Meet the 2022 Meeting Professionals of the Year

Bringing people together during a pandemic and a global staffing and supply shortage requires an unorthodox approach and the courage to do whatever it takes to complete the mission, in other words, a maverick. Our 2022 Meeting Professionals of the Year feature celebrates the commanders, captains and chief innovation officers piloting the industry to Mach 10 for engagement and extreme return on planning.

This year’s honorees were nominated to this elite honor by their peers and agreed to share their classified secrets and top advice to inspire the Smart Meetings community of event professionals to soar even higher against all odds. We asked them to share the lessons learned over the last three years and give themselves a call sign that best represents their approach to event excellence. Their responses had us standing at attention and we hope they will strike a chord with you as well.

Congratulations to the best of the best meeting professionals and everyone out there putting everything on the line every time they walk into a ballroom. We salute you!

headshot of Michelle AllgauerMichelle “Cool as a Cucumber” Allgauer, CAE, CMM, CMP Fellow

Senior Vice President, Education & Engagement, Financial Services Institute, Inc. (FSI)

Meeting Specialties: strategic direction and operational leadership, content development, implementation, sponsorship, marketing and evaluation for annual conferences and webinars and workshops leading up to FSI Forum & Capitol Hill Day

Motivational Bugle Call: Change is constant, so it’s important to brainstorm, adapt and experiment with ways to deliver value to our members. At the end of the day, they are what motivate me. I enjoy working with them to create compelling content. Wanting to provide them with the best experience is what keeps me learning about new industry trends, so I can bring back best practices and help the team implement them.

For the benefit of the team and the members, I do my best to stay positive and remain results oriented. During the lifecycle of an event, it feels like you’re climbing a mountain, or sometimes even pushing a boulder up the mountain. You reach the top and start descending and sometimes going down can be just as hard as going up. I do my best to focus on outcomes and celebrate successes so we can finish strong.

Lessons Learned: Change is constant. Be flexible, nimble and solution oriented. Risk assessment is vital. It’s important to ask, “and what else?” We may be focused on Covid protocols, but it’s important to remember the many other factors that can impact your meeting: weather, flight delays, staffing shortages, inventory issues, etc. Control what you can control and prepare as best you can for what you can’t control.

Continue to educate yourself and build your skill set. Rely on your network and community as resources for best practices. Be actively involved in professional associations. By attending their events, I was able to see firsthand how others produced “safe” events during the pandemic and implement some of the best practices in FSI’s events. After every event, gather feedback from internal and external stakeholders—and most importantly, use it. Remember where we started. Change is constant.

Advice for My Younger Self: Be a continuous learner and actively pursue your professional development. Join a professional development association and volunteer for it so you can continue to build your skill set and network. Set goals for yourself and put an action plan in place to achieve them.

headshot of alex bakalisAlex “Audience & strategy first, execution & details second” Bakalis, hybrid events and social media certifications

Manager, Partnerships and Events, Coyote Logistics (a UPS Company) and Director of Events, SITE Chicago Board

Meeting Specialties: conferences, meetings, virtual, customer appreciation and networking events

Motivational Bugle Call: I have planned events for a non-profit, events agency and now as a corporate planner. This variety has allowed me to navigate challenges and solve them quicker. I am motivated when I see the event being executed and hear about attendee feedback. There is nothing more rewarding than immersing people in an amazing event and knowing every detail was thought of for them. I use the phrase “Done is better than perfect.” Event planning and all the moving parts can be overwhelming sometimes, so I fall back on knowing I am doing everything I can to execute a flawless event and trust everything will fall in place based on my effort. I might be a millennial, but I value connecting with people and picking up the dang phone. It will almost always solve problems faster.

Lessons Learned: Live events are back, but it’s important we remember to ask our audience and attendees what they want. People are selective with their time and energy for both virtual and live events, so we need to ensure they are getting value out of the events being planned. Just like most other meeting planners, I shifted into the virtual space and learned countless platforms. The experience was a true test of being resilient, scrappy and learning as quick as possible. I now work in the supply chain industry planning events. Talk about two areas that are turbulent—events and supply chain. Change is inevitable so I’ve learned to keep being open-minded, flexible and meeting customers wherever they are.

Advice for My Younger Self: Almost everybody is making it up as they go and learning what they want from working at various jobs. Ask questions but take a ton of notes. Pay your dues and your hard work will pay off. Be patient with yourself—not everything will happen overnight. And most importantly, pause, enjoy the small moments, and reflect as much as possible. It’s so easy to be on to the next role, thought, task, etc. and it’s important to slow down and appreciate the small things. People aren’t joking when they say the years fly by!

headshot of lisa astorgaLisa “Cool as a Cucumber” Astorga, CMP, DES

Director of Meetings, International Society on Thrombosis and Haemostasis (ISTH)

Meeting Specialties: global association medical meetings

Motivational Bugle Call: I know what we do has a real impact on patients. Being part of the science community that develops new treatments and brings real care to those afflicted with bleeding and clotting disorders is significant.

I have worked with other groups as well, in and outside the medical community, and the passion they feel for what they do is contagious. Just as we have a passion and love for what we do in the meetings industry, knowing that we play just as significant of a role in what we do for them has meaning. Looking at challenges as opportunities pushes me to be better.

Lessons Learned: Expect the unexpected. Be prepared to change course at the drop of a dime and keep your cool. Being comfortable with change and being flexible was key over the past two years.

Also, embrace the unknown and instead of looking at things as a challenge, look at them as an opportunity and keep that mindset to continue to grow. Covid allowed us to accelerate change and experiment with forgiveness. This is a rare opportunity. You also need a strong empowered team. Believe in them and believe in yourself and we can have an impact.

Advice for My Younger Self: Balance, balance, balance. Your love and a passion for this industry will drive you and helps you succeed. However, you will also need to balance your personal life. Remember why we do what we do and what is important professionally and personally and don’t let one impact the other as they are equally important. Enjoy the journey. We are so lucky to be doing what we are doing and you really have an impact to those you serve. You make a difference!

headshot of jeniffer belloJeniffer “Experiential” Bello, CMP

President and Creative Producer, JB Experiences

Meeting Specialties: experiential meetings, incentive, retreats, luxury, board, corporate, special events

Motivational Bugle Call: Extraordinary requires exceptional. You can only control you, so make it count. Not everything or everyone needs a reaction from you so put your energy where it really matters. The magic is not in the big moments; those are to enjoy. Magic is found in the small, everyday things.

The magic is in the details. Remember the big picture but focus on the present. Challenges are not the problem, but the wrong attitude definitely is. Be kind to everybody. Make everyone that you meet feel better after they interact with you, no matter the situation. Nothing is impossible and everything can be achieved. You got this!

Lessons Learned: Change can be hard. But it can also be an opportunity. These unique times have taught me to be comfortable navigating uncertainty. I learned to understand that all days are not bad days and that not all days can be good ones either, but we must make the best out of all of them. Time is the greatest asset that we have.

Not everybody can be in your circle, and that’s okay. Where your thoughts go, your path goes. Showing up is important. For yourself, for your loved ones, for your clients. Do what you love because that passion will make you hold onto it when things get rough.

Advice for My Younger Self: Always keep an open mind. Stay curious and be teachable. The most important and valuable thing in building up your career will be the connections and relationships you create and maintain within the industry. Trust your instincts. Trust yourself. People will doubt you, that’s okay. Always be honest to yourself. Be humble enough to accept your weaknesses and work on them, but confident enough that no one can make you doubt your value. Making mistakes is okay, not doing anything about it is not. Practice is key. Always do your best.

headshot of keely brazilKeely “Experience-Maker” Brazil, MBA

Senior Event Planner, Benco Dental

Meeting Specialties: incentive travel, sales trainings, customer-focused events and corporate meetings

Motivational Bugle Call: What motivates me to continue moving forward is knowing how unique my job is. I’m fortunate enough to have a career that allows me to do something different every day, to meet new people and make lifelong connections, travel to new places and plan bucket-list trips for others. When I have challenges that affect the success of a program, I try to see it as a learning experience. I pivot the situation, work through it and when it’s all said and done, I see how I can avoid that same challenge in the future.

Lessons Learned: Have a Plan B, C and D. Over the last few years, every meeting I have executed has had some unplanned or last-minute change. By having strategies for different scenarios ready, it helped save time and stress when having to make a large adjustment. Whether the event is shifting from in-person to virtual or from one location to another—it has been extremely helpful having an executable backup plan in place. It is a lot of extra work; however, it is always worth it in the end.

Advice for My Younger Self: Always make connections! I try to meet as many people at industry events as possible. You never know when you may be able to work with them in the future and vice versa.

headshot of Cori BrennanCori “Passionate Professional” Brennan, CMP

Senior Meeting Manager, Canvas Meetings + Incentives

Meeting Specialties: Corporate meetings, association conferences, nonprofit convening, incentive trips, retreats- you name it!

Motivational Bugle Call: Seeing the end result of months (and sometimes years!) of planning come together. The attendees’ smiling faces, the client’s excitement when we go live…all of those things constantly remind me why I love to do what I do! I’m also really lucky to be surrounded by an amazing team. Even though we’re remote, we’re constantly bouncing ideas and challenges off of each other. I’ve got a sounding board and a hype squad all rolled into one if I need it!

Lessons Learned: Ideas are like spaghetti. You have to throw them at the wall and see if they’ll stick! We tried a lot of new things over the past few years and I believe that stepping outside of our usual “box” helped us make it through successfully—and bigger and better! Canvas brought promo goods in-house; I project-managed a Times Square ad campaign and video shoot; and of course, we jumped right into virtual meetings with both feet.

Advice for My Younger Self: Soak it all in and say yes! What seems like “another boring audit” helps build the foundation of the skills needed to be an amazing meeting planner. I’m so glad that early in my career I had the opportunity to be a part of planning so many different types of events for a variety of groups. Some of the skills I learned very early are the ones that I continue to use daily. They are no longer mundane, but just as crucial and even easier now!

headshot of pamela schrockPamela “Polished Go-Getter” Carey Schrock, CMP, CMM

Sr. Manager of Meeting Planning & Events, Transamerica

Meeting Specialties: executive board meetings and sporting events

Motivational Bugle Call: I am privileged to have a profession I absolutely love. When I have new challenges or when I am delegated a new event, I tell myself, ‘time to dig in’ and make it happen. How can I make this program an unbelievable experience for the attendee? I call this the chipper phase, where we start chipping away at securing the details then we can create a great event in a reasonable time and budget.

Lessons Learned: Start each day dressed for success and smile. When Covid started, we were all surprised when all events were canceled, then postponed, then canceled again. Then we all learned how well we could communicate through video conferencing. I had previous experience from doing investor relations meetings that were streamed via the internet, but knew we were entering a new era with webcasting live events.

My colleagues and I dug in to learn as much as we could to be ready for our events. One of my responsibilities during this season included oversight of our relationship with the PGA & LPGA Pros Transamerica sponsored. Since we could not do in-person events, I asked our Pros agent about doing web events. We identified a platform, topics, times with the pros and…success. We reached four times the number of people we did in person.

Advice for My Younger Self: Have confidence and keep thinking about growing in your profession. I was always a hard worker, but I didn’t always think about where I wanted to grow in the profession. I would think about the money I wanted to make, but not what I wanted to do. I would say, be intentional about your career. Think about what you really, really want to do in our industry.

Also, is there anything you want to change in our industry? There are some influential associations like Financial Insurance Conference Professionals (FICP) or Events Industry Council (EIC) that have really grown our industry. Being involved with them helps grow the professionalism of our profession. I am also a big advocate of our industry certifications. Achieving them means you care about the industry and personal growth.

headshot of Mark CatuognoMark “Bright Ideas” Catuogno, CGSP

Owner, MC Event Consulting

Meeting Specialties: Association events and incentive programs

Motivational Bugle Call: My motivation is derived from helping bring people together and reaching goals. For example, during the heart of the pandemic, it was essential to help our association clients by moving medical conferences online so doctors could get critical medical information.

It allowed us to grow our team by doing virtual events and bringing people together to get life-critical information. As the notable Estee Lauder said, “I never dreamed of success; I worked for it.” You need to be able to go beyond the normal to ensure things go perfectly for our clients’ so their dreams are achieved.

Lessons Learned: One lesson we have learned over the last two years is to have many plans in place to ensure you always have a backup. Working in incentive programs and working with different countries, rules and guidelines are ever-changing, so we set up different ways for us to communicate to ensure employees know how to get information. Two days before we flew out for our program, every guideline for our event changed, and we needed to update our guests daily with ever-changing info.

We have multiple ways of ensuring people receive updated information from email, event app, text messages, and WhatsApp. By having numerous forms of communication, we allowed our guests to have different ways for us to communicate in the best way that worked for that guest. The day our group was leaving our program, multiple flights were canceled; with numerous communication forms already set up, we could communicate flight updates and rebooking and bring comfort to our group through summer travel hassle.

Advice for My Younger Self: I would say use your network and have confidence. By networking and supporting our industry, I have built amazing friends ready to help my clients and me and have the strength to get through anything.

headshot of Chris CherkisChris “Collaborative Circus” Cherkis, CMP, DES

Senior Director of Conferences, American Retirement Association

Meeting Specialties: citywide, board retreat, education and credentialing

Motivational Bugle Call: Creating and considering new opportunities, being open to new approaches and considerations.

Lessons Learned: Today isn’t tomorrow and it’s certainly not ‘last time or last year.’ Take time to think and process, understand to find the path forward. Technology is an amazing tool that is specific and broad. Find what works for a program and don’t overdo it—basics can be best.

Advice for My Younger Self: Get involved. Ask more question. Speak up. Express and integrate your passion. Consider the future not just the now.



headshot of lisa christieLisa “Bones” Christie, CMP

Meeting, Event Planner and Site Selection Specialist, American Meetings Inc.  

Motivational Bugle Call: Today is a new day. Rise-up and believe life is what you make it!

Don’t get overwhelmed with the whole picture, just break each segment down into methodical steps. Try your best to keep it simple!

Lessons Learned: To utilize and leverage your strengths with no excuses! I, personally, went back to my “tyke” career, called “catering” and created my own business: Fruits of Labor, as a part-time, event-host business giving small family social events the ability to keep celebrating, gathering and to continue to live life for today, safely during the ovid-19 stretch.

Advice for My Younger Self: Accept that plan B is always another option and may prevail. : )


headshot of stacy cliftStacy “Special Forces” Clift, VEMM

Director of Promotions, Partnerships and Engagement, The National Council on Aging

Meeting Specialties: national education conference and expo, webinars and eLearning round table events

Motivational Bugle Call: 23 years of association nonprofit experience has taught me every day is a good day, but some are better than others. There are a lot of moving parts in event planning, and it can feel overwhelming at times. But if I keep all those parts in perspective, aka mission first, today’s task will make tomorrow’s easier, and so on. Focus on the solution, not the problem. In the event world, everything is fixable. A calm attitude makes for a successful mindset.

Lessons Learned: Communication is key, don’t be afraid to talk about what didn’t go well and what you learned from it because the solution is what people remember. Being kind is now more important than ever.

Advice for My Younger Self: One of my favorite quotes is by Amelia Earhart, “The most difficult thing is the decision to act, the rest is merely tenacity.” Having confidence in the decisions you make grows over time. Learning to listen and build consensus among your team lays the best foundation for sound decision making. Finally, time isn’t always on your side, know when to communicate via the phone vs email.

Darrell “Agile Collaborator” Drason

Director of Global Event Operations, MetLife

Meeting Specialties: global events for multinational audiences; C-suite programs

Motivational Bugle Call: I am fortunate to love my job, admire my colleagues and believe in the mission of my company, so starting work each day is something I look forward to. But when the insurmountable challenge appears—and there always seems to be one—I remind myself that whatever the problem is, it cannot possibly be new. Someone, somewhere, has overcome this.

We are in an industry of partnerships; everyone in this business wants you to succeed and to create a win-win. So, when solutions elude me, I stop, assess and call a teammate or mentor. After talking things through, suddenly the problem isn’t insurmountable. Remember, your team isn’t just your internal department or your go-to supplier, it is that person you met on a tradeshow floor or the one you accepted a cold call from. Meeting professionals thrive on one another’s success and help is just a phone call away.

Lessons Learned: There is always room for patience and kindness, so lead with compassion. Keep in touch with industry friends around the world; we are not only a network, we are a family. Whether in-person or virtual, Meeting professionals are heavily relied upon by stakeholders; now more than ever we must stay focused and keep delivering 100%.

I recently realized that I had been in the business for 20 years and it reminded me of the importance of being as generous with my time as others have been with me. It is a privilege to be able to show those just entering the business why this is one of the most rewarding careers on the planet. This industry has some of the best, most passionate, friendly and fun(!) people anywhere.

Advice for My Younger Self: It is true—hard work and a great attitude will win every time. Victory is in the details, but just as important, is the team and network you surround yourself with. Heed the advice of veterans and always offer assistance to colleagues. Continue to volunteer for the jobs that no one wants and then deliver more than anyone expected. Remember that career paths are long and when you look back, all the consistent steps forward will have added up to a huge leap. The demands are real, but you are creating the future of your dreams. Always go for it!

headshot of Debbie GarciaDebbie “The Inquisitor” Garcia, CMP

CEO, virsitour

Meeting Specialties: Anything from sourcing to full programs for incentives, associations and corporate

Motivational Bugle Call: I am motivated by my family. They keep me on track to be organized and thoughtful of others’ time. The meetings and events industry is very stressful and when new challenges come up, I find them to be fun. I get to figure out how to make it work. I ask myself questions and get to the bottom of the issue. I tell myself that I can face any challenge as long as I stay calm and keep an open mind.

Lessons Learned: The past two years have rocked my world. I was faced with two children at home doing virtual school, losing all my income and feeling very alone. I have learned that when you face challenges, ideas and innovation are created. I leaned into what I was facing and created something with virsitour that our industry needs, not just for what we have faced during the pandemic, but for the future.

Innovation is the key to our success and as long as we all connect on a human level, we can navigate turbulent times.
Advice for My Younger Self: I would tell myself to never question your ideas and to keep asking questions. There will be people who will try and cut you down, but stand strong and don’t let them ruin your spirit. You have great intentions and ideas and those should be heard. Always help when you can and do not to fear the unknown. That is where true determination comes from.

headshot of Shelley HodgkinsonShelley “Empathetic Operator” Hodgkinson

Senior Director, Event Solutions, Walmart

Meeting Specialties: corporate, internal and external associate, customer, supplier and investor meetings small, medium and large

Motivational Bugle Call: Influence the things you can influence…Don’t get stressed over the small things. Rally the troops; they are depending on you for direction and motivation…Take others with you.

Lessons Learned: I have used the last two years to positive effect. I networked like never before, learned from others and shared best practices as our competitors were no longer our competitors. We were in this together. We all learned new skills, operators became producers and everyone became more well-rounded in the events world.

Advice for My Younger Self: Have strong tenacity, focus on what’s in your control. Stand your ground, be a strong female leader and be proud of your results, as well as your team’s results. Become grounded in the events industry; don’t be siloed. Trust your instinct. Surround yourself with the right people in your career, people who are your sponsors and mentors.

headshot of Ellie HurleyEllie “The Critical Thinker” Hurley

Director of Event Services, Smithbucklin

Meeting Specialties: association (from board meetings to annual conferences)

Motivational Bugle Call: My pep talk typically includes three elements: (1) A practical assessment—“this” (whatever this is) is going to happen whether I’m ready or not, so I better be ready; (2) Self-motivation—along the lines of: I’ve managed through all sorts of challenges before, so I know I can handle this one.

At this point, I remind myself that I can only do what I can do. It takes the pressure off. If I do my best, nothing more can be asked of me; and (3) The big why—why we do this. I know that along with my amazing teammates, we’ve made a difference—whether we’ve helped our organization achieve its mission, enabled a member to advance their career, facilitated new business connections or simply brought joy through the event, we know we’ve done great things. It’s an amazing feeling.

Lessons Learned: Everything I’ve learned over the years still works during turbulent times. Make thoughtful plans but be ready to adjust. Be patient; it’s a “hurry up and wait” job. And most importantly, relationships matter. Business partnerships and work friendships are key to getting through your greatest challenges, both from a business and well-being perspective. Never underestimate how important relationships are.

Advice for My Younger Self: This is going to be a crazy ride—enjoy every part of it. Enjoy your teams, enjoy the details, enjoy the travel, enjoy the feeling when an event is done. And keep learning; never be complacent. There’s always more fun and challenge around the corner.

headshot of Mahoganey JonesMahoganey “Cheerleader” Jones, CMP, DES

Founder and CEO, Event Specialists Inc.

Meeting Specialties: corporate and medical association meetings

Motivational Bugle Call: What motivates me is my network of industry friends and colleagues who support each other to do what we love. The pep talk I give myself is to remind myself that I have the privilege of choosing great clients and teams to work with. I also remind myself that there are a lot of new pressures and to be patient as we collaborate to design great events. Between staffing shortages and designing events during such uncertainties, we have to focus on the now and the things we can control.

Lessons Learned: Embrace the opportunity to re-imagine and create something great. We’re continually reminded that producing events for the sake of doing so is no longer an option. Focusing on what you can control and designing an experience that allows both the planning team and the attendees to feel safe is also important.

Advice for My Younger Self: Continue to educate yourself and get involved early in associations. Niche down and focus on perfecting your craft every chance you get. Collaborate with others and seek out those in the industry you want to learn from. Always share your knowledge and give when possible.

headshot of Kyle JordanKyle “Meetings Architect” Jordan, CAE, CEM-AP, CMP, DES, CMM

Director of Meetings, INFORMS

Meeting Specialties: Association

Motivational Bugle Call: Even during these difficult times, I have one of the coolest and most fulfilling careers, in an industry that I’m passionate about, which brings people together. It doesn’t get much better than that!

Lessons Learned: With the implications of the digital revolution combined with the COVID-19 pandemic, the workplace is undergoing rapid changes that impact the meetings profession. While there may be an entirely different view on the daily running of business operations, we have to weave our way through this confusing and messy newness in an effort to contribute to shaping and evolving the next phase of our industry.

Advice for My Younger Self: Beware of overconfidence bias and develop and maintain a growth mindset.


headshot of Meghan KennyMeghan “Sherlock Holmes” Kenny, Introductory Sommelier Certification

Meeting Specialties: high-touch client outings, dinners, meetings, and large-scale conferences for a global financial institution

Motivational Bugle Call: My team is a huge part of what motivates me. In this fast-paced and pressurized environment, I am constantly inspired by the camaraderie and spirit of my colleagues. I am invested in playing my part to help our new hires find their way and feel such pride when I get to watch them execute and succeed in planning their first programs. I also love learning from them, which I do all the time—every day, every event.

Lessons Learned: To let go of what I can’t control and pivot. All I can do as a planner (and person) is own my reaction and focus on honing my ability to be flexible during trying times. Cancelled events, cancelled flights and sudden ‘unseasonable’ rainstorms are all things I can’t control. I am at my best when I can self-create small moments of space during the uncontrollable and just breathe. When I step out of the chaos, I always find my way forward.

Over the last two years, I also learned not to sell myself short. The transition into virtual events programming held a steep and often unnerving learning curve. Despite it being a daunting challenge, I can proudly say that I learned how to produce a webcast and spearheaded the planning of a week-long global virtual program that took place in June 2020. I surprised myself!

Advice for My Younger Self: It’s okay to not know things and make mistakes! You won’t improve if you don’t swing big, even if you don’t always hit the mark. Lessons can also be learned from every direction—not just from your management/senior team members. You will learn more than you could ever imagine from all the ‘behind-the-scenes’ teams that make events truly come to life. Don’t neglect those relationships. They will help build the foundation of your network and possibly become lifelong friends.

headshot of Paget KirklandPaget Kirkland

President, Kirkland Event & Destination Services

Meeting Specialties: corporate incentive, product launch, board of directors, etc.

Motivational Bugle Call: What I do motivates me every day. I create experiences for people and love the challenge of finding the new, producing the wow and seeing a client’s vision come to life. The biggest compliment is the continued loyalty of our customers and repeat business and those who ask us to travel with them to other destinations to top this year’s program.

Lessons Learned: Keep persevering and creating. Any bit of a slow time (when/if it happens) is not the time to wait for what will happen next, but to find what is the new, fantastic thing that will wow groups when business returns. This mentality sort of goes back to my former Ritz-Carlton training to anticipate each guest’s needs.

Advice for My Younger Self: Listen to your clients. Usually, they have a vision and if you really listen, you will be able to bring that vision to life and have a very happy, loyal customer.

headshot of Desiree KnightDesirée A. “Chief Bad A$$” Knight, CAE, CMP, DES

Senior Director, Education & Meetings, AREMA

Meeting Specialties: association business events

Motivational Bugle Call: The last few years have been an incredible challenge, especially with managing the pandemic and the intensified workload with fewer resources to help bring projects to life. I start my day with prayer and reflection on how I can make a difference for myself and the members I serve in the railroad community. My association members are responsible for the technology which helps move people, goods and services on the rail network.

I know my contribution to the space I serve is for the greater good and therefore, this opportunity keeps me uplifted. As a business event strategist working for an association, I bring my best self to lead the cause and the pep talk I give myself is simple, you are a blessing to those you encounter, keep shining and motivating others to be their best self.

Lessons Learned: COVID-19 has allowed me an opportunity to cultivate my leadership style and has shown me how to focus on being more resilient, developing more trust and demonstrating more empathy to maintain significant relationships. Being flexible allowed me to lead my team through this global crisis. I was, and am, laser-focused on the big picture which allowed me to mobilize the team around the ever-changing goals while maintaining composure in the face of uncertainty.

Being transparent, taking culpability for the decisions I make, following through on promises and leading with empathy instilled trust and built confidence that we will continue to survive this crisis. I have also learned in the past two years how to recast and develop multiple budgets including creating comprehensive risk assessments while optimizing my negotiation skills to ensure my organization is not responsible for excessive attrition. These skills have saved my company millions in expenses during Covid.

Advice for My Younger Self: I started in this industry with no tribe or village and I spent unnecessary energy trying to understand this magical world of meetings. If I were to take a step back in time, I would tell my younger self to stay curious, look for an established mentor and locate a tribe of meeting and association professionals that can be instrumental to your career growth.

In addition, I would tell my younger self to join an association earlier such as PCMA and ASAE to take advantage of their education, including volunteer opportunities that could help develop my leadership style as well as create a diverse pool of colleagues. More importantly, I would tell my younger self, you got this and more! After all, you will grow up to be the Incoming Chair for PCMA in 2023. 😊

headshot of Caryn MambroCaryn “Bold and Beautifully Executed” Mambro

Chief Creative Officer, Opus Agency

Meeting Specialties: summits, SKOs, GKOs, conferences, industry events, leadership meetings, annual kickoffs, roadshows, brand activations, product launches, press events, exhibits, incentive programs, employee activations

Motivational Bugle Call: What is the best possible outcome? Asking myself this question is so motivating. If you can visualize the outcome, you can manifest it and overcome any challenges that present themselves. I grew up in a very sports-minded family and gained a fiercely competitive mindset. No one goes into a game wanting to lose. Envision the best outcome and work your tail off to achieve it!

Lessons Learned: Embrace the turbulence. Your resilience and adaptability will likely surprise you and can lead to unexpected solutions. Great things are seldom safe or expected so if I have learned a lesson from the last two years, it is to embrace the chaos.

Advice for My Younger Self: Do not be afraid to take chances and be bold. Try to experience as much as possible within the industry and also, outside of it. There is so much inspiration happening in various sectors like the arts and emerging technology. Push beyond your comfort zone.

headshot of kimberly marenusKimberly “Conceive it, Develop it, Execute it” Marenus

Director of Events, City Chic Events

Meeting Specialties: sales meetings, experiential events, team building, executive dinners, roundtables, seminars, incentive meetings, virtual events, VR events

Motivational Bugle Call: If you panic, you can’t problem solve. So, the nerves go away and my enthusiasm to share my commitment and passion for the event takes over. I tell myself the event will be great! I am so excited to share all of my hard work behind the scenes with the audience and stakeholders. I have planned this event to the last detail, but something will inevitably not go as planned. And I will solve it. And no one will know, and everyone will only remember the experience and the success of the event. And tomorrow I will do it all over again.

Lessons Learned: Life moves pretty fast, if you don’t stop and look around, you could miss it! Truer words could not be more relevant over these last years. Life was changing daily, rules were changing, society was changing. Working in NYC, gatherings were limited from 100 to 10 people within days. I had to be nimble, think on my feet and come up with alternative plans. With virtual events, I was able to include an audience from around the world that wouldn’t otherwise be able to attend!

I instituted innovative ideas including creating a virtual reality (VR) world to hold events using VR headsets for colleagues to collaborate in the virtual world. I also jumped on opportunities that wouldn’t exist in the “real world” like getting dream speakers who wouldn’t normally be available. Lastly, unlocking data analytics from remote events has led to insights and better attendee experience to impact future events.

Advice for My Younger Self: There is always more to learn and you should start early. I have attended industry events for decades and always leave learning something new and making great connections. Keeping up on industry trends via magazines and events has been invaluable.

I am able to present new experiences and inventive products to my clients and work with wonderful people. Continuing the connections after events and meeting in person (or remotely) has led to collaborations I would not have thought would come about. I have had numerous occasions where I had to quickly come up with a hotel, entertainment or venue and was able to call upon a colleague I had met at a conference with whom I could partner. The connections and knowledge gained through industry resources has been crucial to my career. My advice would have been to start even sooner!

headshot of Victoria MateyVictoria “Behavioral Science Champion” Matey

Event Psychology Consultant, Matey Events

Meeting Specialties: conferences, trade shows, trainings

Motivational Bugle Call: Every time I’m having a hard time with something, I remember how much I’ve already accomplished and how many more serious struggles I’ve already overcome. When something feels overwhelming, I just apply the ‘elephant’ mantra: how do you eat an elephant? One piece at a time.

Lessons Learned: “People are social creatures” might sound cliché, but I got it when I read about a study that showed how social isolation affects people’s brains in the same way they crave food and water. Finding your people and sticking with them was my lesson. There’s nothing like someone by your side to share your joys or cheer you up in good or bad times.

Advice for My Younger Self: First, reach out to your network! Research shows people appreciate being reached out to more than we think. Ask for advice or referrals, get to know people on a personal level, build long-term relationships. Second, don’t be afraid to challenge things. Share your views; even if you’re just starting out, chances are you’ve got a valuable perspective that can help grow this industry.

headshot of Catherine McGuireCatherine “Heartfelt Go-Getter” McGuire

Founder, Creator, WholeHearted

Meeting Specialties: social impact-driven team-building experiences

Motivational Bugle Call: Knowing our programs make a difference to so many (both in the workplace and in communities in need) is what motivates me. When we’re wrapping up an event, preparing impact reports and knowing we’re supporting leaders in creating better employee experiences while giving back to marginalized groups is so rewarding.

When challenges arise, I remind myself that we are all continuously learning. I focus on giving myself (and those around me) grace, being solution-oriented and collaborating with amazing partners and professionals to make things happen!

Lessons Learned: Oh, there have been so many lessons! To successfully navigate turbulent times, I have learned to lead with kindness, stay open-minded, and trust my instincts.

Advice for My Younger Self: Say yes to opportunities before you think you are ready—prepare to work hard, be yourself and you will learn so much! Hold on tight to those genuine cheerleaders around you too, it takes a village and a strong circle of mentors is critical to any successful leader.

headshot of dina moralesDina “The Ringleader” Morales

Director of Event Production, Haute

Meeting Specialties: Large Scale Corporate Events, Fundraisers and Tradeshows

Motivational Bugle Call: I am passionate about emerging trends and innovative means of event production. I am lucky enough to be surrounded by a team that inspires me every day, backed by a company that supports us and allows us to do our best work. I have the knowledge and skill to manage any task thrown my way. I have made it through 100% of the challenges I have faced until now; why would this be any different? I trust in my instincts and abilities to guide me to success.

Lessons Learned: I have learned that we are capable of doing really difficult, seemingly impossible things! The need to adapt quickly has shown me that my team and I can change course faster than I had ever anticipated. While under demanding time constraints and faced with unpredictable outcomes, it is important to remember to remain calm and think three steps ahead.

Advice for My Younger Self: Don’t be afraid to dream big. Work as hard as you can, but don’t forget to take care of yourself and those around you. Don’t sacrifice the things that you love to do. Always…ALWAYS be kind.

headshot of karen norrisKaren “Kitchen Sink Planning” Norris, CMP

Conference Manager, The Canadian Association of General Surgeons

Meetings Specialties: medical conferences

Motivational Bugle Call: When I worked in sporting events, I expanded my education modalities from traditional sources such as books, journal articles and masterclasses to also include high-performance coaches and behavioral experts. For years, I have had a quote from Seth Godin that hangs in my office that reads, “No one accidentally goes to a conference. No one accidentally finds themselves at a convention.

The people who are there are choosing to be there; they are choosing to pay attention…Treat that attention like the privilege that it is.” I am a creator. I make things that didn’t exist before I touched them. I carefully curate safe spaces for scientific minds to come together to change the world. I do not take this responsibility lightly and my motivation comes from knowing my physicians are working tirelessly to perfect their craft and they expect the same from me when they trust me with their time and attention at my conference.

Lessons Learned: Professionally, I learned event professionals are some of the toughest people out there. The creativity, innovation and rate of information absorption was nothing short of extraordinary during the pandemic. It was done to ensure our industry continued to deliver its primary goal of community building and content sharing in a completely remote world. Personally, I learned that my self-worth and purpose cannot be wrapped in my identify as an event professional.

As much as I love my job, I am not my job. The pandemic painfully demonstrated that jobs and/or projects can be taken away instantly. Diversifying my interests outside the event industry can provide me anchors I can return to if my professional world experiences any disruptions (pandemic-related or not). Studies have also shown that those who work in creative fields need time away from their industry to cultivate their creativity via non-work sources. So, I am now learning a third language and have taken up pottery classes at a local studio.

Advice for My Younger Self: The one thing I would say to my younger event professional self is to focus more on the strategic design of events as much as I focused on industry standards and operating procedures. I believe in this way of thinking for event success so greatly that two years ago, I started working with the Event Design Collective and my local college to get the Event Design Canvas methodology implemented as required curriculum in the Event Management degree program for new students. Jealous I didn’t have this opportunity when I was a student, but proud I was a part of this change for the future.

headshot of Cheryl OswaldCheryl “Puzzle Master” Oswald, CMP, CMM

Project Manager of Store Operations & Experience & Events, Kohl’s

Meeting Specialties: corporate events

Motivational Bugle Call: Our industry’s continuous evolution motivates me to continue to learn and grow. As a team of one for a Fortune 500 company, I continue to tell myself that after all I have accomplished, nothing will stand between me and making an event happen. I also tell myself my favorite movie quote, “everything is possible, even the impossible” (Mary Poppins).

Lessons Learned: You are stronger than you think you are. While we have all had to navigate challenging times, everyone’s world has been a little different. Just remember you are more resilient than you think you are and you can handle anything that comes your way.

Advice for My Younger Self: Network, network, network! Building my network has been such a huge part of my personal and professional development as well as helping me navigate these last two years with multiple changes.

headshot of Nanci Parks GageNanci “Plan B!” Parks Gage, MBA

Director of Marketing and Patient Programs, Proton Therapy Partners and Executive Director, The Changing Lives Foundation

Meeting Specialties: strategic planning meetings, executive retreats, medical education, radiation therapy industry meetings, foundation events

Motivational Bugle Call: Because of the industry I’m in, radiation therapy, ultimately everything I do, even if it needs to be extrapolated a bit, is for patients. That is quite simply the best and biggest motivator. Unfortunately, everyone has a “connection” with cancer and I feel like everything I do is for everyone in one way or another.

Given that ultimate servant leadership as my base, there are still the mundane and menacing things that must be addressed, but I take pride in rising to the challenge, presenting a solution and executing at the best-of-the-best level. The reason behind every meeting, every event, is more fulfilling to the participants than we realize. They want this too! Everyone wants connection and recognition and what I do allows others to get that! Experiences make the best memories and the best experiences elevate memories exponentially!

Lessons Learned: There are many things out of our control that can be energy and outlook drains and you must let go of focusing on those things to focus on the present. I want to ensure that each day I can identify something I did for my family, friends or self that made the day a bit brighter just as much as I did in my professional demands.

I’m more of an introvert than I thought and need to carve out more “me” time to be a better me for everyone! Sharing “your story” can be more therapeutic than scary. Going back to simpler times doesn’t mean regressing, it’s refreshing! There is always someone who finds you amazing even when you are feeling so much less than that. I know “I can do this,” and, “I do this well” and sometimes just need to remind myself of that!

Advice for My Younger Self: In my role, I use all the skills learned throughout my education that I had no idea I ever would—simple social skills from preschool to accounting in grad school and every life lesson and experience just rolls into it! High energy is a must I have to make sure I take time to replenish! A smile, a thank you and “how can I help you make this happen?” questions go a long way! No matter what continent I’m on, a smile is a universal language that has helped me more times than I can count!

Brandon “DJ Next Slide” Paski, PMP, CCO

Sr. Digital Event Producer, Alation

Meetings Specialties: online and hybrid events, webinars, online conferences, all-hands meetings, company kick offs.

Motivational Bugle Call: For in-person events, it was always being able to give people an experience, a memory, and see and hear their reactions. The same holds true for online events; it’s just slightly different. Seeing the chat light up when a production idea or a session just works and resonates with the audience is just as much of a rush as hearing a crowd cheer. It takes more effort for someone to type their praise in the chat than clap, so I always keep that in mind while producing.

Lessons Learned: Stay flexible, try something new and rehearse everything. I’m always trying to add in new tech to my online meetings, but it doesn’t always go to plan. Tapping into my background in radio and television, I have implemented rehearsals for just about every meeting to give everyone a clear picture of how and when everything will happen, so there are as few surprises as possible, and we know how to pivot in case things go south.

Advice for My Younger Self: Don’t be so hard on yourself. Not every show will sell out and not every meeting will be a success. Do what you do, always be learning and push forward.

headshot of keshena pattersonKeshena “Strategizer” Patterson, CFMP

Manager of Global Accounts, HelmsBriscoe

Meeting Specialties: conferences, retreats, incentives, marketing events

Motivational Bugle Call: I am an ambitious person and strive to be better each day to help clients efficiently and continue to perfect my skills and communications so that the work I am putting in will speak for itself for my business to naturally expand.

Lessons Learned: I know being in the events business is for me because if I can have two straight down years of losses in every way imaginable for my business, defeat, horrible confidence in my future to where I am now, wow. It took a lot of prayer, faith, breaks away, strategy and challenges to make me realize I am in it for the long haul.

Advice for My Younger Self: Have fun, don’t take anything personally, stay organized, enjoy the amazing perks and people you will meet. Never lose sight of yourself and take time off.

headshot of Maribel BowlesMaribel “Relationship-builder” Ramirez Bowles

Events & Meetings Director, Texas CASA Inc.

Meeting Specialties: association conferences, trainings, receptions, retreats

Motivational Bugle Call: Helping children and families. I work for an organization whose local programs serve children and families experiencing the foster care system. These families have a lot to say and teach us, but not a lot of places where that can happen. I am changing that at our meetings and events by bringing them to the planning table. With their guidance, we are designing programming that goes beyond their stories.

The goal is to feature their successes, elevate their voices and learn how we can better advocate for them from them. If something does not go as planned, I ask myself, “will this make or break the program?” Ninety percent of the time it will not, so I adjust and move forward, always relying on my industry partners to help me resolve the issue.

Lessons Learned: I learned to stop stressing over not having the answers to the many questions we all had at the beginning of the pandemic. I reached out to my teammates and industry colleagues and through much trial and error, we were able to focus on our strengths and brought to the forefront the best ideas to the virtual world we all shifted to.

We found that by incorporating the realities of life (i.e., ringing doorbells, dogs barking and kids showing up in our backgrounds) that come with working remotely into our meetings, people felt more at ease and therefore more receptive and willing to participate. Many of the things we thought were essential to bringing people together, all of a sudden, were not. We found ways to move forward and that led to innovation and the creation of more efficient meetings.

headshot of Marie RiosMarie T. “Fun-Seeker” Rios, VEMM

Event Strategist, Producer and Speaker, MTR Event Design

Meeting Specialties: association and corporate conferences, social, enrollment and fulfillment events for coaches and entrepreneurs

Motivational Bugle Call: I have always been one to take a challenge and turn it into an opportunity. From concept development to execution of each event, it brings me such joy to design each unique event. I believe what keeps me going is ensuring that I have variety in the events that I do, which helps me to be much more creative.

In addition, I have the best clients and we collaborate as a team to ensure the smooth flow of the event. I was meant to plan events and I take each new challenge, break it down and can see how I can turn this into a fun thing to do. My pep talk is always: “You’ve got this and it will be great!”

Lessons Learned: When Covid hit us like a ton of bricks, I did not freeze up and do nothing. As an entrepreneur for over 25 years and a single mom, I had to figure something out fast. I am always positive and have always found the bright side to any challenge. The biggest thing I learned is that my networking skills really paid off. I had 15 events on the books and overnight I had one. This one association client helped me forge a new path that my business.

We took a live event, shut the books, and created an amazing virtual event in six weeks. I learned all I could about technology and this one client led to two other very large virtual events and collaboration with technology vendors. I began producing all kinds of virtual events. What I really learned was that networking was crucial and I connected with everyone that I could. I learned all about enrollment and fulfillment events and began producing more. I love to learn and took every class I could and became certified in virtual event meeting and management. This kept me motivated and the busiest I had been in 10 years. What I learned is that it’s never too late to learn and grow to new heights.

Advice for My Younger Self: Be calm, professional and responsive every step of the way. Opportunities exist everywhere and it’s all about your attitude. Be the change in our industry, help others and figure out how you can turn a challenge around and make it fun. Project management tools (boy, do I wish I had these earlier in my career) are a must. The key to success is networking and helping others is not only a wonderful thing to do, it helps you become a better person. Truly care for your clients and this care is expressed by attending to the details leading up to and involved in the event. Go above and beyond what is required and don’t forget to laugh along the way.

headshot of headshot of karen norrisChristine “Collaborative” Russo-Robertson

Senior Manager of Business Development, Monterey Bay Aquarium

Meeting Specialties: unique, memorable experiences that include an educational component to inspire conservation of the ocean

Motivational Bugle Call: My clients and my love of events is what keeps me motivated and moving forward. Collaborating and creating relationships with my customers and colleagues energizes me. Bringing people together to network, acknowledge successes, rejuvenate and recharge keeps me invigorated! Challenges unveil new opportunities for growth. I’m all about turning something around and making it better than how I found it. Positive talk helps keep me grounded.

Lessons Learned: Embrace being out of your comfort zone. There is always a solution and a workaround. Be open-minded and collaborative with your colleagues and customers because it’s crucial.

Advice for My Younger Self: Embrace change, do what you love, listen more and talk less, diversify your skillset and by all means have fun! Don’t take yourself so seriously.

headshot of Cindy SampleCindy Sample

Director of Operations, NAMM (national association of music merchants)

Meeting Specialties: large-scale association trade shows

Motivational Bugle Call: I’ve been doing this for so long that I can’t help but forge ahead. My family and my very supportive husband always get me through the rough patches when I feel like I can’t do one more show. That and the commitment to my team as I’ve always worked with amazing people, especially the team that I still have the pleasure of working with since the beginning.

There are a few that I worked with at Emerald and are now at NAMM, we’re like family and know each other so well. It makes work so much better to be surrounded by those kinds of people and relationships.

I expect challenges at every turn. If they are new ones that I did not prepare for necessarily, I take a deep breath, say a prayer for guidance and stamina and I forge ahead. I engage the team(s) and stakeholders to find solutions and work together to execute. With the right people in place, you can overcome anything and it’s not the challenge you face, but it’s how you and the team(s) handle it. It’s where the rubber hits the road, where you know what somebody and what a service partner is really made of.

Lessons Learned: I keep “learning” this lesson, but to be a better listener and not judge others because they think and see things differently. Having compassion—not that I’m great at it all the time, but I’m much more aware.

Advice for My Younger Self: Enjoy the ride, even the pain and suffering as that is what forms your character. Take it all in stride and stay super organized! Also, invest more when you’re young, think compound interest. 😊

headshot of Jeanette StensgaardJeanette “Meeting Strategist Warrior” Stensgaard, MBA, CMP, HMCC

Director of Conferences and Events, Kidney Cancer Association

Meeting Specialties: medical educational conferences, large- and small-scale international conferences

Motivational Bugle Call: When things get hard, I take a deep breath. Between stimulus and reaction, there is space. I remind myself that I act in consistency with who I believe I am, and I can do hard things. What’s the first step? Get organized and move forward toward the goal, one step at a time.

If I don’t know where to start, I have awesome industry colleagues who do. Do not procrastinate. Action precedes motivation. Remember your genuineness and enthusiasm is contagious. And, because I will have worked so hard to overcome this, there is ice cream in the freezer.

Lessons Learned: Be open to exploring new trends! Innovation is an incredibly exciting opportunity in this everchanging industry. I watched so many professionals have to pivot during the pandemic. I am incredibly lucky to be able to do what I love in both a professional and volunteer role, and I’m going to work hard not to take that for granted. Make time for personal growth and relationships.

Advice for My Younger Self: Join an industry professional group (like MPI or PCMA). The contacts, connections, friendships, experiences, lessons, and development that you will receive from these groups is unparalleled. We take care of each other, and that makes this industry the absolute best out there!

headshot of Marianne Van WagnerMarianne “Energizer Bunny” Van Wagner

CEO, Society Offices Association Management Company

Meeting Specialties: association annual meetings, board meetings, pre- and post-conference tours, webinars, online speaker series

Motivational Bugle Call: From the very first, the love of travel has been the foremost motivation to continue in the travel and hospitality industry. Keeping focused on the end result is the key to success. Having organized over 50 successful association meetings, it is the standing ovations and kind testimonials from my clients that keep me going when challenges arise. Recently, at an industry trade show, one of my colleagues told me that when she is in a tough situation, she asks herself “what would Marianne do?” I am still beaming from that immense compliment.

Lessons Learned: Over the past two years, I learned the previous 30 years prepared me to “expect the unexpected.” Two specific learning experiences were the 2009 swine flu pandemic and Hurricane Maria. Meetings planned for Mexico and Puerto Rico had to be quickly reorganized and moved to a new location. Working with hotels to accomplish the transfer and produce successful meetings, I learned to appreciate good working hotel partners. Success depends on teamwork.

When the Covid pandemic hit in 2020, we used it to regroup and focus on the opportunities that it provided. We were able to initiate programs using virtual meetings to be more inclusive and diverse and to find unique ways to keep membership engaged between meetings. When we returned to inperson in 2021 (some with virtual components) the results were a significant increase in membership and attendance.

Advice for My Younger Self: Don’t fret the small stuff and remember what mom always said: “You can do anything you put your mind to.”

headshot of Vanadana WaliaVandana “Unorthodox” Walia

Director, Vchilli Group

Meeting Specialties: CME, conferences, incentive, training and educational
Motivational Bugle Call: Every challenge is an opportunity to learn, pivot and ultimately adapt to a new situation—you never know the capabilities and “superpowers” you can develop and depth you can create in a business model until you come across new challenges!

Lessons Learned: Where there is a will there is a way! Humans are unpredictable and compassion, empathy and respect are the keys. Do not underestimate the power of relationships and now we all know that sometimes a board room just doesn’t cut it. 😉

Advice for My Younger Self: Nothing can prepare you for the unexpected. So, as long as you do your job with integrity, think outside the box, and have respect and passion, you can overcome any challenges and obstacles that might come your way.


headshot of Alex ZappleAlex “Nemo–Just Keep Swimming” Zapple, CMP, CEM, DES

Director for Meetings and Member Experience, American Society of Nephrology (ASN)

Meetings Specialties: medical association meetings of all sizes from 10-14,000

Motivational Bugle Call: The vision of my association is a world without kidney diseases. This overarching goal drives me in everything that I do knowing that what I am doing is making, a difference in the lives of everyone throughout the world, and knowing how diligently our members (physicians and other medical health professionals) work every day through incredible challenges.

I love a challenge and I know what I am doing matters, and I remind myself of the importance of what we are doing by bringing our participants together, bringing them cutting edge education, information and networking that allows new innovations and breakthroughs. When I see the patients that our members serve and know how hard they fight every day, I know I can succeed. Obstacles bring innovation.

Lessons Learned: Over the past two years I have learned resilience and agility in navigating every challenge that I and my team face. During these turbulent times, I have learned to look at it as an opportunity to innovate and drive change. The past two years have allowed so much growth and learning for everyone and dealing with hurdles with grace and humor.

Learning to really partner during these past few years, with both partners, other planners and everyone in the industry, has really accelerated growth in our industry. I have learned to pay attention to everything, read everything and take advantage of all  the knowledge at our fingertips. Lastly, I have learned to relax and take a break sometimes. These years have been very tough and a great walk, nap, yoga session, evening with friends can make all the difference.

Advice for My Younger Self: Take a breath and enjoy the ride and embrace every opportunity that comes your way. You never know where things are going to take you and the incredible experiences you will have in this industry. What first started as just a job with health insurance turned into a full career and passion. Lastly, I would tell myself to not take things so seriously in my younger years and know that everything will work out with hard work, great partnerships, flexibility and the ability to adapt to change.

This article appears in the August/September 2022 and the digital-only September 2022 issue. You can subscribe to the magazine here.