Meetings Industry Influencers 2022

These visionaries are committed to making events more accessible, sustainable and diverse.

Every planner or supplier who touches this industry is influential. Bringing people together isn’t just good for business, it helps us learn and grow as individuals. It makes us better humans.

Choosing the year’s most influential meeting professionals is difficult and subjective. For months leading up to this issue each year, the M&C editorial team conducts research and interviews to identify the year’s contenders, and then painstakingly whittles it down to a short list of true standouts. The 17 leaders profiled here are not only focused on their day-to-day tasks, they’re looking at the bigger picture: the betterment of the meetings industry and, by extension, humanity. Here are their stories.

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Anna Abdelnoor | Sheila Alexander-Reid | Matthew Beaudin | Robin Bunevich | Kristal Cardone | Sean Dixon | Roger Dow | Mike Gamble | Tahira Endean | Samantha Evans | Geoff Freeman | Jack Johnson | Jack Molisani | WeeMin Ong | David Peckinpaugh | Julius Solaris | Virginie De Visscher

Anna Abdelnoor Isla

Anna Abdelnoor

Cofounder and CEO, Isla

As the cofounder and tireless driving force behind the U.K.-based Isla — Industry Sustainability through Leadership in Action — Anna Abdelnoor is doing all she can to move sustainability initiatives from aspirational to actionable. Abdelnoor, who has worked as an event producer for both large agencies and venues, began discussions in late 2019 to establish the nonprofit membership organization. Isla launched in August 2020 with 12 event-agency founding members; it has grown to 175 members and shows no signs of slowing down.

Neither does Abdelnoor. Demand for standardized sustainability metrics, education and best practices in the meetings industry is growing. The Isla team delivers, via the pioneering Trace carbon-measurement platform, and by working hands-on with members to help implement sustainability programs. Abdelnoor appears in countless sessions and programs to share her expertise — including as cohost of the Complete Sustainable Events Course, a six-week module created by The Meeting Show from Northstar Meetings Group.

Sheila Alexander Reid Philadelphia CVB

Sheila Alexander-Reid

Executive director, PHL Diversity

The former head of Washington, D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser’s Office of LGBTQ+ Affairs, Sheila Alexander-Reid has joined the Philadelphia Convention and Visitors Bureau to head up PHL Diversity, a post most recently held by 2019 Influencer Greg DeShields. Alexander-Reid had a hand in the successful fight for marriage equality in D.C., served on a policy committee advising the Biden-Harris campaign on LGBTQ+ issues, and worked with Destination DC to attract diverse conventions to the city.

She is now tasked with pursuing the same goal for Philly, helping the city become even more welcoming to meetings and events that value diversity, equity and inclusion. And as if that won’t keep her busy enough, Alexander-Reid will continue her work with two agencies she founded: Branding4Change, which focuses on DEI branding and training, and Women in the Life, a social-justice nonprofit.

Matthew Beaudin Monterey Bay Aquarium

Matthew Beaudin

Executive chef, Monterey Bay Aquarium

To move the needle toward sustainable meetings, planners are highly dependent on their supplier partners. To that end, Matthew Beaudin is demonstrating what a venue’s culinary program can do. The Monterey Bay Aquarium has established itself as a preeminent force in ocean conservation and sustainable seafood; Beaudin’s approach to events uses that as a springboard and goes beyond, partnering with local farmers and suppliers to craft menus, removing waste throughout the supply chain, and producing detailed sustainability reports for all event stakeholders. 

Given the reputation and F&B volume of the aquarium, Beaudin’s efforts have made an impact, from more sustainable sourcing to redesigned packaging and delivery practices. His questioning of conventional assumptions — for instance, he recently confirmed they were working only with farmers who paid top wages to pickers — is serving as a blueprint for venues across the country.

Robin Bunevich Zoom Events 2

Robin Bunevich

Product Marketing Manager, Zoom Events and Webinars

Like most planners in 2020, Robin Bunevich grew deeply frustrated with the technology she had to use to take her successful in-person events online. As the former senior brand manager for NYTLive, the New York Times’s portfolio of conferences, Bunevich found the available tech to be prohibitively expensive and overly complicated. Now at Zoom, a company known for simplicity and affordability, she’s trying to improve the situation for her peers. 

Bunevich represents the multisession, conference version that has grown quickly, with more than 7,000 customers, and about 150 Zoom Events taking place daily. Given the company’s huge user base, and its ability to offer low price points, Zoom Events is on the verge of making a much bigger splash. 

“We want to make virtual and hybrid events accessible for companies of all sizes,” says Bunevich. “Our goal is to make ‘hybrid’ obtainable.”

Kristal Cardone Liberty Mutual Insurance

Kristal Cardone

Director, enterprise recognition events, Liberty Mutual Insurance

While most organizations paused incentive travel and reward programs during the pandemic, Liberty Mutual deemed them “business critical.” “We quickly pivoted to virtual and I’m excited to say we also quickly pivoted out of virtual,” says Kristal Cardone. In fact, the company’s first in-person event was an incentive program in August 2021. 

The insurance company, which runs about 15 global incentive programs a year, has garnered recognition for its initiatives. Most recently, its “Trek to Quebec” program, which took a small group of sales representatives and executives to Mont Tremblant, Canada, for three nights of networking, skiing and more, was named the best incentive program in North America by the Society for Incentive Travel Excellence. The results speak for themselves: 35 percent of the people at that 2020 event have been promoted.

Sean Dixon Visit Topeka

Sean Dixon

President, Visit Topeka

Sean Dixon had his own preconceived notions about Topeka, Kan., before joining the CVB in 2020. But ultimately, “what drew me here was discovering just how my preconceived notions were wrong,” he says. The diverse, welcoming city was not the one he’d read about — and he recognized an opportunity to change public perception.

Championing inclusion is one thing in a large city and another in a small, more socially conservative market. Visit Topeka met the challenge head-on this summer, sponsoring drag-racing’s first openly gay driver, Travis Shumake, and putting the CVB’s logo on his rainbow-themed Pride Kansas dragster — a public overture in a traditionally conservative sport.

The move drove diversity and tolerance — and Topeka — into the public discourse. The blowback Dixon anticipated never materialized: “Instead, we were met with resounding positivity.”

Roger Dow Mike Gamble

Roger Dow & Mike Gamble

Former President and CEO, U.S. Travel Association (left); President and CEO, SearchWide Global (right)

After 17 years at the helm of the U.S. Travel Association, Roger Dow stepped down in August. But he isn’t stepping away from the industry.

Dow has teamed with Mike Gamble, president and CEO of travel-recruitment firm SearchWide Global, to launch an app to address the hospitality industry’s staffing issues. The introduction is timely, as Northstar’s PULSE Survey shows hotel staffing is a growing concern among planners.

Launching in the next few months, the app will match short-staffed venues with prequalified workers, who can make their own schedules.

Tahira Endean IMEX Group

Tahira Endean

Head of program, IMEX Group

When the IMEX Group wanted to supercharge the education at their industry trade shows in Frankfurt and Las Vegas, they turned to Tahira Endean — an education and engagement specialist known for overhauling and elevating in-person and digital events for the Society for Incentive Travel Excellence

Endean, who is working toward a master’s degree in creativity and change leadership, was honored to join IMEX, an organization she’s long admired for their innovation and fresh thinking. Her influence will be on full display this month as IMEX America unveils a new, streamlined education program — going from 10 tracks down to four — and she’s eager to share the effort.

“Thirty years in, I am still having a blast working with partners and teams ready to energize our industry as we move past these last two years and go full-force into events around the world,” she says. 

Samantha Evans International Association of Accessibility Professionals

Samantha Evans

Certification manager, International Association of Accessibility Professionals

In her role as an accessibility advocate, Samantha Evans lives by John Lewis’ words to “get in good trouble, necessary trouble.” She comes from a meeting planning and association management background, which has fueled her mission to educate planners on putting disability inclusion into the planning process.

The issue is a personal one for Evans, who herself is hard of hearing and struggles with dyscalculia, a math-learning disability. She is working with the Events Industry Council on a Disability Inclusion Guide, and feels meetings industry organizations must model best accessibility practices in order to affect widespread change. As a result of this work, sign language and captioning were available for the first time this year at major events, including Meeting Professionals International’s World Education Congress and the American Society of Association Executive’s Annual Meeting. 

Geoff Freeman US Travel Association

Geoff Freeman

President and CEO, U.S. Travel Association

Geoff Freeman has big shoes to fill. He took the helm of the U.S. Travel Association on Sept. 1, following Roger Dow’s 17-year reign. The organization has enjoyed a decade of growth, but Freeman steps in at a difficult juncture. “The challenges we now confront are off the charts,” he says.

But Freeman is eager to expand U.S. Travel’s reach. “Advocacy is our foundation, but how do we build a couple of stories on that foundation that make the association indispensable?” he asks. “What can we do in terms of education, research, information sharing, networking, problem solving?”

Freeman intends to work closely with industry associations on challenges such as staffing and sustainability. “U.S. Travel doesn’t need to own what is a massive problem,” he says. “If we all work together as partners, we will make real progress in due course.”

Jack Johnson Destinations International

Jack Johnson 

Chief advocacy officer, Destinations International

Political issues have ignited travel boycotts in the past, but none in recent memory could be as divisive and as material as the Dobbs decision and the enactment of anti-abortion laws in several states. In a recent survey, 43 percent of planners said such laws will impact their future site-selection decisions.

Jack Johnson empathizes with cities that bear the brunt of state boycotts. As a former legislative analyst and former CVB executive, he has gathered updated evidence that political boycotts are rarely effective and hurt our industry. 

Destinations International is working to enlist the support of other industry associations to amplify this messaging, says Johnson. “This isn’t a side issue,” he adds. “It will be a cornerstone of DI’s activities for the next six to 12 months.”

Jack Molisani LavaCon

Jack Molisani 

Executive director, LavaCon

A month before the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, Jack Molisani braced for the potential impact on his meetings. He warned New Orleans & Company that he would move LavaCon 2023 if Louisiana enacted a harsh anti-abortion law. “Get that bill killed, or you risk losing billions in future conference and convention business,” he said in an email. Northstar’s subsequent research revealed that such bills would affect the site-selection decisions of more than 40 percent of planners

Molisani has taken similar action before, having moved a conference due to pending discriminatory legislation, and he has ignited an important conversation that impacts meetings deeply. He shares his standard “out clause” on request, and fields calls from fellow planners seeking guidance. 

WeeMin Ong Marina Bay Sands

WeeMin Ong, CEM, CMP

Vice president, sales and MICE, Marina Bay Sands

Prepandemic, Marina Bay Sands was conceptualizing an on-site studio that would help events reach remote audiences. Covid-19 accelerated the process, says WeeMin Ong: The team built the Hybrid Broadcast Studio in just seven days. It was among the first of its kind, incorporating immersive screens and holographic technology for real-time two-way communication.

Media attention ignited the interest of other facilities, which created their own hybrid facilities.

The resort now has four of these studios that can serve up to 1,400 participants. Last fall, they also introduced the Virtual Meeting Place, which puts real-life environments into online settings for remote attendees.

David Peckinpaugh Maritz Holdings

David Peckinpaugh

President and CEO, Maritz Holdings

David Peckinpaugh began 2022 in momentous fashion, stepping in as the first president and CEO of 128-year-old Maritz Holdings who isn’t a Maritz by birth. After 11 years as president of Maritz Global Events, he now also oversees Maritz Motivation and Maritz Automotive, and is on the board of Impact Dimensions.

Peckinpaugh, who took over his new role from board chair Steve Maritz, has been in listening mode all year and has launched an initiative called “Next 125,” which is reviewing and adjusting the way the company serves its employees and clients now and into the future. To wit: Maritz, a signatory of Net Zero Carbon Events, is now maximizing ways to help clients achieve sustainability and diversity targets.

Julius Solaris Boldpush

Julius Solaris

Founder, Boldpush

When Julius Solaris talks — or posts — people listen. That’s been happening for more than a decade, thanks to his early adoption of social media and his recognition of the power the platform could wield. When Solaris launched the Event Manager Blog in 2007 — rebranded eventually as EventMB — many meeting professionals weren’t convinced of social media’s influence. But Solaris built a community around that blog, showing the power of online branding, savvy SEO and frank talk through digital platforms.

Following stints at event platforms Swapcard and Hopin, Solaris has returned as an independent observer via his social platforms and a new consultancy, Boldpush. While his distinctive voice continues to stir engagement, his latest project promises to impact the event-tech marketplace. Solaris is launching a market research report for event technology, sharing insights into a still largely misunderstood sector.

Virginie De Visscher Destination Canada Business Events

Virginie De Visscher

Senior director of business development for economic sectors, Destination Canada Business Events

“We all have a responsibility to economically, socially and environmentally benefit the host communities and global ecosystems we visit,” says Virginie De Visscher. She is the driving force behind the Canadian Business Events Sustainability Plan, a first-of-its-kind national program geared to the meetings industry that launched in May 2022. Through the plan, Canadian destinations receive coaching, training and education to help them build on their existing sustainability programs, and to support implementation of new plans for all events.

De Visscher hopes the materials developed for Canada can be shared with other destinations, helping them create similar initiatives: “Sustainability is not necessarily a competitive advantage, but rather a collaborative one for all of us to do the right thing for our industry.”