The events industry has been one of the most heavily impacted sectors since the onset of the global pandemic – as COVID-19 made running large-scale events across Australia near-impossible last year. So for Michael Watson, founder of Wats On Events, a bar management company for events across Australia, this meant seeking to adapt and keep the business going that he had built up for almost 12 years. Now that restrictions have eased, we’re starting to see the return of large-scale events – with social distancing of course – and Wats On Events has started taken on some big projects once again, such as Sydney Festival, Handa Opera, Sunset Piazza and their most recent ongoing work with Magic Mike Live, now showing at the Entertainment Quarter in Sydney.
We spoke to Michael about how Wats On Events has adapted during the pandemic, what it takes to build up a business in the events industry, and the tools he uses to help run his business.
Tell us a bit about how Wats On Events got started.
I started Wats On Events in 2009, so we’re coming up to 12 years old. We’re a turnkey bar management company — we do everything from brand activations, festival bars, and what you see here at Magic Mike Live.
It originally started off by actually hiring out mobile bars themselves for functions and events, and then evolved. For the first couple of years we were hiring out all different versions of bars — from LED bars to pallet bars. That’s how the business started off, and then we had people asking for staff, and then asking for alcohol, so we investigated a liquor licence. After a couple of years, we stopped doing any private gigs and evolved into doing more commercial events like this.
How did you manage the effects of last year as events were cancelled, not knowing when they would come back?
We had 9 months of nothing. Absolutely nothing. Our last event that we had set up was St Patrick’s Day in Sydney, which got cancelled. And then we didn’t do a single thing until mid-November. Not a single thing. It was crazy. So we’re making the most of it now!
We had to do a pivot — within a month we wrapped up all the events, and everything hit home that this was a long term thing. In our warehouse, we had so much leftover alcohol from events — pallets and pallets and pallets of it! So we ended up doing these mixed milk crates of alcohol (beers, wines and ciders) and we put them on our Instagram, making up a couple of hundred of them. We literally sold all of them within an hour!
We then started an online liquor delivery service called Boozi — which we use Square for as well. And that’s kind of where the Square relationship kicked off.
What kept you motivated facing the impacts to the business during that time?
I don’t even know. I think I just didn’t want to believe that the business I had built up for 11 years was going to be completely decimated. So I exhausted every bone in my body to make sure that it remained open.
I didn’t want to lose my team as well. So we had to just batten down the hatches, until we could see the light at the end of the tunnel, which didn’t happen until November. We were able to retain all our staff during COVID-19 which was great — the government has greatly helped with JobKeeper as well.
What was your biggest learning as a business owner from last year?
I think how potentially frivolous we were sometimes with our expenditure. When I really had time to scrutinise every single line item on our profit and loss statements, I developed a completely different outlook on how to address some of those things. That’s definitely been one of the great things to come out of it for sure — not spending when not necessary.
How did you begin working with Magic Mike Live?
We did a couple of events with Live Nation — the touring company — and then some of the managers at Magic Mike Live asked Live Nation if they knew of any businesses that would be able to execute to their premium standard, and they suggested us, which was a bit of a feather in the cap! A bit of negotiation back and forth, and we got the gig.
We’ve got the National Food & Beverage contract for Magic Mike Live, so we look after everything food and beverage related across the country. This Sydney site is the first one, and we look after all the waiters, runners and bartenders. We’re the front-of-house food and beverage manager and we’re also the licensee — we look after the liquor licence, all compliance, basically anything to do with food and beverage. We also have a kitchen out the back as well, so we do all the food.
What do you think makes Magic Mike Live unique as an event?
It’s a beast of an event — it’s huge. Magic Mike Live is a US production, so we’ve been dealing with people in the US for the first time. In January 2020, they sent me around Europe to watch the shows, so we knew what we were dealing with. Normally we’ve only dealt with local events, so working with the US was really fun and different — it’s taken the business to a new level. And also the fact that it’s a national event, we’re not only helping run the event in Sydney but also in Melbourne, Brisbane, Perth and Adelaide, bringing that to life.
Why did you choose Square to help run your business?
The relationship with the Sales team, which we had developed from Boozi, and I just like how clean the units are — they look really sleek, and the reporting is amazing. The insights we get from some of the reporting has helped and saved a lot of time as well. Typically when using a cash register or a big bank EFTPOS machine there are a lot of manual spreadsheets that we have to create, where with Square you just click a button and export the reports. That’s been huge for us.
What tools are you using most with Square?
We’re using the new Square Register — which is amazing, I think they look so good. The fact that you don’t need an iPad and a Stand, you can see that they look really sleek. I like that they’re black and dark, and the customer-facing display is really cool. It’s been a great test to use the Square Register — the idea is that by the end of 2021 we will roll out Square exclusively across every single event.
We also use the handheld Square Terminal, which is absolutely amazing. We’ve used those across a few other events and they’ve been really good — they work well, they don’t take up a lot of space, and the fact that they’re all in one terminal — the payments system and POS system all in one is really nice. We’re using them mostly for wait service inside the tent, as we have waiters that roam around taking orders.
We’re moving with the times. I think Square’s technology is really good — I basically love everything about them. The fact that we can use the handheld Square Terminal units for mobile service in conjunction with Square Register and the reporting all works together, it’s just the click of a button for reports.
Does Wats On events have any exciting plans in 2021, now that events are coming back?
We’re going to Melbourne with MML in May, followed by Brisbane in December, followed by Perth and Adelaide after that, so that’s exciting. It’s very volatile at the moment, so we’re thanking our lucky stars that we’ve got work over the next few months. Handa Opera is also a big one, on Sydney harbour, kicking off at the end of March. That’s a really big event, so we’re really excited about that one.