Rising Stars in the Meetings Industry

Here are 15 talented professionals making their mark on our industry

Lily Zhang with zebra

(Pictured) At 35, Lily Zhang is senior event planner for MetLife in New York City; she's also learning a fourth language and running half marathons.

Meet the members of M&C's third annual profile of dynamic professionals poised to make their mark in the meetings world. Every day, these 15 women and men put their fierce energy, passion and vision for the future to work for our industry. Here are this year's rising stars.

Account director / Sheraton New York Times Square Hotel

When you're on the golf course, picking the right club sometimes takes a backseat to picking the right brain, as Patrick Colomer did when playing alongside the vice-president of sales for The Greenbrier in White Sulphur Spring, W. Va., where Colomer worked as national sales manager in 2009. He credits his fairway chats with the executive as providing valuable advice that helped propel him to his current post in the storied Sheraton New York Times Square.

A native of Florida, Colomer, 36, began in the hotel industry as a sales associate at the Sawgrass Marriott Golf Resort & Spa in Ponte Vedra Beach, and he also spent time managing group sales for Highgate Hotels' northeast market before heading to the Big Apple.

The challenge for group sales in 2018, Colomer says, will be staying on top of all the technological advancements in the meetings industry, which he believes will be a key driver. "For New York City, group sales is a very competitive game for big box hotels like mine," he notes. "We have a big influx of new supply, and we have a huge transient market that groups have to be booked against. It is going to be a tough, interesting year."

For the past few years, Colomer has volunteered for iMentor, a nonprofit that pairs professionals with college-bound students coming out of high schools in low-income communities. When he isn't honing his golf game, he also serves as vice president of membership for MPI's Greater New York Chapter, to which he was recently appointed president-elect, a three-year gig beginning on July 1. Now, he finds, people are picking his brain.

Producer / AgencyEA / Chicago

As a recent college graduate in the meetings industry, Patrick Crosson's dream job was to work for the Professional Convention Management Association. "I never expected to get it so quickly out of college!" says Crosson, 28, of the PCMA event-manager position he landed. After a brief stint at an association in Washington, D.C., Crosson was off to Chicago, where he helped to plan major events for seasoned event professionals.

That dream led to another. After two and a half years at PCMA, Crosson's professional ambitions led him to the Chicago-based AgencyEA, where he's a producer of innovative event experiences and leads teams of as many as 16 people. Noting his swift career trajectory and admirable leadership qualities, PCMA named him one of the organization's "20 in Their Twenties" this year.

Networking is a huge part of Crosson's life: His involvement with PCMA began when he was president of the association's student chapter at James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Va., which led to that early career boost.

Networking has yielded much more than job opportunities. "It's about creating a community, too. Industry professionals become the people you see all the time; they're like family," he says.

Crosson brings that same philosophy to his volunteer passion: He is founder and chairman of the board for the Chicago chapter of Stonewall Sports, a nonprofit sports league for the LGBTQ community and its allies.

As for his career aspirations, he continues to nurse some big dreams. "I'd love to work for Apple, Google or the Olympics -- those big brands that really do amazing things and change our industry as well."

Events and operations manager

Director of operations / Green Sports Alliance / Portland, Ore.

Twin passions for sports and the environment are a winning combination for the careers of Katie Culbert and Kelley Martin. The duo works for the Green Sports Alliance, which promotes sustainable practices among some 500 member sports organizations and venues around the world. They coordinate all of GSA's events, including its jewel, the Green Sports Alliance Summit.

Martin (pictured), 35, a former collegiate tennis player, spent 10 years as an environmental scientist until she decided to channel both her loves of sustainability and sports into a profession. Culbert, 39, landed at the GSA after working as an event manager for the Rose Quarter (a complex that includes the Moda Center, home of the NBA's Portland Trail Blazers). "Being sustainable is how I do things personally, and I try to incorporate that into the events," she says.

The eighth annual GSA Summit will be held in the new Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta this June. The event has welcomed up to 800 people from member sports teams, stadiums, athletic conferences and leagues, along with a mix of eco-friendly vendors. "Sports is nonpartisan, and climate change should be nonpartisan as well," notes Martin.

The two also help members arrange individual events, such as a vegan night hosted by the Pittsburgh Pirates to focus on food recovery and donation. "I definitely see us on this path forever," says Martin, "making sure our events are green, and getting that message out."

Director of sales / Moloney & Kelly / Dublin

His title might be director of sales for Dublin-based Moloney & Kelly, a destination management company founded in 1970, but Michael Dalton is quite possibly the Emerald Isle's biggest unofficial tourism ambassador.

"There is so much to see and do in Ireland, that it really isn't a question of why someone should visit, but why they haven't yet," says Dalton, 31. Castles, horse-riding through the wilds of the Connemara, a visit to the set of Game of Thrones, Dalton has done them all.

While at college at the Dundalk Institute of Technology, Dalton pursued a business degree with an emphasis on event management. He enjoyed the required lectures so much that he decided to get as much hands-on industry experience as possible. After scoring an internship with Atlanta-based Corporate Meetings & Events, he entered the destination management business, where for the past seven years he has relished crafting events for clients.

"I love every minute of it. We get to work with amazing clients and create the most magical events and programs," says Dalton, who also wears another hat as global sales ambassador for Hosts Global, a worldwide alliance of more than 50 DMCs representing over 300 destinations, of which Moloney & Kelly is part.

A former member of the SITE Young Leaders committee and a 2014 recipient of the SITE Foundation's David Riddell Memorial Scholarship award, Dalton also is the newly elected two-year president of SITE Ireland for 2018 and 2019. "I always learn so much from people within the SITE community," he says. "Taking part in boards and committees has given me the opportunity to work with suppliers, clients, competitors and industry friends."

Trade show, meeting manager / Qfix / Avondale, Pa.

Like many of this year's rising stars, Nanci Gage's route to meeting planning meandered, including stints as controller of a manufacturing plant and doing sales and marketing for a hotel, before becoming trade-show and meeting manager for medical-device firm Qfix. She is responsible for organizing the company's 50-plus annual events, including trade shows, strategic meetings, symposiums and special projects. Her greatest satisfaction, she says, is in serving the company's end users.

"Everything I do is ultimately for patients and making their treatment more effective or making them more comfortable as they go through treatment," Gage says. "I also love interacting with all the marvelous clinicians, cancer centers and researchers." When she's not traveling for the job (she estimates she spent just 60 days at home last year), Gage enjoys spending time with her four children and two dogs, and she plays a mean game of golf.


Program manager, global program management services / Meetings & Incentives Worldwide Inc. / Chicago area

After graduating from DePaul University in 2008 with a double degree in international studies and French, Shannon Gehringer snapped up a job working for SITE Global headquarters in Chicago. Her first task? Organizing the incentive-travel association's booth at industry events like EIBTM in Barcelona, Spain, and IMEX in Frankfurt, Germany. She has since moved on and is now program manager of global program management services for Meetings & Incentives Worldwide, a Chicago-area meeting-planning company. But Gehringer remains involved with SITE.
"Over the years I've taken on leadership roles with my local chapter, and the global SITE Young Leaders committee, because I know the power of the network," says Gehringer, who currently is SITE Chicago's director of administration. In her "real" job, she thrives on partnering with hotels and cruise ships to find the right venues for client programs, knowing that adaptation is the key to a successful event.
"The best part about the incentive travel industry is the relationship between my job and human connections," says Gehringer, a long-time distance runner who is gearing up to tackle the Paris marathon this spring. "As a planner, I have found myself in unique, unpredictable situations that just couldn't be replicated in other industries. I've learned the value of troubleshooting difficult situations from any attendee at any moment."

Meetings, events and travel procurement analyst / Informatica / Redwood City, Calif.

Launching a strategic meetings management program can be a daunting task -- and prone to failure. Marjan Ghaffari, 39, not only initiated that process, she built it from the ground up, with no initial executive sponsor or budget. Less than two years later, she's running a successful, funded SMMP for her company, in partnership with American Express, and rolling it out globally.

"Our procurement for meetings and events was nonexistent when I came aboard," says Ghaffari, the meetings, events and travel procurement analyst at cloud data-storage company Informatica. "They created a new role for me. I learned about SMMP through one of our vendors.

"It was really discouraging at first," she adds, "because others in our industry were paying for their programs, and I didn't have a budget or much support from upper management. But my own managers were very supportive of me starting this program."

Ultimately, Ghaffari -- who is still a department of one -- sold upper management by touting the cost savings, risk mitigation and technology benefits of an SMMP, using a cost-neutral model whereby meeting owners book hotels with a commissionable room-night commitment through Amex, completely offsetting the program's cost. The results bear that out: Informatica realized 20 to 25 percent in cost savings in the first year of the program.

Ghaffari, who cites industry veteran and SMMP expert Kevin Iwamoto as a key mentor when it came to navigating challenges, is now making a name for herself in the same field. Iwamoto has asked her to share her experiences multiple times as a participant on industry panels, and her expertise continues to grow: She is in the process of launching an extension of the program for Informatica's Asia offices.

"The challenges are no longer so great," she says, "which is really fantastic. I've had people reach out to me to ask if the program is global yet."

Executive director / The International School of Hospitality / Las Vegas

In 2005, Timothy Lam established The International School of Hospitality to give potential students something he had been looking for a few years earlier: a way to get some hands-on learning about the industry without having to obtain a full academic degree. TISOH now has more than 100 students at a time, many of whom are looking to make a career change, taking classes at its Las Vegas campus or online in departments such as conferences/events, catering and hotel management.

When Lam, who grew up in Hong Kong, was exploring options in the hospitality industry, he already had a bachelor's degree in marketing and a master's in international business. He then decided to get a master's in hospitality at the University of Las Vegas. "I had worked in international marketing for about six years, but I never considered it my career," he says. "But I did internships and made great connections, and it's from that experience that TISOH was born."

Being in a hub of the meetings industry is key to the school's success. "All of our educators work full-time in the field and are certified hospitality educators," says Lam, 46, who created TISOH with the adult learner in mind. "The school is all about industry connections. We have a short time with the students, yet our diploma programs have a 90 percent placement rate.

"I wanted to help people get into this field in a shorter way than I did," Lam adds. "Education comes in so many different forms, and there's a place for everybody. We do want to grow the school, but not in terms of class sizes, which average 8 to 12 people. We want to grow the number of classes that we can offer."

Founder / Sway Event Design & Consulting / Denver

"There is nothing that gives me a greater high than knowing I've created an experience and a memory in someone's life," says Ly Thuy Mai, founder of Sway Event Design & Consulting. Before launching Sway, the 29-year-old honed her craft planning and managing events for other event firms.

Mai says it was "always in the cards" that she'd start her own business. In August 2016, she met her boyfriend in Aruba during Destination Caribbean, a hosted-buyer event produced by M&C parent company Northstar. She launched her business in December of that year, and soon after moved to Denver with Mark. Now the two are engaged -- and Sway is thriving. "The most exciting part about building a company from scratch is that you get to choose the values and brand of your business," Mai says.

"Since the Spice Girls, #girlpower has been my thing, and I can't think of a better way to show my support than to dedicate my business to creating a way for women empowerment to reach people," notes Mai. "My success has been accelerated because of the support and guidance I receive from women."

Conference coordinator / University of Massachusetts at Amherst

A love of all things relating to the student experience has brought Katelyn Martin, 24, into the planning world at UMass, although she graduated from James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Va., with a major in hospitality management.

"When I finished my degree, I knew I wanted to go back to a college campus," Martin says. An events internship at Amherst College (she helped plan commencement and reunion events) brought her to the Northeast, and today her focus is on UMass' VIP events, foremost those listed on chancellor Kumble R. Subbaswamy's calendar throughout the academic year. "I get to have a range of events on my desk, from weddings to student-group meetings, on- and off-campus. I have interesting clients and some wild one-off events," she says.

Before seeing where else the meetings industry might take her, Martin is in the process of getting her MBA from UMass, and planning for her wedding in October. After that, the sky's the limit.

"I'm thinking of transitioning into something more student-focused," she says. "I'm still toying with the idea of being on-campus, maybe in donor relations. I really do enjoy working with the students, and bringing alumni back into the fold."

Hospitality sales manager, the Americas / SICO / Minneapolis

For more than 20 years, Heidi Niesen has been working her way up at SICO -- a manufacturer of event furniture such as banquet tables, buffet stations and easy-to-use mobile stages -- but in the past four years she has expanded her reach, joining several committees for IACC and now serving on the IACC Americas board of directors. In this role she is helping to bring IACC and Meeting Professionals International regional chapters together. "There's a lot of synergy between MPI, IACC and SICO," says Niesen, 45. "I got involved through IACC's Meeting Room of the Future project and have now sat on the board for a year."

IACC and MPI announced a partnership last year to share educational resources, and Niesen is helping that effort by spearheading a number of regional events that offer networking opportunities and introduce meeting planners to IACC's local member facilities. "The industry is really changing," she notes. "We are in a paradigm shift as far as operations, furniture, equipment, F&B and technology go. It's a really fun time to be in the industry and to be involved."

Director of membership and events / Women in Government Relations, via Interel US association management / Washington, D.C.

It's exhausting just listening to all the ways Laura Ransone, 26, is working to advance herself as well as the women around her. When she's not doing homework for her MBA from George Mason University in Fairfax, Va. (she has a bachelor's degree in hospitality and tourism management from Virginia Tech), she advises her sorority's chapter at D.C.'s George Washington University and coaches both high-school field hockey and middle-school basketball.

Ransone came to her day job after a few years in hotel sales, something she admits was not a good fit. "I've always been a big supporter of women, and I saw a program-manager position for Women in Government Relations on LinkedIn," she says. She nabbed the job, and about a year later was promoted and started working on more conferences. "Initially I was doing logistics, but I've moved more into developing programs, and I'm really enjoying that. I hope to stay in nonprofits. I like the idea of doing something for the greater good."

When she first joined WGR four years ago, the organization was hosting about 100 events each year; that number is now up to 250. As if her schedule isn't packed enough, Ransone also is on the Young Professionals Committee for the American Society of Association Executives. "I like professional development and event development," says Ransone. "Putting those together is one path I could take. Or I could go down the association staff-leadership path. I'm equipping myself with the skills and knowledge I'll need to further my career."

Digital Event Strategist, information systems manager / Conference Consultancy South Africa / Johannesburg

Kyle Smith, DES, loves to break new ground. He's got his eye on space exploration, but in the here and now he can lay claim to being the first Digital Event Strategist in South Africa, having passed the course given by PCMA's Digital Experience Institute.

"It's not every day you have an opportunity to become the first in a country," says Smith, 29, proudly. "It really is an honor. With that comes a lot of responsibility," he adds, noting that the local meetings industry is carefully watching his company to see how this new expertise is put to use.

Smith, whose talents earned him a spot on PCMA's "20 in Their Twenties" list, also serves as information systems manager for Conference Consultancy South Africa. He implements and oversees all technology operations for the company, both in the office and on-site at events. He also heads up ConfSA Digital, a department within the company dedicated to planning and producing digital and hybrid events.

"I have a lot of industry peers contacting me," he notes, "wanting to know the who, what and how of digital events and next-gen event technologies. And we've seen an influx of inquiries from new and existing clients who want to include digital events as part of their physical events." Smith is eager to share expertise and collaborate, and he participates in a number of local and regional industry organizations.

Even with a packed schedule, he always makes time for family, friends and pets. "I am passionate about animals of all shapes and sizes," says Smith, who volunteers for two animal-welfare organizations. He also mentors young addicts and alcoholics at House of Mercy, a nonprofit rehabilitation center.

Conference manager /International Association of Fire Chiefs / Fairfax, Va.

Sara Stehle, 29, had no idea meeting planning was a profession when she studied photography at Edinboro University near Lake Erie in Pennsylvania. Then she moved to the D.C. area and took a temp-to-hire job as a registrar for the National Association of Corporate Directors. At her one-year review, she asked to do more meeting planning and found her niche.

Stehle interviewed with the International Association of Fire Chiefs when she was 36 weeks pregnant with her first of two children. "I do everything from soup to nuts for three of our annual conferences," she says, including the annual Fire Rescue International, which has about 10,000 attendees.

Industry organizations have been key in Stehle's career growth. She was named to PCMA's "20 in Their Twenties" list this January, is on ASAE's Meeting & Exposition Section Council and is earning credits to become a Certified Association Executive. "I'd love to be a COO some day," she says. "And I'd just love to give back to the profession that has been so good to me."

Senior event planner / MetLife / New York City

After working in a variety of hospitality jobs (for Aramark at Shea Stadium in Queens, N.Y.; W Hotels; Todd English's Olives restaurants, and destination management firm Briggs NYC), this 35-year-old found her passion in organizing corporate meetings and events. "I love that all of my knowledge gained at previous jobs can be applied to my current role with MetLife."

Lily joined the insurance company as an event planner in 2013 and is an active member of the Financial & Insurance Conference Planners association. She credits helpful colleagues, a supportive leadership team and the opportunity to build relationships with hospitality partners on a global scale among the reasons she loves her planner role so much.

Zhang can truly be called a global citizen: Aside from English, she speaks Mandarin Chinese and Spanish, and lived in China, Germany and Italy before coming to the U.S. with her parents at the age of four.

Her newest passion is distance running. She started in a big way, running a half marathon on Staten Island with barely any related training. "I set two goals for myself," says Zhang: "Don't get picked up by the straggler bus, and finish in under four hours. Mission accomplished!"

She also loves to support her home-town sports teams, participates in a hospitality-industry fantasy football league and pursues photography. The new year brings a new slate of goals for this up-and-comer: Zhang plans to "continue to learn Japanese, volunteer with America's Vet Dogs, get CPR and first-aid certification, and continue running -- perhaps do another half marathon or two. Stay tuned!"