Adelle Rodriguez recently joined the start-up Invodo in her hometown of Austin, Texas, as marketing and event manager, where she works closely with the business development team and across the organization to manage the company's presence at trade shows, develop marketing strategies and explore new ideas for customer engagement. “Everyone is so incredibly brilliant and hard-working,” she says. “I’m excited to be in an atmosphere where everyone is so driven, and it’s necessary because it’s so small and that’s what makes it succeed.”
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“What I love so much about my job is to be part of such an exciting growth period in East Texas,” says Anna Blakely, national sales manager for the Frisco CVB. That growth—more than 200 percent population growth since 2000—has earned the city a designation as one of the fastest growing in the nation, and it’s kept Blakely busy since she joined the bureau three years after more than a decade experience in sales with Texas hotels, including Starwood, Westin and Hyatt. Blakely also serves as a founding committee member of the Frisco Young Professionals organization, which helps young people early in their careers in the city.
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After establishing her career in hospitality on the supplier side of the industry, April Ellerbe founded New Century Planning, her own third-party firm, where she serves as principal and senior events analyst. In just a few short years, her company has completed a variety of corporate, association and government events, including the opportunity to design and host a welcome reception during the 2012 Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, N.C. She has also been invited to the White House to participate in the Champions of Change Program. Ellerbe has three children: a 16-year-old son, a 9-year-old daughter, and a 7-year-old son. "I don’t quit because of them," she says. She's based in Durham.
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While working on an MBA in marketing, Brandi Scott attended a hospitality career fair in Miami where she met recruiters from Marriott and landed a job at the hotel brand's regional sales office. After a few years, Scott realized she didn’t want to relocate as much as the job might require. That’s when she made the jump to the Miami CVB, moving quickly from junior sales person to corporate sales manager and now convention sales manager handling the Midwest market. Scott likes the job’s variety, working with a range of technology and corporate clients. "I love Miami," she says. "When I saw the opportunity, I just knew it seemed like the right fit. I love marketing, I love sales and I love my city. My job has all three."
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Helping people “is in my DNA,” says Clinton Greenebaum, a determinedly energetic, rising star at hospitality giant CSM Corporation, where he’s earned several Circle of Excellence awards for his sales skills. He's currently the director of group sales and extended stay at The Deport Renaissance and Residence Inn at the Depot in Minneapolis. “His rise in the ranks at work are a sign of his skill and leadership,” says Julie Ann Schmidt, founder of the Global Emerging Leaders Community, who has worked with him in volunteer capacities at MPI and nominated him for 40 Under 40. Recently honored as a Twin City philanthropist (raising $4K via his Facebook and LinkedIn connections for the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation), Greenebaum also finds give-back time for his local MPI chapter, area military families and the Ronald McDonald House—a nod to his first-ever job doing kitchen prep for that charity’s fast-food parent.
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As a resident assistant at University of Central Florida where he studied at the Rosen College of Hospitality Management, Darrin Crittington Jr., CMP, managed more than 100 events at the university before spending five years post-grad as Universal Orlando’s entertainment production coordinator. From there he moved on to a role as North American conferences and events manager for QAI Global Institute for four years, and at press time, had just accepted a new position as senior meeting planner for AAA. In his spare time (“I don’t sleep,” he jokes), he will continue helping with events at QAI in addition to taking on event execution gigs at Universal.
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Employed in the oil industry at the start of her career, Denise Germano discovered her passion for events by working as a wedding planner on the side. After moving to Las Vegas seven years ago, Germano grew her skills and built name recognition in event planning working on the hospitality side for Las Vegas properties Green Valley Ranch and Hard Rock Hotel & Casino. Currently serving as an associate director of global events and communications for Hosts Global Alliance, she interacts with domestic and international destination management company members, their clients, and internal and external staff while organizing trade shows, events, trips and programs for the alliance and owned offices. "I love what I do,” she says. "It's a mix of everything I’ve learned in the industry."
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“That was the moment I started my career,” says Desirea Stewart, CMP, CHSP, of her decision to take a position at Von Braun Center in Huntsville, Alabama. Stewart, the center's group sales manager, focuses on the association and religious markets, but in 2012, she was asked to take on the local corporate market, as well. With the help of her colleagues, she secured the LTD Summit in September 2012, which brought in close to 13,000 attendees. LTD has booked another event in Huntsville this April. A member of multiple hospitality organizations and committees, Stewart also is on the board of the Madison County (Ala.) Career Technical Center’s Hospitality and Tourism Curriculum, where she helps introduce high school students to the industry.
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Thai’s remarkable life journey began in Vietnam, where she was born and spent her early childhood before moving to Orange County, Calif. As a 9-year-old immigrant, Thai learned English from scratch and liked it enough to study it in a master's program at the University of Illinois (where she's currently enrolled). It's at the university where she discovered meeting planning. “Event planning is a definite career choice. I can be organized on one hand and creative on the other,” says Thai handles all the back-end work for the Institute for Legal, Legislative and Policy Studies' three major conferences. “She’s extremely enthusiastic, always thinking of ways to streamline the process and make it more cost-effective,” says Gidget Freeberg, CMP, training and special projects coordinator for the Illinois Department on Aging, who works with and nominated Thai.
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As marketing manager for the Denver-based StoneRiver, Emily Mertz is responsible for planning the software company's annual four-day client conference with more than 400 attendees and 25 to 35 trades shows a year. She also manages social media and partner relationships. "Emily Mertz is the type of employee every company would be thrilled to have,” says Paul Skordilis, a StoneRiver colleague who nominated her. “Emily takes ownership and does what is needed, and due to other job priorities, it means working late nights during the peak planning periods. And she does it with a smile on her face.” A native of Oak Park, Ill., outside Chicago, Mertz is currently working toward her CMP.
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Fifteen years ago, Erica Backus indifferently took a public relations internship with Visit Savannah that introduced her to the world of meetings and tourism, and it made all the difference. Today, she’s still captivated by the industry, and she’s spent her entire career at the bureau, moving up the ranks to director of media and PR. Among other things, she offers live support for media-seekers and helps planners drive attendance and prepare marketing collateral. She’s proud of being part of the team that supported the 2004 global G-8 Summit, the largest convention Savannah hosted to date. Advice for newbies? “Stay persistent. In PR and events, follow-through is key. Being a hard worker takes you a long way.”
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After proving herself as an effective event planner handling BMO Harris Bank’s sales meetings as an executive assistant, Fellicia Foster moved on two major events for the company—the Business Banking Sales Leadership Symposium and Business Banking Leadership Forum. Foster achieved that in two years, and now she’s also managing the company’s asset portfolio management as the manager of APMS. As co-chair of the bank’s African American League of Professionals, she’s expanding the affinity group’s event repertoire from celebrating Black History Month and other chapter events to creating an African American Diversity Summit. The unprecedented event will gather chapters of African American affinity groups from more than 20 corporations for keynote sessions, breakouts and networking this fall.
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Gina Keatley is a chef, nutritionist, speaker, cookbook author and television host who leads a campaign to promote use of fresh foods in low-income areas. Early in her career, she created Nourishing USA, a community food program that feeds thousands of people across America. She was named a 2011 CNN Hero and L'Oreal Woman of Worth, and her culinary and humanitarian impact has been widely recognized (she received a President's Council on Fitness, Sports and Nutrition Community Leadership Award recently). She regularly appears as in front of large audiences talking about her passions: sustainable foods, healthy eating and helping people overcome hunger. “I want attendees to come away from my events feeling motivated and bold,” she says. Keatley is also an American Diabetes Ambassador.
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Jennifer Gachui learned how quickly Disney experience opens doors. After studying hospitality and hotel management at Les Roches Hotel School in Switzerland, the Kenya native was offered a position at Disney’s Animal Kingdom in Orlando as park operations safari driver. Two years later, she was choosing between offers in Las Vegas, and worked front office operations and sales roles for several resorts before becoming the Las Vegas Monorail’s first salesperson doing marketing to corporate meetings and conventions. She’s rightfully proud of earning her MBA while growing her HelmsBriscoe business to full capacity since establishing it during the market crash. She contracts about 85 meetings a year for a portfolio of clients, including corporate accounts like Expense Reduction Analysts and Trigilid Corporation.
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Chances are if you’ve ever attended an InterContinental Hotels Group conference or trade show, you’ve crossed paths with Jennifer Sabel. A one-time interior decorator wannabe (“My husband’s in charge of that now,” she says), Sabel found her footing at Indiana University taking Hospitality 101, and has pursued the industry ever since, first in hotel catering, meetings and planner sites, then as IHG’s globe-trotting business development manager. Building trust and relationships is Sabel’s mantra. “I stand up for my brand and my clients, and that’s brought me success,” she says.
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Jessica Lamb, CMP, recently started a new job with Young Presidents’ Organization-World Presidents’ Organization, a global membership network of CEOs, where she’s responsible for international meeting planning as well as membership recruitment and retention. For four years prior, she had been a meeting and event manager for TIMI Study Group, a clinical research organization affiliated with Harvard University, Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Partners Healthcare in Boston. “She is quick, reliable and focused in her planning and has humbly received applause from the many project coordinators and attendees with whom she interacts in more than 30 countries,” says Allie Lamb, her sister, who nominated her and also works in the events industry. In 2012, Lamb relocated from Massachusetts to Nashville, Tenn., she she works remotely. Lamb is a member of MPI and was recently accepted to take the new CMP–Healthcare Exam.
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Joshua Jones, DMCP, has amassed 15 years of experience in the DMC industry since studying public relations and marketing in college. Currently he's vice president for Hosts Global Alliance, and he manages the Hosts Las Vegas office. “His vision for a positive company culture drives the behavior of his team to develop new and innovative results for their clients,” says Jennifer Patino, a colleague who nominated him. Jones assists in a support role in some global initiatives and oversees STYLE Event Design and Creative Decor, a startup that launched in 2013 providing full-service design and decor solutions. He’s past president of ISES Las Vegas, has served on its board of directors for the last five years, and is active with the ADME International and Las Vegas Hospitality Association.
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“I’ve always been a planner," says Katie Rogers, CMP. "I’m organized. I always want to know what’s going on.” Rogers is a senior tradeshow and events coordinator at Emdeon, and she and a team of two others coordinate logistics for more than 200 trade shows a year and organize national sales meetings and incentives programs. “My favorite part of my job is being able to see each event go from start to finish,” says Rogers. Tammy Gilbert Cardona, CMP, who nominated her colleague for the honor, say: “Her contribution to the profession is admirable, and she is definitely a woman to watch within the corporate meetings industry.” Rogers currently serves on the MPI Tennessee Chapter Board as the director of member care.
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Traveling extensively with her corporate executive dad, Kristen Dierickx developed a passion for travel and events, so it was natural for her to major in business and minor in hospitality management. She’s worked both sides of the table, initially hotel management with Westin and Four Seasons and then many years planning for several major corporations. Now she leads BCD M&I’s U.S. sales team as vice president of client solutions while spearheading its solution design. “Changing from buyer to supplier is the best career decision I’ve ever made. I touch so many programs and clients; every day is different, which I love,” says Dierickx. “She is a true leader and mentor for her staff, consultant to her clients and adviser to her peers and colleagues," says colleagues Katie O’Bryan, who nominated her.
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While studying communications at The Ohio State University in Columbus, Liron BenDor says she fell into hospitality when she took a summer job working with a travel agent. She continued in the industry after college, working in corporate meeting planning at BCD Meetings and Incentives, planning meetings for clients such as Fiserv and SunTrust. After earning a master’s degree in tourism administration, she followed her new husband to his hometown and landed a job as the VP of marketing at the Overland Park CVB in Kansas. “I have many fond memories of my meeting planner days and use those experiences to better connect with our CVB customers and their needs,” she says. Born in Israel, BenDor lived there until she was 9, and she’s involved with the Jewish National Fund and has volunteered in Israel with other young Jewish professionals.
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More than six years ago, Rufus Lynx (the mascot for the Charlotte Bobcats NBA team and Lyndsey Stogdill’s husband) was working with Lowe’s sports marketing department when he heard about a corporate events manager position open at Lowe’s. Turns out, his wife was the woman for the job—and still today she feels lucky to have landed the job of director of event services. Some of her major accomplishments include leading the grand opening events of Lowe’s Canada and Mexico locations, as well as planning the company’s 2014 Managers Meeting. But Stogdill’s focus on teamwork is another quality that makes her so valuable to the industry. “I am most proud of building and leading a team of event professionals with diverse experiences,” she says. “No one on our events team is a trained events specialist, but their incredibly different careers have led to an unbelievably talented, open-minded and dedicated group.”
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With a huge network of engaged readers and fans (40,000-plus magazine subscribers, 360,000 YouTube views, and thousands of LinkedIn and Pinterest followers), Margo Douaihy is an ambassador for collaboration and corporate meeting technology. Starting out as managing editor for a smaller publication on systems, she became editor of AV Technology Magazine in 2009. “One of my favorite elements of my job is interviewing tech managers and engineers in the corporate meeting, transportation, music, and higher education tech industries,” Douaihy says. “I strive to make our magazine forums for the voices, concerns and interests of tech managers, decision-makers and C-level leaders.” One of her proudest accomplishments is creating the annual AV Technology Awards & Scholarship program, which awards an outstanding tech manager each year. “I believe that investing in our readers helps create more informed conversations,” she says.
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In addition to her day job as project manager of tourism, conventions and event management at IUPUI, Maria Meschi is a professional actor and singer. “I gave a presentation on how theatrical training helps in business situations,” she says. “It allows you to quickly access those creative parts of your brain.” She once worked as a parade float artist and transitioned to the hospitality industry, where she works with the event departments of state and international associations, independent meeting planners and universities. She is a member of the Indiana Chapter of MPI and recently received the 2013 RISE award for her work as director of Emerging Leaders, a program she created to engage students and professionals within the first five years of their career in the events industry.
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Mary Patchin, CDME, knew as a teenager she wanted to work in hospitality. “I loved calling the 1-800 numbers for visitor’s guides and flipping through brochures,” she says. “I loved seeing what different states had to offer, and now I’m the person who everyone comes to for that information.” She has been with the Chicago Southland CVB for more than 14 years, now serving as director of sales.“I really love that my job is all about helping people make memorable experiences,” she explains. Her nominator touts Patchin’s unselfish personality, citing that her diligent work behind the scenes helps others succeed. Patchin also sits on the chair of the "Meet in Illinois" sub-committee, a seat she’s held for seven years.
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Matthew Waltersdorf began working at resort hotels at age 16. After receiving a tourism degree from Arizona State University and working at the Greater Phoenix CVB, he joined the pre-opening sales team for the city-funded Sheraton Phoenix Downtown. He moved to Las Vegas to work for Caesars properties for two years before relocating to Chicago to become national sales manager for eight Las Vegas properties and four in Atlantic City, N.J., marketing to group sizes ranging from 250 to 8,000 people. Waltersdorf is involved with the Association Forum of Chicagoland and does community outreach with the Chicago chapters of PCMA and MPI.
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As a passionate community member who loves exploring the Atlanta area, one could say Melissa Legaux has her dream job, serving as national sales manager for Cobb Travel & Tourism for the last six years. With a bachelor’s degree in hospitality with a concentration in meeting and convention management, Legaux landed her role by first volunteering with the organization, which then opened the door for a permanent position. “I urge others to never underestimate the power of being creative to obtain your goals and dreams,” she says of the experience. Recommended highly by her peers, who say her top priority is customer service and building positive relationships, Legaux also finds way to give back to her community. She recently spoke to students at a local university and also serves on various fundraising committees for nonprofits around Atlanta.
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Looking for an internship to complete her degree, Morgan Liu found the perfect opportunity in the summer of 2012 at Monterey County CVB in California. After graduation, she accepted a full-time position as sales coordinator there, three hours away from family and friends in her hometown Sacramento. Now a strategic client services expert, she hosts site visits and works with Regional Sales Executive Howard Munves, who nominated her for 40 Under 40. “All the site visits I have hosted have booked a meeting in Monterey,” she says. Liu is also developing a Champion Monterey program to approach Monterey natives who are connected with associations or corporations that might host a meeting in their hometown.
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In college, Nina Crabtree, CGMP, worked as a catering and sales manager. “I fell in love with the logistics of meetings and the details of making things happen for my clients,” she says. Since moving on from hotels and the supplier side of the industry, Crabtree has been recognized as a successful planner working with state and national associations, corporations and SMERF groups. She says she loves the flexibility and autonomy she’s been afforded with her most recent position as a third-party planner. “The constant change that comes with working with such a variety of clients and a really great group of industry professionals is so inspiring to me. It allows me to be innovative.” Crabtree is based in Port Orange, Fla.
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Rachel Stark has gotten a jump start on event planning while still a student at Ryerson University in Toronto. As president of MPI Toronto’s Student Club, Stark plans events such as awards galas for the organization. She's a big advocate for MPI, crediting it with providing her with the education, networking and experiences needed to get her start in the industry. In 2013, she landed a marketing coordinator position with Intact Insurance, nabbed MPI’s Norm Neill Student of the Year Award, won the Future Leaders Forum International University Challenge at MPI’s World Education Conference and made the Dean’s List. Before heading to Germany this May to represent North America in the IMEX America Future Leader Finals, Stark has one other event planned: graduating with her degree in hospitality and tourism.
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After studying international business at San Diego State University and in Ecuador her last year of college, Rebecca Viani helped start a company that brought U.S. franchises to Ecuador. The company began planning fundraisers each year supporting local causes, which introduced Viana to event planning. After five years abroad, she moved back to her hometown of West Palm Beach, Fla., and became vice president of operations for Plan Ahead Events, a full-service event management franchise. Her team also plans corporate events for United Franchise Group, Plan Ahead Events’ umbrella company. She is a member of MPI, IFA and PPAI, and was chair of the Student Membership Committee for the South Florida chapter of MPI in 2012.
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Rob Friedrich began his career working for Procurian, a procurement outsourcing and consulting company. Since joining HelmsBriscoe as director of strategic program management in February of last year, Friedrich has worked with some of the largest of HelmsBriscoe's 9,000 clients—including many Fortune 500 companies. He quantifies how much clients spend, consolidates travel suppliers for better pricing and manages a centralized program to ensure compliance. “He has been in the industry for a little more than seven years, yet his expertise is sharpened to that of someone with 30 years’ experience,” says coworker Alyssa Marty, who nominated him for 40 Under 40.
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This past year has been a big one for Samantha Saifer Berngard, the former director of events for the Chicago Sun-Times and Modern Luxury. In the fall of 2013, she decided to take her planning experience and launch her own events company, Boldface Co. While at the Sun-Times, she helped launch the weekly publication Splash, a client that she’s brought with her as she transitions into being her own boss. “What I love most about my work is that people look to me as a resource to impact the success of their companies,” she says. “I love working with new companies from the ground up and watching them grow…that makes all of our hard work worthwhile.” A previous ambassador for fashion labels like BCBG Max Azria and Loft, Berngard brings a sophisticated level of style that translates into every event she plans, from launch parties to galas. “It's fun and exciting and unlike any other job I have ever had,” she says.
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Shawna McKinley is an author and self-professed data geek who loves using numbers to help people see the difference their efforts make in greening their events. She’s helped five clients earn IMEX Green Meeting Awards and scored IMEX’s 2012 Commitment to Community Award herself. McKinley developed the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s first green meetings tool as general manager of Oceans Blue Foundation, where she worked from 2000-2003. She was executive director of the Green Meeting Industry Council for nearly four years before joining MeetGreen in 2007. Having discovered the meeting industry while interning in environmental advocacy and education, she’s spent much of her career helping event profs plan smarter meetings by integrating sustainability.
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While taking graduate courses in Charleston, W.Va., Spenceer Hux landed work at Kiawah Island and became hooked on hospitality first as a caddy, then moved into booking social reservations and eventually became a resort sales leader. “I got my current job the old-fashioned way: through hard work,” he explains. The planner who nominated Hux says he went “beyond what any sales manager has ever done” by taking initiative to really understand his group’s business model, which resulted in a 300 percent jump in his conference attendance that year.
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Susan Prue, CMP, got into meeting planning by coordinating travel and events for an online casino, and then landed her first sales job in 2007 with VDA Productions. The company provides 3D marketing experiences and design solutions, including stage sets, lighting and audiovisual elements to events. She says she loves sales because it provides a well-rounded view of the industry, as it involves working with many clients who have very different needs. Prue has been on the board of directors for MPI New England since 2010, most recently serving as vice president of finance. A member of ISES New England, she served on its board of directors from 2008–10. Previous honors include 2013 Rising Star Female Award nomination from Event Solutions, Meeting Professional of the Year (Supplier) from MPI New England and 2010 Chapter Leader Award from ISES New England. She and husband Matt are expecting their first child early this spring.
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After a post-college stint working sports and leisure in Telluride, Co., Taylor Miller returned to home to Columbia S.C. and joined the tourism bureau there, where he worked his way up from sales assistant to sales manager. “One of the things that makes Taylor such an unstoppable force is his extensive knowledge of the Columbia region,” said Ric Luber, president and CEO of Midlands Authority for Conventions, Sports & Tourism, when he nominated Miller in early 2014. Miller left the bureau shortly after this story went to press. He is now working outside the hospitality field.
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As national sales manager at the Detroit Metro CVB, Tracy Coleman is trying to help change the perception of Detroit. “We try to showcase Detroit as a destination for business travel," she says. “When we bring in planners, their jaws are on the floor, and they have no idea that Detroit is like this. In the last five years, we have transitioned. [The city] is unrecognizable even if you’ve been here before.” Coleman joined the bureau in 2011 after 13 years with Marriott International, where she moved through the ranks to become a national account executive.
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Valeria Salazar's global career path in hotel marketing—spanning from Ecuador to Switzerland to Dubai to Westlake Village, Calif.—has led to her current position as sales and marketing manager at the Discover Torrance Visitors Bureau. From Les Roches in Switzerland, Salazar was recruited by the Intercontinental Hotel Group in Dubai, where she worked in corporate sales during the opening of three properties. She also helped open another property for Layia Hospitality in Dubai before transitioning to Four Seasons Resorts in Westlake Village, Calif., where she worked for two years. Salazar now works with Discover Torrance and 15 hotel partners to market the destination for a variety of events, including sports tournaments. She says Torrance is a hidden gem. "It requires a lot of creativity and passion to put the destination out there and find the attractions that haven't been promoted before," she says. "I can bring that to them."
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Determined to make an early mark in the event planning field, Florida native Whitney Wilson fast-tracked a four-year degree into three years, took her event management degree and lined up interviews, scored a part-time contract with Eventive Group, packed up her car and drove across the country to relocate to L.A. “I was willing to do what it took,” Wilson says. Within seven months, she earned a full-time position at the company, where she now produces 15 to 20 events a year as a project manager of meetings and events. “I love the variety and getting to travel [to] places I wouldn’t get to experience if I wasn’t in the industry,” she says.
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Xander Castro started is "career" in meetings in 2008 greeting conference attendees in the residence halls for University of Minnesota’s Conference and Events Services. The summer job turned into a two-year internship, where he coordinated with 35 different venues and services. Castro then worked on an array of events, including Minneapolis’s two-day Basilica Block Party and One Heartland’s Dining Out for Life. In fall 2012, Castro became (and still is) events coordinator for Campus Club, a nonprofit that provides meeting and event space for university departments, weddings, business meetings and conferences. “Everything about me is about this industry,” says Castro. “My hobbies reach into planning and helping people plan their own events.” Castro assists with planning the Minnesota Make-A-Wish foundation’s Delicious Wishes events, is on the editorial advisory board of Minnesota Meetings + Events and the board of directors for the Minneapolis chapter of the International Special Events Society.
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For Seelbach Hilton sales manager and personal trainer Jennifer Miller, there are parallels between both of her jobs. “In the fitness industry, you’re pushing people to get motivated and be more healthy, and I hope I’m like that in the business world. I want to help them do better and look good in their employers’ eyes,” says Miller, who, because she recently turned 40, is an “On the Cusp” honoree. When she talks about her relationship with corporate planners, she engages in what she describes as a consultative approach, which she has learned works best throughout her 10 years of hotel sales experience, most recently with the Seelbach in Louisville, Ky. “I help guide them through the meeting planning process. I feel like it’s more beneficial to be more like their friend than someone who’s selling a product,” says Miller, “It’s more collaborative.”
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