You have heard of craft beer, craft cocktails and even craft stores, but how about craft events? Playing on the small-batch distilling and culinary legacy in Louisville, Kentucky, Meeting Professionals International (MPI) is approaching its annual World Education Congress as a personally crafted experience that allows attendees to build a calendar of sessions that fits their career goals.

“We’ve always understood that we are cooking for chefs when we plan a conference for planners,” said Paul Vandeventer, MPI CEO and president. “Producing the event for event experts is a lot of pressure, but we also take pride in that.” His goal is that the 2,000 people expected at the conference will feel like they are at a boutique event built just for them.

The Tech Track

In keeping with the times, an entire track has been built around AI for those who want to understand what it is and how to use the tool for event planning. Individual sessions include a look behind the curtain at how MPI used technology to design and source the event they are attending.

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The content menu is designed to offer something for all experience levels, from administrative assistants getting the tools they need to integrate planning into their job description to advanced executives looking for continuing education to stay current on new trends. Using the filtering tool, attendees can create their own calendars based on 12 skill sets and 13 learning tracks.

“There’s always more you can learn from the networking here and the content,” said Vandeventer. “More importantly, you can walk away inspired and refreshed.”

Main Stage

Fittingly for the destination, the keynote stage will be filled with different takes on music, self-discovery and career development. Princess Sarah Culberson, an adopted child who discovered that she was a real-life princess in Sierra Leone, will share tips for building a culture of belonging from a story Disney turned into a movie. Her approach to leadership is navigating with compassion and humanity to listen, learn and drive decisions.

Virtuoso Felipe Comez will share a music-filled journey through the mind, body and soul of leadership. This devout pianist and entrepreneur will tackle the need to create long-term value and navigate uncertainty.

Celebrity drummer and author Mark Schulman will be joined by Neuroperformance Coach Heather Crider for a deep dive into hacking the rockstar brain. In his book, “Conquering Life’s Stage Fright: Three Steps to Top Performance,” Schulman suggests treating every activity—call, email, social media post and interaction—as a show of who you are. Act accordingly.

“Since we are cooking for chefs, we like to take chances and risks, so you don’t have to,” explained Vandeventer about the approach MPI Academy for Meeting Professionals Vice President Jessie States takes toward building an agenda that is diverse in gender, race and cognitive approaches while delivering fresh perspectives. “Sometimes we fall on our faces, but other times they turn out fantastic, and either way we will be transparent about what we learned,” he added.

The Craft of Networking

woman petting horse
Horse petting at Churchill Downs

Networking will get attendees out of Kentucky International Convention Center (KICC) and enjoying the unique aspects of the city’s role in popular culture. A hosted-buyer reception will grace the halls of Louisville Slugger Museum & Factory tucked behind the 68,000-pound steel bat on Kentucky’s “museum row.”

The Opening Celebration will be at Churchill Downs, site of the Kentucky Derby, where a new pavilion was just unveiled for the 150th anniversary of the thoroughbred race. Festivities will include the neighboring Kentucky Derby Museum, where participants can craft their own derby hats and hear about the history of the pomp and sport.

“The team that plans that one-day event can teach all of us so much about how they manage everything from staffing up, training, housing and orchestrating such a milestone production,” said Vandeventer.

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MPI President’s Dinner at Live Nation’s Mellwood Art Center will celebrate industry leader Steve O’Malley, who serves as chief operating officer for business events solutions with Maritz. MPI recently announced that superstar Aloe Blacc will be the celebrity performer for that evening.

“It will be a special place to recognize Steve, maybe the humblest man in this industry. He’s done so much for all of us. We want to be able to celebrate that,” said Vandeventer.

The same night will mark the celebration of volunteer leaders and chapter presidents as part of the MPI RISE Awards.

Another tradition restored is the MPI Foundation Rendezvous, 9 p.m. to midnight, at the indoor-outdoor concert venue Mercury Ballroom. The evening will mark the 40th anniversary of the networking extravaganza and ticket sales raise money for scholarships and grants.

The conference wraps up on Wednesday with a closing celebration and disco party at 4th Street LIVE that honors the manufacturing of the “glitter ball” in Louisville at Omega Mirror Products, the world’s primary mirrored ball producer.

Handshakes and Hugs

After all the keynotes have been given and the bars have been rolled away from the receptions, Vandeventer hopes attendees will remember the conference as one where they formed new relationships, made new contacts and rekindled old ones. “I’m going in my 13th year, and what I love about our community is how we are like a family. Those relationships are valuable personally and professionally,” he reflected. “I want people to walk away charged up excited, refreshed, tired but ready to hit the ground running in the next week. That’s my one real desire. Meet some new people.”

Streaming Live

For those who can’t make the trip to Kentucky, a live digital feed is available for $99. Amani Roberts (DJ AmRo) will host with exclusive interviews in addition to keynotes and concurrent sessions. Virtual attendees will be able to ask questions of the guests through the streaming platform and connect with other attendees through a digital networking platform.

What to See, Do and Experience in Louisville, Kentucky

man and woman drinking small glasses on alcohol

MPI conventioneers are in for a treat. Louisville, Kentucky, embodies a unique history, culture and excitement. In addition to bourbon culture and 150 years of Kentucky Derby history, the diverse, lively neighborhoods brim with authentic charm. Mariya Baker, director of sales with Louisville Tourism, is partial to the human element of the destination. “Louisvillians are genuinely warm with so much Southern hospitality within their hearts. Louisville’s personality shines through year-round,” she said.

We asked her for tips on what to see and do while in town. “I hope attendees experience one of our dozens of distillery experiences on Whiskey Row in the heart of downtown. A bourbon, to us, is much more than a spirit in a glass,” she said. Fun fact: Kentucky has more barrels of bourbon than people! There are more than two barrels for every person in the state, she reported.

facade of brass colored building
Muhammad Ali Center

In addition to Churchill Downs and the Kentucky Derby Museum—where the opening celebration will kick off—and Louisville Slugger Museum and Factory, Baker suggests visiting Muhammad Ali Center, which celebrates the life and legacy of The Greatest.

Breakfast Recommendations

  • Falls City Market: Con Huevos: Indulge in Mexican flavors or grab a sandwich. Brioche buns are baked fresh daily, and eggs are cooked to order with fresh squeezed orange juice or a Cuban coffee.
  • Heine Brothers for a good cup of coffee. Enough said.
  • Wiltshire Pantry Bakery & Cafe Downtown is a Louisville-based restaurant and bakery specializing in fresh and local ingredients. Breakfast is served all day.
  • A couple of favorites in NuLu (1 mile away from KICC): Biscuit Belly for scratch-made biscuits, Southern flare with a twist and Wild Eggs, locally owned.

Lunch Meeting Favorites

Jack Fry’s: a Louisville classic, well-known for delivering Southern staples, fine dining and attentive service in a cozy spot amid Louisville’s famed Restaurant Row in the Highlands neighborhood. Ask to sit at Table 17, the very spot where Muhammad Ali frequently dined. Reservations are encouraged.

For a downtown pick, stop at The Brown Hotel Louisville to try the original Hot Brown. A signature dish of Louisville since 1926, the Hot Brown is an open-faced sandwich made with Texas toast, thick-sliced turkey, cheesy Mornay sauce, crispy bacon and tomatoes, all baked until bubbling hot. The Hot Brown may be native to Louisville, but the dish is known around the globe.

Two other downtown spots are Merle’s Whiskey Kitchen, serving Southern and soul food along with Porch Kitchen & Bar, a Southern spot just steps away from KICC.

For a scenic view, River House Restaurant and Raw Bar has oysters and views of the Ohio River.

Dinner Picks

Considering AFAR Magazine just named Louisville’s NuLu neighborhood one of the Best Food Neighborhoods in the USA, you can’t go wrong with any hotspot there. Mayan Cafe, although one of the OG’s in NuLu, recently added a covered patio that accommodates an extra 40 guests. The tok-sel lima beans are a must-order, even for non-lima bean lovers…they’ll make anyone a convert!

Paseo at the brand-new Myriad Hotel is housed in a former disco ball factory. Order the seafood paella. At Proof on Main, enjoy the art tour around 21c Hotel Museum before or after dinner. Jeff Ruby’s Steakhouse is famous for its sushi…and steaks, of course.

Louisville has the second-largest Cuban population in the U.S., and La Bodeguita De Mima Cuban Restaurant & Rum Bar  will transport guests back in time to 1950s Cuba. A great dish is ropa vieja en lata—braised and shredded short ribs, served tableside along with an intriguing and candid story on the history of this traditional Cuban dish (served in a tin can). The habano de chocolate dessert is a “Cuban cigar,” a chocolate cigar made with almond cake, mousse and chocolate ganache served with coffee ice and cream. And don’t forget the mojitos: Mint is grown onsite.

After-party Favorites

shelf of whiskey bottles
Evan Williams Bourbon Experience, photo: Marty Pearl

One of the downtown speakeasies, for sure. Look for the secret doors at Pin + Proof inside Omni Louisville Hotel (surprise! There’s bowling too). Hell or High Water (for the curious), Lucky Penny at the brand-new Hotel Genevieve as well as Gertie’s Whiskey Bar. (For reference, both Lucky Penny and Gertie’s are in the NuLu neighborhood).

Derby City Gaming offers a recently opened entertainment hub in the heart of downtown and provides a great hangout after hours. It features slots-like historical horse racing machines and three unique bar concepts: a main-level sports bar with a stage for live entertainment, a premium bourbon library, and an elegant wine and charcuterie lounge.