A Traveling Duet

This couple knows the power of being tuned in.

by Cal Workman

Nearly 16 years ago, husband-and-wife team Manfred Hilker and Jodi Breckenridge had an idea to take their mutual knowledge of travel and start leading tours. Music Contact International, their Burlington company, organizes music-related cultural exchange programs to and from the United States and helps non-professional choral groups find performance venues in far-away places.

Music Contact International is the expertise behind trips sponsored by nonprofits such as the Flynn Theatre and Vermont Public Radio. Sherri Rigby (left) and Theri Davis are assistant tour coordinators.

It's hard to believe McDonald's Germany would have anything in common with The American Morgan Horse Institute, but it does. Music Contact International organized custom travel tours for both groups, along with 700 other diverse organizations that run the gamut from soybean scientists to Bible Belt choirs. The tour for McDonald's top brass included visits to Idaho and Washington state in search of researchers developing "brick- shaped, blemish-free" potatoes. For members of The American Morgan Horse Institute on the other hand, the trip was a horse lover's dream come true that included seats at the Royal Windsor Horse Show and a private audience with the "studs in residence" at the Queen's Royal Mews at Buckingham Palace.

Orchestrating these grand excursions is Music Contact International's husband-and-wife team Manfred Hilker and Jodi Breckenridge, who are "having their cake and eating it, too," fulfilling their lifelong passion for travel, culture, music and international exchange.

Music Contact International, or MCI, is not your average tour operator. The Burlington company does not organize spring break vacations to Daytona Beach for sun-starved college sophomores. Rather, it specializes in cultural exchange programs for people with a love of music and a thirst for travel, discovery, culture and community.

The company represents official organizations like the Ministry of Ghana, The Association of Choirs in Northern Italy and the Cultural Affairs Department for the city of Vienna, which host invitational choir festivals. MCI serves as the organizer, promoter and voice of the festival. This year, 13 festivals are scheduled, including musical celebrations in Cuba, Italy, France, New Zealand, the Czech Republic and Austria. Under its new partnership with Stowe Performing Arts, MCI will stage The Vermont International Choir Festival in June. Nine choirs from across the country are scheduled to perform at The Trapp Family Lodge concert meadow accompanied by The Vermont Symphony Orchestra.

That, alone, might seem like a full-time enterprise, but MCI also packages custom tours for non-professional choral groups seeking enriching life experiences and performance venues in far-away places. Community orchestras, church choir groups, high school bands and other musical groups approach MCI with a desire to perform together outside the country. MCI delivers on wishes, matching performers with people and places abroad and creates once-in-a-lifetime programs designed to surpass expectations.

This same expertise is used to coordinate educational tours and cultural exchanges for non-performance groups, such as educational institutions and political, social and agricultural groups on a quest for knowledge or immersion in culture and practices in America or overseas.

Finally, MCI organizes trips presented by non-profit groups the Flynn Theatre, the Vermont Symphony Orchestra, Vermont Public Radio and many others. The company purposely takes the back seat in these programs, marketing them under the organization's brand name.

The tours must be "absolutely perfect," says Breckenridge. "The travelers have placed their trust in the organization, and it would be devastating for everyone if the trip was anything less than wonderful."

Music Contact International is the expertise behind trips sponsored by nonprofits such as the Flynn Theatre and Vermont Public Radio. Sherri Rigby (left) and Theri Davis are assistant tour coordinators.

The stakes are high. A non-profit organization puts its reputation on the line with each trip and must carefully match the excursion with the profile of its audience. It is worth the risk, however. Custom tours are an effective way to elevate image, build awareness and an appreciation of an organization's mission, and cement long-term relationships with potential donors.

When Mark Vogelzang, president and general manager of Vermont Public Radio, wanted to offer an excursion around his Sunday morning Bach program, he turned to MCI for help.

Hilker knew of a Bach festival scheduled for May in Leipzig and used this world-class performance event as the "entrance" or highlight of the trip. Hilker also went much further, making a special arrangement with the state librarian for a private showing of Bach's original manuscripts. Vermonters who share this experience will be among a sprinkling of people worldwide ever to view these exquisite testaments to Bach's life and work.

Vogelzang says VPR has enjoyed a long relationship with MCI. "Their team is well-rounded, informed, and brings tremendous experience in European affairs," he says. "There's a benefit for all of us as local and regional organizations to work together. We build on our strengths."

He makes the point, "Listening to the radio is an intimate, solitary experience. We wake up to VPR, listen to it in the car or at home. We want to create a bond with our listeners, whom we don't know yet, through a shared experience. We know there is an affinity among public radio listeners. They view themselves as outwardly oriented citizens of the world. On these tours, new friendships flourish. It feels like college alumni coming together."

VPR normally presents two trips a year tailored to destinations that connect listeners to radio personalities. In the past, Willem Lange traveled to Alaska and Robert Resnik, to Brittany. Each brought with him a dedicated and decidedly distinct following.

"We organized hikes on Lange's tour, but there isn't anything that rigorous on the Bach tour," says Breckenridge.

How does Music Contact International consistently pull off these feats? One key is built into the business name: "contact."

With more than 15 years immersed in music, cultural affairs and the travel industry, Hilker and Breckenridge seem to know everyone, from a budding young composer in France to the conductor of the National Choir of Cuba.

Breckenridge is more modest in this simple explanation. "We have a special talent for matching people with their counterparts abroad and providing a high level of experience and service," she says.

The other key to their success lies with their in-house staff of 11, two satellite offices one in England and one in Austria and a reciprocal relationship with 11 partner offices worldwide.

Breckenridge admits it's hard to hire for MCI. Most, if not all employees are bi- or tri-lingual, including Breckenridge and Hilker, who are fluent in German. Staff members do not hail from the travel industry ranks. These are scholars, linguists and former teachers, most with master's degrees in liberal arts subjects. They have either lived abroad or come with extensive personal travel experience. Surprisingly, most MCI employees are not "transplants," they're Vermonters.

"The German department at the University of Vermont has been very good to us, sending us a lot of people," says Hilker with a wide smile.

"It makes for a very interesting and wonderful group of people who work here," adds Breckenridge. "Our employees have to be very worldly because we work with such diverse clientele within the states, and they also have to have the patience, perseverance and sensitivity to work with other countries. It's a really demanding job best suited for people who can juggle a lot of balls in the air."

Account managers are put in charge of a complete project handling everything, Hilker says, from "design calculation, trip coordination and budgeting to the smallest details." The manager oversees a team of three who work closely together on a program. Teams plan one or two years in advance and typically work simultaneously on approximately 40 programs, each in a different stage of development. At the end of this labor-intensive process, the reward is to accompany a group as an escort. MCI always sends an American escort to share the experience with the group.

Hilker and Breckenridge no longer do a lot of the coordinating, though they attend the initial brainstorming session where the core program is identified and upon which the rest of the tour is built. Breckenridge primarily manages the Music Contact choral work, while Hilker focuses on non-choral groups and developing new product festivals. They share the task of financial planning and projections.

The two met appropriately enough while traveling. It was 1984 and Breckenridge, a New Jersey native, was an Outward Bound instructor on a ship called "Thor Heyerdahl" off the coast of northern Germany. Hilker, from East Friesland, Germany, was a teacher of marine biology on the ship. Following a romance at sea, they took a long trip across America and Mexico, and while they toured the countries together "we had this idea of what travel could be like, and that's where the first ideas for the company came from," says Hilker.

They started American Pioneer in 1986 out of an office in New York and later changed the name to Music Contact International. The first year, they offered two American cross-country tours and sold the itinerary and dates by "going door to door to travel agencies and tour operators throughout Europe," Hilker says. "Even then, people didn't just walk off the streets and sell a package like that, but miraculously it worked and people came."

"We had two vans, and Manfred and I each drove one," remembers Breckenridge. "One carried the people and their gear and the other van served as the chuck wagon. It held food, tents and a traveling library packed in milk crates."

They also created an extraordinary handbook that was loaded with not only the itinerary, but also helpful travel information, local customs and notes of historic, cultural and special interest. The handbooks proved to be a useful tool for the travelers and a popular keepsake. Customized handbooks are a tradition at MCI one that has since been adopted by other tour operators.

By 1990, Hilker and Breckenridge were ready to move out of the city. Their clients were everywhere. "A giant fax machine bought us our freedom," says Breckenridge with a smile. They searched for a self-sufficient city that had claim to an East Coast time zone and a decent airport.

"I attended UVM for a semester and remembered liking Burlington," says Breckenridge. "We came here together, and it was the exact profile of the city we were looking for. Burlington stands on its own two feet. It has its own cultural life. We love music, theater, sailing and skiing, and Burlington has it all. We've been really happy here."

Staff members do not hail from the travel industry ranks; they are scholars, linguists and former teachers. Paige Betten, seated, is an account manager, and Becky Bickerton, a tour coordinator.

The couple settled in Shelburne and had two children, Sidney and Lucas, now 11 and 6 years old respectively, "each with individual frequent-flier accounts" adds Hilker. The couple stagger their travel so both are not away from the children at the same time. They reserve certain trips, like a recent one to the Advent Sing in Vienna, as family trips.

Once in Burlington, MCI grew steadily to 26 employees by 2001 and expanded onto another floor in its South Winooski Avenue office building. All that changed on September 11.

"It devastated us," says Breckenridge. "We're very lucky to be here today. The next day the phones started ringing, and within a month everything was canceled except for two groups. Tours are unrefundable and we could have kept the money, but under the circumstances there was no way. We refunded everything."

With people's psyches so deeply affected, it was a long while before MCI could even suggest a trip. Meanwhile, no income was coming in, and eventually Breckenridge and Hilker had no choice but to lay off personnel.

"It was the worst thing I've ever experienced as an employer," says Breckenridge. "We have an incredibly close community in this office, so to even let go of one person was unheard of. We tried reduced vacations and pay freezes first, but we could only float for so long. Eventually we had to let more than half the staff go."

Hilker and Breckenridge say the tide turned in February with a growing national sentiment to get on with life. Today, the company is rebounding, but Breckenridge and Hilker worry about a possible conflict with Iraq.

"I don't think it will affect travel safety," says Breckenridge, "but it's all about public perception and consumer confidence."

She continues philosophically "Isn't travel one of the most important ways we can heal the world? The foundation of our company is to help people see how cultures connect. We know we are bringing the world together because we see minds opening on our trips. We feel so fortunate to be able to facilitate those moments. It's really very moving."

Originally published in February 2003 Business People-Vermont