Event professionals working at the highest levels have often taken a circuitous route to their exalted positions. When we put out the call for nominations for 2019 Planner of the Year, we knew the titles, geography and roles would be diverse, because this industry calls on people to perform a wide range of skills and offers opportunities across the globe.
We also were pretty sure the nominees would be a passionate group of experts who challenge themselves and help those around them to reach higher and try harder. But when we heard these leaders talk about their journeys and the never-ending desire to bring people together that fuels them—along with a lot of coffee—we couldn’t wait to share their stories with you.
The starting points for these leaders may have been on opposite ends of the intentional spectrum. Kara Ferguson, meeting planner at American Society of Anesthesiologists in Chicago, knew in college that she wanted to plan events, and immediately applied to Roosevelt University’s Hospitality and Tourism Management in Chicago before beginning her life in the association world eight years ago.
Karen Cornelius, global event marketing manager at Toronto-based Scotiabank, has always felt at home in the financial industry, and started planning events for Toronto Stock Exchange 20 years ago. She moved on to arranging tax conferences at CICA (now CPA Canada) and then headed into the banking industry for the next 12 years, organizing client events at TD Securities and TD Wealth, and now, Scotiabank.
Meanwhile, Gigi Gleason, senior manager of global strategic meetings at Autodesk Inc., started as an intern at Meridien Paris Etoile in Paris and pursued culinary training before landing in California’s Silicon Valley.
Pilar & Co. founder Amaia Stecker started in politics and shifted to coordinating transportation for a three-course, plated dinner for 800 people from Washington state to Washington, D.C., overnight via Alaska Airlines. The following year, she planned the entire event, from fundraising to finish. That set her course in the industry.
CBD Event Logistics Manager Victoria Love, who works on-site at Cisco in Irvine, California, started in the entertainment industry as a production manager and associate producer until she found that she craved the more immediate satisfaction of the event business.
Denver-based Megan Finnell started as a singer until the loss of her voice led her to the association world at Medical Group Management Association, where she discovered she had a talent for what she calls empathetic design—considering the needs of all stakeholders at each moment in the attendee experience.
There is no one path to a fulfilling career in the meetings industry, and many confided that they fell into the field while others explained that they had charted their course from the beginning. What all the 2019 Planners of the Year have in common is a love for what they do. The respected leaders nominated by their peers were refreshingly honest regarding their biggest challenges and dreams. Hopefully, they will inspire you to blaze your own path to “wow.”
The Business of Growing MJBizCon
The legal cannabis market is officially a giant sequoia of a business. A Research and Markets study estimated in March of 2019 that the value of marijuana goods sold in North America in 2017 was $8 billion and predicted that number could grow to $35 billion by 2023. That is equivalent to the total GDP of the country of Albania today. A growing—and controversial—industry of that size requires support that can only come from face-to-face meetings. Enter Cassandra Farrington, MBA, former Citi vice president, and B2B startup cultivator.
The CEO of MJBizDaily started her career in business-to-business media, where she learned the art of planning and managing newsletters, direct mail and conferences. She took time out to earn her MBA in global business management from University of Texas at Austin Red McCombs School of Business before joining Citi and working her way up to senior project manager. “Then I hit a corporate wall,” she recalls of her position in 2010 when she held the title of planning manager with CitiMortgage.
As luck would have it, a friend from the early B2B days reached out with an entrepreneurial idea Farrington could not pass up. “It was the perfect thing at the perfect time with the perfect partner,” she explained, from her Denver office.
What started as Anne Holland Ventures Inc., was soon a family of B2B publications, including Which TestWon (now operating under the name Behave.org), Subscription Site Insider (Now Subscription Insider) and Marketing Sherpa (now a division of MEC Labs).
In 2011, the pair launched Marijuana Business Daily (MJBizDaily), focused on the business of the cannabis industry. “We wanted to help dispensary owners do their jobs better, run their businesses better and understand what they need to do now that they had a more traditional business model,” Farrington said. It turned out the market was hungry for just this practical information.
MJBizCon is Born
The company hired a business journalist who had previously covered airlines and published a few stories a week. As the editor was out talking to sources, he continued to hear that people in the business needed a place where they could get together to talk shop. The people in Denver knew a lot was going on in San Francisco, but didn’t know who to talk to about it. And the people in Portland, Maine, felt they were on an island. Events at that time were more like consumer festivals and plant celebrations—not a place where you could have an effective business meeting. “We didn’t decide we wanted to host an event; our audience told us they needed one,” Farrington said.
Conferences weren’t new territory for the pair, so they shrugged their collective shoulders and started planning the first MJBizCon with a date that happened to correspond with the week of the November 2012 election, which included recreational cannabis measures in both Colorado and Washington state. Both measures passed and interest in the Denver conference shot up just days before the doors opened. What was planned as an event for 250 people had to be expanded to accommodate 400. Farrington credited the shoestring nature of the gathering with the flexibility to almost double in size in less than 48 hours. “We weren’t ordering extra lobster,” she said. “We just had to find more cold cuts.”
The trade show caught fire. A spring show was quickly added six months later—a period of time referred to by MJBizDaily editors as a “cannabis year.” Attendance continued to grow and the event moved to Las Vegas after a quick stop in Seattle, where it brings together business owners, investors, wholesale growers, dispensaries, and support services each year at Las Vegas Convention Center. Farrington is expecting more than 35,000 attendees in December—almost double the capacity at T-Mobile Arena.
Four other events have spun off around the world—MJBizConInt’l in Toronto, Latin American Cannabis Symposium in Bogota, Colombia, and European Cannabis Symposium in Copenhagen.
The agenda includes a marijuana business crash course, a science symposium, speakers, the announcement of the MJBizDaily’s Cannabis industry Award winners—and not a whiff of marijuana on the show floor. “Networking is a huge component,” said Farrington. “We get the right people in the room because our media provides trust and that builds on the momentum.”
Grow Fast and Make Friends
Understandably, scaling has been the biggest challenge for an event that is growing like a weed. The company had to quickly develop a relationship with Las Vegas vendors. Representatives from Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority attended the company’s early show at Rio Las Vegas Hotel & Casino to see for themselves that it was a legitimate business gathering. “We had to build trust,” Farrington said. “You have to invest in those relationships that will allow you to grow 4 years down the line.”
It worked. John Schreiber, CEM, Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority vice president of business sales, called Farrington, “an incredible partner of destination Las Vegas.” He added, “Her dedication, integrity and strength of character are certainly key contributors to the rapid success of MJBizCon. Our organization promotes the value of face-to-face meetings as a conduit for building meaningful relationships and people like Cassandra really make our industry shine. We are happy to celebrate such an inspirational person and look forward to working together to achieve future successes and milestones.”
Farrington has also had to scramble to get the right people in place as the business matured. “The right person today may be wonderful, but 5 years from now, they may be completely out of their league, over their head and may not be able to keep up,” she said. She is constantly evaluating and reevaluating staff. “Be true and faithful to staff who got you where you are, but be able to repurpose or find graceful exits for those who are not a good fit to where the company is anymore,” she counseled.
Farrington plans to continue to hold on tight to this opportunity. “Because of our position as a media brand, we have insights into what will advance the industry and we are growing into that area,” she said. Next up, an investment-focused media product and event, a hemp endeavor and a focus on CBD. Spin offs are co-located with the big show to leverage that audience. Since 13 percent of attendees to the Las Vegas conference come from overseas, the company is following that opportunity by launching events internationally.
Meet the 2019 Planners of the Year
Bachelor’s in Spanish and Russian from Oxford, MSt in comparative literature from Oxford. Produces three of Clarion Gaming’s major conferences: ICE London (36,000 attendees and more than 200 speakers), Juegos Miami and iGB Affiliate Lisbon.
Professional Journey: I left university knowing that I wanted a role which allowed me to use my languages and develop my academic research skills into market research skills. Having worked on capital markets conferences and renewable energy events, I joined Clarion at the beginning of 2017. There is so much more to gaming than machines and betting. Clarion Gaming is a great work environment with a fantastic team, and I’ve loved working on Juegos Miami and discovering how uniquely all the different international markets function.
Uphill Battle: It can be quite difficult to simultaneously manage internal deadlines for your event with speakers and external stakeholders’ deadlines, so you have to be on top of your workload and timelines. A lot of our high-profile speakers have their own external commitments so it’s imperative we work with those while still hitting all our own targets.
Moment of Flow: Getting to work with the United Nations was a proud moment. I launched our first ever diversity and inclusion workshop at WrB London and managed to get the U.N. on board despite their concerns about being associated with the gambling industry. WrB Responsible Gambling is the preferred platform for high-profile government, regulators, operators and suppliers to discuss the industry’s future, so this was a great coup.
Ultimate Goal: I give the people who do this work a platform to speak and bring the positive aspects of the industry to the forefront. The gaming industry is so diverse, incorporating so many different market conditions, regulations, CSR initiatives and public support incentives, which I really want to showcase.
Advice for Future Meeting Professionals: Phone skills are essential! You need to get very used to making calls and being part of conference calls, but the role is extremely varied in what tasks you’ll need to do. Today I’ve been writing, researching, inviting speakers to an event, and been in touch with the Puerto Rican gambling regulator. There are lots of different energies and approaches and no day is ever really the same. It’s a great career as there’s something in it for everyone, so just be prepared for everything!
Shawn Cheng, CMP, DES
MCI Group Canada
Bachelor’s in public administration and policy, National Taipei University. Plans three to five projects a year, ranging from 300-3,000 attendees, mainly congresses and conferences, but occasionally helps with some corporate events and DMC clients.
Professional Journey: It was definitely not an easy route. I started my career as a banquet server at a hotel, as an event assistant at a small local company, and as a customer service agent at Tourism Vancouver Visitor Center at the same time. In 2014, I had the opportunity to join MCI, a third-party agency specializing in both professional congresses and meetings and events.
Uphill Battle: Moving from taking orders to managing projects.
Moment of Flow: In 2018, I worked on an international congress for bird scientists in Vancouver. We redesigned the exhibition hall and formed partnerships with local art communities. The result was the highest number of sponsors and exhibitors the congress ever had, and the show floor was busy all the time throughout the week.
Ultimate Goal: Be an innovative and strategic planner who continues to create meaningful experiences and value.
Advice for Future Meeting Professionals: Work hard, be humble and stay curious.
Karen Cornelius, CMP
Manager of Global Event Marketing
Meetings and Convention Management Certificate from George Brown College. Scotiabank events team manages more than 300 events annually; I manage approximately 20-35 every year ranging from multi-day conferences and incentive events, training programs, executive- and client-facing offsites, receptions and golf tournaments to ad-hoc client events in Canada and the United States.
Professional Journey: I have always loved planning personal receptions and dinners. I secured formal education and then started a second certificate program. Along the way, I gained a wealth of experience organizing many different types of events and as a member of MPI for 19 years. This has allowed me to nurture strong relationships with third-party suppliers, vendors and hotel partners.
Uphill Battle: Diverse client personalities, learning to manage unrealistic client expectations and educating clients on event logistics. Debunking the perception that we are just party planners.
Moment of Flow: Validation when hearing positive feedback from clients on a successful event.
Once, a client approached me to do a Canadian Investment Conference only 2 months from the proposed date. The format was for 125 people for five days of training with eight breakout rooms a day. It required two offsite dinner receptions and 625 room nights. Event parameters were met; I dealt with last-minute changes; the client was ecstatic; and I managed to stay under his $500,000 budget.
Ultimate Goal: Continue building strong relationships with my business partners; creating more client experiential events allowing for that ‘wow’ factor.
Advice for Future Meeting Professionals: Never stop learning. Nurture strong relationships with your suppliers, third-party and hotel partners, always creating that ‘win-win’ situation for your client and suppliers. Strive to be organized; start the planning process early if you can and be proactive. Also, take time out to destress. As a cancer survivor, I continually remind myself to take care of me as well as my clients.
Lastly, be empathetic. Everyone has good and bad days, so don’t take anything personally as you don’t know what others are going through.
Kara Ferguson, CMP, MSHTM
American Society of Anesthesiologists
Loyola University of Chicago (undergrad), Roosevelt University of Chicago (grad). Plans eight or more meetings a year. Current role focuses on managing full-service planning of several small- to mid-sized medical meetings. Some include exhibitors and all are specialty meetings. Annual citywide convention brings 15,000 attendees from all over the world.
Professional Journey: I initially started as a volunteer intern so I could get a taste of the industry. I enjoyed my responsibilities and moved on to become a meetings coordinator, meetings specialist and currently, a meeting planner for a 52,000-member medical association.
Uphill Battle: The most difficult thing to manage as I grew in the industry has been the ideas given on-site without a minute to spare. It is imperative that each meeting gives off the “wow” factor, but they also need to have an intentional impact on the audience and be realistic, based on the available budget.
Moment of Flow: Obtaining my CMP. Personally, I have been most proud when attendees, during and after a conference, provide feedback to our team about how they enjoyed the meeting and how it has made a positive impact on their life. This means that we were key contributors in designing a successful event.
Ultimate Goal: I want to continuously learn more tips, tricks, trends and tools that will enable me to advance up the career ladder while simultaneously incorporating inspiration, influence and innovation to create new experiences for attendees.
Advice for Future Meeting Professionals: There are so many avenues when it comes to planning, so it is good to be open. If you adapt easily, that could open the door for other opportunities. Ultimately, make connections with colleagues and industry professionals by joining a professional association. Remain focused and persistent.
Mike Ferreira, MHA
Owner and Founder
Meetings Made Easy (MME)
Bachelor’s in hotel management, Cal Poly Pomona, and master’s in executive hospitality administration, University of Nevada, Las Vegas. Represents more than 300 meetings a year for clients. Has booked meetings as small as five people and as large as 5,000 attendees.
Professional Journey: I have worked in hotels since I was 16. I worked for Hilton Waterfront Beach Resort, Ritz-Carlton Laguna Niguel and Montage Laguna Beach while in college. I was accepted into the MGM Resorts Management Associate Program, where I was a convention sales manager at Bellagio in Las Vegas. I then was promoted to hotel sales, where I spent five years before leaving to start my own company.
Uphill Battle: When I started MME, I left a salary to chase my dream. I literally ate top ramen while growing my company. I went completely broke, so I can help event planners with their hotel contract negotiation needs.
Moment of Flow: Starting my company and watching my team help their clients find hotels all around the world while ensuring they’re receiving phenomenal hotel sales contract deals.
Ultimate Goal: To always ensure we serve our clients the best while being transparent, honest and fun-loving. I want to ensure we continue to hire people and watch their careers grow. That is the best feeling on earth!
Advice for Future Meeting Professionals: Read a lot, find mentors and grow your network as big and as fast as you can.
Megan Finnell, CMP
Director of Meetings and Conferences
Medical Group Management Association (MGMA)
Bachelor’s in music, vocal performance. Team is responsible for 10–13 events a year with as few as six people and as many as 4,500 in attendance.
Planner Journey: I started out in the performance world as an aspiring opera singer. After vocal problems derailed that path, I found myself in the SMERF world, planning programs and events. After six years there, I switched over to the association planning market and found my true passion. Designing immersive experiences for audiences really hit on my training and experience in new ways I found exhilarating.
Uphill Battle: As we continue to improve our conferences and audience experiences, we tend to add, and not subtract. The increasing complexity strains our staff and time. Next year, I hope to focus myself and our teams on editing all the good ideas in order to simplify and focus our experience, reduce the decision strain on our attendees and streamline our efforts.
Moment of Flow: Last year, when trying to identify pain points for attendees and stakeholders, I inadvertently stumbled upon a process to force myself to think about each moment of the show in strategic ways. I began taking moments of the show schedule and asked myself: In this moment, what does an attendee want? What does an exhibitor/sponsor want? What do we want as an organization? What do our additional stakeholders want?
I began calling it an Empathetic Design process, because it forced me to slow down and consider the competing factors in each moment and identify how to change them in the future. For 2019 planning, the team then used that process to take a magnifying glass to our schedule. We realized we needed to change things to make our key stakeholders happy. We took some strides in trying to really give our audience what it wants and it allowed us the structure and accountability to move outside of “what we’ve always done” and really focus on what our entire audience wanted and needed in any given moment of our conference.
Ultimate Goal: As a planner, I see my role as facilitating positive change in peoples’ lives. Through empathetic experience design, we can create little human collisions among our audience that provide new information, encouragement and connection to others like them to make their industries and their worlds a better place. Like interior designer Ilse Crawford said in the Netflix series Abstract, through design, “we hope to add to the sum of human happiness to leave the world a better place.”
Advice for Future Meeting Professionals: Learn everything you can about the industry and the people you serve. We don’t just plan on paper, make spreadsheets, track dollars and ensure deliverables. This is a people industry and we are humans who work with other humans to make experiences for humans who are looking for something to make their worlds a little better. Let’s all work together to make that happen. The industry is amazing, inspiring, fun and very small. Be the person who inspires others to love what they do.
Gigi Gleason, CMP, CWAS
Senior Manager of Global Strategic Meetings
Studied hotel restaurant management and business information systems at University of Houston. Team supports more than 350 meetings globally per year, mostly with destination strategy and contracting, but also offers planning and registration services to internal meetings. Meetings range from 10 to 11,000 attendees.
Professional Journey: The thing that drew me into the hospitality industry and keeps me coming back through all of my career twists and turns is the people. These are my people! My early years in the industry concentrated in hotel operations. I then worked as a professional chef. After some serious burnout in the late ’80s, I landed a temp job at a public utility in central Texas. I worked my way into several technical roles (something I never thought I would be interested in or good at) and went back to school and earned a degree in business information systems. I spent about a decade in that field, with jobs ranging from IT director for a multinational law firm to project and product manager for Autodesk (where I currently work). I was recruited to work for a start-up during the first dotcom boom, where we were focused on location-based applications for mobile computing devices. We created the very first mobile event guide and released it six weeks after the first Palm Pilot came off the manufacturing floor.
When the dotcom bust came along, I was drafted to sell the products we had created. I went back to my college years, trying to figure out who would buy a mobile event guide, and remembered my time as a student member of MPI. I got involved in the industry again at that time and rediscovered “my people.”
I spent seven years on the third-party side, working as an Experient national account manager. I loved this role, but found I missed the day-to-day, in-office interaction with colleagues and the technology side of the business. I made a switch to an event technology role with an event automation and registration company, managing global implementations of our solution. I then migrated to a director-level position, providing agency customer support. Finally, an opportunity presented itself for me to return to Autodesk as leader of the Strategic Meetings Management Program, where I am today.
Uphill Battle: The most difficult, but also the most rewarding, thing to manage has been approaching supplier-partners with an open mind and genuinely seeking to understand their business concerns so that we can craft agreements that create a win-win where both parties are sharing the risk and reward in a fair way.
Moment of Flow: The global program that we’ve created at Autodesk is built by our rock star team on the foundation of delivering concrete value to all our partners and stakeholders, which is truly recognized by the organization all the way through the C-suite.
Ultimate Goal: Continue to learn, grow and to be open to opportunities wherever they take me.
Advice for Future Meeting Professionals: We are so blessed in this industry to work with colleagues and partners who are fun, interesting and normally just good people. We have the opportunity to both create and experience some incredible events. In the midst of this privilege, you must always remember that we are engaged in business activities. It can be a challenge to maintain professional relationships and the highest levels of integrity. Your reputation will proceed you one way or the other.
Liz Green, CMP and CTA
CEO and Chief Event Curator
ELEVAR Events by Liz Green, LLC
Bachelor’s, animal science, Ohio State University. Event planner for The Arnold Sports Festival, a four-day festival that now features more than 80 sports and events with 22,500 athletes competing annually in Columbus, Ohio. The event draws more than 200,000 attendees over the four-day event and has a $51.4 million economic impact on the Columbus Community.
Professional Journey: I thought for certain that I would be a veterinarian; however, that was not in the cards. In the year off before applying for veterinarian school, I took advantage of my logistical mindset and my equestrian background and started working for Equine Affaire, Inc. where I was a trade show coordinator. I then moved to American Ceramic Society and left five years later to pursue a director of education role with Ohio Veterinary Medicine Association. This move allowed me to explore more of the strategic planning of events as I managed meeting specifications and all stages of the meeting management process for a 6,000-registrant annual conference, board meetings, and committee meetings, while overseeing a few event team members. I left to travel the world with Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger for six years, managing logistical details for Arnold Sports. I now operate my own corporate event planning company.
Uphill Battle: As the world and technology both continue to change, I think one of the most difficult things to manage in the industry is security. As part of a large, international scope event with a recognizable celebrity, security measures have kept me up at night.
Moment of Flow: When Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger pulled me off to the side at the 30th anniversary of the Arnold Sports Festival and praised me in front of my husband. He even followed up with me post-event with a personal letter. It is a great honor to have been a part of this great health and fitness crusade the past six years.
Ultimate Goal: I am excited about continuing to develop as an event planner as I learn new skills in business operation and strategic management. I would like to become an accredited DMC with a staff of five to ten individuals who are just as passionate about elevating the event experience as I am.
Advice for Future Event Professionals: Be active and stay engaged in industry organizations. Attend educational opportunities hosted by these organizations so you can gain industry insight. This will give you a sense of belonging and community as well as serve as a good resource for problem solving and answering event related questions. I also recommend saying “yes” to new opportunities even if they make you uncomfortable or if you think you are not capable of executing the opportunity as you can learn and grow so much as an event planner by taking on new responsibilities. Lastly, find balance. Event planning can be an extremely stressful career and I think you have to be able to balance the stress of planning an event with self-care, defining boundaries for work-life balance, having fun, eating well and being able to find a laugh along the way or you will burn out.
Co-Owner and Sales Director
Blue Sky Events and Destination Management
Bachelor’s in rhetorical communications and West European studies and minor, Spanish and Italian, University of Pittsburgh; graduate, Leadership Lake Tahoe; served on boards for South Lake Tahoe Wedding and Honeymoon Association and Valhalla Tahoe. Plans 65–75 destination weddings, corporate retreats, community events and concerts for up to 8,000 people.
Professional Journey: I traveled to Lake Tahoe for a summer during college and got an internship working in the marketing department at a resort. After I graduated, they offered me a position to develop an event center out of an undeveloped beach. Within four years, it was a profitable business with procedures built and staff in place. I really enjoyed building the business, so I decided it was time to build my own business.
Uphill Battle: When I first started bringing on employees, it was hard for me to sell to clients that I would not be the lead planner. Even though my name is not in the business name, I have been the face of the company. It took a few years to build my team’s reputation so clients would trust that our staff was just as good as having an owner plan the event.
Moment of Flow: Over 15 years, many of my employees have grown into great event planners. Some have moved away to start their own businesses or gone into corporate event planning. Right now, the team at Blue Sky Event planners is the best we’ve ever had. They take ownership of every event as if it is their only one. They work together, collaborating and helping each other, always with a strong work ethic.
Ultimate Goal: The next step is to go outside of the Tahoe region. I’d like to gain more annual clients so we can really get to know their needs and help them grow through the years.
Advice for Future Meeting Professionals: Get involved with networking associations, join a board, and volunteer your time to work with industry leaders and businesses that you’ll want to work with or for. Join your local chamber and get involved. Gaining trust in the business community is a necessity to grow your brand, whether your goals are to work for a firm or start your own business.
Victoria Love, CMP
Event Logistics Manager
BCD @ Cisco
Bachelor’s in radio, television and film, California State University. Plans 50 meetings a year for 10 to 200 people.
Planner Journey: Started in the entertainment industry as a production manager and associate producer. Loved the planning and on-set part of my job—hated post-production. Didn’t like sitting in an edit bay for weeks to get a 30-minute show pieced together. Then we would have to wait months or years to see if our project was any good. I quickly realized event planning didn’t have as much “post” work and when I walked out of an event, I immediately knew if my work was a success.
Uphill Battle: Most difficult to manage is myself and my ambition. I love what I do and want to do it all. I have learned that if I’m not crazy-busy with a million things to do—I’m bored.
Moment of Flow: Planning large conventions for 4,000 direct sales consultants. Used creativity in all aspects of the event.
Ultimate Goal: My all-time ultimate goal would be to work on the Olympic planning team.
Advice for Future Meeting Professionals: The one thing that will make you successful is experience. The more exposure you have working on various types of events, the better prepared you will be for anything.
Executive Vice President of Event and Education Services
Bachelor’s in communications with a minor in business, St. Xavier University; and master’s degree in public service administration, DePaul University. My team of more than 130 event planners and education/curriculum design professionals manages more than 200 events, conferences, trade shows, workshops and meetings, as we serve associations, nonprofits and corporate client organizations. These events take place in and outside of North America and attract 50 to 25,000 attendees.
Professional Journey: My start in the industry was a bit unorthodox. I took a job at SmithBucklin in 1988, serving technology-user communities by contributing to their membership and operations administration, and eventually supported delivery of two annual events with more than 6,000 attendees each.
I progressed to serve as the chief staff executive for a large technology association. Our team delivered some of the largest customer conferences and trade shows for the company. In 2010, I became strategic director for a new client organization—a large corporate technology company. We were responsible for delivering a series of international conferences and trade shows, all held within one month in Paris, Stuttgart [Germany], Shanghai and Tokyo. It was a great accomplishment for our team and the client.
In 2011, I took on oversight of our education and learning services team, and in 2013, I was promoted to executive vice president, overseeing all of SmithBucklin’s event and education services, and the people who support them.
Uphill Battle: Security. I was working on 9/11 and remember the impact on our client organizations’ events on that day and ever since. Today, our security protocols continue to evolve, and we must keep pace. Basically, we’re managing for the unknown. It’s not only about having a detailed, up-to-date security plan in place, but it’s about trusting in a great team made up of individuals who have experience and expertise, and who are nimble and adaptive to respond effectively. We hire and train our team to be prepared—not only with planning, but with critical thinking.
Moment of Flow: It’s difficult to choose just one, because every time I see the achievements of my team—when they surprise and delight attendees, bring innovative approaches to their events, design unique session formats or nail delivery of hundreds of sessions, develop a meaningful CSR/giving-back activity for a meeting or drive strategy resulting in new growth that went above and beyond stakeholders’ expectations—I am extremely proud.
Ultimate Goal: I have been very fortunate to have a successful career and am proud to have made what I hope is an impact on their development through my coaching and mentoring. I’m privileged to work with so many great professionals. My goal now is to help others with their careers. That said, I’m looking forward to when I can attend a wedding or gala event and turn off my planner-analyzing brain and just enjoy the event. I think I’ll be a shoo-in to be the volunteer social director at my retirement home.
Advice for Future Meeting Professionals: When you commit to this industry, you’re going to work long, hard hours. That’s why you need take care of yourself. Take the time, energy, and resources to recharge. One last tip: Invest in really good shoes. This will help you years down the road.
President and Co-Founder
Bachelor’s in hospitality management and event planning, Lexington College. Plans Spontaneous Think Tanks.
Professional Journey: I volunteered to help run a homecoming for the USS Truman back in 2005 and knew there had to be a better way than 14,000 sticky notes on my walls to put together an event (which is funny because now we use sticky notes as the foundation of our Spontaneous Think Tanks)! I minored in event design. Sure, I learned whatever the books are supposed to teach you, but my real education came from my interactions with people.
Life happened and it took me until 2011 to walk across that graduation stage, but during my time in school, I learned to engineer my own luck. I said yes to every opportunity to help at events, but found myself not ever wanting to choose what was offered through a job description or formal program. I wanted whatever opportunity didn’t exist yet and the hustle to create my own adventure bedazzled my soul! In changing my lens to look for what was not offered, I became an opportunist where I saw the day-to-day moments as a chance for something great to happen! Pair that with not being afraid to talk to anyone and things started falling into place literally the week after I graduated…like working an event for Oprah and helping design Christmas at The White House. True story!
Uphill Battle: I have hardcore ADD! The biggest challenge in the beginning of my career was realizing how horrible I was at the actual planning of the event. To this day, I still don’t know how to put a header on an excel document and the thought of spreadsheets make me want to rock on the floor in the fetal position. I was more interested in the bigger picture, how brands got people to tattoo their logo on their bodies, how a community organically forms around brands and the special sauce at companies that capitalize on all of the above and still make a ton of money while leaving the world a better place than they found it.
My turning point was when I read a book called David and Goliath by Malcolm Gladwell, which showed me that there were CEOs all over the world who were horrible at something, or even disabled, and ran some of the world’s biggest companies. What? You can hire your weaknesses and don’t really have to spend time getting better at them? Yes, please. That was my lightbulb moment.
Moment of Flow: I get to be a part of teaching humanity how to be human again. Through Haute Dokimazo, we’re doing just that. I consider HD a cure for the loneliness epidemic in the world—helping people learn to genuinely talk and connect with each other.
My proudest moments are when our attendees have genuine connection moments that extend beyond being in the event industry. At the end of our Spontaneous Think Tanks, we have a live retrospective where people share what they loved and what they think we should change for next time. When someone who has been in the industry for 30 years stands up in awe, talking about how they’ve never had an experience like this before at any other event, that makes me proud! Those are moments where Liz, one of the other co-founders and my partner in fabulousness (and a 2019 Smart Women in Meetings award-winner), and I don’t really need to share words. We just look at each other and share a “wow” face because we know we’ve built something much bigger than the two of us!
Ultimate Goal: To monetize and scale analog human connection.
Advice for Future Meeting Professionals:
- Learn to work a room better than anyone else. If you can teach others to do the same, you’ve won at life.
- Refuse mediocrity. There is always something way more fun out there!
- Never sit in the back. Show up in life- and at events- in an authentic way and always sit in the front row.
- You are never too good to change the trash yourself.
- Hug people!
- You are never too young—or too old—to create your own unjob.
- In your career, consider being like salmon and swim in the opposite direction of everyone else. When you see a shark, don’t.
- Events are emotional roller coasters at every step and your team is following Treat them how you want to be treated in all the possible kinds of moments!
Events Department Supervisor
Bachelor’s in communications, King’s College. Plans more than 25 events per year for Benco Dental, a national dental-supply distribution company. Events range in size from 20 attendees to 900. They are internal sales trainings, incentive trips, award shows honoring our sales representatives and customers, customer-facing seminars that offer CE credits and trade shows.
Professional Journey: I started in the events industry on the food-and-beverage side. I worked for The Westmoreland Club, a private social dining club, part-time while earning my degree. Eventually I was promoted to the position of catering director, where I planned the club’s social events: weddings, showers, reunions and fundraisers. Staying current with industry trends, I played a central role in bringing events to life, managing budgets and ensuring that the quality of event execution met membership’s high standards. I worked hand-in-hand with club members to realize their vision for the events.
That’s where I really fell in love with event planning. It afforded me the opportunity to exercise my creative muscles, but most importantly, it allowed me the privilege to be a key part of people’s special days. I find that tremendously gratifying. After a little over a decade, I moved on to corporate event planning when I started working for Benco Dental. Although I’m no longer adjusting a bride’s train and the attendees aren’t counting the day among the best of their lives, I am still in the business of creating moments.
Uphill Battle: Probably the most difficult thing is making time for family and industry research while effectively managing the planning of a multitude of events.
Moment of Flow: One of my proudest planner moments was receiving positive feedback on a format change I fought for during the early planning stages for the company’s largest event. At the time, I was still fairly new to Benco, still finding my feet, and I met, understandably, some pretty strong opposition to the change I was proposing. Ultimately, I was able to convince the stakeholders to trust my decision to change the format. Following the event, my most vocal opponent, a senior leader, gave a glowing review of the change and said the event was the best it had ever been. It was a win for me, not only because it earned me some invaluable credibility, but also because I stood firmly behind my idea and fought for it, and learned that what I bring to the table is both valued and valuable.
Ultimate Goal: I plan to teach hospitality at the college level. In my career, I have never stopped learning new things. The knowledge base I have of food and beverage, communications, meeting technology, travel, negotiations, budget management and event strategy is one I can pass along to aspiring event planners. I am passionate about helping to foster future event coordinators, planners and managers.
Advice for Future Meeting Professionals: Don’t stop learning. Read as much as you can about what other planners are doing and what tools they’re using, and get creative about how you can adapt those innovations into your workflow. Re-read your survey results in advance of your next event: Don’t just file them and forget about them after the event retrospective. Always keep evolving and changing.
Amaia P. Stecker
Owner and Lead Designer
Pilar & Co
Master’s and MBA, Johns Hopkins; bachelor’s, University of Idaho. Plans five to seven events a year, ranging in size from 50-person receptions to as many as 1,500 for a multiday fly-in to Washington, D.C., for meetings on the Hill, dinners and other activities around the city.
Planner Journey: While working on Capitol Hill, I realized that my volunteer activities, which I enjoyed immensely, all revolved around planning and coordinating events. Fast forward to post grad school: While working in associations, I preferred the “other duties as assigned” projects of event design and execution to my actual job description. After nearly six years of acting as additional support in an event-planning side gig, I took a risk and decided to offer these services full-time with my own firm, where I specialize in helping associations plan successful events and develop the resources required to execute them.
Uphill Battle: Getting clients to make decisions on a new approach that I know would really benefit them. Often, associations see a new path as a risk, rather than an opportunity, and tend to want to stay with the same-old. It’s funny, because that desire for improvement in their events is precisely why they hire me. Learning to navigate the “old dog, new tricks” conundrum has been a big learning curve.
Moment of Flow: Successfully launched a reverse trade show-hosted buyer pilot program with the National PTA for their annual conference this past July. We needed a new way to get exhibitors truly engaged with the attendees in a lower-pressure environment than wandering an exhibit floor. The sponsors and attendees had prescheduled 15-minute meetings to discuss both the attendee needs and sponsor services. Response was overwhelmingly positive from both the attendee and sponsor perspectives, including feedback that the attendees were willing to have additional meetings and valued their time spent with sponsors. We’ll be expanding the program in 2020.
Ultimate Goal: To create a culture where events accomplish mission-driven goals. If you don’t give your event a specific purpose or desired outcome for the attendees, I promise you this-someone else (such as your attendees or the media) will. And it may not be one that’s cohesive with your organization’s mission, vision or goals. Events that have purpose give attendees a call to action, provide the hosts a measurable metric and support established organizational goals. They’re unforgettable. They’re bold. And they’re fun. When an event has an intentional purpose, your attendees experience changes. They become invested, creating a ripple effect for your efforts long after the event ends.
Advice for Future Meeting Professionals: Learn to creatively problem-solve in real time. The road to “you know where” is paved with plans A, B, C, D, E and F. While those plans are needed, being able to think critically and creatively on your feet is key. This isn’t an easy skill to learn, but working as a mentee under another planner and seeing how they work and solve the real-time issues that inevitably come up can really help.
Amanda Tilley, CMP
Head of Events Management
Bachelor’s in marketing, WGU Washington. In previous role, worked on more than 150 events per year. Now manages 30 events each year.
Professional Journey: I started at Executive Briefing Center 13 years ago, providing day-of support to C-level meetings.
Uphill Battle: The most difficult thing to manage has been my own perfectionist tendencies. I tend to want everything perfect, as we all do in this industry, so allowing for small imperfections or completely giving another person trust that they will execute a task in the right way has been a huge challenge for me.
Moment of Flow: Taking on the most recent 1,000-person event with only four months to execute and only having the venue locked down. Additionally, I had two team members and my manager leave before the event was executed. However, the event was a huge success, garnering more than 30 percent more attendees than the original target and implementing sponsorships to help offset costs, which caused me to come in $50,000 under budget.
Ultimate Goal: I want to work in an environment that provides people with unique experiences and a lifetime of memories. Ultimately, I would love to plan experiences for Disney World.
Advice for Future Meeting Planners: Make sure you go into the part of the industry that you love the most. The further you get in your career, the more difficult it is to cross over into another area.
Karen Watson, CMP and Certified Experience Economy Expert
Senior Director of Strategic Events
Maritz Global Events
Bachelor’s in business administration, Texas A&M University. Plans two event professional events for 500–650 people and a smaller advisory board meeting for 25–35 people. The client event is focused on defining the future of our industry together, so we take chances wherever we can on the event. We experiment so that everyone attending can learn from what we do and apply those lessons to their own events.
Planner Journey: I worked on the hotel side of the business, primarily in catering and convention services, for about 10 years before moving to the planning side. That logistical background provided me a realistic understanding of what I now ask of a facility. I began with Conferon, which later became Experient, which is now a division of Maritz Global Events.
Uphill Battle: I adopted my daughter as a single parent, so balancing travel, work, home, homework and basically…life. I’m always working hard not to cut either priority short.
Moment of Flow: A couple of years ago, for the client event e4, we created a physical “museum of events” with galleries dedicated to general session/production, well-being, food and beverage and exhibit halls, to name a few. Then we asked our guests to submit the “artwork” for the gallery walls. Their own events became the art (photos we enlarged, videos and printed materials) and they got to experience their fellow e4 attendees’ events through these galleries. Many of the educational sessions were based around their submissions. For an event that is designed around peer-to-peer dialogue, in some ways it was the epitome of the goals of e4.
Ultimate Goal: I love the job I have now. I am fortunate to have a lot of creative freedom on our client event and the team that works on it is a dream team. We take chances and intentionally experiment with the event, which means I continue to learn and grow. In some ways that is all I can ask for…to keep learning.
Advice for Future Event Professionals: Ask questions. Ask why. You want to apply the lessons learned from one situation to another, and you can only do that if you understand the “why” behind decisions. Speak up and volunteer to take on more responsibility every chance you get, because people notice. Work for and with people who have the same work ethic that you do, because it takes a team for any event to be a success. I’m so lucky to work with people on our events that I admire and respect—and who are just plain fun!