Good Spirits: Ilona Tschopp

Text by Kassandra Bucher

She has an answer to everything, knows what to do in an emergency, and, frankly, swissnex San Francisco wouldn’t run without her. Who is Facilities and Operations Manager Ilona Tschopp?


Originally from Lucerne, swissnex San Francisco’s Ilona Tschopp discovered her passion for hospitality (in food and beverages in particular) at the early age of 14 when she worked as a waitress during Kantonsschule, the Swiss academic high school. At 18 she became a receptionist on a cruise ship. She enjoyed the freedom and never felt home sick at sea.

She continued to follow her passion and soon graduated with a bachelor’s degree in International Hospitality Management at the Ecole hôtelière de Lausanne (EHL). Although she loved it, she learned an important lesson during her studies: the hospitality industry isn’t all smiles all the time.

While working in the kitchen for an internship, the young student experienced the rough charm of a head chef. “When he shouted at you to jump, you had to jump within seconds or he would throw a knife at your feet,” she recalls.

She became fast, precise, smart, and nimble. All traits that she uses to this day, though usually knives aren’t being thrown.

Road to swissnex

In 2011 swissnex San Francisco gave a presentation at EHL while Ilona was a student there, and her interest was immediately awakened. Soon, she was headed to San Francisco to be the swissnex Hospitality Manager.

She quickly moved up the ranks and today, no one at swissnex can image what the office would be like without Ilona. She’s now responsible for event logistics, facilities management, accounting, and a million other tasks that keep the office humming and thriving (she also puts together an impressive Apero, or Happy Hour).

“Ilona is positioned precisely at the center of swissnex San Francisco, and none of us could do our jobs without her expert help,” says swissnex San Francisco’s Laura Erickson, Associate Director and Head of Finance and Operations. “She is the critical link between planning and execution.”

No Whining, Just Wine

As hard as Ilona works at swissnex San Francisco, she has an impressive suite of extra curricular activities. In fact, she’s also about to become a sommelier and a certified expert in wine and spirits.

Two years ago she started her training at the Wine & Spirit Education Trust (WSET), generally regarded as one of the world’s leading providers of wine instruction.

In the pursuit of her dreams, Ilona doesn’t shy away from shouldering burdens: She picks them up and runs with them. Every second weekend she boards a Greyhound bus on a Saturday evening and arrives in Los Angeles for classes on Sunday.

ilonaShe gets right back on the bus Sunday evening and heads straight to work Monday morning, where she’s always the first one in the office.

“Sleeping on the Greyhound isn’t the most comfortable, but it always works somehow,” she says humbly.

In one year Ilona must prove in the final exam that she is a real wine expert, recognizing 12 different wines in a blind tasting. Is it a 2008 Cabernet Sauvignon from Napa, for example, barrel aged for three years in new French oak?

She’ll also have to demonstrate her understanding of the cultivation of the grapes, how they are affected by environmental exposure, as well as AOC guidelines—a French certification that translates to “controlled designation of origin”. She recently organized an event at swissnex San Francisco about Climate Change and wine and how growing regions might be affected.

As in everything she does (and she does a lot even outside of work and school—she also attends a dozen networking events per month, the opera, online courses, safety trainings, workouts, and more), Ilona shows a vast commitment to her education in spirits.

“I try to study everyday up to an hour for the exam and meet up with fellow students every week at least once for a wine tasting in San Francisco,” she says.

The Guild

Ilona is about to become an official sommelier, part of a traditionally run guild and worldwide network that is still very male-dominated, although Ilona has never felt hindered by that.

“When you want to do something, you just do it no matter what other people think,” she says.

In the future, Ilona imagines working in a wine auction house or at a wine trade agency, or even as a cellar master to recommend wines to private buyers and collectors.

“You wouldn’t want to spend several thousand dollars on a bottle of wine that turns into acid after 10 years,” Ilona chimes pragmatically.

Exactly, Ilona. You always know what’s best.

Her hard work and expertise has made Ilona Tschopp truly indispensable to the whole swissnex San Francisco team. She gets better with each project she takes on. And, like a good wine, we appreciate her more and more all the time.