15 Event Professionals Making an Impact

Meet a few of the many people who have made a difficult year much better for colleagues, clients and the meetings industry.

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The saying on Diversity and inclusion consultant Zoe Moore's arms says, "When inclusion is the behavior then diversity will be the result." Photo Credit:Dear World for MPI's WEC Toronto

For the past 56 years, Meetings & Conventions has recognized the important work of leaders in the meetings and events industry. Many of these influencers have been featured and quoted often in our pages. 

In this transitional time, we looked for people who might not be household names among meeting professionals — but should be. The 15 difference-makers we chose to profile here did exemplary work for the benefit of their colleagues, clients and communities when they needed it most.

Of course, countless others are just as deserving of recognition for their positive influence on our industry. We’d love to share their stories, too. Please email Loren Edelstein with your suggestions.

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Ashanti Bentil Dhue | J Grant Caplan | Wendy Carter | John Cordier | Stephanie Glanzer | Elizabeth Glau | Tommy Goodwin | Veemal Gungadin | Stephanie M. Jones | Zoe Moore | Akshar Patel | Peter Ricci | Sue Sung | Richelle Suver | Eric Wallinger

Ashanti Bentil-Dhue

Ashanti Bentil-Dhue

Cofounder, Diversity Ally; Head of Digital Media and Events, EventMind

Before she became immersed in the meetings industry, Ashanti Bentil-Dhue was a diversity, equity and inclusion expert working in the world of corporate banking. It was during that stint that she also became a planner; events were the medium through which companies delivered their DEI education and messaging.

In 2016, Bentil-Dhue struck out on her own to start EventMind, a London-based planning firm primarily serving diverse and underserved communities. EventMind is thriving, and is producing events for organizations that support women’s health and brands promoting Black children’s initiatives.

Digital-engagement strategies were — and still are — critical to Bentil-Dhue’s success. “When you’re young and you start a business, you have no budget for marketing,” she recalls. “Using digital tools was my best bet to stand out.” After running countless digital events and campaigns with EventMind, she was well-positioned to share her knowledge and experience when Covid hit.

In 2020, Bentil-Dhue also cofounded Diversity Ally, a consultancy that helps events-industry organizations become more diverse and inclusive. To highlight successful initiatives, the company introduced the Diversity in Events Awards this year, with a celebration set for April 2022. Also worth celebrating: Diversity Ally was the first Black female–owned business to exhibit and put DEI on the agenda at International Confex, held in London Sept. 1-2.

Bentil-Dhue and Diversity Ally cofounder Gabrielle Austen-Browne plan to build on that growing success: “Next year we’re going to launch a global accreditation for the events industry,” says Bentil-Dhue, “so businesses can get themselves up to at least a basic foundation of knowledge about diversity and inclusion.” 

J.Grant.Caplan-small.jpg J Grant Caplan

President, Procurigence Inc.

DEI advocates would give a gold star to the standard operating procedures at Procurigence, a sourcing and consulting company for meetings, incentives and business travel. While many firms are just beginning to set policies that  address diversity, equity and inclusion, those principles are at the very foundation of this 10-person firm, says company president J Grant Caplan

When sourcing suppliers for clients, Procurigence consultants ask the types of questions you might expect from a DEI strategist. Sustainability is another important factor in the vetting process, which covers suppliers’ green practices.

Caplan hopes these factors will soon be commonplace in the business world, and he’s doing his part to speed that transformation. To that end, he spearheaded the creation of the Global Business Travel Association’s Committee on Diversity, Equity and Inclusion in January 2021, taking the helm as chair. 

The committee now has 24 members around the globe. “We look for diversity of geography, as well as diversity of personal background so that we don’t run afoul of our own goal,” notes Caplan. The committee is currently gathering DEI data on GBTA members and planning three educational sessions for the association’s annual convention, set for Nov. 17-19 in Orlando. 

Wendy Carter 

CEO, Collection Pot; Founder, Incentive Awards; Cofounder, WiiN Global – Women in Incentives Network

As CEO of one U.K. business and founder of another, Wendy Carter is a well-known figure in European incentive and recognition circles. Her influence went worldwide last October, when she cofounded WiiN Global – Women in Incentives Network. With five like-minded industry women, Carter launched the nonprofit to create connections between female business leaders, professionals and entrepreneurs on a global scale. 

WiiN’s goal is to help members reach their fullest potential by providing more opportunities, education and personal-development resources.

As the organizer of the 55-member group’s education and sponsorship, Carter wants to bring a new era of women into the industry. “If we can let people feel they’ve got a place to talk and ask the questions they might not ask in the team meeting, and if that gives them the confidence to step up to the next role or level, we’ve done our job.” 

Carter also serves as CEO of Collection Pot, a platform she describes as a GoFundMe for companies and employees to donate to colleagues’ life events such as retirement, baby showers or weddings. And she is the founder of Incentive Awards, the annual program and event that honors Europe’s top incentive and motivation initiatives. 

With a Collection Pot platform for U.S. firms launching later this year, Carter’s efforts will soon motivate a broader audience of incentive professionals.

John Cordier 

CEO and Cofounder, Epistemix

How risky is it to attend a meeting in Chicago vs. Orlando? Do vaccines and masks reduce Covid transmission at large events? John Cordier, CEO and cofounder of Epistemix, finds factual answers to those questions for event organizers, companies, school districts and state governments.

Cordier co-created Epistemix in 2018 along with other experts in computer science and epidemiology who had developed predictive analytic software that can simulate epidemics and test a range of scenarios to mitigate contagion.

It wasn’t long before the Exhibitions & Conferences Alliance and Freeman saw the potential for this tech platform to help them advocate for face-to-face events. ECA backed a large-scale research project to understand the risks of contagion and identify factors that improve safety. 

“We began to model and simulate the impact of large B2B or B2C events on the trajectory of the pandemic for different cities,” explains Cordier. The research concluded that business events generally are much safer than typical daily activities, largely because of the high levels of vaccination coverage among B2B attendees, among other controllable factors.

“Show organizers are using this information to address the needs of attendees, exhibitors and their boards in the decision-making process, so they have data that support their conclusions on what protocols to put in place,” says Cordier. “And when events can take place without protocols, they’re able to make that decision from an informed position.” 

When global travel is an option, Cordier takes a break from statistics for his annual summer excursion to a village outside of Riobamba, Ecuador, where he teaches kids about geography. 

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Stephanie Glanzer, CMP 

Senior Vice President and Chief Sales Officer, MGM Resorts International

As chief of MGM’s sales organization, Stephanie Glanzer has spent the past 18 months as a consultant, cheerleader, therapist and friend for employees and clients. “The hardest part has been keeping teams motivated during a prolonged time of cancellations and rebookings,” she says. “I’ve been doing what I can to support them as they’re having really difficult conversations with customers.”

Ultimately, she says, those discussions strengthened internal and external relationships. “As hard and difficult and awful as it was, I think in many ways it actually brought us closer. We’ve gotten to know people better because we checked in personally more often.”

Glanzer started her hospitality career straight out of college in 1998 at the Mirage in Las Vegas, moving to Bellagio, Aria and Mandalay Bay before joining the MGM corporate team in 2019. Along the way, she has made it her mission to bring more women into the executive suite. She has mentored young women who, like her, began as sales coordinators and worked their way up to become vice presidents, among other leadership roles.

“As females, we can be assertive, we can hold our ground,” she says. “But at the same time, we can do it with kindness and respect.”

Her nurturing spirit extends to the communities surrounding MGM’s 29 global resorts. Glanzer has championed team-building projects to provide needed assistance in those destinations. While in-person projects were paused for safety’s sake, MGM has been donating personal-protection supplies and food in its resort communities for the past 18 months. “It meant a lot to me to know that we could still help those communities,” says Glanzer, “and could continue to tell their stories.

In Memoriam: Elizabeth Glau

CEO, Event Integrity

Elizabeth Glau, CMP, a veteran event professional who was most recently CEO of the consultancy and marketplace Event Integrity, stopped working in the fall of 2020 after being diagnosed with breast cancer. But her influence didn’t cease when she put her job on hold. The respected and beloved eventprof documented her health battle on social media with an unflinching honesty and authenticity that echoed her approach to business. She passed away in July, just eight months after her diagnosis, at the age of 42.

In her final months, the extent of her impact became more evident than ever. As Glau contemplated her legacy, her friend Megan Powers, chief strategist at Powers of Marketing, invited the eventprofs community to comment on Glau’s contributions to the industry. The result was a near hour-long video testimonial to Glau’s legacy, which she was able to watch in her final days. 

Glau worked for 18 years as an event professional, beginning on the hotel side. Following stints with MPI, her own Building Blocks Social Media, the International Society for Technology in Education, Sciensio/42chat, and her attendee- and customer-experience outfit EGCX, she purchased Event Integrity in May 2020 — with plans to make the industry better by helping companies with shared values find each other.

The Event Integrity Facebook Group lives on, focusing on issues such as sustainability, DEI, human trafficking and other topics related to the moral foundation on which Glau believed the industry should operate.

Tommy Goodwin ECA

Tommy Goodwin 

Vice President of Government Affairs, Exhibitions & Conferences Alliance

Tommy Goodwin has spent the past 20 years in lobbying — and it shows, he jokes. “When I started I had a full head of blond hair,” quips Goodwin, who now rocks a clean-shaven head. 

His experience lobbying for the Project Management Institute, AARP and other groups prepared him well for his new position at the Exhibitions & Conferences Alliance. Launched in February 2021, ECA was formed as a more permanent continuation of the Go Live Together coalition, with a mission focused on advocating for the business events industry during the pandemic and beyond.

“One of the things Go Live Together found out was that policymakers didn’t have a fulsome point of view of the industry,” says Goodwin. “They didn’t understand the economic impact, the number of jobs and all of the small businesses that rely on exhibitions and conferences… We need to be communicating that message 24/7, 365 days a year — in good times and in bad times.”

Over the past eight months, the organization has created task forces to help states reopen safely and lift event restrictions. Other initiatives include lobbying Congress to pass the Hospitality and Commerce Job Recovery Act and working with the computational modeling company Epistemix to create customizable dashboards that show how safe it is to run an event based on the expected health procedures. This can arm planners with evidence that an event can be held safely and there’s no fact-based reason to cancel.  

 

Veemal Gungadin

Veemal Gungadin 

Founder and CEO, Gevme

Veemal Gungadin, founder and CEO of event-tech platform Gevme, isn’t making global headlines with billion-dollar valuations. But he is playing a significant role in Singapore’s transition to digital and hybrid events — and building a community of venue and event-agency collaborators along the way.

While Singapore event tech is often developed in its own self-contained laboratory, the pandemic opened up global possibilities. Gevme clients were almost exclusively in Singapore and Southeast Asia previously, but 30 to 40 percent of queries now come from elsewhere. 

That means his ideas about digital transformation are reaching more people. Gungadin believes everyone in the event ecosystem should be building digital assets. Chief among them are “virtual venues,” such as the spaces offered by Gevme. These might be 2D websites or even immersive 3D environments that resemble a physical venue, with variable designs to meet the group’s needs.

Gevme’s virtual store offers a variety of prebuilt venue options, but what’s most important, he says, is that these venues are reusable assets that become part of a meetings stakeholder’s toolbox. Singapore’s Marina Bay Sands, for instance, now offers a prebuilt virtual venue for clients who need an online component for their events. The resort “owns” most of that venue and splits the revenue it earns with Gevme based on that ownership percentage. 

Gevme also has a license to stream video within China — a process often mired in bureaucratic complications — making the platform a unique option for those looking to target the Chinese market. “Lots of collaboration has been going on to experiment with different ideas,” Gungadin says, “and we’ll see what works best for everyone.” 

influencers 2021

Stephanie M. Jones

Founder and CEO, Cultural Heritage Economic Alliance Inc., and National Blacks in Travel and Tourism Collaborative

Stephanie M. Jones is tired of hearing that Black talent is hard to find — and she’s committed to making it easier. Through the National Blacks in Travel and Tourism Collaborative, which she founded in 2020, Jones produced a Black speakers bureau and a Black talent directory in early 2021.

“We are working to build a Black tourism ecosystem that creates a pipeline of Black talent and becomes the go-to for the industry to tap Black speakers, suppliers and young professionals pursuing meetings and other travel-related careers,” she says. Since launching in April, the directory has grown to more than 250 talent profiles.

Jones has long been an advocate for uplifting Black businesses and enhancing tourism diversity. She got her start more than 20 years ago, in marketing for cultural institutions such as the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History in Detroit, and the Crossroads Theatre Company in New Brunswick, N.J. This work led her to founding the Cultural Heritage Economic Alliance, which creates equitable opportunities and helps destinations attract multicultural audiences.

“I realized there were disparities in tourism for underserved neighborhoods,” says Jones. “I decided to create tangible ways to drive more awareness, foot traffic and dollars into local Black and Brown businesses and attractions.”

Zoe-Moore-Dear-World-2

Zoe Moore

Inclusive Hospitality Consultant and Strategist, Grow With Zomo

After spending 12 years in cybersecurity for the U.S. Army, Zoe Moore set out on a new mission in 2013: to raise awareness and drive change in diversity, equity and inclusion. Hospitality, which touches a larger and more diverse group of people than any other market segment, seemed like the right place to start.

“I really believe our industry can set the blueprint,” says Moore, who now runs her own consulting business, Grow With Zomo. In addition to individual clients, Moore works with Meeting Professionals International, the Events Industry Council and others to craft and implement DEI policies. “We engage with so many diverse stakeholders across the entire business ecosystem,” says Moore, who serves on MPI’s Diversity, Equity & Inclusion Advisory Committee. “We can truly live out the value of hospitality, including all people and all identifiers in our events.”

In focus groups and at industry conferences, she brings that message to broad audiences in all facets of the business. Her newest mission: to train industry professionals to become DEI strategists. In partnership with the Event Leadership Institute and MPI Academy, “my goal is to make this curriculum an official Events Industry Council CMP subspecialty,” says Moore.

“I want the infrastructure of our events to represent people across all social identities,” she adds, “so those communities, both independently and intersectionally, thrive. If it’s authentically being done in our organizations, we want that to be infectious. It helps our entire society.” 

Akshar Patel AAHOA Akshar Patel

Vice President of Conventions, Asian American Hotel Owners Association

Akshar Patel’s attendee base has a vested interest in putting heads in beds. Patel is vice president of conventions for the Asian American Hotel Owners Association, whose members own 60 percent of the hotels in the United States. They were so intent on meeting in person that Patel did not offer a virtual option for the group’s August convention.

“I’m not against digital platforms,” he says, “but face-to-face is more valuable to me and my members and my investors.” Only 50 exhibitors bought into the virtual convention in 2020, which was held online out of necessity. When AAHOA announced this past spring that the 2021 convention would take place August 3-6 in Dallas, there was palpable excitement among stakeholders. Exhibitors were hungry for face time — and registration kept ticking up.

With an attendance goal of 4,500, the show ended up drawing 6,272 people and nearly 560 exhibiting companies. It was Dallas’ first citywide since the onset of the pandemic, and close collaboration with destination officials was essential to its success, says Patel.

It’s critical that hospitality businesses demonstrate the vital importance of travel and in-person meetings, Patel adds. “If we don’t advocate for ourselves or owners or industry, and the interdependent industries that rely on us, who will?” 

Peter Ricci FAU Peter Ricci

Clinical Associate Professor and Director, Florida Atlantic University Hospitality & Tourism Management Program

For more than a decade, Florida Atlantic University has offered a certificate in Hospitality and Tourism Management. When the pandemic brought mass furloughs and layoffs in the industry, Peter Ricci looked for a way to help. In April 2020, he cut the program’s 40 hours of content to 20 and dropped tuition to zero so that unemployed workers and others could hone their skills at no cost.

“Within a week, we had 1,000 registrants. Normally we only have 500 a year,” says Ricci. “Within three weeks we had 10,000.” By September 2020, 77,000 people had registered and 66,000 completed the certificate program.

With high demand for more content, Ricci reinstated the 40-hour certificate in October 2020. Thanks to donations, FAU was able to reduce the tuition from $700 to $199. “The content in the certificate is very useful for a hospitality worker who either has been out of school for a while or never studied hospitality in school,” Ricci says.

When the free program first launched, Ricci was getting as many as 6,000 emails each day from participants expressing their gratitude. He’s also received more than 30,000 thank you cards in the mail — and yes, he counted and is saving them all in his closet.

“It warms my heart when I think about it,” he says. “We did something really cool that, were it not for Covid, we never would have done.”

Ricci is refreshing the course material for the next program, which begins in June 2022.

Sue Sung Freeman-Small Sue Sung

Senior Vice President of Corporate Strategy, Freeman

Sue Sung typically holds an inside role at Freeman, driving the company’s strategic direction and performance. Covid turned that inside out, as Freeman’s success really rested on the fate of the entire industry. In April 2020, Freeman created Go Live Together to advocate for the safe and rapid reopening of in-person business events. The coalition of 80 founding members grew to nearly 3,000 and became part of the Exhibitions & Conferences Alliance, now representing more than 150,000 organizations.

With ECA’s backing, Sung spearheaded the research with Epistemix that would lend scientific proof to the fact that business events do not pose an increased risk of contagion. The rate of transmission at business events was far lower than in the surrounding area, the study found.

Educating our own is an ongoing process, says Sung. “We need to help event organizers and participants understand how to live with Covid, They have this concept of waiting for a post-Covid world. They’re postponing their shows ‘until the pandemic is over.’ We need to reframe that narrative,” she says, because Covid will be with us for a while.

This global crisis will have a long-term effect on meetings, Sung believes. The days of attending trade shows because you want to or feel you “should” are over. “People are going to be much more thoughtful about what they attend, why they’re attending and what they need to get out of it,” she predicts.

Organizers, in turn, will need to work harder to get on the short list of events deemed most valuable. 

Richelle Suver One10 Marketing

Richelle Suver

Vice President of Strategic Marketing, One10 Marketing

Richelle Suver is a bit of an evangelist for the fundamentals of incentives and reward programs. “Travel is the appealing, shiny reward at the end,” she says. The other aspects of the program — communication, tracking, reporting — are what make a program successful, she explains. 

It’s not that she doesn’t appreciate the travel. Suver — who, prior to her marriage this summer, was known professionally as Richelle Taylor — spent years on the travel side of the business before becoming intrigued with program design and the science behind rewards, motivation and recognition. She remained on the program-design side, eventually landing at incentive marketing firm One10, where she serves today as vice president of strategic marketing, and oversees Performax, the company’s rewards platform. 

Suver has spoken out frequently this past year, through the Incentive Research Foundation and other industry organizations, on why and how organizations should keep rewards programs going during these unsettled and disruptive times. Among the countless webinars she has participated in was Northstar’s July program, “Making the Case for Holding Programs in Tough Times.” 

This busy professional, who added three sons to her family of two this summer, volunteers on the IRF’s research committee and local charities. She also gives pro-bono advice to people starting out in the business, emphasizing that service on her LinkedIn profile. “Many people helped me in my career — I want to pay it forward,” she says.

Eric Wallinger MeetGreen 2

Eric Wallinger

Director of Sustainability, MeetGreen

Eric Wallinger has had a deep appreciation for Mother Earth since childhood, when he took frequent hiking and camping trips with his parents. Now, as director of sustainability for MeetGreen, he works with clients to plan earth-friendly meetings and events. 

From a sustainability standpoint, the pandemic had a silver lining of sorts, as in-person meetings converted to digital events. But by no means is MeetGreen looking to switch to digital forever; Walllinger’s real goal is to get back to face-to-face events in a more sustainable way than before the crisis. 

Among current clients is IMEX America, set for Nov. 9-11 in Las Vegas. For the meetings industry megashow, he established a green plan, with milestones and objectives. He’ll be on hand during the event to verify and document sustainability efforts, including food donation and the donation or recycling of show materials.

“I feel like I’ve been meant to do this now,” he says of his dream job with the sustainability-minded events firm. “On good days, I feel lucky that I’ve learned so much during Covid about sustainability and ways to pivot. But like everybody else, I miss the physical world. I love events. I want to get back among the people.”