Life is all about chapters. Anne Hamilton has written her share.
There was the chapter that became her first foray into marketing – at age 10.
There was the chapter of growing up (Anne has six siblings) and family tradition was for everyone to gather around the dinner table every evening. More than buttered carrots were passed. Every topic under the sun was discussed, dissected and — if the topic was yours — defended.
There was the chapter of post-graduation enlightenment. After getting her degree in Business Administration from Florida State University, Anne immersed herself in the businesses within her industry — what was on the minds of clients — whether it was food & beverage, sales or marketing. At 50, she felt the need to again challenge herself and think differently, so she went back and earned an MBA from Stetson University.
“Anne is one of those executives who is always there. She’s engaged, she makes stuff happen. She does her job to advance the industry to a better place than it is today. When I think about Disney I think of Anne and the culture they have. She epitomizes what it is. She cares about her industry and she cares about her company.” Roger Dow
There is the chapter she writes today as vice president, Global Travel, for The Walt Disney Company, which follows more than two decades leading the Sales and Services organization for Walt Disney Parks and Resorts. In the meetings and events industry, Anne Hamilton is the gold standard, earning such accolades as the recent Meeting Professionals International Industry Leader Award for many significant contributions, including advocating for women in leadership and serving as a mentor to future generations. Her industry leadership reads like alphabet soup — MPI, PCMA, ASAE — and she never stops extolling the creativity of the Disney Meetings & Events teams at the Walt Disney World Resort in Florida, Disneyland Resort in California and Disney’s Aulani resort in Hawaii.
There is another chapter she’s writing now — the fight of her life but one she approaches as she does everything. With hard-as-nails tenacity.
After an already illustrious career that included executive positions with Hilton, Hyatt, the Miami Convention and Visitors Bureau and Miami’s iconic Jockey Club, Anne began her Disney career in 1996 — unceremoniously enough on a routine flight returning from an industry conference in San Francisco. At the time, she was director of sales for a Hilton partner hotel on the property of Walt Disney World Resort. The passenger in the next seat struck up a conversation.
“I was all decked out in my Disney attire which caught his curiosity,” she remembers. “I told him that despite appearances I didn’t work for Disney.”
That seat mate happened to be then Vice President of Resort/Park Sales & Services for the Walt Disney World Resort, George Aguel, who is now President and CEO of Visit Orlando.
“Three weeks later I was working for George and never looked back,” Anne recalls. “George took a chance on me, a single mom, how many would have done that back then?” She quickly proved her business savvy, promoted to the executive ranks only 11 months after hiring on as a sales director.
“George gave me an opportunity to join the best company in the world and for 23 years it’s been nothing but great moments, one after another. Extraordinary people define the company. They love what they do and they work together.”
There was even more from that chance meeting with Aguel.
“He also understood family first as a part of Disney culture,” Anne says. “If I wanted to leave early to watch my son Ian play sports, nobody stood in the way. That really resonated with me.”
Born in Miami the oldest of seven kids, Anne says learning has always been a cornerstone of her life. In fact, her blueprint for success is marked by pillars of learnings — call it a lifetime of lessons learned — along the way. They follow no particular order but each will help shape the successful career in the meetings and events industry.
Anne recalls one non-negotiable from growing up. “Our family had a rule that everyone had to be together for dinner. My parents set a table for 12 because someone was always joining us, whether friends or a client of my dad’s. You never knew who would show up. Topics came up every evening — politics, religion, diet fads, whatever. We were expected to weigh in with our opinions and back them up. Around so much diversity of thought, it would sometimes get heated. Our parents always loved to stimulate our minds and thoughts. That upbringing fostered my work ethic. It gave me confidence in being able to articulate a point of view and back it up. My mantra is always have an opinion whether it’s welcomed or not.”
“Always remember your journey of learning will never end. Learning feeds the endless fascination about the various businesses you touch and how they operate and the people attached to them. In what other industry can you meet so many different people and businesses and kind of have an ownership in part of their success?”
“Throughout my career I have worked with brilliant industry leaders and not only were they supportive in growing my career, they were kind, generous and understanding. I have been fortunate, and from that learning is how I’ve tried to be as a leader and as a person.”
“Surround yourself with people smarter than you are and learn from them.”
“For me that started when I was 10, stuffing envelopes with hotel brochures and rate cards for my dad (a hotelier in Miami Beach). That was considered marketing. At the end of my first day, I got paid $1 and thought ‘Wow this is what I want to do.’ My father’s advice, which I have followed throughout my career, was that if you’re going to be in this industry, you have to work hard. I don’t think you can give your all 100% of the time unless you’re in love with what you do. I’m happy that there was never a day when I woke up and didn’t want to go to work.”
“There was never a time in my career that I could rest on my laurels and say I finally climbed to the top of the mountain. There just isn’t a top, ever, it just keeps going. That’s what makes it so exciting! I was fortunate to have so many great leaders throughout my career and diverse roles which gave me the opportunity to keep developing my leadership and knowledge skills. I sought out leaders who I’d learn from and who had a complete commitment to excellence. Because if they were going to be excellent, I would be excellent. It was always about excellence.”
“Sitting at a table with my team and partners and understanding what’s working and what isn’t re-enforces my belief that feedback is a gift. Sometimes you gotta swallow your pride. Your idea may be great or not so great but if you have an open environment you are all winners because of diversity of thought and everyone in the room feeling their opinion is valued. Take a shot and go for it. It doesn’t matter whose idea it is, we’re going to celebrate as a team. You’re never going to win every time. Take time out to celebrate the victories because it feels good — and don’t be afraid to examine your failures and say, “Hey, what could we have done differently?”
“That’s where the ethics and morals come in. Always do what’s right.”
“Be uncommon. It’s something I’ve always lived by. It only takes a little bit more effort to be extraordinary.”
“I love thrill rides and I’m a gamer. Those who can play the game win. If you’re not engaged it’s all but impossible to win. Engagement is a critical attribute that people need to have to be successful.”
One of our creative directors at the Disney Event Group, says it’s important to know the difference between heritage and tradition. Disney is a company with a rich heritage. And we have lots of traditions but one thing we have learned is that traditions can change but not the heritage. Heritage is who you are, how you present yourself and the culture you want to have. Traditions says we may have done it that way 10 years ago but we have to change how we do it today. Traditions evolve but heritage is your core.”
“Be a leader who can make decisions. Be accountable for your decision. It’s all about consistency. Disney has always had a diversity of leadership. The day I walked in I thought this is where I belong. My life has been touched deeply by Disney and the extraordinary people who are at its heart.”
“I delegate to my team. You can’t be a hover leader. Have the best people around you, support them so they are comfortable making the decision. You have to empower people or they are not going to grow. So many pieces and parts are moving so fast. You have to empower your people and then support them.”
“How you treat people and listening to them is important. If I have to leave work on a family matter I will pay that back to my leader 150% because he or she let me do what I needed to do. They supported me and that’s always paid back in the work effort. That was a big lesson for me.”
The unwelcome chapter in Anne’s life put her resilient spirit to the test and nearly broke her. It took all the inner strength she could muster but eventually she shook off the doubts and declared war on what a diagnosis turned up in 2017. Melanoma cancer.
“I was so sick, I couldn’t eat and was at the point of giving up,” Anne says. “Doubt was pulling me down. I had these ‘Why me?’ feelings.”
A revelation for her came during a visit to Lourdes, France, where faith holds that miracle healings can occur.
“There were 10,000 sick people like me,” Anne remembers. “They weren’t in a down place, they were celebrating life. And I found joy in those people and the realization that this is my life and I just need to learn how to life with it.” It all crystallized when my spiritual counselor sat me down and said, ‘Anne, you know how your story will end. How are you going to write the last chapter?’
“When you have a life-changing event you have two choices. You can roll up in a ball and go away or say, ‘You know what, I’m going to keep moving forward.’”
Anne returned from Lourdes determined to fight the disease.
“Three weeks later, my son Ian announced that I was going to be a grandmother. So miracles do happen!”
She is determined to write this chapter on her time and her terms.
“Whatever the doctors can learn from me they can make somebody else’s life better in the future. There will come a time when I can’t do what I want to do but until then I’m just going to keep moving forward.”
“I’m a fighter. Failure is not an option for me.”
With Anne Hamilton, was there ever a doubt?
“I hope my legacy is that I made a difference in people’s lives. That I inspired them in some way.” C&IT