“When you run a business called Time Out and the whole world is spending its time in, you know things are going to be very difficult,” says Julio Bruno, global CEO of the Time Out Group, of the past 12 months. But the good news, says Bruno, is that as more countries succeed in vaccinating their populations against the Covid-19 virus, the world’s urban centres are reopening.
“We are now seeing the renaissance of the city, albeit little by little,” observes Bruno, who urges consumers to get out there and show support for the bars, restaurants, theatres and cinemas that might otherwise never grace the Time Out listings again. These businesses, often small independent enterprises run by entrepreneurs, are the lifeblood of city life, he points out, but we have only just realised how crucial they are. “One thing I’ve seen during the pandemic is that people are no longer taking these places for granted,” Bruno says.
Time Out itself rebranded as Time Out In at the height of the pandemic, but has weathered the storm. In large part, that reflects the firm financial footing Bruno has put the business on since joining in 2015. Capital raising has given the company the firepower to diversify its activities through acquisitions, as well as providing a safety buffer. The group floated on the Alternative Investment Market, the junior stock market of the London Stock Exchange, in 2016, and while the share price plummeted during the worst of last year’s crisis, it is making a steady recovery during 2021.
Looking forward, Bruno is optimistic that as soon as lockdown restrictions are eased, people will return to the activities they once enjoyed – to the advantage of Time Out commercially as advertisers and readers return. “You can see that in the cities that have already begun to reopen, where the bars and restaurants and public spaces are already full,” he says.
Bruno’s argument is that while people have embraced leisure experiences in their homes, from streaming film, theatre and comedy to ordering more takeaway food, they are ready to get their old lives back. “We are social animals – we want to go out and share experiences,” he says.
The popularity of Time Out Group’s newly opened Time Out Market Dubai proves the point, Bruno suggests. The venue, which launched last month, is the latest in a series of such markets that the company has opened around the world, offering consumers in a number of cities an opportunity to eat and drink at outlets run by local bars and restauranteers in a food hall setting. It is a good example of the diversification on which the company has embarked.
Elsewhere, Bruno is also upbeat about the prospects for the travel sector, another industry where Time Out Group has a keen interest after years of publishing guides and schedules for travellers. “We are already seeing rising interest in travel at a national level with people now exploring their own countries more than ever,” he says. International travel will take longer to return, he concedes, given the restrictions ongoing in so many parts of the world, “but again, people want to travel – they want to see how people live in other countries”.
What about the idea that Covid-19 will lead to permanent lifestyle changes for many people? For example, if people no longer have to work in the office five days a week, might they decide to give up living in the cities that Time Out has documented for so long?
Bruno is not buying such arguments, pointing to longstanding research suggesting that urbanisation will be a continuing theme globally, with the United Nations predicting that up to 50% of the global population living in cities within the next 25 years or so. “Cities are going to remain at the cultural centre; they are the places people come to meet people who feel and think like them, who share their curiosity,” he argues.
All of which augurs well for the long-term future of a business that has already come a long way since Tony Elliott published the first Time Out listings pamphlet in London in 1968. Elliott would retain ownership of the business for more than 40 years, but since he sold down his stake in 20111, the company has invested in its digital assets and expanded worldwide. Its reach is now remarkable, publishing content on more than 350 cities in 58 countries
It is the sort of innovation and growth often associated with start-up businesses, rather than industry stalwarts, but Bruno is at heart an entrepreneur. Alongside the day job, he’s an active angel investor, providing capital, as well as strategic advice and support to a portfolio of small enterprises. “The start-up community is very important to me,” he reflects. “Their passion is inspiring.”
Current interests include the consumer health company Audicus, based in New York, where Bruno has been involved since 2013. He also serves as an advisory board member at Spain’s Top Seeds Lab, and holds a similar role at the business school Birkbeck.
The key, he suggests, is to practice what you preach – larger businesses can be agile too. “The disruption of Covid has been a double whammy for us, hitting our advertising in our publish businesses but also forcing us to close our food markets,” he says. “But we pivoted to Time In for a while – and now we’re getting back out there.”