Top 50 Smart Women of 2017 Winners

February 21, 2017 Zohaib Kahn

It’s never an easy task to make our annual selections for Smart Women Leaders, given that we receive hundreds of nominations and nearly all of them deserve serious consideration. But once again, after considerable deliberation, we’ve made our choices—this time 50 of them, doubling the number we had last year!

These women not only play significant professional roles in the meetings and events industry, but also have achieved excellence in their work. They go the extra mile and they find ingenious solutions to complex problems consistently.

Equally important, they feel a passion for their work that is readily apparent to colleagues, clients and everyone else they encounter. Where does this passion come from? Certainly, much of it comes from within, but the always-fascinating industry also feeds it.

“There is no routine and tremendous variety in our environment with each day and every event being one of a kind,” says Cara Banasch, senior vice president of business development and strategy for New Orleans Convention & Visitors Bureau, who was selected as one of the Industry Leaders. “It is still fascinating to watch all the complex moving pieces come together that is half science and half art. None of us have a single function; we all learn to have multiple specialties and roles that keep things interesting.

“Also, there is contagious energy at meetings with collective interest groups, which can be anything from neurosurgeons to waste-management experts to cat fanciers. You come away with an understanding and respect for so many realms you may never have even known existed.”

Let’s all salute this energetic, talented bunch—the 2017 Smart Women Leaders!


Industry Leaders




Rising Stars

Industry Leaders back

Cara Banasch

Job title: Senior vice president of business development and strategy

Company or organization: New Orleans Convention & Visitors Bureau

What I love about my job: New Orleans is a truly unique place that people connect with emotionally, through our culture and with a true spirit of hospitality. Everyone genuinely wants you to love their personal favorite part of the city and is incredibly generous in sharing that through our roles. I feel very grateful to learn every day from our extraordinary industry community.

First job: My first paying job was in sales at Sundance Ski Shoppe. I started in the industry, though, as a corporate sales manager at Fantasyland Hotel at West Edmonton Mall in Alberta, Canada.

Keys to my success: Learning from inside and outside the industry often allows me to blend concepts into different ideas. It’s been important to acknowledge realistically what are not my strengths and finding great people to help me fill the gaps and tell me when I am wrong. Most importantly, it has helped to have a few crazy friends, and remember to laugh.

Best work trick I’ve learned: To look for possibility in change.

Vicki Comegys

Job title: Vice president of conventions, sports and services

Company or organization: Greater Des Moines Convention & Visitors Bureau, Iowa

What I love about my job: I work on an amazing team that secures and executes meetings, conventions and sporting events for Greater Des Moines. I love being able to work with all different people and make a difference in my community. The work done at the CVB results in more exposure for the community, more visitors spending money locally, and showing more people that Greater Des Moines is awesome. I enjoy the opportunity to work with my peers across the country to make sure Des Moines is always working to be progressive in the industry. Thirty-one years ago, the CVB needed assistance with a big project. I jumped right in and have been addicted ever since!

First job: Adventureland Amusement Park in Des Moines, where I was the first female to work in the arcade.

Keys to my success: An incredible team of co-workers, my passion and [my commitment] to never stop learning from all of the people around me.

Best work trick I’ve learned: Get all the facts, have fun and practice patience.

Deborah Gardner

Job title: Owner and CEO

Company or organization: DG International LLC in Phoenix

What I love about my job: Helping companies and top performing teams become better with new ways of thinking about their challenges and opportunities. The times I’ve presented to the meetings industry are extra special because, as a hospitality veteran who understands what planners and suppliers do, I’m in a position to say it like it is…which is why my clients call me the Pitbull in a Skirt.

First job: A small independent resort property as an outside sales manager, going door to door and working out of my office, the trunk of my car that was full of brochures. Six months later, I was fired. Apparently, I was not a very good salesperson.

Keys to my success: For me, it’s realizing there are two things in life…results or excuses. To see the results, whether I’m negotiating, conducting programs or leading a training session, it’s important to always do my best. I’m my biggest competitor.

Best work trick I’ve learned: Big talk! I’m not good at small talk. So, I purposely prepare for more compelling, engaging and in-depth questions.

Iris Himert

Job title: Executive vice president

Company or organization: Long Beach Area Convention & Visitors Bureau, California

What I love about my job: Everything! I have been very fortunate to lead a very spirited, seasoned sales team and an amazing services team that consistently delivers white-glove service. I am very lucky to report and work closely with a CEO who is such a visionary and who has taught me so much. Every day is different and offers opportunities for additional learning and growth.

First job: I had a position in the catering department at Drake Hotel in Chicago. There, I learned the true essence of hospitality and I was trained to deliver the high level of customer service that was expected and for which the hotel was known.

Keys to my success: Success is no accident. It’s hard work, perseverance, passion and love for what you’re doing. It’s living by the saying “failure is not an option.”

Best work trick I’ve learned: Always learn from past mistakes, practice self-reflection and keep your ego firmly under lock and key.

Genifer Oliver

Job title: Director of sales and special events

Company or organization: Rangers Enterprises, for MLB’s Texas Rangers in Arlington,Texas

What I love about my job: First off, I have the most amazing team, which makes my job my happy place. Second of all, we have an incredible backdrop for any type of event. And lastly, who wouldn’t love calling Globe Life Park, home of the Texas Rangers baseball team, their office?

First job: Pizza Hut! Funny thing…I had just turned 16 and I went home to tell my mom that I had gotten a job, only to find out that her first job was also at Pizza Hut.

Keys to my success: First and foremost, I am a problem-solver by nature. I am constantly looking and evaluating everything around me to see what kind of improvements can be made, and then I jump into action! Secondly, I am truly passionate about what I do. I pour all that I have into it, and because of that, it has pushed my career and my success.

Best work trick I’ve learned: Flexibility! It is a necessity to success in the events industry. You have to be able to adjust your thoughts and change course quickly in order to better accommodate different interests.

Kate Patay

Job title: Chief brand officer

Company or organization: Creative Coverings in Sparks, Nevada

What I love about my job: I love that I get to work with not only the best team here at Creative Coverings, but also amazing meeting and event professionals from all segments of our industry on a daily basis. I’m fortunate to be connecting with the best in our industry to put on fantastic live events for clients from all walks [of life].

First job: When I was 15 I worked on a dairy farm in Western New York. It was the goal of my mother that I would learn the value of a dollar and what hard work really means. It worked.

Keys to my success: I’ve learned to surround myself with strong, positive people. I also believe in taking the high road and always doing the right thing, even when the right thing isn’t the easiest thing. Learning to be open to new ideas, direct in my approach, honest and ask for what I want have been key in this journey.

Best work trick I’ve learned: I save so much time every day by answering my emails and texts from my earbuds. I’m a fast typist, but I’m much quicker when I talk.

Pamela Payne

Job title: Senior regional director of group sales

Company or organization: NAMResorts in Katy, Texas

What I love bout my job: After 26 years in the industry, I never considered that this dream I am living had any relation whatsoever to the word “job.” I feel blessed that what I experienced through travel is so beyond the imagination of 90 percent of the population.

First job: Whataburger! My special talent was chocolate shakes. In the industry, I started as a leisure travel agent after college designing group tours to sell to consumers through advertising in the Houston Chronicle.

Keys to my success: My dad taught me to work hard and never give up. I was fired from several jobs when I was starting out in my early 20s, but somehow the next job I got was always better. The greatest pearl of wisdom to impart to the next generation of travel planners is work hard and keep the passion alive.

Best work trick I’ve learned: “Pack & roll.” Smooth and roll your clothes for each day and evening of your trip as tight as you possibly can without wrinkling, unpack and hang as soon as you arrive to the hotel and then reroll and repack after each use.

Jeanne Robb

Job title: Director of global corporate events

Company or organization: Cisco Systems in San Jose, California

What I love about my job: My team, the people at Cisco and the challenges we face every day. We are fortunate to partner across many departments, and work closely with our executive leadership team, as well. I’m passionate about incorporating storytelling, data and the use of technology to enable the customer journey. I encourage my team to take risks and push themselves to be uncomfortable, and to always have the customer or attendee’s point of view as their lens.

First job: I received my K-8 credential and was a substitute teacher before taking my first real job at a small dental, medical laser company.

Keys to my success: Values-based management. People come first; my team is the most important aspect of my job, no matter what else is on my plate. I’m also good at cutting through the clutter and focusing on the outcome of the event.

Best work trick I’ve learned: Active listening…also known as literally sitting on my hands (as I tend to use them quite a bit in my conversations). I use my camera for remote meetings. I try to ignore my IM when on calls and strive to be attentive while not interrupting.

Lynne K. Tiras

Job title: President and owner Company or organization: International Meeting Managers (IMM) in Houston

What I love about my job: I love new challenges and am most gratified at the end of a meeting or event when our clients are pleased and our staff feels good about a job well done. I am so proud of my IMM Team.

First job: At age 9, I ran my own baby-sitting business, charging neighborhood mothers $1 a day in the summer. At 15, I worked Thursday evenings and Saturdays managing a section of a ladies’ department store in downtown Dallas.

Keys to my success: Our industry is all about relationships. I have been fortunate to build and maintain strong relationships with clients, vendors, hoteliers and colleagues over the years. Honesty and respect go a long way. We have the ability to manage everything from the smallest event to a presidential event attended by thousands, offering the same attention to detail.

Best work trick I’ve learned: Thinking “outside the box” and making quick judgment calls is a skill that a good professional meeting manager learns quickly to move forward in the meetings industry.

MaryAnne Zoldak

Job title: Senior vice president of people and development

Company or organization: Maritz Global Events in Philadelphia

What I love about my job: I love that I am an architect on a team that has embarked on a cultural journey to influence and create a transformational experience for all of the humans that we touch. I love working in an industry that thrives on creating an impact on business results through the power of people, rather than an analytical report.

First job: Boston Harbor Parks ranger.

Keys to my success: I feel that being willing and able to not only adapt but also embrace, where appropriate, the changes that are constantly occurring has been instrumental in my career. In addition, the willingness and courage to experiment and try new things even when they haven’t yet been tested is very important. Another thing has been the willingness to stop, change course or admit failure if something isn’t working.

Best work trick I’ve learned: For me, learning to listen to the ideas of people who think differently than I do has been a great lesson.

Ann K. Bruttell

Job title: President and founder

Company or organization: Meeting Coordinators Inc. in Troy, Michigan

What I love about my job: I am privileged to work with a terrific staff and have premier clients. Every day brings new and exciting learning opportunities. I love the diversity that association and meeting management affords me and my team. We learn from each client and can share best practices for the benefit of all.

First job: Michigan was my home, but I was recruited to work in Washington, D.C., to become a logistics expert with the government. After a four-year assignment, I was tapped to work for a prestigious association-management firm in D.C. What a training ground!

Keys to my success: Success is just one meeting at a time and treating every client like they are the only client. I could not do any of this on my own. I have a very tight and intelligent team. One process for us is that every person is cross-trained on each of our clients. They must know the basics should extra hands be needed on deck.

Best work trick I’ve learned: I don’t know if there are really any tricks. You realize that every problem has a solution and that panic never, ever helps.

Entrepreneurs back

Sharon Bonner

Job title: CEO and president

Company or organization: Bright Ideas Events in Vancouver, British Columbia What I love about my job: There are so many that the list is endless. I love producing a variety of different events with different themes. One of my favorite steps in the event-planning process is the beginning, where everything is a blank canvas just waiting for creativity to be born. I love creating an actual event out of one of my ideas.

First job: My first big-event job was in 1990 with Microsoft out of Redmond, Washington. They had purchased a Canadian company in Vancouver, British Columbia, and asked me to plan a boat cruise where employees could meet and network.

Keys to my success: Aside from the obvious traits of multitasking, good time- management skills and being very detail-oriented, being honest and personable are important keys to my success. Another key is relationship building. A good relationship will last through the decades, whether it’s with a supplier, client or event personnel.

Best work trick I’ve learned: To use basic templates for everything to ensure streamlined cohesive communication and messaging from our business while saving time.

Patricia Durocher

Job title: Founder and CEO Company or organization: Global Cynergies in Scottsdale, Arizona

What I love about my job: The multifaceted nature of being a hands-on entrepreneur in a global marketplace. There is something new every day. Working with professionals in over 25 countries brings a priceless diversity and strength to the company. There is tremendous satisfaction in seeing our team members find success.

First job: The summer when I was 13, I worked on a tobacco farm in Connecticut. That was hard work and a good incentive to get an education.

Keys to my success: People: mentors, authors, supporters, encouragers, family, staff. People who believe in your vision and catch your passion. You can’t do it alone; you need the right team in place to help you climb the hill.

Best work trick I’ve learned: There really aren’t any tricks. It’s about hard work, perseverance, staying focused and disciplined. My faith plays a big role in what we do, why we do it and how we operate. I’ve learned to treat people with respect without labels, be a lifelong learner, never ask someone to do something you wouldn’t do yourself, and do the right thing even when it costs.

Maureen Ryan Fable

Job title: CEO Americas in New York City

Company or organization: FIRST

What I love about my job: Creating opportunities, both internally and externally. Being at the helm of FIRST, an agency that has been constantly growing, especially over the past five-plus years, means creating job opportunities. From that, relationships and friendships are formed, both with clients and colleagues, which will create lasting memories. I love getting our team excited about these opportunities and showing them how business growth also means personal growth, expansion of skills, and new and exciting projects.

First job: My first job was as a receptionist at Kathryn Schenker Associates, a public relations firm that represented artists such as Sting, Branford Marsalis and Lou Reed.

Keys to my success: Having a passion for what I do, being compassionate and being a loyal employer. Integrity in business has consistently been a central focus for me. I’ve always looked out for my team and surrounded myself with the best of the best. I always strive to be better each day and aim to infuse that same level of excellence to my team.

Best work trick I’ve learned: Bring to life the “work hard, play hard” philosophy.

Allie Magyar

Job title: CEO

Company or organization: Hubb Inc. in Vancouver, Washington

What I love about my job: Leading the strategic vision of how event technology can disrupt the meetings industry. I love being able to help meeting planners envision how technology can save time with their processes and showcase the value of events in moving their businesses forward.

First job: My dad taught me at a young age what it meant be an entrepreneur. He gave me the opportunity at age 8 to build first-aid kits for his company for 25 cents a piece.

Keys to my success: I feel fortunate to have had an amazing team of co-workers, mentors and coaches that have helped push me throughout my career; a strong team is always a large part of shared success. I’ve always found that listening well, being open to feedback and being willing to work hard for what you want will take you on a journey that results in success.

Best work trick I’ve learned: To be a great collaborator. I’ve found that the power of team is the most powerful trick that you can have in your toolbox.

Kelly Roberts

Job title: Owner, vice chairman and chief operating officer

Company or organization: The Mission Inn Hotel & Spa in Riverside, California; president of Casey’s Cupcakes

What I love about my job: My job allows me to be creative with memorable guest experiences and strategic with running a business. It’s the perfect balance of two distinct but related passions. I work with an incredible team, from the front desk to the back of house, which works tirelessly to execute programming that stays ahead of the curve.

First job: I started investing in real estate and began my road to entrepreneurship.

Keys to my success: Having an active role in the community through charitable programs and business organizations has helped me stay in tune with the needs of the area. This personal investment outside of the hotel sparks creative ideas for guests and inspires ways to better connect with and take care of my staff.

Best work trick I’ve learned: I’ve learned to enrich my life with a variety of experiences. Whether collaborating with a nonprofit or traveling to new destinations, these influences all help me better run a hotel both in terms of coming up with innovative guest experiences and fostering a talented and willing team.

Polly Rossi

Job title: President

Company or organization: Meeting Achievements in Valparaiso, Indiana

What I love about my job: I love the fast-paced environment in that nothing ever stays the same. Every event is different, and reinventing the wheel is part of our fantastic journey as event organizers. I truly love working with course directors of medical meetings, knowing that we help train thousands to impact the lives of millions by helping clients create memorable events.

First job: I was raised on a farm, so my first job was as a farmhand. My first job that provided a paycheck was softball umpire.

Keys to my success: I am very strategic and analytical. One of my strengths is being an ally, a great listener and someone whose integrity shines. I can help you determine what your needs are when you feel overwhelmed.

Best work trick I’ve learned: For me, it’s block and tackle. With so many moving wheels going on for so many different programs, it’s about learning to be time-sensitive and only working on certain programs throughout the day.

Heather Sharpe

Job title: Event producer Company or organization: Sherpa Group Events Inc. in Vancouver, British Columbia.

What I love about my job: Event management gives me the opportunity to balance the joy of the creative process with the satisfaction of executing the logistical and detailed aspects of the profession. I love joining together with a team for that onsite experience of “the show must go on” and overcoming challenges as they arise.

First job: My first job in the event industry was as stage manager for a musical performance.

Keys to my success: My success comes from maintaining a positive, passionate attitude and loving what I do. This industry isn’t for everyone, and if you aren’t loving what you are doing, it shows.

Best work trick I’ve learned: It’s important to create reliable processes and procedures for collaboration and organization that will not fail you when you get busy, and focus on clear and timely communication with your team—use emerging technology systems to support both.

Hillary Smith

Job title: Partner

Company or organization: Koncept Events in Fort Lauderdale, Florida

What I love about my job: I love the variety and chaos that comes with being inspired and challenged daily. It’s great to feel valued and like I’m contributing to something bigger than me. I live for finding the aha! component that will impact or resonate with a group.

First job: My first job was at a Dairy Queen and ironically, as was my business partner, Angie Nelson. When we have hard days, it’s the first place we go, straight to the classic dipped cone and a Blizzard.

Keys to my success: Both Angie and I have found success by trusting our gut and each other while enjoying and embracing the crazy that is business ownership. We are passionate about moving our company forward and make sure to surround ourselves with talent and vendors who are smarter than us. There is also lot to be said about actually listening to our clients and consistently doing really great work at a fair price. We always treat others as we would want to be treated. It all comes back to you.

Best work trick I’ve learned: As an entrepreneur, “marrying up” by choosing Angie as the right business partner and hiring a coach have been key.

Christine Stoffel

Job title: Founder and CEO Company or organization: SEAT, LLC (Sports & Entertainment Alliance in Technology); SEAT Global Magazine LLC; Silicon Sports LLC in Scottsdale, Arizona

What I love about my job: The friendships I have developed across the world because of starting and growing SEAT is my most treasured part of my job and my journey. The fact that hundreds of my sports friends across the globe trust me to share with me their life challenges, their vision and their life goals, and to know in my heart that at times I have had a profoundly positive impact on their lives. What I love about my job is making a difference in people’s lives.

First job: Junior in high school, lifeguard at Champions Family Fitness Club in Lafayette, Louisiana, for $3.31 an hour.

Keys to my success: Never take anything for granted; be gracious and kind to those around you and be a good friend who listens, no matter how busy I am. Relationships are the most important thing in life—it is the key to a great life journey.

Best work trick I’ve learned: I’ve found that living my life with integrity and full transparency will grow trust with customers, staff, family, friends and everyone around you.

Carrie Abernathy, CPM, CEM, CSEP

Job title and organization: President and co-founder of Association for Women in Events (AWE) and director of education, training and events, Practice Greenhealth in Denver

What I love about my job: I love logistics, planning and the pressure of event management. I am a lifer in this industry. It really is my passion. As president of AWE, I love seeing how passionate our board and members are about the organization. I have really enjoyed building something from the ground up and watching the events industry embrace the vision and community. The work that we are doing to create a positive and safe community for women in business is truly fulfilling.

First job: Event manager specializing in Department of Defense, intelligence community and federal government events.

Keys to my success: Surrounding myself with incredible people.

Best work trick I’ve learned: For me, it is all about having an organized personal space. My home office is very organized and clean, so I can focus on event chaos and the job at hand.

Innovators back

Tracy Blair

Job title: Director of sales and marketing

Company or organization: Sheraton Denver Downtown Hotel

What I love about my job: I enjoy the art of the sales process and meeting execution. Building award-winning sales teams through coaching and mentoring is so important to me, especially seeing the huge talent and potential my team has. I want my team to love what they do, and I am here to guide them as they grow in their careers. I also really enjoy developing and implementing strategies to out-hustle the competition and exceed expectations.

First job: Server in a small German restaurant in Pennsylvania.

Keys to my success: Staying true to my core values of leading with integrity and creating a culture of trust by consistently leading by example with both actions and words. I am driven by a focused passion to take risks and expect success.

Best work trick I’ve learned: It’s important to do the right thing for the right reasons. You then will consistently make the best decision with the information available.

Michele DeClerck, CMP

Job title: President and founder

Company or organization: Conference Event Management in West Des Moines, Iowa

What I love about my job: I love to see the pride my team takes in their work and the creative ideas they come up with to create value for each client’s events. I also implemented some professional collaboration benefits, and I am excited to help my team grow, which ultimately results in even better client events.

First job: I became a newspaper carrier when the neighborhood boy was removed from his position. From that job on, I have tackled challenges and opposition as I developed a ferocious passion for equality.

Keys to my success: Listen! Ask the right questions, and take time to listen. Perseverance and dedication are keys for any successful woman business owner, as well as not allowing stereotypes to create a barrier to success. Give back to the community and do the right thing.

Best work trick I’ve learned: I use rigor and discipline to help me stay focused on the highest priorities to enable me to leave at the end of the day. It’s impossible to get everything done, and this is the only way I find peace with myself for pushing some items aside.

Dalia El Gazzar

Job title: Tech evangelist and idea igniter

Company or organization: Dahlia+ in Boston

What I love about my job: I love the eureka moments that our audience experiences when they realize that tech solutions, apps or workarounds can transform the way they work on a daily basis. I love the hugs and high-fives we get at our tech bars and social media lounges, and the “shut the front door” moments during the sessions I do at conferences.

First job: Internal marketing manager at a five-start resort in the Red Sea, Egypt.

Keys to my success: My team, my curiosity, my tribe, my stubbornness for not taking no for an answer and my family.

Best work trick I’ve learned: I learned about brain writing with Seth Godin. In brain writing, your team writes down their ideas before a meeting instead of brainstorming out loud at a meeting. When everyone comes together to share those ideas, they do so out loud and in a systematic way. You post all the ideas on a wall, in no certain order or sequence, and the discussion or voting starts then.

Cheryl Gentry

Job title: Founder and CEO Company or organization: Glow Global Events in New York City

What I love about my job: As a global citizen, my work allows me to travel. Our team has managed events on five of the seven continents: Asia, Africa, North America, South America and Europe. Antarctica and Australia are still within reach for us.

First job: Front desk/registration at JW Marriott Washington, D.C. I learned so much about people there.

Keys to my success: Creating great experiences. I am constantly researching, brainstorming and focusing on scenarios to make great experiences happen. I also stay on top of industry trends and attend event-industry trade shows all over the world. I am reminded of a quote by Maya Angelou: “Success is liking yourself, liking what you do and liking how you do it.”

Best work trick I’ve learned: It’s important to set a timer so you’re devoted and super focused, with uninterrupted time for one task. Also, always anticipate your plan B. Something can happen unexpectedly. I learned early on to have an event kit. It’s no secret, but every event planner should have Velcro and black gaffer’s tape in their bags.

Reina Herschdorfer

Job title: Director of marketing

Company or organization: Caesars Entertainment in Las Vegas

What I love about my job: Caesars has an amazing and caring culture, and I am lucky to have a wonderful leader in Michael Massari, our chief marketing officer. In my current role, I have the chance to be strategic and creative in an industry I love. Marketing is multifaceted. I touch everything that we do, from media to ads to events, while working hand-in-hand with our sales team.

First job: My first job was in guest relations, taking care of VIPs. I enjoyed building relationships and taking care of customers, but I wanted to be in sales.

Keys to my success:

My passion and my desire to continuously grow. It’s so important to go after what you want and build bridges and relationships along the way. You can’t do it over; go after your dreams and your goals.

Best work trick I’ve learned: When it comes to work, I am very clear on what the objectives are. Your objectives become your road map. Plan the work and work the plan. Be open-minded and work collaboratively. Ask for help when you need it.

Viil Lid

Job title: Co-founder

Company or organization: MeetingSift in San Francisco

What I love about my job: I love designing tools to help people collaborate at meetings. I love it even more when people find ways to use our technology that we hadn’t even thought of. Every week I talk to smart people with extensive meeting-planning and facilitation experience who share their perspectives and insights.

First job: My first job related to the meeting industry was to help plan and organize academic conferences, as a college freshman.

Keys to my success: Having insight into group psychology, personality types and individual motivators helps me understand the dynamics of meetings. Every meeting needs some shared goal and plan in place to guide the group toward a successful outcome. Without structure, a meeting is just a group of individuals wasting time together.

Best work trick I’ve learned: Discussions are often dominated by one or a few individuals. It can be challenging to make sure all voices get to be heard. We solve this problem using collaborative technologies that provide real-time visualizations of everyone’s ideas, input and opinions. It not only engages all participants, but also causes dominating personalities to share the spotlight.

Annie Senatore

Job title: CEO and creative director
Company or organization: Foundry Crew in Hyattsville, Maryland

What I love about my job: No day is the same as the last. I get to interact with all types and levels of people, and I am able to engage my creative side every day of the week.

First job: Sign painter

Keys to my success: I came to the United States as an immigrant and went from de- thorning roses for $5 an hour to building a company of two into one with more than 75 employees. I played a part at the opening events for the National Museum of African American Culture on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. It was an honor for me to be invited to participate. The keys to my success are not being afraid to work hard or to try something new, even if it might fail; doing whatever is needed to make something happen; and being able to juggle the details of moving back and forth between multiple events and clients.

Best work trick I’ve learned: Always meet in person. Talking on the phone or via email or text is no alternative to one-on-one interaction when you are working through the details.

Heather Reid

Job title: Founder and CEO

Company or organization: Planner Protect in Delaware, Ontario

What I love about my job: Using my specialized knowledge to negotiate venue contracts that protect event hosts from undue risk and financial exposure, and to set their events up for success, is what excites me most. After 22-plus years as an independent planner, I created Planner Protect to share this specialized knowledge across our industry.

First job: After graduate school, my first professional position was working as an environmental scientist for an energy corporation and participating in the environmental assessment of the potential disposal of nuclear fuel waste in the Canadian Arctic.

Keys to my success: The key words that I believe underwrite my success are ethical, fair, honest and transparent. Making decisions and working within the boundaries of these personal characteristics has allowed for longevity and prosperity in this industry.

Best work trick I’ve learned: Knowing the right questions to ask is key to achieving a balanced venue contract. Also, read every venue contract thoroughly three times: once to familiarize yourself with the intent of the contract; second, to find and flag issues and concerns; and third, to determine what’s missing.

Pauline White

Job title: Marketing manager Company or organization: Dun & Bradstreet in Atlanta

What I love about my job: People! The company encourages us to be relentlessly curious. I am able to work with various team members within our organization. Partnering with sales, marketing, legal and finance provides a wide range of exposure to different parts of the organization. I also love finding solutions for everyday challenges, and having these relationships certainly helps me maneuver through them.

First job: My very first job was dancing with the Nashville Ballet.

Keys to my success: I attribute a lot of my success to the mentors and leaders I have been fortunate enough to work with throughout my career. Each has inspired me to consistently learn more, do more and become more.

Best work trick I’ve learned: Taking care of my health, eating right and getting proper sleep is the best work trick I’ve learned. Although it might seem obvious, these things are especially important when you are onsite at an event in order to keep your energy up and manage stress.

Vickie Corder

Job title: Senior director of global accounts

Company or organization: HelmsBriscoe in Jacksonville, Florida

What I love about my job:

As an independent contractor, I am the captain of my own ship. I love negotiating great value for my clients and seeing their programs through to successful conclusions. As the industry leader, HelmsBriscoe provides great tools and resources that support our work. We can have a client anywhere in the world and book hotels anywhere in the world, and I love working with our global network of colleagues.

First job: During my senior year of high school, I worked as a stagehand for the Windmill Dinner Theatre in Dallas. It was great fun to be part of the productions and to meet some top actors and actresses on the circuit.

Keys to my success: Integrity, transparency and diplomacy.

Best work trick I’ve learned: Always play by the golden rule. Always try to see situations from the perspective of others and work to find creative solutions that work for all parties.

Doers back

Kimberly Greene

Job title: Lead associate for events and strategic market development

Company or organization: Booz Allen Hamilton in McLean, Virginia

What I love about my job: I love thinking about meetings and events as a key strategic offering within our overall marketing and business development plans. It’s not just about logistics anymore, but about how we can be strategic and find new ways to engage with our target audience. We have to engage beyond just the day of the event.

First job: My first job within the meetings and events industry was an internship within the marketing and events department at the United States Olympic Committee. After college, I started as a conference concierge at The Ritz-Carlton in Washington, D.C. I had never even visited D.C. before I decided to move there.

Keys to my success: Build great relationships! This industry is all about relationships. The industry and its reach are very large, but it’s definitely a small world. You never know when you will cross paths again. I’ve also been able to make event miracles happen through those key relationships and people you can always count on.

Best work trick I’ve learned: Surround yourself with a team of people whose strengths complement you and one another.

Gretchen Hall

Job title: President and CEO Company or organization: Little Rock Convention & Visitors Bureau (LRCVB) in Arkansas

What I love about my job: The relationships, the variety of projects and the pace of the job. I never live the same day twice. Between our facility management, and sales and marketing initiatives, I love the variety. Tourism is the state’s second-largest economic industry and LRCVB is an integral part of virtually all quality-of-life projects and economic-development initiatives within the city.

First job: My first job was working for a national basketball organization, managing amateur tournaments. I handled everything from scheduling to coaching disputes. The job taught me logistics, time management and conflict resolution.

Keys to my success: Surround yourself with great people, be willing to do some heavy lifting and do whatever it takes to get the job done.

Best work trick I’ve learned: Hire smart, hardworking individuals with the right attitude over specific experience.

Andrea Kasnic

Job title: Director of sales and marketing

Company or organization: Hyatt Regency Chicago

What I love about my job: I love that I have the opportunity to mentor and coach every day. The relationships I’ve developed over the years have helped strengthen me as a leader. I’ve been lucky to work with some amazing colleagues, and to see their success as directors of sales within the industry is very rewarding. I enjoy the challenges and pace that come with a large convention property. Each day presents a new situation, and it excites me to work with our team to find creative solutions.

First job: Corporate management trainee at Hyatt Regency O’Hare. I truly found a passion for the hospitality industry. It really excites me to engage with our customers and to know the impact our department has on the success of the entire hotel.

Keys to my success: Be committed and passionate about everything you do—set high expectations and don’t go half way.

Best work trick I’ve learned: Have the following day organized before you leave the office the night before.

Carmen Lozada

Job title: Regional director of sales

Company or organization: Barcelo Hotel Group in Hampton, Virginia

What I love about my job: The most enjoyable aspect of my job is the opportunity to build relationships and connections with a diverse group of people. I also love serving others, developing and training leaders, and learning about different views through my travels.

First job: My first job in the hotel industry was as an accounting clerk in the San Juan Hotel & Casino in Puerto Rico. I wore a suit on my first day of the internship—they knew I meant business and immediately hired me.

Keys to my success: Maintaining a positive attitude, effective communication, networking, perseverance and taking the time to do it right from the start have been essential elements to success in my life. Also, appreciating the value of people at all levels of an organization. Everyone’s job is important to overall success.

Best work trick I’ve learned: The most valuable lesson has been learning to listen, to hear and to understand people instead of responding.

Jill Stark, CCTE, CGMP, CMM

Job title: Senior conference planner

Company or organization: Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in California

What I love about my job: Ever since I was a young girl, planning neighborhood carnivals and birthday parties, I’ve had a passion for planning events. No. 1 for me is interacting with my clients and industry partners. In addition, event planners are in the creativity business. I love incorporating my creativity into my work. Creative people believe in the possibility of the impossible. I am consistently challenged to learn more, do more and share more.

First job: EG&E Energy Measurements—I was formerly a United States national defense contractor and provider of management and technical services.

Keys to my success: I believe that if we all really take the time to invest in ourselves—our work ethic, discipline, perseverance, strengths and areas of improvement—then we can influence a much greater value to our team, colleagues and peers.

Best work trick I’ve learned: Mobile apps! To simplify my complicated workflow and stay organized, there is no better friend than the Evernote app.

Annette Suriani

Job title: Chief meeting strategist

Company or organization: AMS Meetings Solutions in Fairfax, Virginia

What I love bout my job: Because I am an independent planner, I love the ability to work with groups that I feel passionate about. I understand—even believe in their mission and want to help advance it. I enjoy working with a diverse group of people and seeing something build from just a concept.

First job: My first job was working at Photo Drive Thru in high school and my early college years. Good thing I didn’t make that my career—so few people use cameras and develop film any more. My first industry job was with the Cosmetic, Toiletry and Fragrance Association.

Keys to my success: “Whatever it takes to get the job done” is my philosophy. I may not know everything, but I usually know people who know what I don’t.

Best work trick I’ve learned: I’ve discovered that there are no tricks in what we do. It’s all about focus, working with people and delivering an outstanding product.

Carla Trine

Job title: Senior sales executive

Company or organization: Gaylord Palms Resort & Convention Center in Kissimmee, Florida

What I love about my job: The amazing people I get to work with both at the hotel and in my market. I’ve developed some great friendships along the way.

First job: Front desk agent Keys to my success: Being sincere and kind. I believe people can tell when you are sincere about doing the right thing, for the right reasons. Being kind to everyone. Well, because that’s just what you should always do. I started at an entry-level job in the industry and I always remember that it takes everyone in the building, from housekeeping to the dishwasher, doing their part to make each meeting a big success.

Best work trick I’ve learned: In building relationships, being transparent and sincere has been my greatest tool. When you are honest and open with your teammates, clients and co-workers, it makes taking care of sticky situations that may arise much easier.

Kira Wisniewski

Job title: Director of operations

Company or organization: National Women’s Studies Association (NWSA) in Baltimore What I love about my job: My team is my favorite part of my job! The total staff at NWSA is a team of three. Our size allows us to be nimble. And since our squad is so small, it enables me to have direct interaction with our members.

First job: My first job was working retail at the mall. At the University of Miami, I kept a retail job at Urban Outfitters, along with a full course load, a work study, an internship and a board position at the college radio station. Being involved with that array of activities and commitments honed my time-management and organizational skills, and gave me early exposure to working with a variety of people. All are skills I rely on in meeting planning.

Keys to my success: Time management, organization and ability to add fun.

Best work trick I’ve learned: My antidote to procrastination is a tip from Ernest Hemingway: “The shortest answer is doing the thing.”

Melisa Zackery

Job title: CEO and founder

Company or organization: Unlimited Possibilities Co. in Washington, D.C.

What I love about my job: I am in the industry of people. This is definitely not a job, but my life’s passion. I love meeting and engaging with people from all over the world and being able to create an event that they will enjoy and form lasting memories.

First job: My first job was in high school, where I was a peer educator who spoke to youth in group homes or in the juvenile system about making wise decisions and living healthy.

Keys to my success: With over 13 years being in the meeting industry, I believe the keys to my success have been to love what I do, be persistent, to always be open to learn, to grow and to listen more than I talk. Your clients will always tell you what they want, if you know what questions to ask and how to listen.

Best work trick I’ve learned: I wouldn’t consider this a trick but I make it a point to be solution-oriented and always be honest and transparent through the whole process. Our goal is to get the job done, and I am never too “big” to do the smallest job to make sure it happens.

Jorah Anderson

Job title: Director of sales

Company or organization: Travaasa Experiential Resorts: Travaasa Hana on Maui in Hawaii and Travaasa Austin (soon to be Miraval Austin) in Texas

What I love about my job: I love all of the people: clients, employees, co-workers, partners and vendors. Connecting with people gives me energy. I’m a firm believer that people can tell when you love what you do.

First job: Technically, selling candy on the school bus in fifth grade. My first job in hospitality was as an intern at a hotel in the Virgin Islands. I was drawn to the destination, but I realized how powerful connecting with people can be. From that point on, I was hooked.

Keys to my success: My mentor taught me to make decisions based on humility and integrity, not pride or popularity. I believe that to be a good leader, it’s important to realize that social capital is just as valuable as, if not more than, actual capital. The most important key is having an amazing team around me.

Best work trick I’ve learned: Let your freak flag fly. Be your authentic, flawed, ridiculous, awkward self, and you’ll be just fine. Also, lunchtime meditation breaks.

Rising Stars back

Kalee Barnhardt

Job title: National sales manager

Company or organization: Experience Columbus in Ohio

What I love about my job: I love the travel associated with my job. I am able to travel to Washington, D.C., each month, along with the numerous trade shows Experience Columbus attends throughout the year. This gives me the opportunity to grow professionally and personally through attending the various workshops and meeting so many different types of people.

First job: Sales assistant at Experience Columbus.

Keys to my success: Surrounding myself with wonderful mentors who give me a perfect balance of encouragement and tough love. They always push me to be the best version of myself personally and professionally, continually reminding me that the keys to success are always having a desire to learn and remaining humble.

Best work trick I’ve learned: To not overthink things or re-create the wheel. Sometimes we want to make things more complicated than they need to be, or we have meetings about meetings. By knowledge-sharing among the different departments at Experience Columbus, our sales efforts are more streamlined and effective.

Lydia Blanchard

Job title: Sales manager

Company or organization: Fairmont Chateau Laurier in Ottawa, Ontario

What I love about my job: The meetings industry is all about people, travel and innovation. I am an extrovert by every definition of the word, so I love that my job is all about bringing people together to meet, inspire each other, learn something new and ultimately change the world.

First job: My very first job was as an umpire for Softball Ontario when I was 12 to 14 years old. No matter what call I made, I could only make half of the people around me happy.

Keys to my success: Being positive, being thankful and having so many incredible people in my life who have helped to get me to where I am today are the three most prevailing elements.

Best work trick I’ve learned: If there is one piece of advice that I could give to anyone who is just starting out in the industry, it would be to join organizations like Meetings Professionals International (MPI) and volunteer. Put your skills to work to gain experience and try something you’ve never done before to learn something new.

Alie Broussard

Job title: Convention development manager

Company or organization:

The Woodlands Convention & Visitors Bureau in Texas

What I love about my job: I love my amazing team, which I am able to work with every day. I love trying out new and innovative ways to market our destination to potential meeting planners. I also love working with our hotels in The Woodlands on a daily basis to gain more knowledge of their expectations for meetings and conventions.

First job: My first job in the meetings industry was as a logistics intern with Tales of the Cocktail in New Orleans. I planned and executed two events for the festival. It was a challenging and amazing experience. I learned that if I stay organized and determined, I can conquer anything.

Keys to my success: I would say being organized is a huge key to my success. I pride myself on staying on top of deadlines or even getting ahead of them. I have also learned that I cannot control everything that happens, and it is best to let some situations work out on their own.

Best work trick I’ve learned: To not sweat the small stuff. Everything won’t always be perfect. Dealing with that is part of learning and growing in my career and as a person.

Maria Rosa A. Donado

Job title: Senior event manager

Company or organization: Inc. in New York City

What I love about my job: I love that I have the chance to interact with employees from all levels and departments of the organization. I receive regular feedback from our C-level executives on the visions and goals that they have for our events, and feel valued and respected when they ask me for my opinions and trust my recommendations.

First job: I was a server at a yacht club from the age of 16 to 20.

Keys to my success: It was from Jim McCann, the founder and executive chairman for Inc., that I first heard the words, “You build relationships first and then do business.” I realized that not only was I already practicing that mantra, but I also knew that surrounding myself with people who I can turn to for knowledge, advice or simply an ear to listen has been invaluable to my success.

Best work trick I’ve learned: Take that extra step to make someone else’s life easier. As meeting planners, we heavily rely on other parts of the company to bring our events to life.

Julie Green Davis

Job title: Senior sales director

Company or organization: Etouches in Philadelphia

What I love about my job: When I see the impact and success my clients have when using technology that I sold to them. The ability I have to meet people from all over the world and travel to new places, and that I’m working with an unbelievable team. I love the feeling of family and that our industry gifts us with the opportunity to be lifelong learners.

First job: I’ve always loved to work. As a kid, I remember asking my parents for extra chores and even asking if the neighbors needed any help. My first paying job was as a receptionist at a salon and spa. I helped everyone with whatever they needed. I learned at a very early age that customer service skills are a must for future success.

Keys to my success: Preparation is No. 1 for me. If I prepare myself for any situation, there’s nothing I can’t do. I am very competitive (I guess that’s why I am in sales), and if I say I am going to do something, I do it. No excuses!

Best work trick I’ve learned: Practice makes perfect. Lead by example. Never stop learning.

Yessely Lopez

Job title: Director of international events

Company or organization: in Orlando

What I love about my job: The people I meet at each event, and the connections and bonds that are made when you meet these phenomenal, respected professionals and experts in their respective fields, whether in marketing, advertising or technology, from all around the world. It’s an experience and a privilege unlike any other.

First job: My first job as a teenager was as a cashier at a local supermarket—not very glamorous but nonetheless very important as it taught me to work hard for what I want.

Keys to my success: Passion and determination. Love and be passionate about what you do, and you will be successful. And you must be determined when achieving your objectives and goals.

Best work trick I’ve learned: Perseverance—it’s been vital for me to able to reach my goals and objectives as a professional. The greatest dreams require perseverance to see them through to become a reality.

Amanda Pfeil

Job title: Convention services manager

Company or organization: Visit Rochester in New York

What I love about my job: I enjoy the opportunity to interact with an array of clients and variety of organizations. Each group’s needs are unique, which provides variation throughout the workweek. Also, the meetings industry provides professionals with the opportunity to travel to new places, meet new people and experience new things, which you wouldn’t typically obtain in other industries.

First job: It was at a local driving range.

Keys to my success: Organization in a sometimes chaotic role has helped me to maintain balance in my responsibilities. Taking professional initiative has allowed me to quickly advance my industry knowledge. Flexibility is key in my position, as it has prepared me to expect the unexpected.

Best work trick I’ve learned: To create and utilize a network of industry professionals. I have met some amazing people in my career thus far, and each impacted me professionally, personally or both. Learn something every day from everyone you meet, always taking the time to listen.

Diana Plazas

Job title: Vice president of brand, marketing and digital

Company or organization: Marriott Caribbean & Latin America (CALA) in Plantation, Florida

What I love about my job: The culture of the company feels like we are one family working together to achieve our goals, and constantly coming together to see how we can do things better. We promote amazing destinations and hotels, and help customers identify the hotel that will be the setting of their honeymoon, their family vacation or their next business meeting. Plus, we get to work with teams from all over the world and we get to visit some of these incredible places. What’s not to love about that?

First job: Data entry for an online real estate website.

Keys to my success: Find a mentor who can help you see things differently and challenge you by asking questions. It’s all about constant growth and feedback, and getting a chance to improve or make adjustments. Also, dedication to my team and to seeing the results of our work.

Best work trick I’ve learned: Respond to quick emails to clear them out of your inbox, and never check a bag on your travels.

Amber Streiff

Job title: Physician relations specialist

Company or organization: Medtronic Inc. in Santa Rosa, California

What I love about my job: The meetings I plan train physicians on how to safely and effectively use our medical devices. I love that my work directly impacts patients’ lives to alleviate pain, restore health and extend life. I also have the opportunity to explore new event technologies to enhance our meetings as well as find new and creative ways to make our meetings greener.

First job: I started in the workforce as a mentor for a middle school after-school program when I was 14 years old.

Keys to my success: My ability to roll with the punches and maintain a glass half-full perspective in any given situation.

Best work trick I’ve learned:

Networking,networking, networking,networking! Getting involved in organizations such as MPI allows you to share best practices with some of the best in the business and open up opportunities.


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