The Top 25 Women in the Meetings Industry

Catherine Simmons of Salesforce

Catherine Simmons (pictured) of Salesforce presides over the mammoth Dreamforce conference.

Video: How M&C Selects the Top 25 Women in the Meetings Industry

Click here to view editor-in-chief Loren Edelstein speaking about the process of compiling the list.

In an industry filled with extraordinary women, those who populate M&C's second annual Top 25 list are true standouts for their professional accomplishments, leadership, innovation and/or advocacy. This special feature, carefully curated and presented in alphabetical order, turns a well-earned spotlight on a distinctive group of high achievers.


 • Her Excellency Maitha Al Mahrouqi
When it comes to site selection, Oman likely isn't top of mind for most planners, but Her Excellency Maitha Al Mahrouqi aims to change all that. The undersecretary for the Oman Ministry of Tourism is helping to spearhead a new commitment to long-term tourism and meetings development by the sultanate, an effort that keeps her busy.

Among her many tasks, Al Mahrouqi is overseeing the expansion of Muscat International Airport and Salalah International Airport, the construction of new regional airports in Duqm and Sohar, and the addition of more than 10,000 new hotel rooms across the sultanate by 2018. "My personal priority is to ensure that we continue to develop sensitively and maintain our strong cultural identity and heritage, while showcasing our country and people to an international audience," she says.

On the meetings front, Al Mahrouqi points to the Oman Convention & Exhibition Center in Muscat, which in August debuted its first phase, which features 238,000 square feet of exhibit space. Phase two, a facility that will accommodate up to 3,200 attendees, is set to open in 2017.

"We are looking to attract 'the premium visitor' -- the responsible visitor who respects the culture and environment, and who can add value to the economy as well," notes Al Mahrouqi. "The MICE market will provide these."


 • Amanda Armstrong, CMP
Like many in the meetings industry, Amanda Armstrong went into hospitality because she wanted a job that involved travel. An early stint with the incentive travel  company Intrav, for which she visited 55 countries in five years, certainly helped to scratch that itch. Today, Armstrong serves as director of corporate travel and meetings for Enterprise Holdings, the international car-rental giant, where she has worked for more than nine years.

"At the time I started, we didn't have much of a global footprint," Armstrong notes. "Now we're in 85 countries and have more than 90,000 employees." Her focus recently has been on implementing a global travel program, which will commence by the end of the year.  

Armstrong also has found a home at Meeting Professionals International. After co-chairing the group's 2012 World Education Congress in St. Louis, she joined MPI's international board of directors and is now its vice chair of finance. While the official stamp is expected to come on Oct. 6, she has been tapped to lead the board in 2018, stepping into the chair-elect seat for 2017.

Among her goals for that role: "I'd love to encourage younger members that being involved does pay off, and establishing informal mentorships is a great way to grow."


 • Carina Bauer
Fresh: That's how Carina Bauer, CEO of the IMEX Group, likes to keep the two giant meetings industry shows she manages -- IMEX Frankfurt and IMEX America. That both shows continue to rack up year-over-year growth speaks to her talent -- and serves to explain why this is her second year on our list of Top 25 Women.

Bauer wants her shows -- as big and busy as they are -- to be personally fulfilling for attendees. "We need a way to find balance in the way that we work and conduct our lives," she says. "We need flexibility, time to reflect, and a way to live and work that doesn't eat up the planet. That should be true when we are at events, as well as within our work space and at home. It makes business sense, too, because we will all be more productive if we take care of ourselves as well as the planet."

To this end, the IMEX shows now offer Be Well Lounges for guided visualization and meditation, Inspiration Hub sessions on health and well being, 5k runs and a new local park clean-up activity -- Garbage Grabbers -- during IMEX America.


 • Betsy Bondurant, CMM, CTE
It might surprise some to learn that  Betsy Bondurant, whose name is closely associated with strategic meetings management, began her career in hotel sales. But then she had epiphany: She hated selling.

In 1992, she moved into meetings management at biotechnology giant AmGen in Southern California, and things began to click. "I ended up managing not just meetings but trade shows. I was learning by the seat of my pants."

After attending an MPI session about meetings consolidation, she hired a temp for six months to compile AmGen's sourcing data in order to calculate savings and more. "When we had six months of data, we were able to go to the CFO and get approval for a temporary process that eventually became a strategic meetings management program," says, Bondurant, who has become one of the industry's guiding voices in the development of such programs.

She left AmGen in 2007 and moved to San Diego, parlaying her SMM expertise into her current gig, a healthy consulting business.

"I would love to have more companies embrace SMM," she says. "I just don't understand how companies can have such a huge category of spend that is unmanaged to this day. If we can't understand how important this is in our businesses, how can we move this industry forward as a profession?"


 • Debbie Chong and Patti Tackeff
Lenos Software doesn't get the attention that its biggest tech competitors do. But while the strategic meetings and event management platform doesn't grab the headlines, it has scored major clients such as Salesforce, Nike, Google and Harley Davidson. CEO Debbie Chong and president Patti Tackeff, who co-founded the company 17 years ago, are perfectly happy to keep a low profile and let clients come to them.

That's just one of many ways Lenos is unique in the marketplace. In addition to strictly word-of-mouth marketing and being founded by women, Lenos has a very different business model than some of its competitors. The company doesn't accept advertising from hotels for placement in its database and search results, and will not share client data in any form, even in aggregate. By design, their business relationship is strictly with corporate clients.

Data privacy and corporate governance are major concerns for Chong and Tackeff, though not their primary goals. "We set out to create the easiest-to-use system possible for people who don't necessarily know a lot about technology," notes Tackeff, a technology entrepreneur who has worked for startups in the U.S. and China. The company's dedication to development continues to this day, with Lenos churning out software updates every few weeks.

As for data privacy, Lenos has a leg up on an area of increasing concern. "This industry has been highly unregulated," says Chong, who pre-Lenos was a regulatory lawyer in financial services. "It's the last mile of corporate spend that's been unmanaged, but it's in the process of being better managed. Things are changing."


 • Dahlia El Gazzar
If you tend to be bored by presentations on technology, don't count on napping at Dahlia El Gazzar's sessions. The consultant and self-described "tech evangelist" sees her mission as "to untether busy professionals from their desktops and offices, and have them be more efficient and productive while working from a beach in Mexico, with an umbrella drink, through their mobile devices, smart solutions and apps."  

El Gazzar is especially passionate about helping planners understand their options. "We educate participants on how tech can change their lives," she says. "The key is to show them, hands-on, how to use new tech and how the tools can empower them."

Her zeal for education is exemplified by the recent "[CTRL] + [ALT] + [DEL]" virtual event she put together on the fly with Liz King (also featured in this year's Top 25 list) and Aaron Kaufman, president of Fifth Element Group. Taking up the cause after a similar event was canceled, the team pulled off a massive success attended by more than 1,000 event professionals globally. Now that's what we call tech evangelism.


 • Julie Coker Graham
Talk about timing: This past January, Julie Coker Graham took the helm of the Philadelphia Convention & Visitors Bureau as president and CEO, just as the city was preparing for a dauntingly busy summer: eight citywide conventions, two large sporting events and, for good measure, the 2016 Democratic National Convention. But no matter, Coker Graham led Philly to the end zone for a spectacular win and what local press reports dubbed "the $500 million summer."

Coker Graham's first role in the industry was with Hyatt Hotels; she spent 21 years working her way up from corporate management trainee to general manager at the Hyatt Regency Philadelphia before making the jump to destination management. Her first DMO job was as senior vice president of convention sales at the Philly CVB (2010-2014) before being promoted to executive vice president and then her current post at the helm, where she has the added distinction of being the only African-American woman currently leading a major tourism bureau in one of the top-50 U.S. markets.

"The people who I have the honor of working with every day are some of the most passionate about Philadelphia that you'll find in this city," she says. "To be part of the planning process, and then helping to execute a very successful summer, was one of my proudest moments."


 • Mary Pat Heftman
"In my job, I get to live at the intersection of two incredibly inspiring industries: hospitality and conventions," says Mary Pat Heftman, executive vice president, convention and strategic alliances, for the National Restaurant Association. Her enthusiasm has remained intact since she joined the organization in 1990 and rose through its ranks, becoming a recognized leader in the trade show arena.

Today, Heftman is the force behind the National Restaurant Association Restaurant, Hotel-Motel Show -- the largest food and beverage exhibition in the world -- which spans four days and attracts about 70,000 attendees from 100 countries.

"My goal every year is to advance the prominence of the show as the one place where every level and segment of the restaurant, food service and hospitality industries can come together with their peers to get a first look at the latest products, solutions, ideas, and information that will advance both their business and professional growth," she says.

Heftman also serves as chair-elect of the Professional Convention Management Association, where her goal is "to provide leadership with our board of directors, staff and members to ensure we provide appropriate education and engagement opportunities so that business event strategists can realize their potential."


 • Liz King
As founder of New York City-based Liz King Events, King considers herself an event-planning superhero, a queen of details and a tech geek -- all titles she has proudly earned.

King launched her company in 2009 while still running events full time for Columbia University. In 2011, she held the first PlannerTech, a one-day conference to educate industry professionals on how to better integrate technology into live gatherings. The annual event -- now called #techsytalk LIVE -- is a real-life expression of her impressive social media influence and mission to abolish boring meetings.

She also shares lots of how-to content and event best practices online at techsytalk.com.

Though known as a meetings tech guru, King has expanded her focus by launching a podcast for which she interviews industry leaders about all kinds of meetings-related topics. "I believe the events industry is incredibly powerful but needs to be taken more seriously," she says. "I hope I can inspire thought leadership around this issue and help raise the profile of our industry."


 • Amy Ledoux, CAE, CMP
"I feel that after 30 years in the industry, this is the most exciting period in my career," says Amy Ledoux. The senior vice president of meetings, expositions and events for the Washington, D.C.-based American Society of Association Executives is referring to the launch of ASAE's inaugural Xperience Design Project. To take place in May 2017, the two-day confab will connect association professionals and industry partners who have shared meetings-related challenges and inspire them -- through a highly innovative and interactive meeting design -- to co-create solutions.

Throughout her career, Ledoux has planned meetings all over the world, including the United States, Canada, Europe and Asia. At ASAE, where she has worked for more than 12 years, she and her nine-person team are responsible for more than 40 educational programs, six major conferences and three large trade shows annually. She is especially bullish on so-called experiential events, gatherings that seek to provide more meaningful experiences to attendees.

Ledoux is determined to help associations create better meetings because, she says, "their members, in turn, make the world a better place."


 • Lyn Lewis-Smith
The CEO of Business Events Sydney was ahead of the curve when she began to focus on key international markets with a natural business or research base in the destination. Her goal: to boost the Australian city's meeting and convention bookings.

Back in November 2013, she told M&C: "Destinations that will be the leaders in the next decade will be those that are strategic and can prove that hosting a conference there permits industry-specific learning experiences and connections that will lead to legacies that extend far beyond the closing ceremony."

In the years since, BESydney has secured a steady pipeline of business -- maintaining its ICCA ranking as the top Australian city for large multinational events -- and garnering advance group bookings for the International Convention Center Sydney, set to open at year's end.

Most recently, Lewis-Smith, who also is president of the Australian Association of Convention Bureaus, had BESydney commission a series of reports that highlight the many ways meetings boost the local economy and help local residents.


 • Kathy Maher
If résumés could talk, Kathy Maher's could give a keynote at any meetings-industry gathering. The hospitality veteran has held management positions at both Hilton Worldwide and Marriott International, and is now senior vice president, global sales and revenue, for the Wyndham Hotel Group. She also is affiliated with Meeting Professionals International.  

Last year, Maher was charged with overseeing the strategic development of Wyndham's revenue management function globally, with a focus on identifying strategic opportunities for accelerating the company's revenue growth at some 7,800 properties worldwide. She also was tasked with creating innovative sales strategies for a global sales team of 125 salespeople under her direction.

"It's an incredibly exciting time to lead Wyndham's global sales and revenue organization," Maher says. "These are two disciplines that in the past have been considered separate operating groups, and we are approaching it from a new perspective.

"As a woman," Maher adds, "that perspective is even more unique. I always try to lead with self-assurance, team spirit and empathy in all that I do, in hopes that I can help the next generation of leaders. Barriers are breaking down every day."


 • Nan Marchand Beauvois
Any one job for the U.S. Travel Association could be all-consuming, but Nan Marchand Beauvois has three: vice president, national councils; general manager of ESTO (Educational Seminar for Tourism Organizations); and managing director of the Meetings Mean Business Coalition. In these multiple roles, she continues to raise the profile of the meetings industry, earning a spot on this list for a second year.

Among Marchand's accomplishments this year was the launch of the inaugural Global Meetings Industry Day on April 14. The event, which aims to showcase the power of meetings, conventions, exhibitions and incentives through advocacy events and rallies, was even more successful than expected: More than 100 events in 30-plus countries were hosted by MMB partners to mark the day, and the #GMID16 hashtag received almost 30 million impressions. Marchand is now planning the second GMID.

Among Marchand's goals going forward is to better connect with planners and help resolve their challenges. "We need to figure out how we can be of value to them and what resources we can supply."


 • Kimberly Meyer
The co-founder and CEO of data firm Meetings Analytics, Kimberly Meyer never gets tired of talking about meetings. "So I'm only a good cocktail party guest for the first hour," she jokes. And what Meyer talks about most is an aspect of the industry that hasn't gotten enough attention: data.

Before she co-founded Meetings Analytics with technology expert Peter Matthews in 2008, it wasn't possible for meetings managers to get the kind of insight her company provides -- data that had already changed the rules of the game for corporate travel and procurement managers. And in the eyes of many industry insiders, Meyer's company remains in a class of its own.

"No one else is offering what she does, in terms of SMM analytics," says industry veteran Kevin Iwamoto, senior consultant at GoldSpring Consulting. "You absolutely need to be able to get all of this data and analyze it to tell the whole story, especially if your program is global."

Meyer already knew a thing or two about meetings management before she launched her firm, having worked on a number of Fortune 200 companies' meeting programs and more than 100 major meetings and events around the world. She also had expertly managed more than a dozen acquisitions of meetings management, event  production, trade show and related companies. She clearly understood what the missing pieces were for corporations.

As a result of the work done by Meetings Analytics, clients get a level of transparency in their spend that wasn't attainable before. In turn, those managing the meetings programs at these companies can far more easily drive accountability and efficiency. "I'm proud to report the facts objectively and allow heads of travel and meetings to prove their success with hard, unbiased data," says Meyer.


 • Fiona Pelham
Sustainable meetings have been the lifeblood of Fiona Pelham's independent planning career, currently as managing director of Manchester, U.K.-based Sustainable Events Ltd., which she founded. This year, however, Pelham is spending the bulk of her time in a volunteer role as chairperson of MPI's international board of directors.

In this role, she says, "I've experienced the passion those in our industry have for bringing people together. I want businesses and governments to understand that meetings are the key to achieving global sustainable development goals, including gender equality, an end to food poverty and much more."

Pelham notes that 2017 is the United Nations' International Year of Sustainable Tourism for Development, a cause she can get behind: "With Positive Impact [a nonprofit she founded in 2005], we have created a campaign to raise the profile of events, so the UN and global governments will understand the positive power events can have on communities and the environment."  


 • Pat Schaumann, CMP, CSEP, DMCP, HMCC
No one has done more to advance the cause of education in the medical meetings realm than Pat Schaumann, senior director of health-care compliance at Maritz Travel. She has authored a number of books on the subject, and her Breaking the Code to Healthcare Compliance is considered the gold-standard text in the field.

Previously, as director of professional development in the health-care sector for Meeting Professionals International, Schaumann founded the Healthcare Meeting Compliance Certificate program, which at press time is on the cusp of surpassing more than 1,000 certifications granted to medical meeting professionals. In February of this year, Schaumann founded MPI-MD, a specialty community within MPI for health-care meeting pros that grew to 800 members in less than four weeks.

This past June, Schaumann left MPI to join Maritz Travel, which gives her the opportunity to shape the company's new health-care solution for clients, as well as to lead the team charged with ensuring that every aspect of the service they provide is in line with the latest and constantly evolving regulations. One aspect she's particularly excited about: a new technology tool scheduled to launch at the beginning of this month.

"The tool is designed strictly for medical meetings reporting, and it's going to be revolutionary," Schaumann says, noting that it includes contract management, business rules, honoraria, tax management and more, all crucial functions for the management of medical meetings and which she found lacking in existing technology.

Clearly, Schaumann believes education and technology innovation are essential to success in this specialized field. "Compliance is going to get harder over the next three to five years," she warns. "Anything that can make medical meeting planning easier has got to be better than what we have now."


 • Debi Scholar, CMP, CMM, CTE, GLP
Long known as a walking Wikipedia on strategic meetings management, Debi Scholar has more recently trained her focus on digital and hybrid events. In her day job as global director, virtual technologies, meetings, congresses and events, for a global pharmaceutical firm, her efforts to improve health-care provider education via virtual meetings have "surpassed all of our expectations," she says.

Over the past three years, she and various partners have developed numerous configurations, pricing models and processes for virtual and hybrid meetings, for both internal and external audiences. And Scholar recently worked with a small team to rewrite the Digital Event Strategist course offered by PCMA's Virtual Edge Institute -- the only globally recognized certification dedicated to that discipline.

Next up: Scholar, a respected SMM coach and mentor, aims to finish various book projects on topics such as collaborating through digital events, as well as updating previous works.


 • Yma Sherry
"Strategic meetings management is the last frontier in travel," says Yma Sherry. "Corporations are just now looking at this as a category of spend that can be managed. Helping them with that is a lot of fun. It's balancing the return on investment with the return on experience."

As vice president, North America, for American Express Meetings & Events, Sherry oversees a team of about 450 people running SMM programs for some 60 clients. Her path to this point included working her way up at Rosenbluth, a travel-management company for which she spent a year in London in charge of its European business. When she returned to the States in 2003, American Express bought Rosenbluth, and Sherry worked in various roles before joining the meetings group.

AEM&E publishes an industry forecast each October, based on survey results gathered from hundreds of its clients. One of Sherry's favorite ways to share the information is by attending industry events, and she is looking for more opportunities to spread the word in 2017 about how successful SMM programs can be. "Having those insights makes everyone more strategic and successful in their roles," she says.


 • Catherine Simmons
As vice president, strategic events, for San Francisco-based Salesforce, Catherine Simmons and her team are responsible for organizing one of the most mammoth and cutting-edge events today: Dreamforce, the huge software conference that has been described as a mash-up of TED, the Super Bowl and the Grammys.

Simmons has been involved in planning Dreamforce for eight years, and she has seen it grow bigger every year. The 2016 event, taking place this month, expects an estimated 170,000 attendees and more than 15 million online viewers engaging in roughly 2,500 breakout sessions and absorbing some 1,500 hours of content. The event includes leadership and philanthropy forums, A-list keynoters and headliners such as U2, Mark Cuban and Good Morning America's Robin Roberts -- and 20 monks.

"We are always trying something new," says Simmons, "and this year it's the monks. They will be leading mindfulness sessions."


 • Vanessa Sinders
Leading the charge on Capitol Hill for the Washington, D.C.-based American Hotel & Lodging Association is Vanessa Sinders, senior vice president of government affairs. In her role, Sinders spearheads the association's advocacy efforts and promotes the importance of the lodging industry's employment and economic impact to Congress.

Over the past several years, Sinders has moved the needle on multiple policy fronts on the industry's radar, including curbing deceptive online booking practices, ensuring government per diem rates are sustainable, and advocating for local and state legislation to regulate companies operating in the shared economy space, such as Airbnb, in terms of safety, security and insurance.

"We have worked hard to provide a unified voice on issues critical to the future of the lodging industry," Sinders notes, "and we recognize that building broad-based coalitions and relationships are imperative to success."


 • Julia W. Smith, CEM, CTA
Her success in the world of trade shows and exhibitions has imbued Julia W. Smith with a mission to mentor new talent, particularly young women in the industry. "We have to continue a dialog about how we can attract and keep the next generation of solutions providers," says the senior vice president of national sales for Las Vegas-based Global Experience Specialists, a company she has been with since 1989. "To do that properly, we need to address issues like equal pay, flex time, job sharing, telecommuting and finding creative ways to keep future generations of talent in an industry that can require long hours, weekends and extensive travel."

The first associate member of the International Association of Exhibitions and Events to earn the Certificate in Exhibition Management designation, Smith also serves as 2016 chair of the board for IAEE, and she has taught CEM modules in the United States as well as China, Taiwan, India, Canada and Europe.

Among Smith's other accolades, she was the inaugural winner of IAEE's Woman of Achievement Award and a recipient of IAEE's Distinguished Service Award.  


 • Janiece J. Sneegas, Ph.D.
For Jan Sneegas, the art of sustainable meetings is a religion -- literally. The director of the general assembly and conference services for the Unitarian Universalist Association in Boston has been preaching the gospel of green since she joined the organization in 2002, a mission her employer takes to heart. The impetus to go green is built into the Unitarian faith, which touts as one of its principles, "Respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part."

It's been Sneegas' job to make sure the UUA's gatherings walk that talk, finding new ways each year to save resources and, often, money as well.

"I come to work every day and have as a focal point: How can we make this a more sustainable meeting?" she says. Two areas still frustrate Sneegas: First, food donation is still problematic, because venues often are unfamiliar with the Good Samaritan Act of 1996, which removes liability from groups that give away leftover meals properly. The second concerns cities that are willing to do what the UUA asks "because we're the client," Sneegas says, "and then some of them revert back to their old ways the moment we're out the door."

Sneegas doesn't see herself as the trailblazer she is: "I'm not anything other than a person who is persistent. I'm willing to deal with the setbacks."


 • Janet Traphagen
Before being named president of incentive firm the Creative Group nearly two years ago, Janet Traphagen spent close to 20 years in sales for the organization. She was so good in that role that she was named the top-selling executive in the company's history.

As much as she loved working with clients, Traphagen also had a passion for coaching and leadership, and was asked to join the executive committee in 2008. "Since then, Creative Group's revenues have nearly doubled, and in the past three years growth has been in the double digits year-over-year," she notes with evident pride.

Traphagen now shares her leadership skills with others in the incentive industry in her role as chair of the board of trustees for the Incentive Research Foundation. She has been a driving force behind the organization's goal of increasing its research offerings, and in particular, boosting both the number and quality of incentive studies and white papers conducted by universities.

The effort has been fruitful: At the annual IRF educational and incentive invitational event held earlier this year, the organization reported a record number of 16 research projects currently in its pipeline.

"Research and education are the heart of the IRF," says Traphagen. "Developing objective and reliable insights for our constituents, whether corporate, association, suppliers or third parties, is critical to helping make the business case for how incentives impact an organization's overall performance. With more facts and research to back this up, we can move the conversation from travel destinations to how a properly designed incentive can be a powerful business tool."


 • Kari Kesler Wendel, SMMC
"I love a big, messy challenge," says Kari Kesler Wendel, senior director of global strategic meetings management strategy and solutions at Carlson Wagonlit Travel Meetings & Events. Evidently, SMM and its myriad issues serve as her ambrosia.

This is Wendel's second stint with CWT; the first time around, in the early 1990s, she managed the global hotel spend for Xerox, which then hired her away. "I took the job, which turned out to be the beginning of the SMM program there," she says.

Continued success came from building other companies' SMM programs. Wendel has had a hand in meetings management for the likes of Apple, Eli Lilly and Honeywell.

About six years ago she rejoined CWT. "Now I have a global team, and when companies really want to succeed at this, we build their program," says Wendel, who has volunteered for the Global Business Travel Association and served on its board. Like others in the SMM space, she can't believe such programs aren't more widely embraced across the industry. "This shouldn't be so difficult," she says. "Most companies don't allow this kind of decentralized activity in any other department."