Toni Gamez, executive director at Centro Citibanamex in Mexico City, runs one of the largest convention facilities in Latin America. Later this month, from Aug. 24-25, the center will once again host IBTM Americas, which has met there since 2015. But many other significant global events have come through its doors since opening 20 years ago — and Gamez, who has worked at the facility since its debut, has seen them all.
Of note is the XVII International AIDS Conference, which brought more than 22,000 attendees to Mexico City in 2008, as well as the joint 2016 Soccerex Americas Forum and 66th FIFA Congress. In 2025, the venue will host the world’s largest association conference, Lions Clubs International’s annual convention, LCICon, which is expected to bring more than 35,000 attendees. Below, Gamez shares her thoughts on making the best out of unexpected challenges, how they’re handling the talent crisis, and her best career advice.
In our August cover story, we explore how the talent shortage continues to affect the business events industry. Can you share what the recent experience has been for your team when it comes to attracting and keeping talent?
As most of us experienced, due to the pandemic, we had to let go of half of our staff. We had the opportunity to get back to business in June ; since then, we have been working with the same reduced staff number. It has been challenging, but step by step we are recovering and beginning to hire new people. Our most difficult challenge right now is to hire people for catering since many of them changed their professional path and are no longer available. We have changed how we hire staff in order to give them better career opportunities at our venue.
The meetings and events industry has taken many twists and turns over the last two years. Can you talk a little bit about how you have weathered that personally and from a leadership perspective? Are there ways in which you find yourself thinking differently as a result of the ongoing challenges to the meetings industry?
For us, at Centro Citibanamex, the beginning [of the pandemic] was very odd as we were designated a [COVID hospital]. This was May 2020 and most people didn’t know anything about the virus, and our clients were not happy with the situation — even our team was a little bit shocked. We had to work on changing that [perception] to get them to think about the great opportunity we had to serve our country and help people in a way we never had the opportunity to do before. I will always try to make the best out of what we have. And now, looking back, we are all — staff and clients — very proud of how we supported our city and country during the pandemic.
What’s the best piece of advice you were given in your career journey?
I will say the best advice I have been given is … from my mom: When you do things right, things will always [fall into] place, you only have to be patient. Sometimes I forget that, but life always reminds me. Another great piece of advice that I have [to share] is from my own experience: Always follow your intuition. Most of the time we all know what’s best for us, we just don’t listen to ourselves. We all need to learn to listen to our inner thoughts, analyze them, and follow them.
If you had a chance to do it all over again, is there anything you would change in how you prepared for this career — chose a different major, applied for more internships, found a mentor earlier, etc.? And do you have any advice for young people facing those decisions right now?
I love this question because my answer may be different from many people in the industry. Just because you study a particular subject doesn’t mean that you must make a career out of it. I would choose to study industrial engineering again, and the only change I would make is studying one or two more languages.
So, to young people I say: Choose a career or a major that will help you open your mind, learn new languages, travel the world, and live in different cultures, if possible. Listen to elders, learn from them, and work in whatever you have a passion for. If you love what you do with an open mind, you will always find a way to make the best of it!
Jennifer N. Dienst is senior editor at Convene. This interview has been edited and condensed for brevity.
More Women Leaders
Find more stories from Convene Senior Editor Jennifer N. Dienst’s continuing series on women leaders at convention centers.