. Top 25 Influencers of the Meetings Industry | Northstar Meetings Group

Top 25 Influencers of the Meetings Industry

Meet the people leading us through a difficult year.


This year has presented serious challenges to our industry, so significant and so deep that none of us would have believed they could happen. Many recall the dire effects of 9/11 on the travel industry; the impact of Covid-19 will be 10 times worse, per a July forecast from the U.S. Travel Association. By May, more than 8.1 million U.S. hospitality workers were laid off due to the pandemic, and lost travel spending is expected to hit $505 billion nationally by the end of this year.

Other factors exacerbated simmering tensions in an already troubled year. George Floyd’s death in May spawned nationwide protests and ignited the Black Lives Matter movement — exposing a long history of racial injustice in the meetings and tourism business and driving a concerted effort to effect change. Those championing LGBTQ rights intensified calls for workplace diversity and tolerance, and devoted a virtual town hall meeting of the LGBT Meeting Professionals Association to the concerns of the BLM movement.

Meanwhile, meeting planners and suppliers sought guidance — from legal experts for their upended plans, medical professionals for Covid-safe operations and tech gurus for producing digital events.

Suffice to say, across all segments of the industry meeting professionals have been struggling for direction. This year more than ever, we needed leaders to galvanize our resources, bring us together and help show us a way forward. And so they did.

This year's Top 25 Influencers of the Meetings Industry, selected by M&C editors based on our extensive reporting this year, all took swift action to develop solutions and plot a course for recovery. They’re leading by example, resolving problems in their day jobs while remaining tirelessly focused on the bigger picture: the betterment of the meetings industry and an easier path forward for the people who make this business truly great.

Here are their stories.

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David Audrain

Executive Director, Society of Independent Show Organizers; CEO and Partner, Exposition Development Co.

David Audrain doesn't like virtual events. "Fabrics need to be touched, and machines and equipment need to be demonstrated in person," he says. "The value of being able to see it, touch it, taste it or work on it on a trade show floor is far superior to anything done online."

SISO lobbied hard to keep in-person events going before the severity of the pandemic became apparent. Together with UFI, the Global Association of the Exhibition Industry, SISO unveiled the meetings industry's first call to action, "The Show is Open" campaign. Within a month it was clear that shows would, in fact, be closed, and the campaign was relaunched as "The Show Will Open," stressing that in-person events will drive economic recovery. Audrain allows that for the time being, digital will have to do.

"We've had the ability to do online events for decades; it's not like this is a sudden new thing," he says. "The reality is, face-to-face works better than online in every way."

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Tori Barnes

Executive V.P., Public Affairs and Policy, U.S. Travel Association

A year after a promotion to her current post at the
U.S. Travel Association, Tori Barnes was given an unprecedented assignment: Save the country's 15.8 million travel industry jobs and, by extension, the U.S. economy.

If that sounds dramatic, that's because it is. More than 25 percent of leisure and hospitality industry jobs — about 4.3 million — have been lost due to the pandemic, according to a July study by Tourism Economics. Last year, the travel industry contributed $2.6 trillion to the U.S. economy. When travel slows, so goes the economy.

Working closely with Roger Dow, U.S. Travel's president and CEO, Barnes lobbied for significant federal aid that would apply to segments of the hospitality industry. The CARES Act, signed into law on March 27, provided some relief, but not to all segments (CVBs, specifically, did not get support), and falls far short of the funds needed to sustain the industry — a point she has been arguing every day since.

"I'm passionate about the work that I do," she said during a busy "vacation" at the beach in August. As a single parent, she's particularly sympathetic to the millions of people struggling to support their families. "It makes me incredibly sad, but also incredibly motivated to work hard. And I know that's the view of my colleagues; we want to be able to put people back to work."

It's not just jobs at stake, Barnes adds: "It's the importance of travel as part of our lives, and the art of what America really is. That's so critical."

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Mary Jo Valentine Blythe

Founder and CEO, The Above and Beyond Foundation

In mid-March, when stay-at-home orders had people fleeing cities, Mary Jo Valentine Blythe was already far from her Chicago residence, ensconced in her second home in Vail, Colo. And there she stayed, running the Above and Beyond Foundation from the mountains.

Blythe launched TAABF after selling her 25-year-old meetings business, Masterplan, in 2016. Rather than making money, her new objective was to give it away. The organization's mission is to recognize the industry's unsung heroes in lower income brackets — with public praise and cash. That was accomplished by the annual Heart of Hospitality awards, bestowed on 21 people in 2018 and 2019, along with individual $10,000 grants.

With so many in dire circumstances this year, the foundation temporarily changed its mission, creating the Covid Helping Hospitality program, which has issued $500 gifts to more than 600 recipients to date, all of whom lost their jobs this year.

The gifts are made possible by the generosity of donors. Since late March, TAABF has collected more than $300,000, with the aim of giving every penny to frontline workers for hotels, destination management companies, transportation companies and other vendors. As more donations come in, the foundation sends out more money.

"This really is the highlight of my career, but I'm certainly not doing this on my own," says Blythe. "It's extremely rewarding, and I'm so proud to be in our industry."

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Amy Calvert

President and CEO, Events Industry Council

Amy Calvert has an antidote to this year's stress: her 18-month-old shepherd mix, Scooby, who joined the family in January. It's impossible not to smile when Scooby is cavorting with her teenage son and French bulldog, Ash. (Calvert's daughter, a college graduate who just moved to Brooklyn, N.Y., was in on the fun, too, this spring.) 

Beyond puppy-bonding, Calvert's days have been consumed by the pandemic's impact on the meetings business. She took the helm of the Events Industry Council, which represents more than 30 organizations, in April 2019. A year later, nearly everything had changed, and members were turning to the EIC for guidance.

That has come in the form of the APEX Covid-19 Business Recovery Task Force, established in May with 43 members representing the industry's far-reaching constituencies. The group has already produced two important white papers: the Meeting and Event Design Accepted Practices Guide, and the Health and Safety for Hotels Accepted Practices Guide, both available here.

"This has been a unifying moment for us as a federation," Calvert says. "We are aligning on behalf of the stakeholders that we represent for the well-being and the future of our industry. We want to come out of this stronger and more committed to our values."

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Michael Dominguez

President and CEO, Associated Luxury Hotels International

For hospitality industry professionals who want a more positive spin on domestic and global Covid-19 statistics than major news outlets provide,
Michael Dominguez delivers — twice weekly. What began as a few LinkedIn posts early in the pandemic soon became weekly Zoom meetings. Demand continued to grow, as meeting planners and ALHI members were hungry for updates that didn't dramatize the situation.

"The calls and the audience have been completely organic and have grown over the last 120 days," says Dominguez, who celebrated his one-year anniversary with ALHI in July. "What started with a single call has turned into two calls per week and more than 3,000 clients on the distribution list.

Yes, it's a lot of work, but it's necessary, he says. "I believe that context and a data-driven approach are necessary today, without a narrative. We live in a world where information moves so fast, and the ability to understand the broader story becomes more difficult."

A high-profile force in the meetings industry for nearly two decades, Dominguez was asked to co-chair EIC's APEX Covid-19 Business Recovery Task Force, curating information that will guide meeting planners and suppliers in providing safe environments for meetings.

He put the tasks force’s recommendations into action by staging ALHI’s Back to Business Experiential Forum, a Covid-safe live event for meeting professionals, who discussed ways to move forward as an industry. (See video highlights here.)

"The road forward has many speed bumps, for sure," he says, "but we are headed down the road in one direction. We may need to slow down from time to time, but will continue to move forward. We will recover as an industry; the question is simply at what speed and within what timeline."

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David DuBois

President and CEO, International Association of Exhibitions and Events

The exhibitions industry has been one of the hardest-hit sectors this year, but
David DuBois is hardly cursing 2020. His first grandchildren, twin girls, were born in May. Perhaps that joy has inspired his focus on "staying positive and realistic" in addressing the Covid crisis.

Quick to act, IAEE released the expansive Essential Considerations for Safely Reopening Exhibitions and Events guide on June 5, covering a wide range of factors, from registration to F&B and show-floor design. The organization is now working on the second edition of that white paper.

As constituents struggle to stay relevant — and solvent — DuBois has championed the "Exhibitions Mean Business" campaign, which educates the public and policymakers on the value of live events — and how they help drive the economy.

To support those who have lost their jobs this year, IAEE introduced a "transitional membership" that extends member benefits, including educational resources to help them navigate the crisis. "We are a global industry family and we will always look for ways to assist our members who have either been furloughed or were affected by staff reductions," says DuBois.

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Jason Dunn

Group V.P., Diversity Sales and Inclusion, Cincinnati Convention & Visitors Bureau

Racism and lack of diversity have long plagued the meetings and travel businesses, but the death of George Floyd in May brought matters to a boiling point. Leading our industry's cry for change is
Jason Dunn, who, in addition to his role at the Cincinnati CVB, is chair of the National Coalition of Black Meeting Professionals.

Dunn was quick to speak out after Floyd's death and has remained vocal in the months since. He has organized webcasts on the state of Black culture and tourism, and coordinated strategic partnerships between the NCBMP and major industry organizations such as Destinations International and Meeting Professionals International.

Among plans for collaboration with DI will be the creation of a "report card" that measures diversity and inclusion in the hospitality industry. The organizations also plan to develop a leadership academy designed to uplift Black and minority job candidates and set them on a path toward executive positions.

"The very foundation of our organization demands that we speak up and meet disparities head-on in a professional yet unapologetic manner," says Dunn. "We are providing opportunities for professional development and educational sessions for our members via purposeful partnerships, to rid the industry of the excuse that no qualified Black or people of color exist."

In his home city of Cincinnati, Dunn helps manage the Dan Lincoln Institute for Hospitality Leadership, which offers summer internships and other opportunities to local high school and college students, and oversees a program to ensure the CVB is working with suppliers of color.

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Elliott Ferguson

President and CEO, Destination DC

Despite reaching the highest rungs of the meetings industry, Elliott Ferguson encounters racism on a regular basis. One vivid encounter took place during IMEX Frankfurt, where Ferguson was honored with two industry awards. Moments after he accepted the accolades and stepped offstage, Ferguson was mistaken for a waiter and asked to refill someone's wine glass.

"Some people look at me in a suit and tie and make general assumptions of me, like others might have made general assumptions of George Floyd," said Ferguson during a discussion he hosted on lessons of race and antiracism.

As head of Destination DC and chair of the U.S. Travel Association, Ferguson has become a leading voice calling for open discussions on racism in the meetings industry. Through panel discussions and videos such as Destination DC's recent "5 Questions About Race" video, Ferguson hopes his colleagues will become more comfortable having uncomfortable conversations.

He's also working with other Black leaders to hold organizations accountable for diversity, including setting measurable goals to work with Black-owned businesses and recruit from historically Black colleges.

"I'm encouraging everyone to reach out to their Black peers, both professionally and personally, to have frank conversations and learn more about how they personally can support efforts to end systemic racism," says Ferguson.

He puts no less passion into his responsibilities for U.S. Travel, advocating for Congress to provide more aid for the meetings industry — including DMOs.

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Stephanie Harris

President, Incentive Research Foundation

Stephanie Harris' first year running the Incentive Research Foundation didn't exactly go as she had envisioned. She and the board had laid out an ambitious plan to take the IRF into 2025 — and then, she says, "everything got turned upside down."

Harris, who spent a decade with American Express Meetings & Events,  overseeing its annual Global Meetings Industry Forecast, quickly shifted her focus to the immediate needs of the recognition industry, looking for ways the IRF could support incentive professionals through the crisis.

"We had to think about what new information and insights decision-makers needed, how we could create spaces for conversation across the incentive landscape to pool experience and ideas, and what original thinking we could surface and share to help incentive practitioners react and retool their offerings," explains Harris.

To that end, the organization is releasing quarterly research to gauge the pandemic's effect on incentive travel, and has developed a series of webcasts. Additionally, Harris has been a tireless speaker  in other industry forums, including Northstar Meeting Group's Incentive Live.

Harris looks forward to revisiting IRF's Vision 2025, which calls for the organization to adopt a more global perspective and to develop actionable research. "In 2021 my primary goal will be to get Vision 2025 fully back on track while supporting ongoing industry recovery," she says, "And, of course, to hold an in-person Invitational in June."

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Kai Hattendorf

Managing Director and CEO, UFI, The Global Association of the Exhibition Industry

In February, Kai Hattendorf was feeling pretty good about life. "I thought I had seen the most important moment of 2020 when we arranged a meeting between His Holiness Pope Francis and the global leaders of our industry to discuss the role of exhibitions and business events for societies and communities," he recounts. "Things took an unexpected turn after that, of course."

Still, he persisted with his mission — albeit in more secular fashion.

"What's most important for exhibitions and the whole business-events industry is that we find a common voice, that we stand to be visible, that we can show we are a critical part of the solution to the challenges the pandemic is presenting us with — and not a part of the problem," Hattendorf says. As leader of an association that represents about 800 member organizations across 80 countries, he has the platform to try to make that happen.

On Global Exhibitions Day in June, the association broadcast its mission far and wide. "We reached over 720 million people online with these messages that day," he says. "Industry colleagues in more than 110 countries joined the digital activities and hybrid events on our annual day of global advocacy for exhibitions — an amazing number."

Hattendorf, who is based in France, is also president of the Joint Meetings Industry Council, a network of 16 events industry associations. That group's Global Manifesto provides consistent messaging to convey to governments the critical role of business events in economic and social recovery from Covid-19. "The feedback has been super positive," Hattendorf says. "It belongs to everyone — and if we succeed with it, then we all succeed."

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Mark Herrera

Director of Education and Life Safety, International Association of Venue Managers

Mark Herrera is pretty cool in a crisis. It's a trait he cultivated in his 20-plus years with the Hobbs, N.M., police department. During his tenure, he was a detective for the Gang and Narcotics unit, and a sergeant for the S.W.A.T. team, among other roles. That experience is especially helpful now.

"I'm passionate about giving people the tools they need to protect themselves and others in the midst of crisis," Herrera says. "That can be safety-and-security-related or, now, how to respond to a pandemic."

As a trained first responder, Herrera and his team held a series of town halls focused on each of the major venue types IAVM serves — convention centers, stadiums, arenas, universities, amphitheaters and fairgrounds. He expanded IAVM's remote-learning resources with courses such as "Business Continuity Management" and "Business Impact Analysis," and launched an Alternate Facility Working Group to help members convert their venues into emergency hospitals or homeless shelters. Meanwhile, he reimagined all of IAVM's scheduled in-person gatherings as digital events, including the upcoming Venue Connect Annual Conference, taking place Oct. 26-30.

Herrera's job isn't so different today than it was at the Hobbs P.D., he says. His core mission remains "helping people get their lives back in order."

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Kristin Horstman

Senior Director, Strategic Events, Salesforce

For as long as
Kristin Horstman can remember, she wanted to work in the hospitality field. "When I was a kid, I watched TV shows like The Love Boat, Hotel and Fantasy Island, and thought, 'How great would it be to work there?'" she says.

Now 20 years into her dream career, Horstman helps organize the massive Dreamforce user conference, which typically draws more than 170,000 participants to San Francisco. With the annual event set for November, she needed to make an informed decision — but information was hard to come by.

"It was hard to find a single source of truth for the industry, or resources and assistance for those impacted," says Horstman, who reached out to her friend and industry colleague David Kliman (featured below). Together they connected with Amy Calvert, CEO of the Events Industry Council. "We asked, 'How can we bring some really great leaders together from all sectors to help provide support?'" That chat led to the formation of the Events Industry Council's APEX Covid-19 Business Recovery Task Force, with Horstman as a co-chair.

Meanwhile, she is planning the first all-digital Dreamforce, infused with the creativity and surprises that have been hallmarks of the in-person event. Her hope is to pull it off with all the excitement of an episode of The Love Boat — but with a little less drama.

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Jonathan T. Howe

President and Founding Partner, Howe & Hutton Ltd.

Jonathan Howe isn't quite ready to retire but, at 79, he had considered cutting back a little bit this year. The global pandemic did not factor into those plans.

A noted expert in meetings and travel law, Howe recalls his days as a young attorney in the 1970s, when his first meetings-related lawsuit crossed his desk. At that time, a contract was based on a handshake, and perhaps "a letter from the property that said, 'Hey, we're looking forward to welcoming your group,'" says the longtime M&C legal columnist.

Howe found his niche in this dynamic industry, and in the following decades has generously shared his insights with planners and suppliers through the media and countless educational events.

This year, his phone has not stopped ringing, as the sheer volume of cancelled and rescheduled events has raised a host of questions and concerns. He and his colleagues respond to them all.

"In a given day, we'll have three or four calls that we know are not going to evolve into a client relationship, but we're trying to help people out," he notes. "There's a real need for hand-holding and encouragement, especially with independent planners."

"What I'm looking at today is how to help the parties minimize the loss, and minimize the risks," he says.

The crisis has given Howe the opportunity to redefine his role: "I'm more of a mediator than an advocate now. We're trying to resolve differences or trying to find some ground in which both sides can work, recognizing that in this environment, everybody is feeling pain." Click on these links to read what Howe has to say on force majeure, cancellations and other contract questions raised in a recent webcast.

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Dave Jefferys

Executive Director and CEO, LGBT Meeting Professionals Association

It's hard to believe the LGBT Meeting Professionals Association is only three years old. "We're really babies," says
David Jefferys, a founding member and now executive director. What began as a group of friends joining up for cocktails at industry conferences has grown into a 1,700-member organization with representation in nearly every country.

The supportive nature of the group has been particularly vital this year. "We got pretty quick to the point in March and developed a digital strategy. We wanted to give folks who are feeling a little isolated an opportunity to connect with the LGBT community. That's really what our vision and mission is all about." Reaching out even more, the once-monthly newsletter is now weekly, as people are actively seeking information (and, in many cases, jobs).

The activity in the Black Lives Matter movement this year has driven more attention to diversity and inclusivity in all forms, says Jefferys. In fact, the organization revised the programming for its digital Town Hall in March to make addressing racism a priority for our industry.

This year, he adds, "the big debate is, do we add any more letters to LGBT?" While reluctant to jeopardize the brand recognition of LGBT MPA, the group prefers the term LGBT+ to clarify that all are welcome.

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Photo Credit: Dear World dearworld.com

David Kliman

President, The Kliman Group

On March 16,
David Kliman's calendar for 2020 was packed with consulting projects for global hospitality suppliers. On March 17, California went into lockdown to stem rising Covid-19 cases. On March 18, Kliman watched his business plans disintegrate.

"My business went from what was going to be a banner year to full pause," he says. "I spent the first three days just wondering what had hit me in this tsunami of uncertainty. By the third or the fourth day, I realized that I needed to take as much control of the situation as humanly possible."

Kliman's calendar is full again — now as an active member of the EIC task force among other volunteer commitments. He has also immersed himself in free courses, including one offered by Yale University. The key to "mastering pandemic life," he says, is to stay active and continue learning.

Use this time wisely, Kliman stresses, because on the other side of this crisis, "there will be fewer people in this industry, and that is going to be tragic for some. But, ultimately, those people who have taken seriously the reinvention of themselves or their businesses have true potential to thrive."

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Patricia Olinger

Executive Director, Global Biorisk Advisory Council

Patricia Olinger has experience with epidemics. During her 13-year tenure with Emory University as executive director of the Environmental, Health and Safety Office, she was involved in the care of four Ebola patients at the university's hospital. In late 2019, she predicted another outbreak was coming.

"I wrote an article that was published in January, right before the pandemic hit," says Olinger, who now heads the Global Biorisk Advisory Council, a division of the worldwide cleaning industry association ISSA. "The underlying theme was that a pandemic is coming and we're not prepared."

When Covid-19 hit, Olinger quickly developed the GBAC Star program to help facilities prevent and contain infectious diseases. The certification program was launched in early May. By late June, the Georgia World Congress Center became the nation's first convention facility to earn GBAC Star accreditation. At press time, 17 centers were certified, with another 100 in the pipeline.

"It has been really fulfilling to help people have the confidence to reopen safely. It's not just about the meeting itself, but the whole travel experience," says Olinger, who also works with hotels, airports, airlines and cities to become GBAC Star certified. "The vision is that people will see the GBAC Star symbol when they get to the airport, on the airplane and at their hotel. We're trying to make it so that the whole travel experience is comfortable and safe."

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Dawn Penfold

President, MeetingJobs.com

In between rounds of baking "pandemic bread," Dawn Penfold, once a meeting planner herself, has been using her job-board platform to dispense advice to meeting professionals who have been furloughed, laid off or seen their businesses dry up.

"I've been getting a lot of calls, emails and LinkedIn messages from people who are out of work — and especially lately from the hotel side," she says from her North Carolina home.

Penfold has been preaching that planners and hoteliers should learn new skills — particularly in the realm of digital meetings and how to run them. Yet, many are resistant to change, she has found, and reluctant to embrace the concepts of digital or hybrid events. "I keep on saying, You are a dinosaur unless you learn this stuff," she reports.

Few organizations are hiring right now, but two recent listings on MeetingJobs.com, which has a database of 48,000 industry professionals, underscore her point. Both jobs required candidates to have experience arranging hybrid events with face-to-face and online elements.

Another trend: Employers are looking for specific skills to fill temporary opportunities. "They're going to hire independent contractors to come in and do spot activity — handle virtual elements, run trade shows, get sponsorships. People might want to consider taking their expertise and finding a niche for it."

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Bob Priest-Heck

CEO, Freeman

For the leader of a
company that had to cancel about $1 billion worth of business in the first month after the pandemic hit the United States, Bob Priest-Heck is surprisingly optimistic.

The CEO of the brand-experience and large-event producer, Priest-Heck believes it's a good thing that the eventual reboot of the in-person-events industry will entail a lot of change.

"We have an amazing opportunity to rethink event design in a big way," he wrote recently. And while that might mean smaller meetings at first, it will also mean events that are more personal and targeted. "While I wouldn't wish for Covid ever again," he says, "it is going to drive some of that personalization and contextualization we've been talking about for decades."

Priest-Heck is a realist as well as an optimist, however, and he's been doing a lot more than making sunny prognostications about innovation and how technology can play a role. In April, Freeman launched the Go Live Together coalition as a way to aid industry personnel and lobby for recovery. The group now has more than 2,500 members, representing more than 1,500 organizations, working to establish safe reopening plans and fighting for legislation.

The coalition has worked to ensure Congress understands that business events are controlled meetings, as opposed to mass gatherings; that they are prepared to open in accordance with CDC and health-official guidelines; that attendees and exhibitors will need incentives to return; and that businesses will need protection, such as expanded insurance coverage and safe harbor from frivolous litigation.

While Priest-Heck publicly rallies for the safe return of those face-to-face events, he is also a firm believer that virtual and "omnichannel" events are here to stay. And he's focused on assisting Freeman clients to deliver their messages in that format effectively.

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Gary Shapiro

President and CEO, Consumer Technology Association

As the top dog at the association responsible for the massive
CES — a sprawling annual event that draws exhibitors and attendees from around the globe — Gary Shapiro saw early on the outright devastation the coronavirus was about to bring down on the exhibitions industry.

In a column he penned for Northstar Meetings Group in March, Shapiro called for eased restrictions and flexibility on the part of planners and all suppliers. He pleaded with suppliers to be patient and allow last-minute cancellations.

Fast forward four and a half months to late July, and the industry was just beginning to acknowledge that the dreams of late summer and early fall exhibitions were not to be realized. Shapiro and his colleagues took action and made a proactive, early call on the January 2021 CES, declaring that it would be a fully digital event.

"It is simply the right thing to do," Shapiro said when the decision was announced. "Our exhibitors, partners and thought leaders will now have the time to plan, to think, to create compelling ways to engage digital audiences from around the world... This is the next phase of our evolution — reimagining CES and bringing together the entire tech community at a time when enabling innovation is more important than ever."

For a show that has long celebrated innovation, the decision seems natural. "The pandemic is accelerating our digital transformation," says Shapiro. "And tech is keeping us connected, healthy, productive and educated. This is an opportunity for the events industry to reimagine traditional shows and engage global audiences."

He isn't concerned about the digital shift being permanent, though. "Attendees are human," Shapiro says. "Most are going to welcome a return to the five-sense experience of face-to-face events."

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Jonathan Spero

CEO of InHouse Physicians

A physician who has been a dedicated member of the meetings industry for three decades,
Jonathan Spero's insights have recently been more in-demand than ever — not bad for someone who admits he "kind of fell into" his role. Tapped by a pharmaceutical company to assist with their meetings in 1990 while still completing his residency in emergency and internal medicine, Spero spotted a need for bringing qualified medical professionals on site to business events and soon founded InHouse Physicians.

Spero's company has had to triple its operational team this year to meet demand from employers and universities bringing back on-site staff and students, respectively. "Our testing services have exploded," he says.

While the company's meetings business has been hurting, along with the industry at large, meeting planners are still clamoring for Spero's insights. Organizations such as Cvent, MPI and SITE have tapped his expertise and his perspective on restarting in-person events. Spero has seen a steady number of modestly sized gatherings come back, even if that is far from the nearly 1,000 meetings the organization had been supporting annually prior to Covid.

"It's the people who are having smaller, executive-level meetings who are reaching out — anywhere from 10 to 100 people," he says. "It's the leaders who are saying, 'We need to get our team together to talk strategy' — but they want to be sure to follow every recommended health-security measure."

Spero urges planners to think about the big picture when it comes to attendee-safety efforts. It's important to develop comprehensive plans that incorporate prevention, detection and response, he advises, and to cover concerns from before the event begins until after everyone has returned home.

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Beth Surmont, CAE, CMP

Director of Experience Design, 360 Live Media

Professionally speaking,
Beth Surmont was ready for Covid-19. "It was actually a crisis that got me into the virtual-event space eight years ago," says Surmont, who is based in New Jersey and was working for the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers at the time. When Superstorm Sandy hit in 2012, the organization's yearly meetings series had to be moved online.

The upside was that Surmont and her team discovered how much could be accomplished digitally. All future meetings were moved to a hybrid format, and Surmont has continued experimenting with virtual events ever since.

Now with event producer 360 Live Media, Surmont helps clients design and execute highly engaging digital meetings and plan for a hybrid future. She also worked with 360's Event Innovators Exchange network to launch a six-week video series on becoming a virtual-event virtuoso. The on-demand program covers everything from how to engage remote attendees to pricing and sponsorship tips for digital events.

"Meeting planning is near and dear to my heart. A lot of my friends and colleagues are meeting planners, so I just wanted to get information out to people on how they could get through this," says Surmont, who has spent her free time reading 23 books and taking early-morning walks with her wife and two dogs. "Virtual events don't have to be a consolation prize or second best. You can experiment and see what new audiences you can attract and discover new formats you didn't have space for before."

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greg talley

Gregg Talley, FASAE, CAE

President and CEO, Talley Management Group

Gregg Talley had already been cautioning associations to reinvent their business models, long before the pandemic forced organizations to rethink their revenue streams. With changing demographics, sustainability concerns and any number of unforeseen events that could derail a conference, it's too risky to rely on one big annual event for the bulk of revenues, the association-management expert has long believed.

Dating back to the 1980s, when Talley was new to this business, communicable diseases were on the long list of what-ifs. America's beloved epidemiologist Anthony Fauci even held a seat on the board of directors for one of Talley's clients.

Since co-founding his New Jersey-based company, now with 50 employees in the United States and three in Africa, Talley has taken more of a consultative approach. It's what his clients need, particularly now, as they turn to digital-meetings platforms and other ways to stay connected with their constituents. "I look at a lot of our competition, and they're basically administrators," says Talley, whose company oversees 32 national and international associations. "We've never sold ourselves that way."

Also keeping him busy this year: the 59th annual meeting of the International Congress and Convention Association, to take place Nov. 1-3 in Kaohsiung, Taiwan — and online.

"My role was to brainstorm with the board," says Talley, who was chair of the Board Congress Task Force, "and then to work with the staff, team and partners at Maritz Global Events and DRPG to plan and deliver on the board's hybrid-event vision."

The event effectively began on Sept. 22 with the "Road to Kaohsiung" program, consisting of pre-show global broadcasts inviting the ICCA community to share ideas and crowdsource content for the in-person event in Kaohsiung, and also at two or three regional hubs in Europe. "Then we're going to link them all together," says Talley. "So you can either come in virtually, go to a regional hub or go to Kaohsiung, if you can get there."

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don welsh 2

Don Welsh

President and CEO, Destinations International

Don Welsh knows the pressures his members face. Prior to joining the association for convention and visitor bureaus in 2016, he led three different CVBs: Visit Seattle, Visit Indy and, most recently, Choose Chicago. That first-hand experience taught him the vulnerability of the funding model and the importance of advocacy for bureaus, two areas of focus during his tenure at DI.

Those two areas have never been more important to the very survival of DMOs. The pandemic has taken a particularly devastating toll on CVBs, as their major source of revenue — hotel taxes — has dried up. Adding to that blow, DMOs were excluded from receiving federal relief due to their nonprofit status as 501(c)(6) organizations.

Welsh says the hardest thing he's had to grapple with this year was finding out "how quickly we could adapt to meet the needs of our members and partners and stay relevant."

To support members, DI launched a series of weekly webcasts and online forums this spring, featuring research and financial advice, as well as check-ins with individual CVBs, providing a platform for bureau executives to see how their peers are handling the year's challenges.

As an advocate, Welsh spearheaded a CVB letter-writing campaign to implore Congress to provide aid, and is working closely with the U.S. Travel Association on behalf of DI to lobby lawmakers.

While most people have stayed home, Welsh resumed one of his hallmark practices this summer: meeting with CVB leaders on their home turfs to learn about their unique concerns and needs. As of late August, he had traveled to 30 destinations and hopes to visit more by the end of the year.

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latoya williams

LaToya Williams

Manager, Global Accounts, HelmsBriscoe

LaToya Williams is used to being the only Black woman in the room. "I look back at photos of the teams I belonged to, and I was always the only minority," she says.

Williams, who has worked for the third-party sourcing company for a year and spent 20 years before that on the hotel side, was recently elected to the board of directors for MPI's Upstate New York chapter — and is, again, the only minority in the group.

"I've had conversations with the president and other board members about 'What does diversity look like and how can we improve?'" she says. At her urging, the chapter will hold a series of events focused on diversity and inclusion in early 2021.

Williams doesn't shy away from having tough conversations with her clients, either, about the need to diversify every aspect of an event, from speakers to staff members and suppliers. She points out that diversity brings new perspectives and can expand audiences and strengthen organizations.

When she's not busy advocating or helping her clients rebook events, Williams can be found exploring the trails behind her home in Buffalo, N.Y., where she now walks two miles every morning.

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eric yuan zoom

Eric Yuan

CEO, Zoom

Is anyone not aware of Zoom's insanely successful rise to prominence this year? After the company
reported Q2 earnings of $663.5 million — nine times higher than the previous year's Q2, exceeding estimates by 33 percent — Zoom was valued at $129 billion. Eric Yuan's personal worth hit about $20 billion, putting him on a par with superstar investor Carl Icahn. But it isn't Yuan's glorious payday that puts him on our list — it's what he has created.

Formerly vice president of engineering at Cisco, Yuan left to found Zoom after Cisco execs rejected his proposal for a mobile-friendly videoconferencing platform. He based his technology on five core principles: ease of use on any platform, reliability, innovative features, cost-effectiveness, and privacy and security.

Zoom was already growing rapidly, but it's the adherence to those principles that helped attract so many new users so quickly — it's an affordable, accessible platform that can be put to good use quickly. And the flexible technology and company culture Yuan put in place have allowed Zoom to weather growing pains — like the "Zoom-bombers" who exploited security loopholes — and address problems fast and effectively. In fact, from April through June, Yuan shifted all of the company's engineering resources to focus solely on security and privacy issues — general feature development was temporarily frozen.

That three-month period, Yuan says, brought about meaningful change. "I am proud of, and humbled by, the role Zoom has played in connecting the world in crisis, and in all that our team has accomplished to better secure our platform," he says. But, he adds, those actions this summer just represent the first step. "Our core value as a company is to care," he says. "And we will continue to show it through future actions."

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