The 25 Most Influential People in the Meetings Industry for 2018

Successful Meetings' annual list of impact players.

Recognizing only 25 people who are standout contributors to the betterment of the meetings industry is a difficult task in any year. But recent goings-on have made the task particularly difficult this year. From extreme weather, to the #MeToo movement, to third-party commission restructuring, it's been a busy 12 months. That's why we're glad to have had help in putting this list together. In addition to the editors of the Northstar Meetings Group brainstorming candidates, we gather input from select industry luminaries, got opinions from last year's honorees and polled our readers to let anyone from the industry at large be part of the process.

This list is all about identifying key influencers, and we would like to thank everyone who influenced us during the creation of this list. Lastly, we would like to congratulate everyone who made the list this year.

Change Agents: Commission Cuts 

Steve Heitzner, chief sales and marketing officer, Americas, Marriott International

Steve Heitzner

The last two years have been busy ones for Steve Heitzner. Over this period, he and his team have integrated 12 organizations across sales, marketing and revenue management within Marriott. Some of the highlights include: Integrating Marriott's global sales teams for the Americas that work with the organization's largest global accounts. The team has also transformed the U.S. and Canadian field marketing efforts into the Americas Field Marketing organization to drive demand more efficiently to the hotels. In the Caribbean and Latin America division he integrated the Starwood Preferred Guest Revenue Management into Revenue Management Remote Solutions and the SPG hotels into the existing Marriott Rewards

On the planning side, Heitzner's group has created the U.S. Shared Services Organization to simplify the process for the customer by having a single point of contact to help planners navigate through the organization to obtain the best options for meetings. But the move that drew the most attention in the meetings industry was the Group Intermediary Commission Strategy which reduced commissions for third party planners from 10 percent to seven percent. The strategy has kicked off what looks to be a seismic shift in the way third-party planners will be compensated — and ultimately how end users will be charged for meetings services. It spurred the creation of a new association, a special-interest group for MPI members, numerous action committees, and inspired Hiltonand IHG to follow suit. But most importantly it has forced third-party and their clients to rethink the way they do business. It has set the stage for end users and third party planners to finally have conversations about the value meetings bring to the host organizations — and in the end, that might actually end up being the best thing that ever happened to everyone involved.

Tracey Smith, CMP, CMM, executive director, SPIN: Senior Planners Industry Network

Tracey Smith

In the face of unprecedented commission cuts by Marriott, Hilton and other major hotel chains, SPIN has stepped up to rally, support and assist those struggling to adapt to the paradigm-changing shift in the way independent meeting planners are paid. Tracey Smith, after surveying members on the financial impact of the restructuring, launched a SPIN Small Business Community, which she describes as a series of educational offerings — online and at SPINCon — designed to help small-business owners run their businesses better and "future-proof the skills necessary to survive and thrive in today's uncertain business environment." Fostering communication is part of Smith's plan. To that end, this year SPIN, whose members must have 10 years or more logged as planners, expanded its network to include suppliers with at least a decade's experience, while ensuring that SPIN retains at least a two-to-one planner-to-supplier membership ratio.

David Bruce, founder and executive director, Meeting Planners Unite

david bruce

Almost from the moment that Marriott announced its new commission policy for third-party planners, David Bruce, also managing partner of CMP Meeting Services LP and TeamTravel.US, moved to mobilize members of the independent meeting planning community, rallying meeting professionals to stand together. In short order, this activity evolved into Meeting Planners Unite, a new association for third-party planners. To some, he's a rabble-rouser, but as one planner who nominated him put it: "Without somebody like David leading the charge, our individual voices wouldn't be heard."
In a brief period, Bruce has created an organization dedicated exclusively to serving the needs of the third-party meeting professional. In the first four months of its existence, it has attracted over 100 members and 1,300 followers on social media. No matter how the commission issue pans out, the group is going to have an impact

"Third-party planners have always been very independent," says Bruce. "Seeing them work as a group on issues that are important to their community has been exciting."

For the future, Bruce has four goals for Meeting Planners Unite: be a strong advocate for the independent planner community; put together a package of benefits that will help members lower their operating costs; launch a show offering education targeted to the community and establish a charitable foundation to help members when disasters, natural or otherwise, put their meetings in jeopardy.

Advocates: Human Rights

Kiki J. Fox, president and co-founder, Association for Women in Events; Carrie Abernathy, CMP, CEM and CSEP, past president and co-founder, AWE

Kiki Fox

According to Carrie Abernathy, creating "a space where women and supporters of women in business can gather, feel safe and share best practices is gratifying." While AWE's core practice continues to advocate diversity and inclusion, the mission has expanded in the #MeToo era. In a year when the fight against sexual harassment in the workplace commanded the spotlight as never before, the efforts of AWE grew more important to the meetings industry than ever. To that end, Abernathy and Kiki Fox have formed an industry coalition, the Events Industry Sexual Harassment Task Force, comprising the American Society of Association Executives, the International Association of Exhibitions and Events, Meeting Professionals International and others, to expose sexual harassment and ensure women and men are protected against future abuse. "Launching the Coalition [for eradicating sexual harassment] and other important initiatives and giving them our attention and a real backing is a great accomplishment," says Abernathy. "These topics are finally garnering the attention they deserve, and together we can do something about the core problem."

Sandy Biback, founder, Meeting Professionals Against Human Trafficking

Sandy Biback

Human trafficking is a form of modern slavery, a multibillion-dollar criminal industry. While stopping this scourge might seem like a staggering problem for one person to tackle, that hasn't stopped Sandy Biback, CMP Emeritus, CMM, who has put tremendous energy and resources into fighting to end it. "We know that human/sex trafficking is happening in five-star hotels and highway motels," says Biback, a three-decades veteran of the industry. "We know it is happening at large conventions, in convention centers, at large sporting events."

In April 2017, Biback started Meeting Professionals Against Human Trafficking. She has since addressed numerous industry associations and universities about human trafficking and has been successful in getting the hotel industry to become more open about the issue, how they are addressing it and providing this information to meeting and event professionals. In addition, she has convinced many planners to add related questions to their RFPs. During her career, other accomplishments include teaching meeting planning and management classes throughout Canada and planning the "Welcome to Canada" event for the Special Olympics World Winter Games held in Toronto.

Tony Lorenz, CEO, AlliedPRA

tony lorenz

As the industry works to address sexual harassment, AlliedPRA's team members have been some of the most vocal thought leaders on the topic, with the organization releasing a white paper on "MeToo and the Hospitality Industry" among other forms of advocacy. That sort of openness does not happen in a vacuum. It takes backing from the company's CEO, and Tony Lorenz has been that advocate for change. In the two years since Lorenz became part of senior management at AlliedPRA in Chicago, corporate revenues have more than doubled for the destination management company, and the footprint of its network of DMCs has expanded. With the acquisition of Briggs and Destination Nashville, as well as a strategic partnership with ESA Latin America, AlliedPRA not only is growing fast, the company is a model for consolidation more broadly in the DMC sector. Additionally, Lorenz looks to the future and sees exciting times on the horizon.

AlliedPRA is well underway with an ambitious plan for the next two years that incorporates organic growth as well as growth through acquisition. "Concurrently, we are looking at different ways to be even more helpful to clients via service, technology and other areas of business," Lorenz says.

Educators: Diversity

Sherrif Karamat, president and CEO, Professional Convention Management Association

Sherrif Karamat

It is fitting that Sherrif Karamat moved his residence across the U.S.–Canada border when he took over the role of CEO for PCMA in January 2018, for he is focused on a business-events industry that has no boundaries. Karamat, whose former home was Toronto and who had served as PCMA's COO for many years, is now a Chicago resident and energetically promotes a global perspective. The thrust of this work is to help businesses create events that model inclusion. "Diversity is expressed not only in identities such as gender, religious beliefs or sexual orientation, but in the ideas that grow our companies and move our society forward," he wrote in a recent newsletter. "Diversity goes hand-in-hand with inclusion.

Over the past few years, PCMA has been going through "a transformation as the global platform and leader of the business events industry, from education, thought leadership, commerce and human equity," Karamat tells Successful Meetings. He notes that PCMA is focused on changing the conversation around the role of the industry and the business event professional: "We have invested significantly in research and raising the level of education so that our profession is being regarded for the value it brings to transforming businesses, society and individuals."

Clara Carter, president and founder, Multi-Cultural Convention Services Network

Clara Carter

In the key convention city of San Diego, Clara Carter's meeting and destination marketing company, MCCSN, has made diversity central to its value proposition, focusing on what she calls "an often-underserved segment of the market — the ethnic conference and its attendees." MCCSN provides hotel sourcing to groups of 10 to thousands seeking destinations for their meetings. In addition, Ms. Carter finds the time to create relevant industry programs. Her organizations’ most recent creation, in San Diego, is the production of the annual Women in Tourism and Hospitality Awards Luncheon, an event that honors the outstanding contributions made to the industry by c-level women professionals. The event includes a moderated panel discussion among the honorees who share their lessons learned on their path to success, in hopes of motivating and inspiring other women in this male dominated industry, to pursue their passion despite obstacles they may encounter along the journey. Now in its third year, MCCSN has added the "Carol Wallace Lifetime Achievement WITH Award," named for the San Diego Convention Center's past president and CEO who spearheaded the operation and growth of SDCC for more than 24 years. Says Carter, "We have coined the term "WITH IT!" to express our delight in the concept of the award, the sisterhood embodied within it and the event itself."

Etsuko Kawasaki, executive director, Japan National Tourism Organization and Japan Convention Bureau

Etsuko Kawasaki

Etsuko Kawasaki has found success in what was formerly a men's club of management — inspiring a new generation of women to follow in her footsteps. Maintaining Japan's status as the International Congress and Convention Association's No. 1 Asian destination for congresses is hard work, but Kawasaki has shown that she is up to the challenge. She and her organization have worked closely with MPI to develop training programs for meetings, incentives, conferences and events (MICE) industry professionals, so as to streamline such high-profile industry events as the International Association of Professional Conference Organizers Annual Meeting and General Assembly in Osaka and Tokyo, which took place in February in 2018, and the G20 Summit, which will be held in Osaka in 2019.

Under Kawasaki's guidance, JNTO launched the "Japan Best Incentive Awards" MICE campaign (now in its third year), which recognizes overseas planners for best practices; and the organization will extend its "Japan Meetings & Events – New Ideas Start Here" campaign to meet the government's inbound tourism target of 8 trillion yen in direct consumption in 2020.

Innovators: Technology

Craig Levine, global chief strategy officer, ESL

Craig Levine

Being at the forefront of the esports boom began for Craig Levine when he was a kid who enjoyed video games. In business school at New York University, he started applying classroom lessons to his lifelong passion and now finds himself CEO of the world's largest esports company. ESL organizes competitive video-game competitions. "We fill arenas for mega-events, and we reach millions of fans who watch the broadcasted action," he says. For more than 20 years, ESL has built and defined the esports landscape and has pushed the envelope on global infrastructure. It has also pushed the envelope on production values, which any planner could learn from

There are demographics that have never heard of esports, but the industry is in growth mode, as parents who are gamers hand the passion down to their kids. "The business of esports is maturing, gaining credibility, and the industry is growing and expanding into the mainstream," says Levine.

That means that these events, which already are filling convention centers and hotel ballrooms all over the world, are only going to be taking up more inventory. And that is going to have a major impact on the availability of meeting space and hotel rooms — not to mention bandwidth.

Yma Sherry, vice president, North America, American Express Meetings & Events, American Express Global Business Travel

Yma Sherry

With epic annual growth as well as client retention and satisfaction at their best levels, times have never been so energized for Yma Sherry and her team of 350 meeting planners, sourcing managers and account managers at American Express Meetings & Events North America. "We're winning new business and expanding our current business — which is how we get to have 20 percent-plus growth each year," she says.

Meetings & Events NA has expanded to include ad hoc assistance to corporations not yet ready for a Strategic Meetings Management portfolio, which is likely to increase the organization's penetration into the meetings industry — and its influence. Her organization also recently unveiled a new ground-transportation platform in partnership with Lyft, helping corporate travel to play nice with the sharing economy. To support this business and more, "I'm really excited about our acquisition of Banks Sadler," says Sherry. A U.K.–based events agency with global reach, Banks Sadler is expected to support expansion into event services, particularly in the area of event technology. On the horizon? New service solutions to debut within a couple of months. 

Sabrina Capannola, senior program manager, the World Bank

Sabrina Capannola

She was in the driver's seat while the World Bank was creating and implementing a Strategic Meetings Management program that was rolled out in three years — an impressive timeline for a global initiative. "It was a fast rollout," Sabrina Capannola affirms. She created an online platform that used data to create a narrative that showed how to develop a process for managing meetings in a decentralized organization, and the effort helped gain executive sponsorship within the World Bank.

With 189 member countries, the World Bank is a global partnership of institutions that finance programs to reduce poverty, increase sustainability and work on quality-of-life initiatives. The Bank has held more than 650 meetings within its new managed meetings program during the past year. Capannola wants to see that number climb to more than 800 this year. She also expects to continue to refine the program after the rapid rollout, add a small-meetings tool and start an on-demand aspect of the program.

Abi Mandelbaum, CEO and co-founder, YouVisit

Although virtual reality (VR) is most commonly associated with entertainment, YouVisit's immersive experiences are focused squarely on practical business applications. This allows hotel brands like Hyatt, Hilton and Starwood, as well as destination marketing organizations from Oakland, Calif. to Atlantic City, N.J., to create exciting virtual experiences that "enable meeting planners to explore the available meeting spaces and amenities as if they were really there," says Abi Mandelbaum, one of the eight-year-old company's three founders. Noting that one DMO client recently booked a 560 room-night event worth nearly $300,000 based solely on its YouVisit offering, he adds that those willing to experiment with virtual and augmented reality will find tools to help with everything from booking and planning to the in-meeting experience. "I think it's time to make meetings more interactive and collaborative, and the tech is now there to help make it happen," Mandelbaum adds.

Change Agents: Globalists

Ben Goedegebuure, global general manager, Europe/Middle East/Africa, Maritz Global Events

Ben Goedegebuure

Leading Maritz Global Events' expansion in Europe, the Middle East and Africa is a well-respected industry veteran, Ben Goedegebuure, who has been involved in multiple aspects of the meetings industry and has organized events in more than two-dozen countries around the world. Now he is refining the template for how international business events are conducted and how partnerships among companies, suppliers and vendors drive successful events in world markets. "In the global arena, we're proud of the solutions we're creating for the different market segments in which Maritz Global Events is active," says Goedegebuure, who is based in the Netherlands. "Experience and deep connections helps make that happen."

In 2018, Goedegebuure was named PCMA Global Meetings Executive of the Year at IMEX. Previously, he was the first non–North American director on the board of the Professional Convention Management Association, and recently served as chair of PCMA's Global Advisory Group (now he's on the advisory board of PCMA's European Group). With legislation and consolidation in market sectors changing rapidly, he's keeping an eye on both to continue responding to client needs.
Martin Sirk, CEO, the International Congress and Convention Association

Martin Sirk

Influential not only for recent accomplishments but also for steadfast leadership over the past 16 years, Martin Sirk has led the strategic development of ICCA, helping to turn it into an organization with over 1,100 member companies and organizations in 97 countries worldwide. "ICCA is a large organization operating around the globe, which can be a challenge when you're trying to implement initiatives," says Christoph Tessmar, director of the Barcelona Convention Bureau. "Martin makes a significant contribution to keeping the focus consistent."

Some initiatives of note include changing ICCA's focus from simply offering its extensive database on international association meetings to establishing a genuine Knowledge Hub to aggregate all relevant information about such meetings — and championing the meetings industry advocacy platform "The Iceberg" through ICCA's role in the Joint Meetings Industry Council.

And in the past year, the association has helped launch a platform with the BestCities Global Alliance called the Incredible Impacts Grants program, which celebrates the "beyond tourism" value of international association meetings. The initiative gives grants to associations to assist them in their efforts to create legacy programs as part of their events that benefit both their members and the destinations where meetings are held.

Innovators: Safety and Security

Marty MacKay, DMCP, president, Hosts Global Alliance; president, Association of Destination Management Executives International

Marty MacKay

Increasingly, event planning is about contingency planning, and Marty MacKay, who is current president of ADMEI, the global organization for destination management companies, has been a leader in showing how to prepare for disruption. She developed both an internal template for Hosts Global and international certification program for ADMEI in emergency preparedness, providing a model for how industry members can put a plan in place if they don't yet have one or for members refining their existing plan. Additionally, MacKay has been a leading voice in how DMCs and the hospitality industry should manage the EU's General Data Protection Regulation, which, as of May 25 of this year, sets guidelines for the collection and use of personal information, and how the industry should address data security more broadly.

Since joining Hosts Global in 2013, MacKay has more than doubled the number of its global DMC members while elevating standards and best practices across its community. As she puts it, "Our goal has always — and will always — be making sure we are reinvesting in our members to ensure the best service for our clients." In this millennium, safety and security concerns have broadened that mission considerably.
Kevin Iwamoto, GLP, GTP, senior consultant, GoldSpring Consulting

Kevin Iwamoto

Through his many workshops and blog posts, consultation engagements and media appearances, Kevin Iwamoto has translated the complicated issues and unique challenges presented by the need to comply with GDPR into easy-to-understand language. This allowed numerous meetings and events professionals to prepare their organizations in time to meet the May 2018 deadline created by the regulation's rollout. "As an industry influencer, I feel it's my responsibility to sound the alarm when things like GDPR come up and no one is paying attention to its overall impact to the industry," Iwamoto says. "It's the least I can do for an industry that I am passionate about and that has given me so much."

Taking ownership of issues is something Iwamoto has done throughout his career. Over nearly four decades, he has shared cogent insights into areas such as Strategic Meetings Management (one nominator called him "the Godfather of SMM"), small meetings, technology and travel programs. This year, data safety and personal security have commanded attention, but other concerns are on his radar, including venture-capitalist money and new technological advances that are targeting the meetings and events sector, while focusing on current inefficiencies, legacy manual processes and old business models. In an industry that is ripe for more disruption, Iwamoto helps map out strategies to keep order amid the chaos.
David DuBois, CMP, CAE, CTA, FASAE, president and CEO, the International Association of Exhibitions and Event

David DuBois

Under David DuBois' leadership, IAEE has been developing educational programs for show organizers, exhibitors and suppliers as safety and security have become increasingly important industry issues. Now, working at national governmental levels, DuBois and IAEE are building a program for the next step in the process. "During the months ahead, our industry's convention center safety and security efforts [the Exhibitions and Meetings Safety and Security Initiative] will be formally approved and launched by the International Association of Venue Managers and the Department of Homeland Security Safety Act Office," he says.

Named to helm IAEE in 2012, DuBois has been a tireless promoter of the exhibitions industry, using advocacy, including the Exhibitions Mean Business campaign, to raise the profile of this industry. DuBois' current slate of concerns includes IAEE's Women's Leadership Programs — addressing another hot-button topic — which will expand around the world in the near future.

Educators: Meetings Profession

Marcia Merando, LLIF, FLMI, LUTCF, chair, Financial & Insurance Conference Professionals; director of marketing, Frankenmuth Insurance

Marcia Merando

Marcia Merando has held leadership roles within FICP for years, including membership and communications committee work and on the board of directors. Her position as chair allows her to lead the 1,500-member organization's effort to enhance constituents' skills and amplify FICP's message about the positive impact of meeting professionals in financial services and the insurance industry. With her own employer's events, Merando is also touting the connection between professionalism and value.

In 2018, as Frankenmuth Insurance celebrates 150 years since its founding, Merando's marketing team is executing a four-tier strategic plan in which meetings and events are a key component for strengthening agency relations. For FICP, Merando will be at the center of efforts to grow opportunities and value for members and the meetings and events industry more broadly. As she puts it, "Through many exciting new initiatives, we are elevating and showcasing the thought leadership of our members in a way we haven't before."

Carl Winston, director, L. Robert Payne School of Hospitality & Tourism Management at San Diego State University; managing director, the China Hospitality Education Initiative

Carl Winston

One of the most-nominated individuals on this list, SDSU's Carl Winston is the creator of one of the most successful and longest-standing hospitality and tourism management programs in the country. His Meetings and Events Institute educates undergrads on the industry, finds paid internships and jobs for students, and has created strategic relationships with many businesses and associations. Winston is proudest of SDSU's creation, with MPI, of the first-of-its-kind Masters Degree in Meeting & Event Management. "This is a game changer for meeting professionals who often lack the professional recognition they deserve," he says, adding that SDSU is also "quite proud to be the site to produce and host the Event Design Certificate program." Winston's leadership role in industry education plays out on the Asian continent as well, where the China Hospitality Education Initiative prepares Chinese students for rewarding careers in the hospitality industry. He says that the program, inaugurated in China in 2013, is successful because it focuses first on teachers and is a collaboration between education and business.
Silke Schlinnertz, head of operations and events, Euroheat & Power

Silke Schlinnertz

In addition to overseeing Euroheat & Power's events, Silke Schlinnertz has extensively supported ICCA's education programs, helping to shake up traditional learning formats and approaches. In both capacities, she has made a point of "looking beyond borders," as she puts it, by incorporating speakers outside the traditional field or embracing a more "open" conference format, while also encouraging attendees and planners to think of the local and global impact of events. At ICCA, she is among the small group of association leaders consulted in developing the education program. This year and last, she helped judge the inaugural Incredible Impacts Grants for associations that "go beyond tourism." Schlinnertz focuses on producing sustainable, energizing and healthy events at Euroheat & Power, and in this spirit and together with ICCA venue members, she is in the midst of an initiative to cut down food waste. As she puts it, "“All of our activities, including our events, should be meaningful and make a lasting impact. When Euroheat & Power leaves a event destination, we hope that we have contributed to better understanding, growth, inspiration, innovation and opportunities for everyone; the city, venue, partners, attendees... not just another event but something that mattered to the people involved." 

Advocates: Industry Issues

Jack Johnson, chief advocacy officer, Destinations International

Jack Johnson

In today's political climate, when simply demonstrating strong ROI is often not enough for a convention and visitors bureau or destination management organization to get the support it needs, "it's imperative for advocacy initiatives to be based on values and emotions, and then be backed up by data," according to Johnson. At DI, Johnson and his team rely on research making the case that destination promotion is a public good that benefits all and an essential community investment. This approach now shapes much of the DI's advocacy for member-destination organizations.

As travel bans and boycotts have commanded the headlines, Johnson has directed DI resources to research and educate members on the damaging effects of what he calls a "weaponization of travel." Partnering with APCO Insight, Johnson and DI created a study last year that laid out the ineffectiveness and widespread damage of travel bans and boycotts brought by activist groups. The study also provides details about targeted destinations and the travelers and meeting professionals dealing with the protest actions. "We've been able to show they're ineffective," notes Johnson. "Now we also have to show that something is more effective and easier to do. That's our goal." Not just DI's more than 5,000 members should benefit, but the entire meetings industry.

Thomas Reiser, executive director, International Society on Thrombosis and Haemostasis

Tom Reiser

An accomplished association management professional with more than two decades of experience, Thomas Reiser leads a membership organization that is 4,000 strong and spans 94 countries. The society develops young professionals in the medical, scientific and allied health industries to understand, diagnose and treat bleeding disorders; as such, Reiser speaks to a broad but focused constituency. He has been busy with the agenda for ISTH over the past half-decade. His recently checked-off to-do list includes: increasing global membership by 20 percent since 2016; growing a World Thrombosis Day blood-clot awareness campaign to 1,000 partner organizations in more than 100 countries; developing record-breaking attendance for ISTH's 2017 World Congress in Berlin; launching a European alliance with 21 new member organizations, and completely overhauling ISTH's meetings strategies, roles and responsibilities.

And Reiser isn't standing pat. Future goals include a further professionalization of and integration of global meetings, and targeted (by content and format) education that's expected to lead to even greater impact and value.
Hugh Riley, secretary general and CEO, Caribbean Tourism Organization

Hugh Riley

As Hurricanes Irma and Maria tore through the Caribbean islands last fall, Hugh Riley and the CTO rapidly assessed the storms' impact — with Riley himself on the ground in two affected countries shortly after landfall. Efforts to communicate and get updated information from member destinations have since evolved into forging closer, long-term bonds between members, media partners and organizations such as the Caribbean Hotel and Tourism Association. Riley and the CTO employed messaging as a key part of the response to 2017's natural disasters. As the region began its recovery, the CTO used the spotlight from the hurricane coverage to educate the public on the geography and cultures of the Caribbean, and now, on the islands' comeback. Even with some members' budgets severely strapped, Riley has made strides to develop funds for a recently introduced CTO advertising campaign, "The Rhythm Never Stops." As he puts it, "We have to make sure that we can keep the Caribbean front and center on people's radar around the world."