First of all, how are you and your family doing in these COVID-19 times?
Monette Iturralde-Hamlin: We’re doing well, thanks for asking.
During the first two months of lockdown, it was just me, my eldest daughter Bea who is Managing Director of TeamAsia, and my son Niccolo who were together. We were rather worried about my widowed 85-year old mother, who was by herself on the other side of town, and my second daughter Cara who was working in Northern Luzon. Happily, we were able to get my mom as soon as they allowed travel. And my daughter has been able to visit us in the past few months. Although we were all working from home, the lockdown has allowed us to bond together as a family as we shared home duties and spent more quality time with each other.
Through social media like Facebook and Instagram, we kept tabs on family and friends, while Twitter and LinkedIn kept us in touch with the outside world and gave us access to much-needed information as to what was happening. Tiktok provided entertainment, though I have not learned to use it. Zoom, Google Hangouts, Microsoft MS teams, and other platforms allowed us to continue with the business, working-from-home.
Tell us about you, your career, how you founded TeamAsia.
Monette Iturralde-Hamlin: I am the founder and president of TeamAsia, an award-winning integrated marketing experience firm. In 1992, my husband Mike Hamlin and I founded TeamAsia – short for The Events and Awards Manager of Asia Ltd. TeamAsia officially started doing business in HongKong, organizing the Asian Management Awards in Hong Kong, Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand, and the Philippines with the Asian Institute of Management and The Far Eastern Economic Review for three years.
TeamAsia continued building its brand and was recognized as an established events organizer, making the huge international conference, Global Asia: Reengineering for Competitive Advantage, happen in Malaysia in 1994. From 1996-1998, TeamAsia continued organizing prestigious awards in Asia.
TeamAsia was formally established as Hamlin-Iturralde Corporation in the Philippines in 1994, followed by Singapore in 1996. With sheer drive and passion, Monette and Mike became two of the pioneers of brand visibility in Asia. The company continued to grow and started organizing highly targeted events, from exclusive breakfast briefings for top C.E.O.s to gala product launches, as well as international conferences and exhibitions.
From there, it expanded its expertise, going into Public Relations, Branding and Design, Web Development, and Digital Marketing. Today, TeamAsia has become an integrated marketing experience agency that is 28 years strong.
I wear other hats aside from TeamAsia. I concurrently serve as chairperson of the Women’s Business Council of the Philippines (WomenBizPH); chairperson of Hopkins International.
Partners, Inc.; president of the Government-Academe-Industry Network (GAIN), and Vice President for Conventions of the Philippine Association of Convention/Exhibition Organizers and Suppliers, Inc. (P.A.C.E.O.S.). I also head the Sub-Working Group for Human Resources of the Philippine M.I.C.E. Roadmap 2030.
How does TeamAsia innovate?
Monette Iturralde-Hamlin: We are always the first adapter in tech, and we invest in gadgets. But because of the speed at which tech develops, there are times that digital tools become obsolete and are replaced by newer and faster gadgets. For instance, when companies moved from snail mail to fax marketing, we acquired several fax machines in the past to better service our clients then. However, these are now obsolete with the advent of email.
Realizing this, we follow tech developments closely, keeping our ears on the ground if there is anything new which we can maximize. This is both to create holistic experiences for our brands and their audiences and to make sure that we are investing in the right tech. As we adapt to new technologies, we recognize the need to learn which strategies would work and what would not. Trial-and-error honed our skills, and it is one of the things that made us experts in what we do and helps us to constantly innovate.
We were one of the first companies in the Philippines to have a website in 2000. We were also ahead of the curve when it came to doing SMS and email marketing, developing websites for international clients, and handling search engine optimization and social media marketing. All of these strongly established our presence in the Digital Marketplace. We utilize tech and gadgets that make us more mobile. We also use Cloud technology and Google Suite because it allows our teams to work and collaborate more efficiently.
Our investment in technology has actually helped us pivot faster when the pandemic hit. We were able to adjust quickly to a work from home arrangement because our staff were already all equipped with laptops, mobile devices, data plans and were used to collaborating on the Google Suite platform.
How did the coronavirus pandemic affect your business, and how are you coping?
Monette Iturralde-Hamlin: Before COVID-19, we had our business strategy in place, plans in the pipeline, clients to service, and events being organized. Our vision was clear, and we knew where we were going. The pandemic changed all that. Our events business was badly hit, as events were canceled and the quarantine period kept being prolonged. The restrictions imposed on people’s movements gravely affected corporations and especially small and medium enterprises, and that includes us.
We drew on our strengths (our triad of Creatives, Content and Digital Marketing), carefully studied the situation, and decided to pivot to virtual events. We launched our weekly podcast, Breakfast to Business, which has amassed a following and is now ranking on Spotify; our online publication called The Red Circle that provides readers with valuable insights from news and current affairs to the latest happenings in the lifestyle scene; the Virtual Arena which puts events and activations online; TeamAsia Training Online which provides upskilling sessions by industry experts for professional success, especially on effective communication and strategic leadership; and our very own proprietary strategic marketing approach called Integrated Marketing Experience (IME) that empowers consumers to actively take part in a brand’s story by engaging them across different channels.
One of the challenges we recognized is rapidly adapting to our brands’ needs to pivot to digital platforms and shift gears strategically as the situation called for. But as experience experts, we were able to champion resiliency with our brands and acknowledge that while everything is volatile and uncertain, working together would be essential.
Another challenge was how to keep our teams motivated amidst the pandemic. We immediately implemented fun and exciting employee engagement activities such as morning and monthly pop-ups, open space sessions as mental health breaks, and TeamAsia town halls to keep the team spirit up.
Today, most of the teams are still working from home since we found it effective in our respective work lines. We also continue to collaborate closely with our clients to make sure that their needs are met, especially in this new normal. We are constantly keeping our eyes and ears on the ground for anything that might crop up in the marketing landscape.
For our folks who are already working in the office, we are in constant coordination with the property landlord in ensuring that health and safety protocols are in place (i.e., wearing masks, practicing social distancing, placing disinfectants around the workplace). We still limit people who come to the office, and they strictly follow the hours mandated.
We constantly review our numbers and how we are achieving our KPIs, meet as a team, and adjust when necessary if the plan isn’t working as expected. Constantly, we strive for Next Level Experiences and the satisfaction of a job well done.
Did you have to make difficult choices, and what are the lessons learned?
Monette Iturralde-Hamlin: Yes, we had to make some very tough decisions. While we continue to pivot with our triad of creative, content, and digital services, it didn’t make business sense to keep paying the steep rent of our 18/F offices at AEON Center at a time when it hasn’t been used for several months due to the lockdown, and will now be used only by a few because of physical distancing.
Since most of our TeamAsians are working from home, Bea and I agreed that we would much rather use the funds to take care of our people. That’s why two months ago, we moved to a smaller G/F space in Polaris, Alabang, and said goodbye to the office we called home for four years.
We’ve also had to let go of some of our people whose nature of work was no longer needed because of the restrictions of the pandemic. This was very painful, but we had no choice but to do so. We trimmed down operating expenses as much as we can to conserve cash during this time, as many clients were also experiencing a cash crunch.
How do you deal with stress and anxiety?
Monette Iturralde-Hamlin: Preparing meals for the family has become one of my favorite de-stressors. I learned to plan meals at night, defrost the ingredients upon waking up, and cook meals in between the precious few windows between meetings. Sometimes, we have Michelin-inspired meals, and at others, just something to keep us satisfied until the next kitchen breakthrough.
Mealtimes also remind us of the wonderful world outside and of fun times traveling as a family, as I cook different dishes from around the world: from local favorites like pork adobo, binagoongan, and salmon sinigang; to Singaporean Hainanese chicken rice; Malaysian laksa; Thai red curry chicken; Chinese dumplings; Korean kimchi rice; Japanese tempura, Indian palak paneer (with homemade naan bread to soak up the curry); American burgers and Mexican tacos; Moroccan beef tagine; Greek moussaka; French moules-frites; Italian pizzas and pastas; and Spanish tapas, meatballs, fabada, and paella. This way, we experience the fun of traveling with our food.
Who are your competitors? And how do you plan to stay in the game?
Monette Iturralde-Hamlin: Competition now depends on how fast and how well you can help brands connect with their audiences and achieve their objectives on the digital platform, so agility, quality, and tech-savviness are paramount.
TeamAsia continues to grow and ‘stay in the game’ because of our commitment to bringing brands and their audiences to the Next Level Experience (N.L.E.). N.L.E. is about breaking ground, changing what people are used to, and giving them something new that they can look forward to. Once you’ve already delivered that, you have to do something better the next time.
N.L.E. becomes important because that is what is going to make the brand stand out. It’s really the relationship developed and the great experience with the target market that will make a brand top of mind.
Your final thoughts?
Monette Iturralde-Hamlin: It’s a tough time for all businesses, more so for those in the events business, but challenges have a way of making us come out better. We draw on our strengths, take care of our people, and go for the opportunities present. And in everything, we continue to pray and be grateful for God’s many blessings. Yes, we definitely can rise up to the challenge of a Reimagined Future!