. Top 25 Women in the Meetings Industry 2018 | Northstar Meetings Group

Top 25 Women in the Meetings Industry 2018

Our fourth annual ranking presents a select list of high achievers committed to bettering the world of meetings and beyond.

Handan Boyce, general manager of the Istanbul Convention and Exhibition Center
Handan Boyce, general manager of the Istanbul Convention and Exhibition Center

In an industry dominated by women, many not only excel at their jobs, but shape the future of meetings and events. M&C's fourth annual list of the Top 25 Women in the Meetings Industry applauds outstanding professionals who've demonstrated extraordinary talent, leadership, creativity and advocacy in our field.

Following are profiles of this year's most exemplary female meeting professionals. 

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Danielle Babilino

The senior vice president of global sales and marketing for Hard Rock Hotels, Danielle Babilino loves opening hotels. She caught the bug in 1998, working in Las Vegas for Circus Circus, which was then developing the Mandalay Bay resort casino that is now owned by MGM.

"It was a fabulous run," says the longtime Nevada resident who has moved to Florida to be near Hard Rock's Davie headquarters. "We had to put all the practices in place. Circus Circus was still male-dominated, but they really believed in hiring the best people and giving them the bandwidth to succeed."

Babilino is orchestrating a national sales effort for the music-themed hospitality company's 27 properties -- with another 13 poised to open in such destinations as New Orleans; London; Dublin; and Guadalajara, Mexico. Unique options, now being tested for groups, include the Sound of Your Stay customized music amenity and an in-room yoga offering called Rock Om.

Of her own career path, "I've been given wonderful opportunities by people who trusted me," says Babilino, adding, "I have an obligation to pay that forward to people coming up the ranks."

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Handan Boyce

"It is breathtaking, lively, dynamic, historic, mysterious, exotic and modern," says Handan Boyce about Istanbul, the city she has represented since 2003, now as general manager of the Istanbul Convention and Exhibition Centre. "I live here, and it still surprises me."

That passion has made Boyce a tireless advocate for the growth and development of the city's meetings industry on a national and international level for the past 15 years, first as manager of the Istanbul Convention and Visitors Bureau, then the Halic Congress Center, before joining the center. She also founded the MPI Turkey Club, an offshoot of Meeting Professionals International. 

Boyce plans to grow her venue's reputation as a center of learning, entertainment, art and culture, and provide innovative solutions to clients, all while ensuring that delegates and visitors have an engaged experience. 

As she puts it, "It is our mission and responsibility to revive and contribute to the reputation and potential of Istanbul as one of the world's leading meetings industry destinations."

Melinda Burdette, CMP, HMCC

Since December 2015, Melinda Burdette has been director of events for Dallas-based Meeting Professionals International, helping to shape the association's signature World Education Congress and numerous other events each year. She is charged with the daunting task of pleasing thousands of meeting professionals while giving them ideas they can slip into their own events. "Our audience is singular," says Burdette. "We are trying to give tidbits of information not only through the education, but by every single touchpoint for our attendees, showing them if ideas are scalable, since not everybody does events for 3,000 to 5,000 people."

Burdette is a die-hard Atlanta Braves and Georgia Bulldogs fan and once worked as part of the game-day staff for the Braves (a gig she wouldn't mind resuming in retirement). Meanwhile, "I love nothing more than executing an event," she says. "Our job as meeting planners is to contain the chaos behind the curtain. I call it managing controlled explosions."

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Amber Chen, CMP

Ecomobility -- affordable, accessible and environmentally friendly transit -- is a growing international movement, but not one readily embraced by communities. That was a challenge for Amber Chen, assistant vice president for professional congress organizer GIS Group, in planning the Ecomobility World Festival 2017 in Kaohsiung, Taiwan, her home country. 

Residents worried that the event -- a live demonstration of how to create an urban transportation culture (via walking, bicycles and scooters) in Kaohsiung's historic Hamasan neighborhood -- would be a great inconvenience. Among Chen's pre-festival moves to win the locals over was a program to educate children about ecomobility through story-telling sessions, in hopes that the kids would share their enthusiasm at home. Ultimately, the festival was such a success that Kaohsiung and nearby cities adopted most of the initiatives presented. 

The program was honored by the meetings industry in May, when Chen -- who often cycles to work -- received the International Association of Professional Congress Organizers' annual Driving Excellence Award. 

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Monica Dickenson, CMP, SMMC

The medical/pharmaceutical realm is highly specialized, involving complex federal regulations. Monica Dickenson's ability to thrive in this niche is a testament to her savvy, energy and love of a good challenge.

Dickenson is the head of global meetings and events for Shire, a leading global biotechnology company focused on serving people living with rare diseases and highly specialized conditions, headquartered in Dublin. Based in Shire's Chicago office, Dickenson is one of many in this business who "fell into it by chance," going from the hotel side to third-party medical communications to meetings management roles with BCD Meetings & Events and American Express before ultimately landing a major role with Shire in July 2015. 

Along the way she found her calling in strategic meetings management, working on programs within the pharmaceutical, consulting, financial and technology markets. "I really love the strategic aspect of all this," she says. "It's like a mental puzzle trying to figure out where the pieces fall" for some 700-plus meetings and events around the globe.

Her advice to young women: "Keep moving forward. Push through, even if you're told you can't or shouldn't." 

Maura Allen Gast, FCDME

In 2017, Irving, Texas, welcomed some 3.75 million visitors who spent $2.68 billion and supported 22,168 jobs. Maura Gast has been dedicated to upping those statistics for more than 27 years, starting at the Irving Convention and Visitors Bureau as director of the film commission and cycling through other roles before taking the  helm as the bureau's executive director in 2003.

Among Gast's successes are the building of both the Irving Convention Center, which opened in January 2011, and a headquarters hotel, the 350-room Westin Irving Convention Center at Las Colinas, which opens in January. "Most of the time we inherit those opportunities," says Gast, who has chaired Destinations International and is now an executive on two of its committees. "We seldom get the luxury to see all these things through."

 

Sherri Gilligan

Marketing strategy and customer loyalty are Sherri Gilligan's specialties. She helped develop M Life, the rewards program for MGM Resorts International's groundbreaking loyalty initiative, and redefined credit-card marketing for Capital One bank. 

As the new chief marketing officer for Denver's two-year-old Two Roads Hospitality -- which has a portfolio of more than 85 lifestyle properties across the Joie de Vivre, Thompson, Destination, Tommie and Alila hotel brands -- Gilligan is determined to create a marketing platform that will drive the young hotel management company to the forefront of the hospitality industry.

Gilligan notes how technology is transforming the way hotels personalize the guest experience. To that end, Two Roads is adding in-room voice-activated Amazon devices, allowing guests to use Alexa for Hospitality to access amenities.

"It is more important than ever for hotels to deliver an individualized experience on design, F&B, and wellness," says Gilligan. "Hotels need to listen to their guests." 

Cindy Heston

During her 30-year travel management career, Cindy Heston has received many accolades, including induction into the elite Business Travel Hall of Fame by M&C's sister brand, Business Travel News. Now director of travel and events for insurance firm Anthem, she is known for her innovative programs with suppliers and her pioneering use of data analytics  for corporate travel as well as meetings.

"On the meetings side, I think defining and aggregating data is even more necessary, because there's a lot more gray in meetings than in business travel," says Heston, whose team handles travel and events for more than 50,000 Anthem associates. "That's where corporations find it confusing -- there's a sense that you can't really manage meetings because too much is hidden."

Her team now makes better, data-driven decisions based on meeting complexity -- including which ones are sourced via a new simple-meetings tech platform. Heston embraces opportunities to explore new technologies. "You can watch from the sidelines," she says, "or work closely with these disruptors to help them be successful."

Christine Hunnes

Having served as vice president of strategic meetings management for BCD Travel before joining Accenture a decade ago to manage global travel and events in that company's procurement department, Christine Hunnes has continually refined the discipline of SMM. She has also put her expertise to use as a member of the Meetings Committee for the Global Business Travel Association, and says there's plenty of room for further development of the SMM concept. 

Hunnes will retire from Accenture at the end of this year to become a consultant, beginning by working with U.K.-based Tenax Analytics to help small travel- and meetings-industry firms become GDPR-compliant. She also plans to indulge her passions for nature and travel: She has already joined Earthwatch Institute Expeditions to Mongolia, Kenya, Patagonia and Greece. "It was amazing," Hunnes says, "and in remote locations I never would have gone on my own."

Karen Hutchings

Managing a team of more than 100 people and controlling the purse strings for some US$2.4 billion is all in a day's work for Karen Hutchings, global head of travel, meetings and events at the London-based professional-services giant EY. That she does it while blazing innovative new paths in efficiency and savings more than qualifies her for a place on this list. 

Among Hutching's many accomplishments, "We've been able to get much more visibility and clarity of meetings-and-events spend across the globe with the implementation of venue-sourcing agencies by region," she notes. "And we've transformed what once was an arduous six-month hotel RFP process by adopting a program of annual hotel 'renewal.'" 

Having been raised in the U.K.'s rural West Country, where she dreamed of seeing the world, she began her career working in sales for Swissair and moved on to travel management positions at Merrill Lynch and AIG before landing at EY in 2012. Outside of the office, she is a passionate advocate for animals. "I love my three horses, three sheep and one goat named Brian," she says. "Along with my husband, of course."

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Christle Johnson, CCTE, GLP, GTP

As two-term president of the Global Business Travel Association, Christle Johnson has embraced the opportunity to affect change. Under her leadership, the organization conducted research about safety for female travelers -- an important concern of Johnson's as vice president of travel and business services for Houston-based legal staffing firm Johnson Downie. The study found that while 61 percent of respondents consider female-traveler safety a key facet of risk-management programs, only 18 percent have travel policies in place that address the issue.

"I'm really hoping that through education, and the platform that we have as an industry, we can stay true to our duty-of-care obligations for all of our travelers," says Johnson.

Stopping the scourge of human trafficking, which touched the lives of three of her friends, is another priority. While travel suppliers have worked to raise awareness in recent years, Johnson believes the industry can -- and should -- do more. "If we can just get the word out, have it spread to all our travelers and save even one life," she says, "then we've made a difference, and I think it's all worth it."

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Wanda Johnson, CMP, CAE

She was recognized by PCMA as the 2018 Meeting Professional of the Year, but Wanda Johnson wouldn't be working in this industry at all if she hadn't agreed to a temp job holding signs at the Endocrine Society's annual conference in San Antonio 26 years ago. After being hired, she said she'd stay with the society "as long as I'm not bored." More than a quarter century later, Johnson is chief program officer for the Washington, D.C.-based association and has become a fixture on PCMA panels and industry roundtables. "I have prayed to be bored on several occasions," she acknowledges, "but I have never been bored."

One huge reason for that -- and for Johnson's success -- is that she is fully committed to lifelong learning. "The way education is delivered has to change in the medical-scientific community, because the way students are being educated has changed dramatically. Helping them to make that leap from their experience in a school environment into a professional organization with lifelong and professional learning has been a fascinating process."

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Jennifer Keltner

The owner of Keltner Travel Consulting in Plano, Texas, Jennifer Keltner has made human trafficking her cause -- and a call to action in the hospitality industry. "Companies need to be more proactive. I would like to see travel policies that actually protect women and children," says Keltner, who formerly was manager of Toyota North America's travel and meetings program. 

A longtime supporter and fundraiser for the International Justice Mission, Keltner also has served on the advisory committee for ECPAT-USA, a group of travel industry veterans who lend their expertise and skills to developing and implementing policies and programs that protect children from exploitation (ECPAT stands for End Child Prostitution and Trafficking).

Keltner has taken this issue on the road, speaking on the topic of travel and trafficking at events for a number of groups such as the Association of Corporate Travel Executives and GBTA. "I would love to host a big event, where all the big players -- airlines, hotels, travel companies and planners -- come together and tackle this issue," she says. "I think there is training and accreditation on the horizon."

Christy Lamagna, CMP, CMM, CTS

"I love words, books and writing," says Christy Lamagna, founder and master strategist of Strategic Meetings & Events, whose professional passion is strategic event design. Growing up, she wanted to be a journalist. But straight out of college, she took a job as public-relations coordinator for a hospital, where she planned community events and then wrote about them. "I found that I enjoyed creating the events more than writing about them," she says.

Her drive to get the meetings industry more focused on applying intelligent design to the planning process comes from her practical streak. "Meetings are the most powerful sales and marketing tool that companies have, but they don't know how to use them. It's like having a Maserati in your garage and driving it around at 30 miles an hour."

Lamagna, who has taught strategic event design at the college level, has combined her passions for meetings and writing in a book, The Strategic Planning Guide for Meeting Professionals, which she will self-publish next month.

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Michelle "Mick" Lee

The lack of women in senior-executive positions in the travel industry always bothered Mick Lee (at left in photo). In 2014, the 20-year hospitality industry veteran launched WINiT for Women to boost those numbers in a world whose employee base is about 65 percent female. Her nonprofit has grown to more than 3,000 women and men in the travel, meeting, event and exhibition industries, delivering career-development services, resources and programs. 

"My initial intent was to join an existing women's leadership group, but I could not find one that held the core principles that I felt were needed to improve gender equality," says Lee. "I knew I had to do something about it."

WINiT launched in 2014 at GBTA's annual convention in Boston. At the same event this past August in Denver, GBTA announced its acquisition of WINiT. With the move, WINiT's visibility and reach exploded overnight. 

"A newly developed WINiT by GBTA advisory board has been created," says Lee. "It will focus on developing a true ROI and business justification for gender equality overall -- a critical step as we move into year five and beyond."

WINiT's success comes from having a defined goal, establishing a brand and taking the steps to get there. Lee's advice to other women who have a vision to share: "Jump in! My story is just one of so many success stories, because the industry embraces ambition."

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Marty MacKay, DMCP

Marty MacKay, president of global alliances for Hosts Global, would like meeting professionals to prepare for the worst. To that end, she helped create an emergency-preparedness template for the network's 55 member destination management companies. But MacKay felt it could serve a greater need: "In my role with the Association of Destination Management Executives International, I realized that so many more DMCs didn't have access to templates or training. It seemed a very logical progression to work with ADMEI to roll out a program for not just our DMCs, but all members of the MICE community." The association launched an international certification program in emergency preparedness in 2017; to date, 150 meeting professionals have been certified. MacKay currently is the 2018-'19 president of the ADMEI board.

Having learned the events business "from the ground up" while managing sales meetings and incentives around the globe for a Fortune 500 company, MacKay joined Hosts Global in 2013. She has since more than doubled the number of member DMCs, and introduced best practices and standards across the membership. She also is an expert in GDPR preparation, helping members and clients understand how the European privacy law affects events. 

Looking ahead, MacKay plans to continue with her safety and security campaign. "There is plenty of room to grow, and at a minimum engage in meaningful emergency-plan conversations when planning any program, from 10 people to 10,000," she says.

Gloria Guevara Manzo

The travel industry faces three critical challenges: security and travel facilitation, crisis management, and sustainability, according to Gloria Manzo Guevara, president and CEO of the World Travel & Tourism Council. Helping destinations address these issues is a priority for this former secretary of tourism for Mexico, who took the helm of the WTTC in 2017. 

"Travel and tourism are set to grow by 4 percent a year over the next 10 years. It is in all our interests to maximize the opportunities of this growth," she said earlier this year at the World Tourism Organization Executive Council. "First, security and travel facilitation, at borders and airports, is fundamental. Without people traveling safely and securely, there is no tourism." Biometrics could be the answer to move people faster and give them a better experience, she believes. 

Her second concern: bolstering crisis preparedness and management by "ensuring our destinations, companies and communities are resilient." On the third challenge -- sustainable growth -- Guevara recommends "planning for growth to ensure tourism benefits all, taking action on climate change, providing inclusive and sustainable jobs, and making sure we are socially responsible. Technological innovation and the digital agenda will be critical to delivering a sustainable future for our sector."

Janet McEwen

During her 40-year career in the association world, Janet McEwen has been a generalist, creating content, working in human resources and handling government relations. For the past 15 years, though, the director of corporate relations for the American Society of Radiologic Technologists has specialized in sponsorships and bringing together ASRT's members -- the technicians who conduct radiology-based treatments or tests -- with the companies providing goods and services in the industry.

McEwen has long volunteered for the American Society of Association Executives, winning its Professional Performance Award this year. Some of her most rewarding moments came from serving on ASAE's meetings and expositions section council for eight years. "It kept me so engaged with so many smart people who were coming up with so many great ideas," she says. 

McEwen's aim is to make sponsors a more integral part of ASRT's conversations. "So often they have felt they were observers rather than participants," she says. "A sponsorship is not a one-off. They want to be seen as thought leaders for the members, and to be collaborators rather than observers."

Mariela McIlwraith, CMP, CMM

A "summer job that could" in Vancouver launched Mariela McIlwraith into the hospitality industry, and "I fell in love with it," says the director of industry advancement for the Events Industry Council. Since then, she has worked in hotels and done her share of meeting planning. In her current position, McIlwraith says she has found her calling, writing and speaking, and developing tools and resources. "We're working on updating the industry glossary," she says. "We're also working to make the terminology gender neutral. I think that's an important responsibility for us." Two topics to tackle next are water consumption at events, and unconscious gender and racial bias.

McIlwraith was training for her first mud run when she spoke to M&C, finding parallels to the working world: "There's a wall that I need to climb, a literal challenge. I'm just hoping adrenalin gets me over that last part." It did.

 

Carolyn Pund, CMP, CMM

As her title suggests, Carolyn Pund has a big job at global tech giant Cisco: senior manager of global strategic meetings and technologies management, business-events operations. A frequent speaker on strategic meetings management, she has been planning and implementing Cisco's global SMM rollout for nearly nine years, generously sharing her expertise at industry conferences. For Pund, education is paramount -- whether that means schooling Cisco's growing number of employees or sharing best practices to advance the industry.

In recent years, Pund has noted a shift in what drives SMM initiatives. Savings, once the main goal, are now an assumed benefit. "The bigger story is the governance of meetings for the purpose of brand, regulatory compliance and operational consistencies," she says. Ultimately, she adds, "The reason that you must be in compliance with policy and register your meeting is that the process protects the company -- and yourself." 

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Ellen Sinclair

When Ellen Sinclair was hired by Benchmark Hospitality 23 years ago, she was psyched to have a computer on her desk. "Being connected to the team was very attractive at the time," says Benchmark's senior vice president of operations. "Although sometimes I curse it now."

Earlier in her career, much of the company's focus was on purpose-built conference centers that were members of IACC (formerly the International Association of Conference Centres, which was created in part by Benchmark founder and chair Burt Cabañas). While the company has expanded its portfolio, adding leisure properties, several facilities still are IACC members, and Sinclair chairs the ongoing IACC Meeting Room of the Future project.

"Meeting rooms going forward don't necessarily have walls," she says, citing findings of the third Meeting Room of the Future report. "People want a different vibe. Even if they're in the same room, they want the setup changed to help them think differently or more creatively. It's so important for what we do at Benchmark and within our industry."

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Bernadette Smith

Massachusetts approved marriage equality in 2004, and with that legislation, Bernadette Smith, at the time an event planner for a nonprofit, became an entrepreneur, planning weddings for LGBTQ couples.

"I got a lot of press because it was the first business in the country taking on this niche," says Smith. As her company grew, and people reached out for advice, Smith created a curriculum and started speaking at events, talking about how to sell, market and service the LGBTQ community. Now as founder and president of the Equality Institute, she focuses on training and helping organizations create inclusive policies and workplaces, taking her message to such events as Meeting Professionals International's World Education Congress this past summer.

"In my heart I'm an optimist," she says. "More and more people are coming out as LGBTQ, and more and more people know someone who is LGBTQ. They want the best for those people."

In the effort to make events more inclusive,  Smith advises, "Don't assume. That's unconscious bias at play, all the assumptions we make about others. Don't assume that all of your attendees will be straight and cisgender. Ask open-ended questions and be a good listener, and be a good problem-solver. And choose destinations where at least the city, if not the state, has an antidiscrimination policy."

Smith hopes her work is building an army of advocates: "I think people are starting to get it."

Claire Smith

"Business is great," says Claire Smith, vice president, sales and marketing, for the Vancouver Convention Centre in British Columbia. "We've come a long way since we opened this building." Smith is referring to the expanded center, which debuted in 2009. She's been with the facility since then, responsible for strategic business development, and directing the sales and marketing team. Along the way, she has helped grow the annual roster of events to more than 550, in the process helping to make Vancouver a major 21st-century event destination. 

Smith has been an industry leader for more than 25 years, having begun by handling sales and communications for Vancouver's World's Fair Expo in 1986. She is the current chair of PCMA, "the first time a supplier -- or a Canadian -- has held that role." And she loves a good challenge: "Today we're in a global marketplace -- we're not just competing with Seattle anymore, but Melbourne, Paris, South Africa… So the industry is really raising its game, and with everyone getting more strategic in how they attract business, it has become very interesting."

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Michelle Wyatt

Eighteen years ago, Michelle Wyatt and her husband, Peter, launched event-tech provider CadmiumCD out of the spare bedroom in their Baltimore townhome. Without fanfare or venture-capital investment, the company has grown exponentially. CEO Wyatt leads a staff of nearly 70 employees and has posted year-over-year growth of 20 to 25 percent since 2009. The firm has made the Inc. 5000 list of the nation's fastest-growing private companies for the past three years, with 157 percent growth over that time frame. 

Today, the fact that Wyatt is more comfortable being considered the company's "mom" rather than CEO says a great deal about what sets it apart in the event-tech marketplace. CadmiumCD is a family-oriented concern that prizes its employees as well as an abiding attentiveness to its client needs. But Wyatt's ambition is Fortune 500-size: "Our eventual goal," she affirms, "is to be the preferred vendor for collecting and managing data for conferences and events."

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Toni Zoblotsky

A 19-year Hilton veteran who began working at the corporate level five years ago, Toni Zoblotsky has become the face and voice of the hospitality company's popular Meet with Purpose program. Hilton officially launched the collection of sustainability tips for planners in January 2015 -- small, environmentally responsible measures that could make a difference if executed at scale. Zoblotsky, director of B2B marketing and sales valet, took that framework and ran with it the following year, honing the focus of Meet with Purpose and working to push its acceptance on a larger scale.

"We realized that people were really interested in what we do in the food space," says Zoblotsky. "They wanted to know more about our local sourcing, where we keep bees, our rooftop herb gardens. So we took the broad program we had laid out in 2015, and in 2016 introduced something much more specific."

That specificity took the form of seven packaged food-and-beverage menus, all incorporating sustainability objectives and paired with wellness-focused activities -- "Yoga and Yogurt" being one of the most popular options. More corporate-responsibility themes have now been incorporated, including the slightly less nutrition-focused "Puppies & Ice Cream" meeting breakout -- where the stress-reduction techniques of ice cream consumption and puppy-petting can also benefit local animal shelters.

Meetings with Purpose has evolved from a 40-property launch at the time the F&B packages were introduced to a presence in more than 500 hotels across Hilton's portfolio. "Our team members and meeting attendees have packed over 560,000 meals for hunger relief in the last three years and over 1 million hygiene kits," notes Zoblotsky. "If you would have told me Meet with Purpose would be making this kind of an impact in just three years, I would have never believed it -- but I am so thrilled to have seen what a success this program has become. It just makes me feel better as a human being, and it's what we should do anyway."