by The M&C Staff | October 01, 2017

Cindy Hoddeson
The director, North America, for the Monaco Government Tourist Office, Cindy Hoddeson joined the organization 29 years ago as a manager of meeting and incentive sales. Though she's risen to the top post, Hoddeson says that sector "still holds a very special spot for me." Her passion has led her to roles on the boards of Financial & Insurance Conference Planners' hospitality partners advisory committee and Meeting Professionals International's Greater New York chapter, and she delights in introducing planners and groups to the fairytale-like charms of the principality.

Hoddeson's success in making Monaco a top choice for U.S. groups and industry leadership were among the reasons she was named to the top North American post of the national tourist office in May 2016.

In her new role, Hoddeson gets to share her passion for the elegant destination with a wider audience, including journalists, travel agents, tour operators and others. "I love the storytelling component of the industry; it's the stories behind a destination that make it come alive, no matter the audience," she says. "In our case, there are so many stories of how Monaco evolved from a place that was little more than olive and lemon groves and a fishing community to a place that set the bar for luxury travel."

Sheila C. Johnson
A concert violinist armed with a BA from the University of Illinois, Sheila Johnson, founder and CEO of Salamander Hotels & Resorts, is one of the country's top female entrepreneurs, with her hands in sports franchises, the entertainment industry and more. She helped start Black Entertainment Television, executive produces documentaries and is part-owner of the NBA's Washington Wizards, the NHL's Washington Capitals and the WNBA's Washington Mystics.

Johnson jumped feet-first into hospitality in 2013 by building and opening the Salamander Resort & Spa in Middleburg, Va., taking over 200 acres of farmland once owned by a World War II veteran whose code name was "Salamander." The management portfolio now comprises six luxurious retreats, including four in Florida and one in New Orleans; a seventh opens in Charleston, S.C., next spring.

Johnson is a champion of face-to-face events. "After entering the hospitality industry over a decade ago, it became very apparent to me just how important hosting successful meetings were for our portfolio of properties," she says. "I often stop and chat with people on site visits taking place at our Middleburg resort, which is just a few miles from where I live. Our sales team calls me the 'closer-in-chief,' which is very humbling. But I just want to make sure that every guest who stays in a Salamander property, whether they are a leisure or group guest, has an exceptional experience."

Susan Liston
Serving  as vice president of business development, leisure, for Aramark, the customer-service firm that manages food service, facilities and more, Susan Liston  is charged with business-to-business growth and manages contracts for the company's 10 conference centers that are members of IACC (formerly the International Association of Conference Centres). In her spare time, she is vice president of the IACC Americas chapter and represents North America on its global board of directors.

Liston has a passion for healthy living and is part of a movement at Aramark to change the philosophy of feeding attendees, which has resulted in a partnership with the American Heart Association called Healthy for Life 20 by 20, a five-year initiative started in 2015. In the first year of the program, there was an 8 percent decrease in calories, saturated fat and sodium across menus served in Aramark's workplaces, hospital cafès, and college and residential dining halls.

"We can deliver a strong, consistent product at a lower cost, along with fresh and local fare," Liston notes. "I think it's a very exciting time in our industry as we change the way people want to meet."

Casandra Matej
While she might not have known exactly what she wanted to be when she grew up, Casandra Matej stepped out of the University of Texas and into the CVB world in Dallas. Soon, there was an opening in the bureau's Washington, D.C., office. "I was a native Texan; I'd never been out of the state," says Matej, now president and CEO of Visit San Antonio. "I walked through that door of opportunity."

This year has had some challenges, as the Texas Legislature, which meets every two years for 140 days, was pushed by some members to pass a "bathroom bill" that would have required people to use the restroom that corresponded with their gender at birth. The state's travel community -- including the Texas Travel Industry Association, of which Matej becomes chair this month -- fought hard and were successful at keeping that controversial law off the books.

"It would have been devastating," Matej says. "We did a series of press conferences on the state capitol steps, and one of them was all women. It was amazing to represent travel and tourism at that press conference. It was a moment that you realized that this was bigger than yourself and bigger than your own organization. But we don't want to be naive to think the issue might go by the wayside, so we are already prepping for the 2019 legislative session."

Jennifer Patino, DMCP
"DMCs are often the risk mitigators for meetings and incentives, and clients depend on us to know how to move forward in the event of an emergency," says Jennifer Patino, CEO of Hosts Global. With that critical role in mind, Patino's organization -- comprising 55 destination-management companies -- became the first DMC group to ensure its partners had a thorough emergency plan in place and led to Hosts Global serving as a consultant for the  new Emergency Preparedness Certificate program created by the Association of Destination Management Executives International.

The groundbreaking move is among the reasons Patino is a standout in the destination-management industry. Under her six-year stewardship, Hosts Global expanded its footprint to represent more than 300 destinations worldwide, and instilled standards for its partners to ensure consistency and quality "so clients have the same experience whether their meeting is in Las Vegas or Dubai," says Patino.

Among her other achievements are the launch of a DMC board for Host Global partners, as well as a client advisory board. As Patino puts it, "We want to know what challenges both groups are having and how we can assist. That's how the emergency preparedness plan comes about."

Mary Ann Pierce     
We currently are experiencing the digital transformation of the events industry, according to Mary Ann Pierce, and she should know: For the past two decades, she's been leading the charge.

As founder and CEO of MAP Digital, Pierce worked with her financial industry clients to create MetaMeetings, a secure, compliant platform used for managing event content, webcasts, and attendee engagement and data. Capturing all of that information is a requirement in finance -- one that put Pierce ahead of the curve, as the rest of the industry now embraces data capture and analytics as the next frontier.

Pierce, meanwhile, has been using IBM Watson's artificial intelligence platform to analyze her clients' captured content, opening up new opportunities to repurpose the information and even create new revenue streams.

"Data is currency," Pierce likes to point out -- and the deeper the attendee engagement, the richer and more illuminating that resulting behavioral data can be. The end result: a better attendee experience and more relevant events. Pierce wants to help the industry get there.

Janet Sperstad, CMP
A meeting planner for more than 20 years, Janet Sperstad says she's seen it all. For example, the Wisconsin native, now program director for meetings and events management at Madison College, recalls that "I was hired to plan an event for the U.S. Conference of Mayors six months after 9/11, and all of President Bush's cabinet came. I never knew that I would have the numbers for five federal agencies in my phone."

Now in academia, Sperstad says, "Dealing with people is messy as a planner and as a teacher. There are nuances that direct the correct outcomes. Being a woman is part of it. I look at the next generation of women coming in, and I look for the ones who haven't found their voice yet. And I know my being a confident strong leader of women helps them identify with me. It is important being a female and being that role model."

On Oct. 10, during IMEX America in Las Vegas, Sperstad will be inducted into the Hall of Leaders for the Events Industry Council for, among other accomplishments, her tireless work convincing the U.S. Department of Labor to move meeting planners from its Hospitality and Tourism Competency Model to a separate business category as meeting, convention and event planners.

Jami Stapelmann   
Running the global Strategic Meetings Management program of a cosmetics empire with a net worth of $30.8 billion and 46,000 employees worldwide has propelled Jami Stapelmann up the ranks of executive leadership for a seat at the C-suite table. In her role as executive director of global travel and meetings at Estèe Lauder Cos., Stapelmann and her team are constantly negotiating the complexities of emerging markets across the company's SMM framework, accessing new players in the hospitality field and providing meetings-management leadership.

Looking ahead at an increasingly global industry, Stapelmann says planners will have to embrace change and new technologies that allow them to optimize their meeting spend and corporate initiatives. "Companies will continue to leverage business travel and meetings to provide total cost of ownership to the T&E budget holder," she notes. "There are opportunities for consolidation and optimizing processing, which include payment and expenses."