22 Millennials to Watch

They're sharp, they're driven and they're the future of the industry...

20 Millennials 2016 opener

A recent Forbes report on Millennials delineated some basic characteristics of this generation that perhaps verge on stereotype: They love technology, they're very social, they love to collaborate, they seek adventure and they're passionate about values. In compiling this special feature, we found such descriptors to be quite accurate, certainly with respect to our subjects' involvement in meetings. Here are 22 up-and-coming young professionals whose talents and passion portend well for the future of our industry.  


National sales manager
Experience Columbus, Ohio

Just three and a half years into her time at Experience Columbus, the destination marketing organization for the 15th largest city in the U.S., Barnhardt handles the Washington, D.C., market, the Northeast, and events featuring 551 people and more on peak night. She credits colleagues Dan Williams, CTA, vice president of convention sales, and Angela Hammond, director of sales, with allowing her to learn as she goes. On her own, Barnhardt created a program in partnership with Designer Shoe Warehouse to meet with planners throughout the country, introducing them to Columbus, her own hometown.

"I didn't even know hotels had salespeople until three years ago," says the kickboxing aficionado who also has a love of craft beers.

Barnhardt plans on earning her CMP credential by year's end.

Director of global sales
Ovation Global DMC, Dublin, Ireland

Shortly after joining Ovation nearly a decade ago, just out of college, Aoife Delaney got involved with the Society for Incentive Travel Excellence. By 2009, she was co-chair of the SITE Young Leaders Committee, and two years later she was chosen to chair the SITE International Conference in Las Vegas. Now she is the youngest president-elect in the history of SITE, set to take the helm in 2017.

Concurrently, Delaney has climbed Ovation's ranks to become director of global sales for the destination management company, and she serves on the Education Committee for Financial and Insurance Conference Planners.

"I'm also a qualified yoga instructor," Delaney points out. "This industry is quite taxing on the mind and the body, and I needed something to help myself not burn out."

Delaney is pleased to note the gradual shift in the industry toward wellness, which she incorporates into programs when she can. "When I started 10 years ago, it was not cool to not drink and stay out late at an event," she recalls. "Whereas now it's very acceptable in the industry to turn in early and get up for a run before breakfast."

Account manager
AlliedPRA, Las Vegas

A former professional cheerleader, Thuy Diep still exudes a cheerleader's energy and enthusiasm. In addition to her account manager job at AlliedPRA, a destination management company, she is the director of education for the International Special Events Society and a young professionals member of the National Association for Catering and Events. She is on track to earn her CSEP, CPCE and DMCP certificates over the next two years.

Diep attended the International School of Hospitality in Las Vegas; looking back, she counts the school's administrators as important early mentors and a continuing source of professional inspiration.

One piece of advice she likes to give: Choose a company based on the culture you want to be a part of. "I knew I wanted to work at AlliedPRA," she recalls. "The only opening they had was for an administrative assistant, so I applied." Diep got the job, which got her foot in the door, and within a year she was promoted to sales coordinator and then to account manager.

"I like that progression," says Diep. "You can't do a round-off back handspring without learning how to do a handstand."

Sustainability project manager
MeetGreen, Portland, Ore.

As with many people working in the meetings industry, Aaron Elliott came into it in a roundabout way: After stints as an environmental scientist and Washington, D.C., lobbyist, he landed a job with MeetGreen, the Portland, Ore.-based sustainable-events firm. Today he works with planners and suppliers as a consultant to make events more environmentally friendly.  

Elliott credits MeetGreen's director of sustainability, Shawna McKinley, with teaching him how the industry works. "Just watching her be patient with people, how she works with hotels that don't often do sustainability, is very educational," he says.

Elliott spends his spare time playing bass guitar, but his work at MeetGreen can be all-consuming: "I've learned you're not going to win everything," he says, "but if you can make a small change, it can make a huge impact."

Marketing coordinator
Caesars Entertainment, Las Vegas

As a marketing strategy specialist who gets a rush from planning big events, Molly Ferree has found the perfect role at Caesars Entertainment, where she can do it all. As lead marketer for the upcoming Meeting Professionals International World Education Congress, for example, set for June at Harrah's Atlantic City, she is responsible for all of the myriad venue details. "I love working with others on a big project like this," she says. "To have a leading role in making sure it's successful for Caesars, Atlantic City and MPI is an awesome challenge."

Born and raised in Missouri, Ferree attended university in Spokane, Wash., and completed her MBA in London -- which included a research stint in Thailand. She says she keeps herself so busy that her friends make fun of her for not being able to relax at home. When time permits, Ferree takes advantage of the local area's great outdoors by climbing and hiking, and indulges her passion for food. On her to-do list: Find the best off-the-Strip restaurants in town.

Director of West Coast operations
AIM Meetings and Events, Los Angeles

Phil Galanty has been in the meetings business for nearly 15 years, essentially because he grew up with it. AIM Meetings, now a father-son operation, was founded by Phil's father, Walt, in 1991. "I was fortunate to have him as a mentor," says Phil, "and going on-site, helping out, really getting insight into how it all works from a very young age."

Today, despite his busy schedule, Galanty also finds the time to compose music for advertising, television and movies. "If I can bring more elements of the music business into our events business, that's great," he says.

Galanty, who intends to take the CMP exam in May, believes the younger members of the workforce have a responsibility to promote the use of technology and new ways of doing things. "Sometimes people who have been in the industry a long time don't always know what's out there," he says. "They appreciate the word of a younger person who may be more aware of new tools, resources and technology that can be used to make the job easier. Let your voice be heard if it can help your company."

Conference services administrator
Massachusetts Teacher's Association, Boston

This year's president-elect of the New England chapter of the Professional Convention Management Association, Jessica Hiemenz became involved with PCMA a number of years ago but wishes she'd done so even earlier. "I tell people just starting out to get involved with associations as soon they can," she says. "The networking is so important, and many associations have a cheaper rate if you join right out of college."

Hiemenz currently is conference services administrator for the Massachusetts Teacher's Association, and previously was manager of conferences, events and training at the National Consumer Law Center. It was there that she had mentors guide her toward PCMA and encourage her to get her CMP, two factors she deems crucial to her career.

Her success at the NCLC in turn inspired another young professional profiled in these pages, Lauren Mahoney, giving Hiemenz the unique distinction of appearing here as both a successful Millennial and a mentor to one. Says Mahoney of her former boss, "Jessica was never afraid to try something new.She planned memorable receptions that our attendees still rave about."

Hiemenz has moved a bit away from logistics to focus more on sourcing and negotiations. "I really enjoy the contract side of it these days," she says. "I know a lot of faces in the industry, and now we're doing business together as well as sharing ideas."

Chris Kelly
Chris Kelly

 CHRIS KELLY, 33, President
Convene conference centers, New York City

At Villanova University, Chris Kelly and Ryan Simonetti sold used textbooks and arranged spring break trips, capitalizing on their entrepreneurial natures. Upon graduation the two went their separate ways, Simonetti to work in hospitality finance and Kelly to start Evojets, a private-jet charter business.


Ryan Simonetti
Ryan Simonetti

Then, in late 2009, Simonetti had an idea and shared it with Kelly, and the two started Convene, which builds venues dedicated to high-performance collaborations, among other ventures. Currently there are four Convene conference centers in New York City and one in Tysons Corner, Va., with one opening on Manhattan's Park Avenue in April and another coming soon to downtown Washington, D.C.

Along the way, Kelly has found time to compete in half Ironman, marathon and triathlon races, while Simonetti prefers golf and mixed martial arts. Within a week of each other in 2014, their wives gave birth to their first children -- a daughter for Kelly and a son for Simonetti.

The next step: providing hospitality to the workplace as a whole. "You think of us as a conference center company, but we're just crossing over into your world," says Kelly. "We want to transform what the workplace is like for the tenants in commercial office buildings."

Liz King Events, New York City

Liz King is the only person on this list to also have been named one of M&C's "Top 25 Women in the Meetings Industry" -- not bad for a Millennial. She launched Liz King Events six years ago and has become a go-to source for event-technology information through her company and via her blogging, speaking engagements and as adjunct faculty for New York University's event management program. She also founded techsytalk.com, an event-tech education portal for planners that has an annual live showcase.

The most important thing King has done for her career was to find her niche. "Find something that you're good at and hone in on that," she advises young planners. "It may sound counterintuitive, but you don't want to market yourself to the widest audience."

Next, King would love to expand her experience in marketing. "It's great to plan an amazing event," she says, "but if you can't get a large, engaged audience to it, it's a lot of wasted money."

Lauren Mahoney (left)
with Michael J. Fox and her mom
Lauren Mahoney (left) with Michael J. Fox and her mom

Manager of conferences and events
National Consumer Law Center, Boston

Lauren Mahoney got a degree in counseling, but her career took a different turn. After working as a shelter advocate and counselor for survivors of domestic violence, she transitioned to fundraising and event planning for nonprofit organizations. She currently is manager of conferences and events at the National Consumer Law Center, and volunteers as event coordinator for the Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson's Research in Boston.

Mahoney considers patience and persistence to be essential characteristics in this industry. "The year before my first conference as manager, I pushed for changes that seemed so simple but were really an uphill battle," she says. Those changes included the introduction of a mobile app and providing healthy snack alternatives. "It seems funny to get excited about serving hummus and vegetables," she notes, "but it was a big feat."

President, Head Light

As a psychology major at Gwynedd Mercy University, just north of Philadelphia, Robert Nonemacker found himself falling in love -- with the meetings industry. Rather than change his major, he focused his internships on getting the experience he needed. A gig with the Philadelphia Convention and Visitors Bureau turned into a job, sending him on his current path.

This month is a banner one, as Nonemacker's independent planning firm went live on Feb. 1. In his free time, he tries out new restaurants and cocktail recipes or heads to the gym, but Nonemacker makes sure to attend at least three networking events per month. "I constantly ask people what meeting they attended or planned, what they liked, what they didn't like," he says. "I've found that just shutting up and listening to people is key."

Assistant project manager, provider education
(c) Management Inc./Association of Community Cancer Centers, Rockville Md.

In all of six years in the industry, Elana Plotkin has earned both her CMP and CMP-HC (a health-care specialty designation). She is now teaching a CMP course herself, in addition to reaching out to younger students majoring in hospitality at her alma mater, the University of Florida.

Given her educational drive, it's no surprise that Plotkin recently took a new position within the Association of Community Cancer Centers (an association management company), for which she focuses on the educational content of meetings (previously, she was the ACCC's meetings coordinator).

Along with education, she is passionate about sustainability and wellness initiatives, such as reducing waste and sourcing local, healthy food options. "Our attendees are thrilled about these changes," she says. "If you tell them why you're doing it and that it's to benefit them or the environment, there's a lot of support."

Lead manager, event programs and production
Meeting Professionals International, Jacksonville, Fla.

Meeting professionals who enjoy Smart Monday programming and keynotes at IMEX America and all of the concurrent sessions at MPI's World Education Congress have Lori Pugh to thank for the sheer variety and excellence of those offerings.

Pugh, who has been with MPI since 2014, also produces IMEX America's keynote sessions and helps design stage concepts for the WEC and MPI's European Meetings & Events Conference, talents she cultivated during six years at Jacksonville's PRI Productions. She considers that company's president, Randy Goodwin, her mentor: "He taught me that if you're not changing things, then you're not improving."

Mother of a seven-year-old daughter, Pugh's vision of her future is full of possibilities. "I love this job," she says, "because I can do education and production, a great combination. We'll just have to see where opportunities arrive."

Meetings and incentives manager,
North American market
Visit Flanders, New York City

Brecht Putman has been involved in the meetings industry in both Europe and the United States since he came to New York City from his native Belgium back in 2011. For Visit Flanders, he promotes Brussels and the region of Flanders to U.S. companies, and he also serves as director of membership on the board of the New York chapter of the Professional Convention Management Association.

Putman places value on his personal style, learning from industry speakers to dress for success. "They inspire me to carry myself with dignity in even the most difficult situations," he says. His advice for new planners: "Find ways to cooperate with your industry peers and learn from each other -- don't try to tackle every problem by yourself."

On Sundays, Putnam volunteers at the New Alternatives Center for LGBT Homeless Youth in NYC. "I like to give back to the community I am blessed to live in," he says.

Senior manager of meetings
Community Associations Institute,
Falls Church, Va.

Carly Reid takes care of all the logistics for events of 80 people or fewer for the Community Associations Institute, whose 33,000 members manage homeowner and condominium associations. "It sounds like a lot," she concedes with a laugh, "but you get into your groove and it's manageable."

Reid has been on the job at the CAI for 12 years. Her boss, Holly Carson, CMP, took the young woman under her wing from day one. "She helped me find my niche," says Reid, who is a member of both MPI and ASAE and very proud of her two hard-won certifications. "My first six months here, she let me listen to her conversations and learn how to talk and respond on the phone."

Reid's off-hours passion is hot yoga. "It's a great stress reliever," she says, "and you can't think of anything else while you're doing it."

Event manager
Play With a Purpose, Orlando

Ashley Schmid's colleagues treasure her creativity and resourcefulness. Plus, "people always think I'm older than I am," she says.

Before coming to Play With a Purpose, a special-event and team-building firm, in 2014, Schmid got her start at Disney working on recreation activities for kids. Today she does everything from dealing with clients to facilitating events that incorporate play.

Schmid, who got married last August and honeymooned in Italy and the Mediterranean, took her CMP test on Jan. 21. "Maybe eventually I'll get into actual corporate meeting planning," she says. "I'm going to go where the wind takes me."

Association manager
Essentient Association Management, Toronto

At boutique management company Essentient, Thack oversees one association and plans all the events for the organizations the company manages, including breakfast panels for 150 and receptions for 1,000.

"We have a really great team, and we play to each others' strengths," says Thack. "I love getting out of the office, doing on-site problem-solving. I love the adrenalin rush, I guess."

Still, being young has its drawbacks. "I do find it a struggle sometimes not to be judged by my age," Thack says. "There are times I've communicated with someone by email or telephone, and when they meet me their attitude changes a little bit." For those new to this industry, she advises, "Don't be afraid to clarify things and make sure you have all the information you need to do a project well."

Director of sales
Baton Rouge (La.) Marriott

Jamie Turnage happened into the hospitality industry by chance, in search of a job to help pay the bills during college. She wandered into the restaurant at the Embassy Suites Baton Rouge, where she took a job as a server, and spent the following decade working her way up from catering assistant to catering manager to sales manager, eventually becoming the property's director of sales. She recently moved across the street to serve as director of sales for the Baton Rouge Marriott.

Turnage credits Lenore Elvir, former director of sales at the Embassy Suites, for serving as a mentor. "She taught me everything I know, from how to manage people to the best way to transition to a new position."

Turnage, who has two young sons, also credits Elvir for instilling in her an appreciation for a work/life balance -- not a given in the hotel industry. "Lenore recognized that family is equally or more important than work," she says, and finding the right balance has helped cement her devotion to her career. "Unless I win the lottery," she adds. "Then I'd spend more time with family."

Program and events manager

California Association of Boutique & Breakfast Inns, Sacramento, Calif.
Jenn Wheaton is Jill-of-all-trades for the nonprofit trade association that promotes 200 member B&Bs, small inns and boutique hotels. "I'm the only full-time employee," she notes. "I do sales, marketing, PR, website management and development." She also plans all the special events, including four board meetings per year and an annual conference.

The effort has not gone unnoticed. In 2014, Meeting Professionals International gave Wheaton its Rise Award for Young Professional Achievement. She currently serves on the board of MPI's Sacramento/Sierra Nevada Chapter as vice president of special events, and is a big advocate of industry organizations. "Continuing education is key," she likes to tell planning newbies. "Learning and keeping up with the industry will help you make great connections moving forward."

One upcoming project is her November wedding. "Having a planning background makes me more proactive," Wheaton notes. "We've already got a venue, my dress and the save-the-date cards -- and we've been engaged for only three months."

Director of business development,
MEP Destination Business Solutions, Istanbul, Turkey

Eda Özden is obsessed with travel, and she has her family to blame for that. Her father founded MEPTUR Tourism in Istanbul, the parent company of MEP DMC, and her mother currently heads the department for which Eda works. Her aunts, uncles and cousins are in the business as well. "I grew up in the industry, both on a personal and professional level," she says. "Our parents took us to Zimbabwe when were in elementary school -- life doesn't get much cooler than that." 

With travel seeds firmly planted, Özden has now visited 44 countries and counting. But despite the family ties, she never felt pressured to enter the industry as a profession. While earning her master's degree in law, specializing in globalization and development, she attended the SITE Global Young Leader Program's Annual Conference in Iceland. There she was inspired by her peers, and she hasn't looked back. Özden is now director of Europe for the SITE Global Membership Committee as well as a business-development director at MEP. When she isn't traveling the rest of the world, she's likely planning her next trip or sailing the Aegean with her family.

Account manager
The Performance Group, Emeryville, Calif.

Meagan Phibbs has moved up quickly at meetings, events and incentive agency The Performance Group of Northern California. In five years she has been fast-tracked from customer service to project coordinator, project manager and now account manager. Her superiors praise her poise and proactive nature, along with the consultative relationship she develops with their clients. Phibbs has also developed a particular knack for finding and integrating the best technology for her clients' events.

"It started with mobile apps," she notes, "which really have become an industry standard. I became pretty involved in the process of launching them at my events, and then I expanded into finding the right technology the clients were looking for, particularly at a smaller event where an app might not have been appropriate. The solutions I find don't always end up being used at the event, but the experience and knowledge I've gained from researching the opportunities has been fun."

That hasn't been without its challenges, however. "As with any technology," she says, "the tool is only as good as the information you put into it. That's one of the biggest challenges, getting the clients to realize they need the manpower and information to make the technology the best it can be."