my biggest achievements,” he says. “There was a lot of work involved to become acknowledged as the primo greenfield pub developer in the state.”
INNOVATION ON THE FRONT LINE
Today, Momento’s portfolio of hotels brings, in Marcello’s view, a piece of the city to some of Sydney’s fastest-growing suburban areas. From Castle Hill to Macquarie Park, from Bella Vista to Dural, Momento’s venues have a heritage that’s entirely their own. “We led the way with that in the industry,” he says. “We built all of our pubs from scratch; we didn’t buy any. We’ve become specialists in that.”
It’s an approach that’s becoming increasingly popular among venue owners, but for a time, Momento stood alone in the field. “It takes a lot of time, effort, capital and knowledge to be able to get pubs approved, then develop them and build them up into businesses that aren’t only sustainable but also assets to the community,” Marcello says. “In that way, we were innovators, but we’ve always been innovative in the things we’ve done.”
Some of Momento’s innovations within hospitality include the establishment of its own brewery and distillery, and according to Marcello, becoming the first craft beer brand to be packaged in cans. “Now, every craft beer comes in cans, but it was all breaking the mould back then.”
Momento’s innovative streak hasn’t diminished, even in the face of a global pandemic. When COVID-19 threatened to overwhelm the hospitality industry, Marcello took action. “I assumed very early on they were going to have to shut us down,” he says. “It was obviously a very contagious disease that, should it reach places like ours where we have a lot of people in confined spaces, can easily spread.”
Pubs became a focus of the government and community response to the encroaching virus as social restrictions came into effect. In June 2020, NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian and Minister for Customer Service Victor Dominello were at Momento’s Bella Vista hotel for a COVID-19 press conference when Minister Dominello noticed something. “They were watching how we scan in people using the QR code,” Marcello says. “They ended up taking a video of our process. I think 10 days later, the whole of NSW was using our method.”
Momento implemented further COVID-19 relief measures for staff and patrons alike. Contactless food trucks, head office wage cuts, education programs and Essentials Express, a drive-through contactless service that provides essential consumables from the warehouse behind the Bella Vista Hotel, were all part of Momento’s response.
The concept of leading, rather than simply running the business, is very important to me.
“There were smaller challenges along the way too,” Marcello says. “We moved our craft cocktails to bottles for one, and we improved internal communications around the company. I told my leadership team, ‘Look, we’re going to get judged on how we handle this.’ We wanted people to look back on what we did as an example of getting it right.”
The contactless approach proved a success: during the initial shutdown, Momento sold 10,000 takeaway pre-made cocktails. “People were driving through to pick them up, having Zoom parties and sharing it,” Marcello says. “It was good for the community, and you could see our staff winning. They felt a lot of pride when customers came in and said, ‘You guys are doing a fantastic job.’ Everyone was working long hours, but there was great community spirit within our own employed community.”
The adaptation of Momento’s customer loyalty app to a QR code reader was the crowning achievement, one Marcello says will outlast the COVID crisis. “It’s definitely going to be here to stay for most of 2021 and probably half of next year,” he says.
“There could be other things that come out. Use of spaces will change and, instead of large gatherings of people, you’re going to see smaller numbers and more bespoke events. But we’ll continue the scanning and tracking practices that were put in place during COVID; that’s something that’s going to be here for a while.”
Although it’s not always obvious, life invariably goes on. “We’re in the experience business,” Marcello says. “Our tagline is creating memories. We create memories for our customers. It’s our heritage. And people are social beings and they want to interact with one another.”
The hospitality industry has a challenge on its hands to find ways to make that possible without greater risk. Marcello says it is possible, due to the way the industry has matured. “Things are much more professional now than ever,” he says. “Venues are tailored towards customers that are more discerning. Expectations are higher, and we’re meeting that challenge even at a time like this.
“In fact, I think our response to COVID probably highlighted the success of our rebranding. When it came to that point when the question was asked, ‘Who are you?’ – my team was able to stand up and say, ‘This is who we are,’ and I couldn’t have been prouder.”
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