Meet the 2023 Rising Stars
Hotels and destinations from Puerto Rico to Washington State are reporting that people are back working and meeting again, but “help wanted” is still the default setting after a prolonged period of loss and reflection. Filling those holes in housekeeping, catering, sales, corporate planning teams and leadership will require looking in new places. Hospitality schools won’t produce enough graduates to fully staff this fast-growing industry. We can’t rely on enough people “falling into” the roles as they once did. Our mission is to find people with a passion for helping like Smart Women in Meetings Rising Star Award-winner and Hilton Coordinator for Special Events Farah Rashad and empower them to shine. We will have to get better at seeing diverse backgrounds and skill sets as the valuable resources they are.
The hospitality industry is built on being welcoming and inclusive and by telling that story during recruiting is the path to replacing the brain drain with diverse faces bringing fresh ideas. That could mean talking to high school students about the opportunities for building lifelong careers. It could require reaching out to historically black colleges and universities. How about a booth at a gaming convention to find people who are good at solving problems and learning new technologies quickly? Let’s not forget veteran employees who still have a lot to contribute. All these individuals bring new perspectives to their roles.
Once these bright lights have been onboarded, the emphasis shifts to retention. The coveted millennial and Gen Zers value being able to see that their work contributes meaningfully to the company and the world at large. If we embrace that motivation and show how meetings transform lives, everyone benefits.
Events On Call Managing Partner Candice Bakke captured the transformational power of gathering so beautifully: “When people are interacting, exciting things happen, ideas are generated and the world is changed. It was amazing to see the things I was selling come to life and see the smiles on people’s faces and know that in some tiny way, I helped make that happen.” How motivating is that?
As an industry, let’s lay out a career path and give people a chance to step up. The result could be a beautiful evolution of their development and the industry as a whole. The staffing gap could be an opportunity to cross-pollinate something to hospitality that wasn’t there before.
Let’s normalize allowing people to bring their whole selves to the office. As Altria Group Distribution Company Senior Executive Assistant Tammi Joseph said, the one thing that made all the difference in her career was being authentically herself. “My peers know I am always going to lead with integrity, but I can still give it to you straight,” she said.
Instead of reacting to inevitable change, what if we disrupted intentionally with creative new approaches or as Kidney Cancer Association Manager of Events and Education Christina Bargas wisely pointed out: “Safety means staying the same and doing the same. Because everything changes, staying safe is the riskiest thing we can do.”
Formal and informal mentorship was mentioned as one of the things that made a difference in so many winners’ career trajectories. Sharing wisdom is a win-win for all parties. “Collaborating with other people is going to get you the furthest, always,” attested Alyssa Freire, project manager for production with Encore and an avowed question-asker and new challenges pursuer.
Walmart Senior Manager of Event Solutions Lindsey Vaughan confirmed the reciprocal nature of mentorship: “I realized that in order for me to grow in the meeting and event industry, I need to grow others.”
Another thing that made all the difference for so many of these dynamic leaders? Volunteering. We loved seeing how many had stepped up to help in association roles and how much they said it had helped their careers. “Getting involved with industry organizations (specifically MPI) has been the one thing that really skyrocketed my career,” said Genevieve Belou, assistant director of sales with CoralTree Hospitality, Magnolia Hotel Denver, a Tribute Portfolio Hotel.
Let’s listen to these go-getters because they bring the imagination and daring we desperately need right now. That is why we loved Geisinger Health Foundation Development Specialist Jill Franklin’s advice to her younger self: “Don’t allow anyone to silence you because what you have to say is important!”
The Smart Women in Meetings Award Rising Star winners embody that diverse background of people moving up the ranks quickly and bringing all of us along for the ride.
Please join us in congratulating the Smart Women in Meetings Award Rising Star winners and read their full stories, including their advice to their younger selves by scanning the code here.
Candice M. Bakke
Co-Founder and Managing Partner, Events on Call
Passion, Joy, Love
Aha Moment: I went into sales because I love finding creative ways to solve people’s problems. When I was introduced to the world of meetings and events, now I wasn’t just bringing them a new widget but I was actually bringing people together. When people are interacting exciting things happen, ideas are generated and the world is changed. It was amazing to see the things I was selling come to life and see the smiles on people’s faces and know that in some tiny way I helped make that happen.
What One Thing Made All the Difference? This is easy for me, my family. Having the best cheerleaders in my corner to remind me to never give up, remember who I am, what I believe in, and always treat people how I would want to be treated has led to my success. If I am ever looking at something I think I would not want my family to know I made that decision I know it is the wrong decision to make. To have them to hug on the good and bad days makes it all worth it.
Advice for My Younger Self: Stop saying all of those mean things to yourself, you are human, you make mistakes! You are smart, kind and beautiful inside and out – stand up for what you believe in and do not let people take advantage of you. It is ok to say no and have others respect your boundaries.
Next Goal: My next goal is to see the successful launch of my new company, Events On Call. This has been a long hard effort, and with the support of my amazing family, friends, and partners we will get event professionals back to work and make our corporate event planners lives easier.
Christina Bargas, CMP
Manager of Events and Education, Kidney Cancer Association
Everything is Figureoutable
Aha Moment: I had been a bartender and worked in the hospitality industry on the service side for around 20 years, and I didn’t feel like I was living up to my full potential in life. I wasn’t feeling challenged, or like I was using my brain, or creativity but I didn’t want to leave the industry. I started to investigate going back to college and I decided to finish college after several attempts in different industries, and found hospitality, tourism, and event management. I was home.
What One Thing Made All the Difference? I took the advice of a mentor and teacher to learn to network and get out there and meet as many people as possible. The more connections you meet the more you can connect other people to the right people. Never turn away from a connection or conversation, you never know who you might need in the future or who might be looking for a service, or product that can be a solution or resource for someone else.
Advice for My Younger Self: I truly believe that it is who you surround yourself with. Find people that inspire you, support you, and you can learn from. Put yourself in challenging situations that make you grow, and make you think, that is the only way to learn and truly push yourself towards those dreams and wants. Safety means staying the same and doing the same. Because everything changes, staying safe is the riskiest thing we can do.
Next Goal: My next goal is to find what parts of me are hiding and wanting to come out. Figure out something I’ve always wanted to do and go for it. I have a few ideas – now I just need to tackle them one by one, and that will lead me to my next level of personal and professional growth.
Assistant Director of Sales, CoralTree Hospitality, Magnolia Hotel Denver, a Tribute Portfolio Hotel
Empathetic, Strong, Unafraid
Aha Moment: The first conference I ever went to was a magical experience for me. I always loved what I did, but I think seeing all the different aspects of our industry opened my eyes and helped show me how I could grow within it. It was also the first time I really got to experience our community, and I loved all of the amazing connections I made and how I just felt like I fit in. I had always thought of what I did as a job, but this made it a career, and it made it my home. It also inspired me to get more involved and to help get other people as jazzed as I was about meetings and events.
What One Thing Made All the Difference? Getting involved with industry organizations (specifically MPI) has been the one thing that really skyrocketed my career. When I started in the industry, I would go to events and see people who were working the room and think, “I want to be the person who walks into a room and knows everyone.” I decided that the best way to be that person was to attend everything and to get more involved by volunteering. It worked. Not only do I know people in every room I walk into, I always make sure that I reach out to people who are starting out in the industry and introduce them around and encourage them to get involved like I did.
Advice for My Younger Self: I would tell myself to be open to whatever comes by way and to embrace the unexpected. Covid and what has come since has changed our world and careers in ways we would never have imagined, but staying positive and looking for opportunities in what has come from it has helped me grow in ways I never imagined. I would also tell myself that everything I was doing would make me much better at what I do, and that I just need to keep hustling!
Next Goal: My goal is sharing my love for this industry. I am passionate about sharing how great the meetings and events community is with the next generation. I am currently working on finding ways to get my MPI chapter more involved with high school students in the area so that we can introduce them to all our industry offers. If those of us that are in the industry now share our excitement and enthusiasm, we can guarantee a bright future for the industry. I also want to make sure I am always learning about our industry and how to be a better leader.
Bonnie Coop, CIS, CITP
Senior Producer, Trident Experiential d.b.a. Total Event Resources
Resilience, Perseverance, Exploration
Aha Moment: I was in college majoring in accounting and learned from a cousin about her role in a hotel and providing amazing experiential events for clients. It sounded intriguing and I always had the itch to travel and from there I changed majors and pursued my new “lifetime love.” Since then, I have dedicated my career to this industry; trying all sides, and now having landed in a perfect home with Trident expanding on the love for providing an amazing experiences and changing behaviors!
What One Thing Made All the Difference? Getting involved. Very early on I started getting involved with industry associations; volunteering, joining committees and then joined the board. While it is a huge time commitment, the reward of friendships, knowledge and professional growth are all worth it! This industry becomes part of your family, they raise you up and support your advancements and help make you stronger. I wouldn’t be where I’m at without my industry family!
Advice for My Younger Self: Talk it out. Don’t assume anyone knows what you are feeling or thinking. When you think someone knows what you want/need, know they don’t and probably don’t even have what is bothering you on their mind. If never said, it will fester and cause angst. Their nonknowledge of your thoughts are not personal. They have their own things going on. Talk it through professionally and personally, everyone deserves a chance to course correct when able. I’m still working on this but a lesson I have learned and wish I learned earlier.
Next Goal: This year I have taken on being President of the SITE Chicago Board of Directors. As you can imagine this is like a full-time job on top of your already more than full-time job. While I have many goals for my presidency, my most meaningful goal is to connect with my chapter members more on an individual basis and encourage an open dialogue on how SITE Chicago and our industry can provide them value and education to keep them thriving.
Meetings and Events Manager, Grit Productions and Expositions
Optimistic, Adventurous, Joyful
Aha Moment: I grew up on a farm outside a large city. My parents were always active in the community and wanted to share agriculture with others. We created a festival about ten years ago that invited the local community to an artisan, culinary and music festival on our farm. It was planning and growing this event that made me realize my passion for bringing people together and that drove me to pursue event planning as a career.
What One Thing Made All the Difference? Having mentors. I’m very grateful that throughout my career and education I’ve had wise men and women who have guided me and inspired me to pursue my goals.
Advice for My Younger Self: Always ask questions. We live in a world where technology is constantly changing. There is always going to be a newer and better way of doing something. Always ask if you don’t quite understand something rather than assuming and you will always achieve a greater result.
Next Goal: Being more active in the event industry community. I have learned that it is critical to attend educational sessions and continually learn changes that occur with new industry standards, contractual language, and industry economics. My goal is to stay as informed as possible to be a dependable resource to colleagues and industry partners.
Alyssa Freire, OSHA 10
Project Manager, Production, Encore
Passionate, Resilient, Forward-Thinking
Aha Moment: I joined the industry in 2019 just before the pandemic and just after starting my career in live theatre production. In 2021, when the meetings and events business came roaring back, I realized that this industry is resilient and that I could come back and make it my home.
What One Thing Made All the Difference? I am very fortunate to have had exposure early in my career not only to various production roles and skills, but also mentors who were willing to share their knowledge openly and encourage me to explore and learn. I would say the one thing that made all the difference in my career so far has been my passion for asking questions, learning and pursuing new challenges.
Advice for My Younger Self: Collaborating with other people is going to get you the furthest, always. Reach out, communicate, ask questions and listen to those with experiences and then take what you need from it. When times get tough, the tough keep going.
Next Goal: I’d like to earn my OSHA 30 safety card, which is a manager-level education that drills deep into recognizing and mitigating safety and health risks. I’ve also begun training for my Lean Six Sigma Green Belt certification that’s about improving processes and developing intelligent operating procedures to meet customer expectations. In the future, I’d also like to work toward becoming a Certified Associate in Project Management, a precursor to becoming a Project Management Professional.
Jill Franklin, M.Ed
Development Specialist, Event Planning, Geisinger Health Foundation
Purpose, Forward, Discipline
Aha Moment: While being a highly involved sorority woman pursuing a degree in hospitality management from IUP, I interned with the Office of University Events that coordinated events involving the university president. I realized the possibility of working in higher education involving the extracurriculars that I loved, such as being a sorority woman, while coordinating events. My two passions collided and led to a seven-year career working in student activities coordinating programs, retreats and large university events. I’m now back in touch with the philanthropic interest that initiated my desire to join a sorority 12 years ago – planning philanthropic events and impacting my community.
What One Thing Made All the Difference? Throughout my career I embraced opportunities ahead of me and identified opportunities that weren’t explicitly presented. None of which I felt even 55% comfortable or confident in doing. I took the chance to advocate to take on (and be paid for when applicable) these opportunities to grow my skill set, learn new perspectives and collaborate with new people. These opportunities introduced me to a community of strong, capable and affirming women surrounding me. The women that inspire me to keep moving forward, continuing the path that they’ve started, and now supporting others while they take on their own opportunities.
Advice to My Younger Self: Do not allow anyone to silence you because what you have to say is important! Slow down. Be mindful and thankful of the things happening and people that surround you. Whether it be crisp air or a group of friends laughing, enjoy them! It is easier to do something that you don’t want to do now than procrastinating and having to do it anyway. Work hard when you want and need to work hard. Take a break, go for a walk, or take an exercise class when you need to reset. Then get back to it.
Next Goal: Personally, I am trying to redefine movement and wellness for me. Intentionally focusing on incorporating movement and activities throughout my day and week so my mind, body, and spirit feel better knowing I’m taking care of all aspects of myself.
Professionally, I am dedicating time to my development of knowledge and skills of working in a healthcare foundation with a focus in diversity, equity, and inclusion. Being within the first year of position, I continue to learn the healthcare industry, fundraising, and how I can positively impact our goals to positively impact my community’s access to leading healthcare.
Amanda Heavner, CTA
Marketing Manager, The National Conference Center
Focused, Innovative, Family
Aha Moment: I began my journey in the meetings industry far before my career even began. I studied hospitality management at James Madison University where industry experiences were top priority. A year before graduation, I started a rotational internship with The National Conference Center where I learned how each department within a conference center worked both independently and as part of a whole. Soon after that, I realized that meetings and conferences were my calling. Watching the professionals accomplish their goal while always finding creative ways to get their message across was something that I truly fell in love with.
What One Thing Made All the Difference? I took the leap. I had a career path in mind that kept me in the conference planning department. However, an opportunity presented itself to go into the sales and marketing world of the meetings industry. I knew it was going to be a learning curve, but I never imagined how much knowledge and experience I would gain from these roles, let alone the relationships that I would build along the way. From coworkers, friends, and mentors, that opportunity made me into the meeting professional I am today.
Advice for My Younger Self: Keep trying–everything happens for a reason and every time you make a mistake or fail, get up, move on, and learn from that mistake. It is important to remember that not every failure defines you, but rather how you react. When working in the industry, tensions often run high, but positioning yourself as the voice of reason in an environment of chaos will make you invaluable.
Next Goal: My next goal would be to obtain a leadership position to learn the overall scope and inner-workings of the industry from a higher level. I believe my experience in multiple industry positions has made me a very well-rounded candidate prepared for the next level. My goal is always to lead in a more intuitive way while making a lasting contribution.
Community Marketing Manager, Goldcast
It Gets Better
Aha Moment: I was born with a love for community. Events bring people together, so naturally event marketing is a huge part of building community. I find my passion for event marketing is strong because each program is a chance to bring individuals together in new ways to foster connections that lead to new ideas! There’s nothing more exciting to me than what might come from the next conversation with someone I’ve never met before. Plus, asking people to choose my event over one thousand other ways to spend their time that day is a challenge that pushes me to constantly reinvent my approach.
What One Thing Made All the Difference? I believe that a spirit of positivity and belief that things just keep getting better has been a huge driver of success for me. Pair a tenacious spirit with a humble mindset that is always ready to tackle the next task, and you will constantly be finding new doors of opportunity opening! My mom shared a quote with me: “Courage is the quiet voice at the end of the day whispering, try again tomorrow.” If you’re always willing to try again, you’ll be amazed at what you can do!
Advice for My Younger Self: My advice for my younger self is to focus on building inner confidence. Practice trusting your gut. Don’t be afraid to say, “I don’t know.” Never stop taking time to show gratitude. The more people you meet, the more you will start to believe that most people are good.
Next Goal: My current WIP is building a community for b2b event marketers. This community, The Event Marketers Club, is a professional Slack space for professionals in the b2b events field and demand gen marketing industries to come together and ideate. It’s a true passion project. So far, it’s been going well. We’ve reached over 250 members in the first two months and are currently planning our first in-person meetup!
Tammi Joseph, CMP
Sr. Executive Assistant, Altria Group Distribution Company
Intentional, Appreciative and Cautious
Aha Moment: As an experienced senior executive assistant, meeting planning sort of fell in my lap. I was always involved in planning events and always wanted to do an excellent job. I saw an opportunity to fill some gaps and enhance the execution of events I supported or attended. This provided me with the drive and determination to get certified. I successfully completed my certification in meeting planning from the VCU Campus in April of 2019. I truly enjoy being involved in the program and it also put so many things into perspective and gave me the confidence to effectively negotiate better than I had previously. There are so many small non-monetary changes that you can incorporate into your events that truly make a difference for your attendees which are noticeable and really makes a difference. I guess you can say I love servicing others and enjoy making them happy with my support.
What One Thing Made All the Difference? What makes a difference is just being authentically me. I am an Afro-Caribbean woman, with an accent, who migrated to the United States as a teenager with a strong work ethic, a positive attitude and ultimately wanted to be successful to make my family proud. I am always leading multiple workstreams and my continual drive for self-improvement makes a huge difference. I believe in a strong team culture and fostering an environment where my peers feel free to share with me. I am a continuous learner, and I’m always excited to transfer my learnings on to others so the team can also grow. My peers know I am always going to lead with integrity, but I can still give it to you straight.
Advice for My Younger Self: Stay focused as tough times don’t last forever. Focus on the things you are able to change and let go of the stuff out of your control. Every experience, whether tough or not, makes you stronger. You may not know it at the time it is happening but will look back and learn from that experience and appreciate what got you here today. Most importantly, make sure you learn from your past to ensure you are not repeating the same things that contribute to “tough times.”
Next Goal: I am being intentional about my personal health and making it a priority just as I do my responsibilities at Altria. Being intentional allows me to focus on what is truly important and making it a priority. Planning my schedule two weeks out on Sundays and adding time for physical activity is essential for me, especially since I am getting older. I’ve always heard people say, “pay yourself first” when talking finances but the same goes for your health. Put your health first so you have the longevity to do more. Secondly, I am putting self-development and awareness at the forefront so I can increase my skills and be better prepare for what lies ahead. Lastly, make time to enjoy life and be appreciative for the small wins.
Viveca McDonald, MBA, DES
Corporate Sales Manager, Visit Denver
Optimistic, Creative, Intentional
Aha Moment: I began my career in the meetings and tourism industry in November 2019. After almost 10 years in retail management, I developed my skills of branding, product activations and customer satisfaction. I always aspired to become the planner for the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade! After completing my Master’s in Business Administration, Marketing, I set out to cultivate my next chapter in the events industry. I had the honor to begin my career with Visit Denver as an Executive Meetings Manager. Within three months, the world changed forever! After the turmoil and uncertainty of the industry, I witnessed a resilient, supportive, and innovative group of people. It was then that I knew I was right at home!
What One Thing Made All the Difference? Mentorship! From Cahal Mowery to Rachel Benedick, and 100 names in between, I have been welcomed and nurtured in this industry over the evolving last 3 years. My colleagues, counterparts, and customers have been so welcoming and encouraging through sharing their expertise and insights from their career paths. Another key factor has been my involvement with MPI Rocky Mountain Chapter, the first chapter of MPI. Not only as a member, but now currently serving on the board of directors. I have been challenged and cheered to take leaps in my career and explore new nuances of event design.
Advice for My Younger Self: Stay calm and carry on! The storm will pass. It may leave damage in its wake and take time to rebuild, but the tough times will pass. I would encourage my younger self to utilize the times of goodness to build resilience, community and practice gratitude. When that inevitable storm arises, you are prepared with flashlights, batteries, and a point of rendezvous to withstand. I would encourage my adolescent self to embrace the challenges that await and reflect on the lessons that come from times of opposition. These periods of uncertainties are the times that we grow the most.
Next Goal: As the industry rebounds and accelerates into its next chapter, I look to grow and evolve alongside it. At this stage I am redesigning my five-year plan to clearly define the next goals to seek. In the meantime, my endeavors are to excel in my newly appointed role and exceed my clients’ expectations. Currently, I serve on the Rocky Mountain Chapter MPI Board of Directors. I aspire to become chapter president within the next three board terms. Outside of my involvement with MPI, I strive toward becoming a pillar of DEI and to become a mentor to those to come.
Associate Director, Client Services, Company Choose Chicago
Optimistic, Balanced, Leader
Aha Moment: With a growing awareness of the heavy carbon footprint of large meetings, planners are in a tough position to create the most profound and enticing, not to mention impactful, educational experiences. I recently participated in a session about reducing carbon footprints in meetings and the question posted was “how do we preach sustainability while asking thousands of people to get on an airplane?” The answer was an “Aha” moment for me. Getting the right minds together at a meeting or a conference (preferably at McCormick Place) is where we see the biggest breakthroughs in cancer research and solving our climate crisis, to name a few.
What One Thing Made All the Difference? At every step in my career, my ears bled from the loving and unsolicited advice from family as to why I shouldn’t adopt a dog. As an ambitious, career-oriented professional, my parents begged me to focus what little down time I had on taking care of myself and not to add to my plate. In the past few years, our family has finally grown by four paws. The additional responsibility of caring for our black lab, Cairo, has forced me to shift my priorities. Because of that, I have been able to leave the glory of a heavy workload in the past, and instead I am proud to be focused on the essential tasks that make the most meaningful impact on our team.
Advice for My Younger Self: I measure my self-worth against my work ethic. As a younger gal, I made myself available for any boss, colleague or client eight days a week. Instead of resting, I found crutches. I did not believe that I could be both balanced and successful. I would empower my younger self with the courage to set boundaries and focus on rest and recovery.
Next Goal: This next September, I will be marrying into an Ecuadorean family. When I met my amazing fiancé in high school, my Spanish skills were limited to the latest Shakira song. After almost twenty years and a Spanish minor in college, I am proud to say that I am conversational, at best. My goal for this year is to find more opportunities to speak Spanish for the purpose of improving my confidence and fluency. In addition to stacking up the brownie points with my future family, I look forward to more enriching travel experiences and deeper connections with other cultures.
Senior Sales Manager, National Sales Team, Vail Resorts
Empathetic, Adaptable, Fun
Aha Moment: I think if we are all being honest, we ask ourselves “why am I doing this?” This being the meetings industry, of course. It can be high stress, fast paced and often thankless. But through this shared experience, I am acutely aware that it is shared. Shared by colleagues who love to engage, empathize and serve not only with our clients but with each other. From the beginning of my career I’ve felt this connection. I love the people I work with and collaborate with along the way, and that will always make this industry feel like home.
What One Thing Made All the Difference? I’ve stopped placing self-worth in direct correlation with professional trajectory and reputation. I was raised with the phrase, “smart chicks rule!” While it fostered confidence and a childhood resolute opinion that females were smarter than males, it also instilled performance based affirmation. We know our identities are not tied to sex (e.g. females being smarter than males) or to professional accolades, but to our core values as humans. This has allowed me to align my core values with the company I work for, find balance and continually check my perspective in the day to day.
Advice for My Younger Self: Slow down, and take space. Slow down to regain perspective on the presented challenge, and take the space you need to not let work overflow and affect your mental health.
Next Goal: Since my professional success is not as severely tied to the next promotion or success as it was previously, my current goal is to lead with curiosity rather than opinion. I still pursue momentum and growth as I was recently promoted to senior manager, but my focus is now shared with my team’s development and success. Sometimes the past resurfaces in workflow and I can present quite strongly when showing up for my team. It’s my responsibility to myself and to those that I lead and collaborate with to seek understanding while fostering creative thinking and shifts in perspective.
Coordinator, Special Events, Hilton
Enthusiastic, Optimistic, Inquisitive
Aha Moment: My introduction to events originated from a personal passion for philanthropic efforts. Surrounded by military bases, I got involved in experiential events intended to give thanks and show support for our military community. I was motivated by seeing how the level of thought and effort put into each event directly impacted the attendee experience. This interest led to wanting to contribute to larger events which ultimately led me to Hilton and conferences. Getting to collaborate with the creative and strategic minds of people in the meetings industry has been an incredible experience so far. I don’t anticipate the thrill of seeing these large conferences come to fruition wearing off anytime soon.
What One Thing Made All the Difference? I left my job as a Director of Events for a local Realtor Association to join Hilton’s Special Events team as a coordinator—fully knowing that entering conferences was a completely different world. I think the biggest thing that made a difference in my career is having full awareness of what I knew and, more importantly, what I didn’t know. Because of this, I shadowed and volunteered to take on as many things as I reasonably could to support our team while learning as much as I could from veterans of the industry. This ground-level experience has given me the confidence to speak up, provide valuable input, improve processes and anticipate needs within the team.
Advice for My Younger Self: Focus on what you can control and the power of your mindset. With age and experience, you learn to understand the bigger picture and realize there is a potential solution to most challenging things you encounter in life. And if there isn’t, ask yourself what you gain from worrying about something you have no control over. My advice would be to write out the things that give you stress. Simply put, if you’re able to come up with a backup plan or solution, then there’s no need to stress over it. Likewise, if there is nothing you can do to change the outcome of that stressor, then there’s no need to stress over it.
Next Goal: I plan to continue fully immersing myself in all aspects of conference planning and help connect people by producing world-class events. With well-rounded experience, my goal is to provide a higher-level contribution to the strategic facets of meetings. Through my current role, I’ve also developed a focused interest in the technology behind conference planning and am working toward becoming the “event technology expert” within the organization. I hope to find new ways to incorporate technology to improve the overall experience for both attendees and the conference planning team. With the energy of each conference opening day, I’m reminded of what drew me to this industry, and I hope to have a long career in this field.
Elaiza Shepherd, HMCC
Director of Sales and Marketing, The 180 Group, Inc
Energetic, Devoted, Adaptable
Aha Moment: August 2019. At the time, I was a planner for an international traveling trade show. I had just landed in Louisville for an industry event. During this event, I met some of my closest industry friends I still have today.
What One Thing Made All the Difference?. November 2020. At this time, I was a supplier and attending an industry event in Texas. During a townhall breakout, I spoke up about my experience being married to a black man in Minnesota after George Floyd, and Melvin Tennant (of Meet Minneapolis) told me to never stop sharing my story in our industry. I haven’t stopped.
Advice for My Younger Self: Be you. If you know me, you know that I am unapologetically Elaiza. I speak up for what I believe in. I wear retro sneakers on the show. I push the “norm”. The hardest lesson I had to learn was not to try to “fit-in.” Accepting who I am and my experiences make me the best version of me.
Next Goal: My next goal is to help change the narrative of the industry. I want the next generation to know the possibilities that await in the meetings and events industry. When someone says I work in “meetings and events”, I want people to think of hotels, convention centers, catering, corporate events, special events, product launches, creatives, graphics, set design, planning, logistics, travel and so much more. Our industry is more than just wedding planning – it is an industry that brings people together and impacts every economy.
Ciara P. Ursos
Sales Manager, Stay Pleasant Hill
Gratitude, Confidence, Creativity
Aha Moment: I knew the meetings industry was my home when I was Vice President of Philanthropy for my sorority. My desire to be in the meetings industry sank in at Meeting Professionals International WEC 2021. From January – June 2019, I organized multiple events where my sorority collaborated with other multicultural organizations to expand our network among UC Santa Cruz’s student body. I built a brand and community among UC Santa Cruz’s Greek organizations.
What One Thing Made All the Difference? I networked like crazy and was eager to learn from everyone. I put myself out there by volunteering for Professional Convention Management Association Northern California Chapter’s Marketing Committee, where I absorbed knowledge at educational seminars and attended chapter events. I found strong women mentors to learn from their ideas and transform them into my own. While forming new connections and engaging in seminars at MPI WEC 2021, I found a job and worked in a DMO before I graduated college.
Advice for My Younger Self: High school Ciara should remember that you are your best advocate. Proudly sharing your values, dreams, fears, and struggles develops your confidence that supports your resilience. Although voicing your discomfort or revealing your fears feels daunting, these are meaningful conversations to establish healthy boundaries that ensure your well-being and the ability to fuel your ambition. Be fearless when you operate through life by picking mantras that remind you of your strength.
Next Goal: As the first Sales Manager for Stay Pleasant Hill, I want to build our city’s travel trade and meetings presence. I am eager to understand my craft here and work for a major convention city.
Senior Manager, Event Solutions, Walmart
Accomplish, Excel, Resilient
Aha Moment: I realized I enjoyed working and planning corporate meetings and events after my first time working our Shareholders and Associate Week meeting. My real Aha moment came when I had been on the operations side of our team for 5 years and was moved to our production team. After about a year in production I realized I could be successful on both the Operations and Production side. It began to feel like home after that because I could see a bigger picture of meetings and events by being knowledgeable in the all aspects of meetings and events.
What One Thing Made All the Difference: I solicited my leadership for direct reports. I realized that in order for me to grow in the meeting and event industry, I needed to grow others.
Advice for my Younger Self: Identify a person or persons that will give you unvarnished feedback when others will not. Not just as a mentor but to confide in with any issue you have.
Next Goal: My next goal is to become a director within the event solutions team at Walmart. It will allow me to continue personal growth and develop others.