A community of female leaders built on welcoming others emphasizes the power of belonging

The announcement of the 2024 Smart Women in Meetings Award winners that went out Friday swelled the ranks of leaders honored to more than 1,000 strong. The seeds of that powerful community were planted nine years ago in a ballroom at The Ritz-Carlton, Denver.

Smart Meetings founder Marin Bright built her career in hospitality, first in luxury hotels at Mandarin Oriental and then in the meetings and events B2B publishing industry. She loved everything about the business. She loved the dedication to service, the professionalism, the impact it had, the people…and she loved going to lunch. But she noticed that while it was largely women who did the work, planning events, coordinating with hotels, even cleaning the rooms, opportunities for women in leadership were few and far between. As a female publisher 22 years ago, she was utterly alone.

Smart Meetings CEO Marin Bright
Smart Meetings founder Marin Bright

After inquiring with some industry groups about doing something to change this dynamic, she took matters into her own hands as she often did and profiled some of the women she admired and invited them to an awards lunch around a few tables at the luxury hotel in Colorado to celebrate their achievements and, hopefully in the process, encourage more to find their voice.

She brought top experts to the conversation to share secrets for negotiating, feeling more confident and building a network. She connected these go-getters so they could lift each other up. And she treated them to the luxury of time to reflect and create intention. Little did she know it would grow into a movement.

A Movement with Momentum

Flash forward nine years and the universe of women who have been honored has surpassed 1,000, including a growing Hall of Fame list of honorees. Winners are welcomed into a year-round Smart Woman VIP Club that supports each other with weekly discussions in a private LinkedIn group, regular virtual events, a newsletter, discounts for some of our favorite products, invitations to local receptions and, of course, revered status at Smart Woman Summit and Smart Women in Meetings Awards Gala, a celebration that gets bigger and more powerful each year.

Hear what attendees said about the 2023 Smart Woman Summit.

While the event is held in a much bigger ballroom now (This year Smart Woman Summit and Smart Women in Meetings Awards Gala will be held at Caesars Palace Las Vegas) to accommodate the growing movement, the emphasis is still on interaction and connections. Top coaches join to empower attendees to pursue their individual dreams and everyone—male or female—is welcome. One of the highlights is a moderated Provocateur Circles session that challenges attendees to ask the tough questions and make meaningful change. Luxury gifting and venues add to the self-care vibe. The bright light comes in the evening as each winner is awarded and thanked for their contribution to elevating events in the midst of their peers and family.

Over the years, a butterfly theme has emerged. Marin loved the idea that these resilient creatures who went through so much to grow their wings, flitted from place to place, bringing color, elegance and joy. A group of them is called a flutter or a kaleidoscope and last year, as we left The Edison Ballroom in New York City after the gala and saw some of our winners in sparkly gowns walking down the street to land in the next fabulous place, she marveled that we had released a beautiful flutter of fabulousness on the city and couldn’t wait to see what they accomplished after having spent the evening getting to know each other.

Freeman Chair Carrie Freeman Parsons, winner of the Marin Bright Award on the cover of Smart Meetings March Magazine
Carrie Freeman Parsons on the Cover of the March 2024 Magazine

Event pioneer Marin Bright passed away unexpectedly a month before this year’s winners were announced, but the day the March issue is uncovered was always one of her favorite of the year. She loved celebrating women and we will continue to do so in her honor going forward. That is why we announced the first Marin Bright Award this year to the pioneering Carrie Freeman Parsons.

A Focus on Belonging

This year, when we reached out to our Smart Meetings community and past winners asking who inspired them, the response was impressive, five times larger than what we could accommodate in the magazine. We narrowed down the list to those who hadn’t been profiled before and had been described as supportive, innovative and uplifting. We asked them about their approach to making everyone—their team members and their attendees—feel welcome and we asked them about their personal and professional goals. We made the difficult decisions about where to shine the light this year based on those inspirational responses.

The word cloud above captured the vivid responses, including an emphasis on being collaborative, creative, passionate, engaging and memorable. You are masters of personalization, authenticity and fun.

The answers tell the story of a group of women who understand the assignment: finding creative ways to care for others so everyone can thrive. Some that resonated are below so you can be as inspired as we are. Go forth and flutter, celebrating excellence wherever you see it. It is what Marin would have wanted.

Read More: Meet the 2024 Smart Women in Meetings Award Winners

“We don’t build events for robots, we build them for humans and should anticipate their needs as individuals,” Heather Hartland, CMP, CMM, Vice President, Experiential Marketing, ThreatLocker

Danielle Babilino, Senior Vice President, Hard Rock Hotels & Casinos“As a female leader, I stand on the shoulders of so many who came before me and it is my responsibility to continue to be a strong and powerful voice for those who will come after me,” Danielle Babilino, Senior Vice President, Global Sales & Marketing, Hard Rock Hotels & Casinos

“We are all in this together and it takes a village to put on an event,” Micayla Diener, CMP, CSEP, Global Event Lead, TikTok

Leslie McClain, Senior Conference Planner, Palladian Partners“Creating an inclusive space is not just a professional practice but a personal philosophy where diversity is celebrated and everyone is recognized for who they are,” Leslie McClain, CGMP, DES, Senior Conference Planner/ Project Manager, Palladian Partners, Inc.

“I try to always be a soft place for the people I love to land and listening, even if it is hard,” Johnice Veals, HMCC, Associate Director of Events & Employee Engagement, Vertex Pharmaceuticals

Heather Allison, Vice President, Marriott International“To work in hospitality, you must have a passion for making others happy and find joy in serving others,” Heather Allison, Vice President of Sales, Premium & Luxury Brands, Southwest Region, Marriott International

Mas Tadesse, Director of Programs and Conferences, American Association of Physics Teachers“By valuing diverse perspectives and fostering inclusion, I aim to cultivate environments where everyone feels a profound sense of belonging and can authentically express themselves,” Mas Tadasse, CMP, Interim Associate Director of Programs and Conferences, American Association of Physics Teachers

“I am passionate about building tomorrow’s leaders today through compassion, inclusivity and love,” Kim Napolitano, CASE, Executive Director, Industry Relations & Intermediary Group Sales, Hilton

Elyse Dawson, Senior Manager, Conference Center and Events, Invesco“I experience true joyfulness when I am onsite, walking the meeting room, setting out name tags. I feel like I am exactly where I am meant to be!” Elyse Dawson, CMP, CPCE, DES, Senior Manager, Conference Center and Events, Invesco

Janette Roush, Executive Vice President, Marketing and Digital, New York City Tourism + Conventions“I’m deeply invested in exploring how generative AI tools will transform an industry focused on human connection. Consider what we can achieve once freed from mundane tasks,” Janette Roush, Executive Vice President, Marketing and Digital, New York City Tourism + Conventions

“I knew I belonged in the meetings industry after a life-changing car accident. I switched majors from industrial engineering to hospitality management,” Kayla Worthy, CMP, Senior Marketing Manager, Trade Shows & Events, Transitions Optical

Karen Strgacich, National Account Director, Los Angeles Tourism and Convention Board“It’s not enough to just listen to people, you need to make them feel heard. Give them a welcome seat at the table and allow them to be fully present,” Karen Strgacich, National Account Director, Hotel Sales, Los Angeles Tourism and Convention Board

Virginie De Visscher, Executive Director, Business Events, Destination Canada“Sustainability and regenerative tourism are more than just buzzwords for me—they’re a deep personal and professional passion…it’s a commitment to shaping a more responsible and inclusive future for tourism, one step at a time,” Virginie De Visscher, CITP, SEP, HMCC, SEPC, PuMP, Executive Director, Business Events, Destination Canada

Laura Lines, LEO Events“I moved around a lot when I was young, so I understand the impact of change and aim to create an inclusive environment where people feel comfortable bringing their full, true selves,” Laura Lines, Vice President, Marketing, LEO Events

Gina Harringan, Director of Sales, Caesars Entertainment“I lead with compassion. I want to make people to feel cared for and want them to know that what is important to them, is also important to me,” Gina Harrigan, CED, Director of Sales, Caesars Entertainment

“Hospitality is my love language,” Danielle Cirami-Gilis, Vice President, Strategic Partnerships, PRA