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May 2013

Alba Hotchkiss: From a Small Town in Italy to Top of the Meetings Industry

As told to Michelle Russell, Editor in Chief

The president of the MICE division for New York City-based Development Counsellors International (DCI) was born in northern Italy and as a teen moved to the United States, where she was first exposed to the meetings and conventions industry. Her love of travel, fluency in three languages, people skills, and entrepreneurial spirit were all at work at the start of her career and have served her well throughout her four decades of bringing people together around the world. Hotchkiss shares with Convene where she began — and where she's ended up.

When I was 15 years old, I was asked by a friend of my mother if I would be willing to work over the weekend to be a hostess at a trade show and speak a little French, which I was learning at that time. It was a small European convention, but I was fascinated by the educational component, the buyers and sellers talking to each other, the multiple nationalities represented.... It really intrigued me.

Many years later, I was lucky enough to be hired for Air France's new hotel division, Le Méridien Hotels. I was young, curious, and very energetic. I just really felt that this was the cat's meow. It was a small office [in New York City]. We were opening international hotels. You would have thought that they were my own. I had a really wonderful supervisor who just allowed me to be involved in so many aspects of it. I learned a great deal. It was the early 1970s. The first Le Méridien was in Paris. I was involved with the small team in really creating the USA sales office. I just could not work enough hours so that I could sponge it all up.

Then a few years later, I was approached by a much smaller company [Frantel Hotel], which was a French hotel chain, to set up their office in New York. Even though it was much smaller and their hotels were not in exciting destinations like Paris, Rio, and Montreal like Méridien — they were in secondary cities in France — I was intrigued to be my own boss and to be the head of the organization, no matter how small it was. It worked very well for several years. When their expansion in the U.S. did not happen, I had in the back of my mind this ideal representation company. It was going to work with companies similar to Frantel that really wanted an office that was like their own, a company that would become part of their own marketing team and sell on their behalf, with their goals in mind. And so I convinced Frantel to become my first client.

I went out on my own and I created Mondotels in the beginning of 1981 — mondo is “world” in Italian and “tels” was an abbreviation for hotels. At that time I was really specializing in small hotel chains. Then in 1984, I was working with [the French city of] Nice through Frantel and I became aware that the Acropolis convention center in Nice was about to be opened. I decided that some of the strategies for the business traveler and association marketing that I had learned would apply. I bid for that position. They became the first CVB in Europe to have representation in the United States.

The city of Nice stayed with us for 23 years. We also worked with Melbourne, Australia, for 14 years, and with Madrid [and] Lisbon, and we work with Dubai to this day. We did some projects for other cities in Europe like Florence. Now we are working with MiCo [Milano Congressi]. We are really looking at offering our services to CVBs who are looking to expand their sales and marketing to the West. We try to understand what their expectations are. We plan with them. We know that we have a huge market. We want to help them measure the value of being active in this market. By building the trust and truly becoming part of their team, we have achieved longevity — 10,15, or 20 years — with many of our clients.

We've had many exciting wins. We brought Rotary International and the International Society for Magnetic Resonance in Medicine to Nice; in Melbourne, the International Gynecologic Cancer Society and the International Congress of the World Federation of Hemophilia; in Dubai, the Association of Public Safety Communications Officials and the International Federation of Engineering Education Societies; in Scotland, the Society for Architectural Historians and the World Congress of Skin Cancer; and in Madrid, the International Association for Women's Mental Health.

I get excited when I sit with the CEO of a CVB who is a representative of that government and the destination. We talk about strategy. He or she entrusts us with the handling of their destination in this market. We know that we can contribute to their success by creating a very valuable economic impact. I think that I am motivated by the knowledge that we can make a difference. We can make them look good. What I also like a lot is the interaction with a lot of different cultures, and the ability to understand and communicate well with them.

I love that I have created a team around me that has been with me for many decades. I think the biggest challenge at the beginning of my career was being alone and taking some of the risks that are attached as an entrepreneur. It was very important to me to build the right team. I really wanted people that were as dedicated, enthusiastic, and eager to learn as I was, and sort of shared my vision. Now as I look toward the end of my career, I like the fact that I am able to leave the team and the concept of the company in the hands of DCI. In 2010,I sold my company to DCI — Mondotels became a division of DCI. I had spent 30 years building the business in a relatively niche market. I was not really thinking of an exit strategy, but when DCI approached me, I was open to the opportunity of joining a company that was larger, well established, and would expand the capabilities of Mondotels. When I would leave Mondotels — which no longer exists, because as of this year we dropped the name Mondotels — the concept that I had created would continue to flourish.

‘The services we perform are essentially the same now as 40 years ago. We put a buyer and a seller together.’

I love to work with young people. I love to mentor. I have been very lucky in this industry. I think that the most important advice I would give is to be curious and be engaged. It is important for young people to join associations — to network, meet people, and volunteer. They must be eager to learn. When I think of the benefits that associations and continuing education give a person, the opportunities are enormous.

People always ask what the biggest changes have been in the industry. Of course, one always must acknowledge the technology changes. But I am amazed at how much things remain the same in terms of the core. The reality is that the services we perform are essentially the same now as they were 40 years ago. We put a buyer and a seller together. We need to ensure that they meet each other's needs. The wrapper is somewhat different, but the core, the central heart, is the same. I think that is interesting, because with all of the progress there has been, the need for face-to-face meetings — for good communication and understanding each other's priorities and respect for them — has not changed at all.

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