Jim Burba and Bob Hayes epitomize what Gay Ambition Blog is all about. They are life partners and co-founders of Burba Hotel Network, the worldwide leader in producing conferences for the hotel and tourism investment community. They have a passion for connecting others and giving back to their communities. Their advice about business and life is insightful and particularly valuable for anyone, LGBT or not, who wants to turn a dream into a reality. Bob and Jim also have a great sense of humor and are a pleasure to Skype with!
The first thing that I thought when I saw you guys was wow, inspiring, power couple who has built an incredible business together. I understand that you also have a lot of projects in the works outside of your core business including a book, some entertainment ventures and non-profit work. What are you most excited about?
Bob: I would say, or I guess we would both say, the book at this point because we’ve been working on it for about two years now in a kind of hit and miss fashion, but we’re getting a lot more serious about it. The book is going to put into writing everything that we’ve learned over this journey together, creating and running the business. It puts all of our ideas into principles by which we work together in one place. I think it’s going to be the best way to get our message out there to the people. So, I would say the book right now.
Jim: I agree, I think the entertainment industry side of things is sort of fun and we’re very early in that phase right now. It’s sort of fun exploring, and some of the things we think we do in business translate quite well there. The not-for-profit sort of charity work it just is what it is. We’ve always done that, so it’s not necessarily new, it’s just something that gives us motivation, motivates our team a lot. It’s just something that we’ve always done and always will.
Bob: It’s actually part of our business plan, the giving part because we set the business up at the very beginning with the intent of giving back a lot. It’s part of our business plan.
Jim: I think on the book side of things, we’ve kind of focused a little bit, trying to record thoughts down. It’s made us crystallize our thinking about what we really do for living, and it’s manifested in events, it’s manifested in conferences. That’s the product, but that isn’t really the product. The product of what we do is really connecting people. For example, we meet this guy named Paul and he has something in common with this guy named Brian and so somewhere in the course of the day we just connect them. We’re not doing it like a broker, we’re not asking for a fee, we’re not asking for anything, but we kind of believe in what goes around, comes around. And so we just do it, all the time. And that is by coincidence what our business is about. That’s what our conferences are about, so…
Bob: So, don’t be surprised if we call you in two years, because we’ve remembered this conversation and we start asking you questions because somebody else down the line wants to, and needs to, know you. We think that everybody you know; knows somebody that you should know, so we’re always looking to put those pieces together.
I can only hope for that, that’s an awesome philosophy. So, would you say that your book is mostly written for the business audience, the audience in that sort of space?
Bob: It does have a business slant, but we live this philosophy, on a personal level, we are involved in things outside of business and we go out to connect people on a personal level too. It’s sort of a life style.. We’re always looking for people and things we can connect to on the outside of this business, that’s all.
Tell me more about your major hotel investment conferences and how you broke into this niche market.
Bob: I’m going to let Jim start, because he’s the one who got into this business a long time ago. He started when I was just a child. (laughing)
Jim: I started organizing a hotel real estate conference for UCLA Extension back in the 1980s. My company at the time had a relationship with the school, and we saw a need to educate people on the investment side of the hotel and hospitality business, which is what I did for a living as a consultant. I had no idea how to organize a conference, but the first conference, led to another, and it became an annual event. Being sort of ‘Type A’ and driven to do our best in everything we do, we ended up developing a great reputation and became trusted in bringing people together. In 2000, Bob and I decided to form our own company that would produce hotel investment conferences. We started with one event. Soon we had two, then three, and now we produce eight annual events that are held around the world. They are considered the biggest and best of their kind.
Bob: We saw a need to create a place, an event, for people to come together, connect, and do hotel deals. Very simple. Our events are really networking sessions on a grand scale. There is educational content, but the delegates really come to meet with other hotel investors. You’ll see at our events that most of the people are out in the halls talking with each other, rather than listening to the panel sessions.
Every successful business solves a problem. What problem does your business solve and how did you identify this gap in the market?
Jim: It solves a problem by giving people an efficient way to do business. It’s a two or three day event where everybody can travel to Hong Kong or Singapore or London or L.A., and meet people they need to meet in a very efficient way, so rather than flying to many different cities, it’s all in one place. The need (in the marketplace) was that, and that also has created an enormous opportunity for people to learn about other people’s ideas. We saw the need and created an opportunities for people to meet, at the same time. And that’s really why it works.
I read your article in the Advocate about how to succeed in business with your partner. I know that you must spend a lot of time together; do you have any hobbies or interests that you pursue independently?
Bob: Some, yes. We are together most of the time, but we do get chances to be apart a little bit, I’m a trustee of the Laguna Art Museum, so that’s kind of breaking the routine. I have Museum meetings and things like that. There again, that’s another way to give back to the community.. So that’s mine. And Jim…
Jim: I don’t have any hobbies. (laughter) I think a lot of people are just too busy with their careers. My hobbies, I used to really enjoy sports. I used to go to like football games, used to. Now I just get to watch them on TV – sometimes.
Bob: He used to drag me to those games when we first met. He thought I was so into sports too. I was just trying to impress him. Our second article for the Advocate came out yesterday and we talked a little bit about spending time away from each other and spending time away from the business. Because you can become so focused on business and, I guess, you do go out of balance and eventually that’s going to cause problems. So, we are trying to develop interests outside the business We have great employees, which give us a little bit of freedom to go outside the business and pursue other things, like the book. We are getting more involved in organizations and groups like HRC and the Desert AIDS Project in Palm Springs, for the LGBT community. It’s so great for us to be social outside of business.
Are there any networking groups that you guys are a part of, online or offline that you find particularly helpful in connecting you with other people?
Jim: Well, on the business side of things I’m a member of The Society of Hospitality Consultants and several hospitality related committees.
Bob: I’m very involved with social media. I like it. I kind of prefer face to face interactions, but social media keeps me in contact with others and them with us, which kind of surprised me, I didn’t think it would be that useful as it has been, but also I’m putting a lot of effort into it every day.
Jim: I call him “blue face”. When he gets up in the morning and after he gets a cup of coffee he sits in a chair and starts tweeting, and Linking, and Facebooking. It’s 6 in the morning, and all I can see is the blue glow on his face from his iPhone or iPad.
You can spend hours on Twitter doing all that.
Bob: I try not to spend hours, but you can if you get into conversations with people and I’m always searching for new information, I get a lot of information that way and I’m making a lot of new connections, new contacts.
Absolutely. I’m a member of the LGBT professional group on LinkedIn and I’ve met a lot of people that way for this blog and for other endeavors. I’m also surprised at how easy it is to interact and meet people through Twitter, it’s pretty incredible.
Bob: It really is. For me there’s a Twitter group called Travel Talk on Twitter which is on Tuesdays. It’s a discussion group in the afternoons, and I make a point of logging in on that. It’s an hour or so and it’s just a big blab fest about traveling, hotels, and destinations. It’s funny how people get to know you, when you’re part of the group on a regular basis and they do start to think of you as a friend.I think that’s kind of cool.
Let’s go back to your business. When you started, did you find a lot of outside funding to get it going or did you self-fund and keep costs very low until your idea really started to take off?
Jim: We ate a lot of peanut butter and jelly. (laughter)
Bob: It was actually very scary. Jim had a job at the time and I had a job at the time, totally unrelated to hotels. When we made the leap, I quit my job on. Jim didn’t because we needed his income to keep us going. I paid myself very little in the first year or two, and we made it. We shared office space with Jim’s existing employer who saw a benefit having us there, marketing benefit, so we were very, very lucky. Actually, we kind of took a big risk when we started the business, but what’s that saying? No risk, no reward?
Jim: The cost to start the business was really low because of all those reasons Bob mentioned. I didn’t take a salary for quite a while. Bob took a nominal salary and we just made sure we could pay our employees.
Bob: We had one employee.
Jim: Yeah, but it was pretty scary, just the same.
Bob: It was scary, but we kind of experienced success from the very beginning. So, once our first event was over we were ok. What would you say, first six months were the hardest?
Bob: We got our first event under our belts, which was successful .We took the risk and made it happen, then we just stepped on the upward trajectory .
Sounds like it really paid off.
Bob: Well, we don’t regret it one bit.
Jim: No, we are glad we took the risk. You’ve got to do it, take a risk. You know, we’ve found the biggest thing holding us back was the fear of change. It’s a scary thing to change. We kind of got to the point, the realization, that the only thing holding us back was ourselves. We snapped out of it, because, well that’s stupid to be afraid of change. (laughter)
Bob: We’ve been successful for twelve years, and we’ve managed it without killing each other in the process and not losing our integrity. That’s why we are writing a book, that’s why we are exploring the entertainment angle and kind of putting our message out there for the world. Whether they’re going to hear it, that’s another thing, but we’re going put it out there and see what happens.
That leads into my next question about change. What advice would you give to someone, especially in the LGBT community, who might be just starting out in their education or their career and they want to make a change?
Jim: I don’t know if this is just an LGBT answer. I think it’s just an answer. I think you’ve got to know yourself and be honest about that, know what you like and know what you don’t like, you’ve got to follow your gut. You can analyze it and need to be smart, but you also have to trust your gut. You’ve got to associate yourself with quality and if you’re working with somebody, I think you need to think about who you want to be associated with. Then, I think that you’ve just got to close your eyes, open the door, and see what happens and not be afraid. I don’t think that’s just an LGBT thing, it’s just a people thing, part of life. I think we are fortunate in some way in the LGBT community because we think of ourselves not fitting in with the ordinary. We’re different than most people, so that I think in my case that I had to work to better understand myself. I realized I was different; therefore I think differently and therefore, you know, act differently, such as taking these chances to get ahead in business.
Bob: Yeah, you pretty much have to know who you are and what’s it all about for you, before you make change in your life. Jim and I went through this process a long time ago and early in our lives, but I think maybe we were a little ahead of the game in accepting who we are. A lot of people struggle with it, and they’re uncomfortable with it, but maybe we are successful in the game because we did accept it earlier which helped us make the choices we’ve made to get us to the place where we are today. We encourage people to accept who they are as soon as they realize who they are, so that they can take advantage of it and not waste time fighting it.
That is really good advice, definitely relevant to everyone, not just the LGBT community. But, like you said other people sometimes might not be as accepting. Have you experienced any challenges while building your business that a straight couple may not have encountered?
Bob: We kind of struggled with that question, because we don’t really think we’ve had any problems because of being gay. We don’t have children; we’re kind of taking on the business as our child, if that makes any sense. We put the energy that we would have put into raising children into, I guess, our business. So, we gave birth to it, we’ve seen it grow up and hopefully it has matured into a thriving, sustainable business. I think that a straight couple with children has that responsibility that takes away on the professional life. They have to balance that personal responsibility which we didn’t. We’ll see how things evolve now that more and more gay couples are having children. The playing field in business will be more level now.
Jim: I am sure, although- we can’t prove it, that maybe some people don’t support us because we are gay, I mean maybe, we don’t know, we’ve never heard that. I don’t think it’s a big thing I go back to when I first came out and I was working in an accountancy firm, the kind of firm which is sort of buttoned down professionally, especially back then, and when it became known that I was gay, a senior partner sat down with me and we had a conversation. He said, ‘I don’t care if you’re gay, you did good work, you’re a valuable member of the team, and that’s how we measure you. We’re not measuring your personal life, we’re measuring your productivity and your job and I think that’s what a lot of people really believe. This was a long time ago when being gay was not accepted by many, so I think I was lucky to work for such a “progressive” company at the time.
Bob: Jim always says some people will never like you, No matter what you do there’s going to be 10% of population that doesn’t like you for whatever reason. Maybe they don’t like the way you look or they don’t like you because you’re gay, or because you’re blonde, whatever. You can’t worry about that 10% because there is nothing you can do about it. Think about the other 90%. So, if there is somebody out there that doesn’t like us because we’re gay or a gay couple, we don’t really focus on that, we don’t concern ourselves with those people. We concern ourselves with the other people who do care and like us for what we are, because that’s where we do the most work, and that’s where we find our connections that help our business and allow us to help other people.
Jim: Bob’s right. There actually was a business school class I had at the UCLA; it was one of those classes where you got to know each other through interactions. The professor sat us all down early on, and he said, ‘You know boys and girls, no matter who you are, what you are, what you wear, what you think, what you say, when you walk into a room, you can assume that at least 10% of the people are not going to like you no matter what. They’re just not. They’re not going to like your hair, they’re not going to like your tie, the color of your eyes, the way you carry yourself, or the words that came out of your mouth. They’re just not going to like you, so if you’re going to get hung up on that, you’re not going to get very far. Just get over it, move on and accept the fact that 90% of them think you’re okay or at least are neutral. And you can work with that, but you can’t solve and please everybody all the time.’ And that really stuck, because I’m a little sensitive on stuff like that and I have to remind myself that all the time, t there’s one of those 10% people and they’re not going like me.
Bob: Well, Jim is from Michigan and we call him Mary Tyler Moore because he always wants people to like him.I have to remind him of his teacher and tell him that, you know, not everyone will. You just have to get over it. (Laughter)
I think 90% is still a really good success rate so let’s shoot for that.
What is the best way to learn from those who might be knowledgeable in your industry and chart your own course from there?
Bob: I think you have to ask a lot of questions. We’re big on asking questions, all the time. We’re constantly asking questions and then you’ve got to listen to the answer and not speak, just listen. Ask a question, listen to the answer, because from that you’re going to find out so much from a person, not necessarily in the content of the answer, but even how the answer is given to you, because you can bring so much into it and you also have to associate that people want to be liked I think, and then ask them these questions.
Jim: Yeah, very few people mind being asked questions about what they do, what they learn or whatever. People like that. People are flattered by being asked questions. We have friends who don’t spend any time asking questions, they just talk about themselves. You can’t learn much from someone else if you’re doing all the talking, so when it’s appropriate and when it makes sense you try to learn from other people and, like I said, we’ve found very few people who really don’t mind being asked questions about themselves. That flatters them, it makes them feel good and you learn.
Giving back is one of the things you have done from the beginning of your career. The Youth Career Initiative stood out to me when I learned about you and it just ended in Mumbai. What does this program do and why is it important to you?
Bob: Well, we are really proud of this, because we are one of the founding supporters of the program in India. There are other branches around the world, but we are specifically interested in the Indian branch because we would be doing benefit in a country where we hold an event. The program just graduated their first class of 35 students) who came out of the program, and Jim correct me if I’m wrong, they all received job offers in the first week after graduation. This is going to be a major life change, not only for the certified kids, but also for their families because they now have a way out of poverty. And if you’re familiar at all with India, that’s probably one of the biggest issues that they face, how to create jobs for a lot of these kids.
Jim: Yeah, YCI is a part of (there’s a lot of acronyms here) ITP, the International Tourism Partnership, which is part of IBLF (International Business Leaders Forum) which Britain’s Prince Charles started some years ago. It’s a large UK based organization that is all about helping businesses become more socially conscious and socially involved. The ITP piece of this is tourism, which is our industry YCI reaches into deeply impoverished communities where the kids really don’t have a chance of breaking the cycle of poverty. They teach the kids how to dress, how to talk, how to communicate on the business level and work in a hotel as interns. After graduation, hopefully, they get a job either in a hotel or some service sector company. The kids become aware, presentable and employable. When we got to know this program we realized we could help connect them to the people in the hotel industry in India. They graduated 35 students in Mumbai, in December. It worked so well we’re bringing it to Delhi this year. So, now there will be two programs up and running in India. We’ve committed to them for another year and we’re extending and expanding our commitment because I think what they did is extraordinary. I mean I don’t know how to do what they do, but we know how we can help them financially and we know how to connect to people in the hotel industry that can help them with the job creating side. And it isn’t just an India thing, it’s in twelve countries now and frankly it probably could adapt well in certain parts of this country, you know, where you’ve got poverty that’s unbreakable.
How valuable to connect the program to your industry and connect youth with jobs that are in demand, that’s really cool!
Jim: When we planned this, we launched this in Mumbai. The intent was, when the students graduated, have a couple of them come and be at the conference, meet people that are probably iconic in industry, but meet them and have the industry see the net results of their supporting us; meaning we (the hotel industry) can support this making everybody aware and then the pie gets bigger. We can’t do everything, but we can do certain things and we can connect people. We moved our conference to Delhi which screwed this part it all up. YCI ended up running a video during the conference that was on their website, going through the success of the program. This kind of conference attracts 400 grey suited, black suited, blue suited, mostly business guys trying to do their deals. You could hear a pin drop in that room when the video played and you don’t know what people take away from that. Hopefully some percent of those people took away from that,” I should get involved in this program, I can help, I have a hotel, I have resources, I have staff, I can contribute money,” or whatever. That’s kind of what we want to have happen. We can’t solve the problems of the world, but we can play our role and we can plug into people like the ITP people and the YCI people.
Bob: We’re trying to make the world a better place I guess, and along the way we are helping our industry. Selfishly, we like helping people because it makes us happy. If it makes us happy and it makes our industry better and it makes the world a little better, it’s a win-win for everybody.
Jim: I can’t prove this scientifically, but my guess is that people who work for us feel better about the jobs they do, because when you work really hard on a project and the project is successful, it does something. That success gives the ability to do something like helping kids have a better life. I think everybody feels just a little bit more proud and work all the more harder.
That goes back into your whole philosophy of connecting people who can mutually help each other.
Bob: …. because it really is true, what goes around, it comes around. We don’t do it hoping that it will come back around, but it does anyway so that’s why we try putting it out there.
When can we expect the book to come out?
Jim: In your lifetime.
Bob: We actually have some people helping us gather our thoughts and we’ve got, well about a third completed, so maybe the end of the year.
Jim: It’s one of those things that takes a lot of time a/ and it kind of gets pushed aside regularly. That’s why we now have a person helping us by, you know, cracking a whip and getting us to do it.
Great. Hopefully when it comes out, my blog will be booming and I’ll be able to help promote it and it will all be great. I can’t wait to read it.
Bob: Like I said, connections, you may be hearing from us in the future.
Yeah, and I see that you’re a big martini drinkers, so if we ever end up in the same city I’d love to have a martini with you!
Bob: Oh, you’re a martini drinker too?
I can be.
Bob: Are you gin or vodka?
Jim: That’s not a real martini. Gin! (Laughter)
I’ll try it your way. I really, really enjoyed talking with you. Thank you for your time.