DEI Advisors Podcast

Alicia Evanko-Lewis, EVP Events, Northstar Travel Group Interviewed by Rachel Humphrey

May 20, 2024 David Kong
Alicia Evanko-Lewis, EVP Events, Northstar Travel Group Interviewed by Rachel Humphrey
DEI Advisors Podcast
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DEI Advisors Podcast
Alicia Evanko-Lewis, EVP Events, Northstar Travel Group Interviewed by Rachel Humphrey
May 20, 2024
David Kong

Alicia shares how the hard work her parents instilled in her has
 impacted her including leading to an unexpected career in the events
 industry. She talks about the new skills she's developed as her career
 has progressed and why the leadership traits of authenticity and
 kindness are common among those leaders she admires most. Alicia also
 discusses public speaking, overcoming doubt, support systems, tackling
 risks, and her advice to her younger self.

Show Notes Transcript

Alicia shares how the hard work her parents instilled in her has
 impacted her including leading to an unexpected career in the events
 industry. She talks about the new skills she's developed as her career
 has progressed and why the leadership traits of authenticity and
 kindness are common among those leaders she admires most. Alicia also
 discusses public speaking, overcoming doubt, support systems, tackling
 risks, and her advice to her younger self.

Rachel Humphrey:

I am Rachel Humphrey with DEI Advisors. We are a nonprofit organization dedicated to empowering personal success in the hospitality industry. And I am really excited today to be joined on the show by Alicia Evanko-Lewis, the EVP of Events at Northstar Travel Group, Alicia, welcome to the program.

Alicia Evanko-Lewis:

Thank you, Rachel.

Rachel Humphrey:

I am excited to sit down and talk a little bit about your story and some of the lessons you've learned during your long and very successful career in the hospitality industry. And we are going to jump right in. Anyone who listens regularly knows that one of the things I really love about this industry is that you can chart your own course. No two people have the same path to leadership. Can you tell us a little bit about what you do. Your journey and how you ended up where you are today and if there were any moments that you consider pivotal moments along the way for you.

Alicia Evanko-Lewis:

Sure. Rachel, I was the over the weekend, I was looking at some of the interviews that your organization has done. And wow, you've really interviewed some impressive, inspirational leaders in the industry. So I, I was thinking a lot about my path, I think is different than many of them. Don't work directly for a hotel company or I'm in the B2B media world, I think it all started for me and In college, right? So when I was making the decision where I could go to college, I decided to go, I went to university of Hartford and West Hartford, Connecticut, and I pick that over Penn state because I wanted something smaller and I want it to be a big fish in a small pond versus a little fish in a big pond. I majored in communications. I don't think I was ever quite sure what I wanted to do. And I think I look at the college programs that are out there now, and they're so different than they were. When I graduated in 97, but I think a big part of who I am today started in college because I became really involved. I think I learned more through my leadership positions in university than I did actually with the educational program. I really do. I was, my, I went to. Get this into a concise story. But I was, I was active as active on the executive board of student government. I was an RA for two years in college, which is, I learned so much with leadership through that. I was president of my sorority. I was a vice president of a Greek honor society. I was, I just, I did a lot in college that I think prepared me. for my professional roles. And when I finished college, I wanted to be a full time student. I loved it. I absolutely loved college. I didn't want to graduate. So I applied to all types of master's programs. And the first the program that I got into that was all ready to go to was a master's in journalism and public affairs at American University. So it was all ready to go. And I'll never forget a good friend of mine said why don't we go down and Meet with, the financial aid counselor. Cause my parents said, listen, you're on your, you're on your own. You want to go to graduate school? You you got to figure this thing out on my own, on your own. Went down to D. C. And realize, what it would look once I was out of college and the loans that I have to pay back. And my friend said to me, I'll never forget it. He said, Why did you take a year to think about this? Are you sure that you want to go into journalism of public affairs? And I was like, I don't really know. It just sounds interesting. It's a good program. So I I did. I took a year off. And it took me a while. I lived, I went and moved back in with my parents. My parents live outside of Philadelphia and I worked an in between job. My mom always worked at university of Pennsylvania hospital and she always had an opportunity available where I worked in the chart room or. I answered the phone. So I always had to work. So always had to, make my own money to do the things that I wanted to do all through life, starting at 15 years old. If I wanted a car, I had to, make sure I made the money to pay for insurance. And I always, I think my parents instilled that with you. And I think a lot of your values, they come as a child, me and my, I have three older brothers and We're so different in so many ways and we've all taken different paths in life. But the one common thing is we're really hard workers. So anyway, I got my first job from the Philadelphia inquire, looking in the jobs at the, in the back and I was looking for marketing or PR and I kinda, I don't think I knew what I wanted to do. Oh, prior to that, I wanted to go to New York. So I decide that. I'm not going to get my master's. So then I start interviewing in New York. My parents say to me, once again you want to go to New York? You're going to pay we can't pay your rent to live in New York. That's up to you. And then I realized entry level advertising and PR jobs at the time were paying 19, 000 a year. So I said, okay, I guess I'm not living in New York. So I gave up that dream and I moved back home for about four years. And I did the in between job with my mom at, the answering phones and filing charts until I finally got a job. And it took me until about November after I graduated to get a job. And I just remember feeling. So hopeless at that age, like I'm never getting a job. No one wants to hire me. And I did get a job and I started out as a. a marketing coordinator for a legal publishing firm. I did that for about four and a half years. And it was just a, it was a small company and they really supported my extracurricular activities. I think that was a huge part of my career path and my journey. I became very active at the time and, I didn't even know I started out, as marketing coordinator or meeting planner. I didn't even know at the time that Being a meeting planner was a profession at, 22 years old at that time. So I became very active in the Philadelphia chapter of MPI and I held leadership. I won the tomorrow's leaders award. I was, I was, I did a lot with that organization. I had a lot of various. mentors that helped me. And again, my first employer was really good to me and supported me going to conferences and allowing me to, to learn things I wouldn't have learned within that company. And then I think, this moment was pivotal for me. I got engaged early when I was about 24, 25 years old and I had He was killed in a car accident at the time at 25 years old. So I lived and I moved to Cleveland to be with him after working at that place. So I had to rebuild myself, not rebuild myself, but figure out, okay, what am I going to do with my life? I left that job in Philadelphia. I was in Cleveland and I said, okay, I always wanted to go to New York. Which was a tragic, very tragic. Thing that happened in my life, it propelled me forward in many ways, and it brought me back to where I thought I was going to be years before. So I had the opportunity to move to New York. And again, I started the same process all over again. So I, at that point I had taken a year off. between jobs due to that circumstance and ended up back in New York. And I found my next job, which got me into the travel and hospitality industry on I think it was monster. com, right? So there was an ad for, and I thought I just wanted to be a meeting planner, not just want to be a meeting planner, but I think, okay, I'm just going to go on that path and, work in corporation and plan meetings and events. And I ended up getting a job working for I've had three jobs my whole career and working for a, a B2B publisher in the travel space. I was there for 10 years and now here I've been at Northstar 13 years. So I started out started out there and started from scratch when I, I had to start all over again as a show coordinator. And I just worked my way up over the years. And I think that, and if I think about my journey, the one thing is really, it's just hard work, I put my whole, everything I had into work and I can't tell you, like it was normal for me. Back in those days to leave the office at 11 o'clock at night. And that's the only thing I knew, my whole life. So I just worked a lot. I loved everything I did. I learned a lot. I don't know that I ever really had any formalized training or someone sat down with you and said, okay, you just said, here's the job. And you got to figure out when you're in the business, I'm in your, you've got your hands in a lot. You've got to wear many different hats, whether it be sales, whether it be marketing, whether it be operations. I always say New York city is the city that brought me back to life and it was just, a wonderful opportunity I had. And here I am today, it's there for 10 years. And then I've been here for 13 years and I've grown over the years. And now went from a show coordinator to our EVP of events for the whole company.

Rachel Humphrey:

So many incredible. life lessons in there and things that I definitely want to talk about when you said you gave up on your dream of going to New York. I was going to say you put your dream of going to New York on pause because it would later come to fruition. But I do want to talk, I want to start off with one of the really incredible things about New York. That path is a number of big risks that you took. So deciding not to go to grad school while also turned out to be very positive. It's a risk because you don't know what will come next. Moving back home, moving to Ohio, moving to New York. It seems like you have a consistent path where some of the great payoffs have come from taking big risks. Do you think that you are Someone who likes to take on a lot of risks. Do you have a way that you process or analyze which risks you want to pursue and which maybe you're going to pass on?

Alicia Evanko-Lewis:

Interesting that you say that because in reflecting, I'm preparing for this interview. I sometimes don't see myself as a risk taker, but I think I'm more of a risk taker than I am. I think sometimes you, you go through life and you just keep going and going. And you don't sit back to reflect and say, okay. Am I really that? Am I really this? But I guess I don't know that I have a strategy for taking risks other than, let me bring up, other than just saying, here's where I want to be and I'm going to get there and you just deal with the obstacles as they come, I'll save another risk. And I was thinking about this over the weekend as it relates to my career journey when I was at with advanced our quest X for 10 years, which is a wonderful experience that put me on this path in the hospitality industry. I what is approach to take this job here at North star and someone had called me and said, Hey, listen, there's this opportunity, North star is really looking to grow their trout, their events division at the time. They didn't have very many events. And now we have over 100. And I was my current boss. Now I get on the phone with him and he says, listen, it's a great opportunity. We'd love to talk to you. And I was like, Oh, I'm so happy. I really like my job. And here's the deal. I'm pregnant. I said, and my baby's due in September. I think I had this conversation with him and June. And my plan was to, take the rest of the year off and go on maternity leave and come back to work and said, Hey, you know what, why don't you just come here and talk to us? Fast forward. They hired me when I was basically eight months pregnant, eight and a half months pregnant. So I took a job, I had a baby and we moved apartments. And you know what? My husband said to me that he's just been so instrumental in just giving me advice throughout my career and things that have really resonated with me. He said a couple of things that I've never forgotten, but when I was making the decision. To leave, my previous employer and come here, he said to me, take the emotion out of it. You take the emotion out of it. What's your decision. And it's true. When I looked at it in all paper and I'm not, I don't, I'm not a big, I do lists, but not really. I operate somehow in my head and I know what I have to do and I have certain lists, but some people are really regimented when it comes to, okay, let me put this down here. But everything went to me. Sometimes I think is that it just more of a characteristic of a woman, you're and I was so attached to the people and I was attached to the emotion and all of that we had been to together that it was really hard for me to. to say, okay, let's think about the tactical things. Let's think about, everything besides the emotion.

Rachel Humphrey:

And when

Alicia Evanko-Lewis:

I did that, here I am. And it was the best decision I ever made. I loved what I did. I loved my old boss. I love that job, but this was a step that led me down a path that has just opened up more opportunities and taught me so much. So I often think about that. I'm like, take, I think about it every day and. It just in management and in work. Okay. Take, cause I can tend to get just emotional sometimes and I have to, I take a deep breath and I say, and people may not know I'm emotional, but I'm thinking in my head and I'm like, okay, just stop. Just get done. This is black, this is white, this is business. And just, let's take it out of it and make your decision. Take the emotion out of it and make the decision.

Rachel Humphrey:

That's such great advice to take the emotion out. I think that a lot of us can fall into that as well. And it's interesting to me when you talk about taking risks that maybe you didn't even see them as risks as you were doing it because each one of those things that you just described was a step to get where you wanted to go. And so maybe it came across as less risky and more of an opportunity. Or a logical next step. I want to turn to public speaking for a minute. When you and I first met, it was, I believe, when North Star got involved with BHN and I was involved with BHN at the time and being on the conference, in the conference universe, in the event planning, the meeting space. have an incredible vantage point of the hospitality industry, other industries as well, but really the hospitality industry. How important has public speaking been for you in your career? I know when you were talking about college, I started thinking about my goodness, through the student government and being an RA, you probably without even realizing it, we're developing. Public speaking skills there, and then you go to school for communications. But I'm curious on public speaking from two fronts, one as you look at your own career, but others, as you watch the careers of those who are involved in the conferences and speaking at conferences, how important you think that is to career advancement?

Alicia Evanko-Lewis:

I think it's very important, and I hesitate it for a moment because it's actually always been I want to say a struggle, but it's been 1 of the things that doesn't come naturally to me, and I did it. You're absolutely right. I was if I were in a meeting, whether I was in student government, I was the president of my sorority or another organization or an RA I had no problem being in a room and, running a meeting or having, conversations. But when you have to get up there on stage for the first time, when I first started in the media business and working in the conference business in the hospitality industry, and I had to get up on stage my first time and address an audience of people. That were not my peers, that were experts in the area, whatever the conference was in and, an area that some areas I knew better than others froze. I just remember freezing and I had to work to to publicly speak. I had to work really hard and and again, my husband, one more thing I will give him credit for. He said to me, he used to say to me, cause I would have to, I would sit there at night and there in the early days. And I would I would write out my speech. I would look in the mirror and I would read it over and over again. And he said to me once, he's this. Should have nothing to be nervous about because when you know your subject matter and you have the confidence, which I think is a whole nother thing we could spend hours talking about is confidence, especially with women. I really do think it's something that, you know, but you should know it. And that's something that. Peace. And I think about that often. So I do think, I think it's incredibly important. I, it's something I look at anytime I see one of our speakers on stage or I see somebody speak when someone, there's people that are very talented in that area. And honestly, I still learn every day. Every time I see someone on stage, I try and pick up what they're doing. pick up on something or I, I recognize now things I need to work on. I remember in the early days when I first started out, every other word was like, and if someone hadn't said that to me, okay, stop using the word like, and then you consciously, that's just one example, have to think, stop saying so yes, I think it's important and I work at it. Yeah. Every day. I wish I had more training on it, but I do. I, like I said, I am, I'm comfortable with it now, but I know that I can always do better.

Rachel Humphrey:

I like the thread of working hard that you talked about being instilled in your family growing up. Yeah. And then here it comes up again in public speaking and preparation and. knowing your subject matter. And you mentioned confidence, and that's actually a perfect segue into something else I want to talk about. We hear this phrase head trash a lot or having a lot of self doubt or not having confidence in ourselves. And one of the things that I have really, I think, taken away from a lot of these interviews is how many of us, no matter what level we reach in our career, we still experience bouts of self doubt. I'm wondering if You do, and if you have strategies that you use for overcoming that,

Alicia Evanko-Lewis:

I think overcoming self doubt is deeper than just what it says. I think you have to know yourself as a person and, listen, everything in life goes back to childhood. It's really you think, Okay, why am I the person I am? What happened in my life? Whether it's as a child or, as you get older it's always something and everybody has their trigger points. And I will say this, I will say that I was having this conversation actually on the way to work this morning, I was on a conference call. I flew in, I'm in New York. I flew in from Raleigh and then I'm on the taxi cab on a team's call. And someone was saying on the call that they just read that mental illness in the United States, that it takes the average person 11 years to get help. Okay. So this segues me into what the comment that I made. I said, yeah, I said, I think so much of that is dependent upon where you live and how that society accepts mental illness, therapy, and just getting help I, I think I've always said this, I think therapy is a gift and if you have the opportunity to go see, you don't have to be anything wrong with you to go to therapy. It can help you understand yourself and who you are and, I did. I went to, and I just, I learned through therapy, I learned a ton about myself and why I feel the way I feel. And if I stop to doubt myself, which is just one example, why? So yeah, without a doubt, absolutely. Sometimes I absolutely have self doubt and you know what I do? I wake up every day, right? If there's something that's going on in my life or something that's bothering me or something that I'm conflicted about, I wake up every day and I say, Today is a new day. And I say, God, just give me the strength to get through today. And I started that years ago, when I had some other things going on in my life, and I'm telling you what, it works. Tomorrow's a new day. And sometimes you just need to say, okay, you know what, let me regroup. And I just say, all right, new day, roll over, look out the window, the sun shining, and tomorrow's a new day. And I know what I know myself and it's going to be better. And that self doubt somehow Goes away. And then also to every, all of us have people that we turn to when we have those moments of self doubt. We have good friends or a good colleague that you just call and say, okay, I'm just having this moment. I think everybody needs that person that you can call and be truly your authentic, honest self and say, okay, I need to talk this through. And I can't tell you, I have someone in particular that I call a lot with those things. And she is, I just feel like a whole new person when I hang up the phone. So

Rachel Humphrey:

yeah, someone once told me that support systems are the people that are louder in your own head. When your own voice is negative, you turn to your support system to be louder. I wanted to touch on what you just said about mental health and therapy for a second, because I think it is really important. And as you mentioned, it's weather. The stigma or the feelings of it. I think we should all be in therapy. I have learned incredible lessons and like you said, not with things wrong or right, but different ways of processing different ways of communicating, understanding thinking things through. And I think we're starting to see maybe a little bit of a shift in the U. S. Where people are being much more Open and accepting of it. And I hope that continues because, it's a everybody has a lot to learn and a lot to process. And having a great resource there just makes really good sense. So I appreciate your sharing that. A minute ago you were talking about. Support systems. And so I want to turn back to that just for a second and talk about do you have different people for different things? Do you tend? I know you've talked about your husband being a great support system, giving you some great advice. Advice over the years. You talked about a friend that you have to call for a lot of things. Do you think that system changes over time? Do you have certain people you go to for different topics, but how do you best utilize your support system?

Alicia Evanko-Lewis:

I think it changes over time. I think you have, I think if you're lucky enough, you have a few what are called staples in your life that stay with you for a very long time. And I also think there's people. There's a quote, something I'm not going to say correctly, but people, come into your life for a reason. I believe in that. And it could be a moment in time where. You just happened to get a phone call or you just happened to run into someone when you're traveling or you just happened to, where you have that moment or it could be, this sounds crazy, but it could be a complete stranger. I can't tell you. I've been on airplanes where I've had so many things in my head. I happen to sit next to somebody and we end up talking and I walk off that airplane with a sense of clarity, but that's not my norm, but I just think that there's sometimes strangers about you that you're like, okay, like I feel good. I can do this, but I think in general, I have, I think I have a, I would say I don't, I would say have a network that has been with me for a while. And then also people that kind of come in and out depending on. On what's happening in my life, but you need it. Everybody needs a support system. Everybody does. And I would say that it varies. It's not just mentors, but it is colleagues and it is, people that are on my teams that I have good relationships with. It's it's and sometimes people don't even know they're giving you support. You can come at things when you're dealing with something and you can come at it in a different way. And I don't even know you're utilizing them for a support system, but it's helped you tremendously. No matter what it looks like. My mind may be a little bit on traditional, but it works. And all of these people are incredible assets in my life.

Rachel Humphrey:

I love that. I love too, that it may be even the people you don't expect it to be a stranger in different circumstances that can help you achieve the clarity you're looking for. I want to turn to two aspects of Leadership skills. One is for you personally, as you have assumed new roles or as the company has acquired new companies and you're merging groups and departments together. Have you been able to identify certain skills where you said, you know what, in order to really be successful at this new challenge, I'm going to need to learn This new skill, and if so, how did you set about developing it?

Alicia Evanko-Lewis:

I would say that when I think about how you ask the question, and as it relates, so we've done a lot of, as I said before, Northstar has over 100 conferences and events over my tenure here. We've done a lot of acquisitions and I will say that I. In leadership, you have to. I think in order to be a good leader, you have to understand that there's going to be a lot of people that know a lot more than you do, and it's fun to recognize it. Let me give an example, for those of the BHI group, we acquired the business from Jim Berba and Bob Hayes. Jim became a mentor to me in many ways because I learned so much. I don't know. When we acquired that business, Jim has been doing this for so many years and he, Jim stayed on for a couple of years and technically I was Jim Burbess boss. Imagine that, for, but he, but so my point is, you have to figure out, even though on a scale, on a. chart, you fall here and someone falls here. You got to figure out that you got to just understand that. And I've learned this. This is one thing I've learned a lot. One skill that I've developed over my, I remember being uncomfortable. So let's put this by years. Let's say if it was 10, 15 years ago, 10 years ago, the thought of having somebody that was more experienced than me reporting to me. And, and now I think it's a gift. I love that. I can't tell you how much, Jim's one example of many, but, yeah. We've made several acquisitions over the years where they're industry experts in their field. And I love it because I learn every single day. And then I think one thing is too, is developing that skill to how to make those cultures or not even cultures, but how to make those businesses mend together. You buy a business, you can't just blow it up the next day you buy it. You got to figure out, okay, what's this business all about and how can we figure out how to take One set one business and another business and make them, work really well together and feed off of each other's positive attributes. So to me that's something I work on and continue to work on, but I also find it to be a gift in my professional life.

Rachel Humphrey:

I think too, talking about learning from others who have way more experience, regardless of where they are in an org chart. Is really important because a lot of time people get really held up on titles and reporting structures and other things, and you lose the opportunity to really have such an important growth point in your career. And so for you now, I want to turn it around. Instead of being about you to your vantage point, you've been around a lot of great leaders in different organizations. I'm wondering if there are traits or styles that you see as Particularly effective or common among some of those people that have been great leaders that you've been around,

Alicia Evanko-Lewis:

say, number one would be being authentic. I think that the best leadership that I've seen is someone who is, I've seen good leaders and I've seen bad leaders. And I think those that are authentic and their real selves. the most effective leaders out there. I think when you have a leader, who's not like that, you, at least in my experience, when I see that you feel like as if they're hiding something and you're not part of it as or you're on the outside looking in, but I would think being authentic, being kind, listen, business is business, but to, I, you always watch how people treat people or you watch how for me, I always watch Or I always see it's always interesting to me to see how team members are with their boss and what that looks like so I would say just being authentic and being kind and being honest, right. And I always say, it's like when we were going through COVID and you think about, all the contracts that everybody signed and you had to deal with, renegotiating and this and that. It's it all went out the window. The contracts didn't matter to some extent because what mattered was the relationship. And you got on the phone with your partners and you figured it out. And I think a handshake means more than anything. And your word and all the best leaders are people that are very honest and they look you in the eye and they give you their word and they stand by that.

Rachel Humphrey:

Yeah. Honesty and credibility growing up through the legal profession at the early stages of my career, a majority of my career actually becomes such a critical point, but I like what you said about kindness too, because we used to hear all the time, you can't be kind and effective as a leader. And I think if one of the great things that have come out of COVID is That you can be kind and you can be authentic and still be an incredibly effective leader. So I'm really glad that you brought that up. As I expected we are running short on time. And so I want to wrap up with two things. One of them our listeners know is my favorite question, which is our advice to our younger selves. I really love hearing as we reflect we are all. works in progress. When you look back at 21 year old Alicia graduating from college, what would you tell her either about how your path turned out or maybe about something you wish you knew then that you know today?

Alicia Evanko-Lewis:

I would say figure out how to get comfortable being uncomfortable, right? And start working on that now. Because it's a hard thing, right? And I think I said the other thing is, I think success is defined differently for everyone, right? And the path to get there is different for everyone. So I would say. Don't forget that and don't compare yourself to everybody else on that journey because it really doesn't matter. You're going to, your journey is yours and it sounds like the obvious, I think back to whenever the last 20, 25 years and you do, you end up, I surprised many times over that year saying could I have done this or could I have been on that path? It doesn't matter. You own your journey and your journey is yours and your success is not somebody else's success.

Rachel Humphrey:

I love how much that ties into the first question that I asked you about your journey to leadership because they are all so very different. As we sit here today, Alicia, and you think about the motto of DEI advisors, empowering personal success, is there one final piece of wisdom you'd like to share with everybody? I

Alicia Evanko-Lewis:

want to say that kind of correlates with what I just said about empowering personal success. You own it. Only you. So you have the power to control your own destiny and your own success and don't ever, it's so easy to react. If somebody is not being nice or somebody, it's just not treating you well in the workplace. They own that and you own yourself and you have the ability to make choices and to make changes.

Rachel Humphrey:

I love that you own your own success. That is incredible advice. I want to at least to say thank you so much for taking on

Alicia Evanko-Lewis:

the

Rachel Humphrey:

show. To those who are listening, we know you have a lot of ways you can spend your time. So thank you so much for spending a little bit of time with us today. You can also head on over to www. deiadvisors. org to hear from you. The many other incredible industry leaders who have shared their paths to leadership and the lessons they have learned along the way as well. But Alicia said, thank you so much for your leadership in the industry, for all of the many ways that you have taught and been inclusive of me in that path and look forward to seeing you soon.

Alicia Evanko-Lewis:

Thank you. for including me, Rachel.