Top 25 Women in the Meetings Industry

Karen Bolinger opener

In an industry dominated by extraordinary women, those who stand out truly are its crème de la crème. M&C 's third annual Top 25 Women in the Meetings Industry shines the spotlight on these outstanding professionals who've demonstrated extraordinary talent, leadership, creativity and advocacy in our field.

Following, we detail why these distinguished individuals (in alphabetical order) earned a place on this year's list; click here to find five repeat winners, who earned a place in our "Hall of Fame" for their consistent professional excellence.

Lindsay Arell, LEED AP
Often when people are passionate about green meetings, that enthusiasm stems from a love of the outdoors. Such is the case for Lindsay Arell. As founder of Honeycomb Strategies in Denver, sustainable programs consultant to the Colorado Convention Center and chair-elect for the Green Meeting Industry Council, Arell has lived in Colorado most of her life, and environmentalism is in her DNA.

"I grew up with it, I've lived in very outdoor areas," she says. "It just clicked."

She dove into meetings sustainability while working for the CCC in 2007, as Denver was gearing up for the Democratic National Convention. "I pitched the idea to the GM to manage the sustainability of the convention. I learned a lot fast," she says. She now helps clients all over the country green their events. "A lot of people don't want to do anything because they're scared they'll get it wrong or ask the wrong questions. I get them to look at what they can do to help."

Tammy Blount, FCDME
Tammy Blount, president & CEO of the Monterey County (Calif.) Convention & Visitors Bureau, became one of the most respected and high-profile CVB leaders in the industry by raising her hand high -- and often. "When you want to lean in and participate, there is always an opportunity in this industry," says Blount, current chair of Destinations International's board of directors. She has served on myriad committees and task forces for the organization in her nearly 30 years in the industry, including as co-chair of DI's Destination Next Task Force, launched to help DMOs survive and thrive in the future.

Her long-term involvement with DI, she says, has allowed her to keep up with the changes in this field. "We [CVBs] are far more political now and act more as community catalysts than ever before."

The greatest challenges ahead for CVBs, according to Blount, will include the growth of the sharing economy; technology and how bureaus embrace it; as well as political, safety and security issues, and the role CVBs will play, she says, "to make sure visitors, planners and their delegates feel safe in their destinations."

Karen Bolinger
In her six-year tenure as president and CEO of the Melbourne (Australia) Convention Bureau, Karen Bolinger has turned the organization into one of the most innovative and globally active. And 2017 is, arguably, the bureau's brightest: It released The Future of the Business Meetings Industry report, which delves into how content should be delivered to the increasingly sophisticated conference realm. The research was undertaken not just for its own benefit, but for the industry at large.

"The finding I valued most was that the next generation of attendees wants to meet face-to-face more than ever," says Bolinger, adding that they value more personalized experiences in less-structured environments. Her hope is that the report helps CVBs, association boards and companies consider what their clients, members and staff want from their next conference "to get the best out of the events and stay relevant."

The MCB will close out the year with another huge feather in its cap: Through its lobbying efforts, M2 Melbourne (, the first-ever offshoot of Montreal's prestigious C2MTL conference, will debut next month. Says Bolinger of the coup: "It shows that the way we do business in Melbourne is transformative and innovative, which is what C2 is all about."

Marian Bossard
Marian Bossard heads the planning team for the enormous Toy Fair trade show, which this year spanned a record 443,000 square feet of exhibit space in New York's Jacob K. Javits Convention Center. But what makes the executive vice president, global market events, for the Toy Association stand out isn't so much her deft contributions to the show's success, but her contingency plans for the future.

"The future success of trade shows is not going to be measured in net square feet," she says. Even as Toy Fair has continued to grow, Bossard has created new initiatives to take it to the next level. Two years ago, she launched Play Fair -- a co-located, consumer-focused, fan-based event open to the public and -- unlike Toy Fair -- catering to families. "I think that our members' needs are changing," she notes. "If they stop doing B-to-B shows and go to B-to-C, now I've got that covered."

This year, Bossard helped to launch, a year-round resource to facilitate sales for her members well beyond the trade-show floor.

"It has to be about what the customer needs," Bossard concludes, "and you've got to keep adapting."

Doreen Burse
As vice president of global sales for Marriott International, the world's biggest hotel company, Doreen Burse leads more than 200 salespeople who book more than $7 billion annually across some 30 different brands. Her team works closely with all of the chain's biggest customers -- from national associations to global corporations.

Having been with Marriott for more than 30 years, Burse knows the finer points of the business, in lean times as well as robust market conditions. And having held positions in procurement and finance before moving to sales, she brings keen insight to critical topics such as contract negotiations -- knowledge she often shares on industry panels.

A frequent presence at meetings industry events, Burse is on the global board of trustees of the MPI Foundation; she is also a former council member of the Association of Corporate Travel Executives and a current member of GBTA, PCMA and Women in Travel & Meetings.

Trina Camacho-London
As the vice president of global sales, the Americas, for Hyatt Hotels Corp., Camacho-London is responsible for overseeing a team of 85 that is on track to generate more than $900 million in sales by year's end.

It's a role the 24-year Hyatt veteran relishes, having worked her way up the ranks at the company, which included stints in just about every department, including F&B. Her sales efforts didn't go unnoticed: She has been awarded Hyatt's Worldwide Sales Manager of the Year and three times was a member of the Worldwide Sales Teams of the Year.

"You have to be open and prepared for constant change, staying ahead of the competition, which in the hotel industry landscape has changed significantly," says Camacho-London. "You have to surround yourself with good people and to always be coming up with the next big idea."

An active member of PCMA, she is chair of Hyatt's Americas Diversity and Inclusion Council and a board member of both the Meetings Mean Business coalition and the Association Management Companies Institute.

Kathy Doyle
In the crowded field of tech customer events, only the most innovative, creative, informative and engaging conferences stand out. Since 2007, Kathy Doyle, director of global customer conferences for Cisco Live and Cisco Connect, has been pushing the envelope to ensure the tech giant's events, including its largest, Cisco Live US, ticks all those boxes and more. "It's a necessity and a part of our DNA," she says.

Among the ways Doyle and her team wowed  customers at Cisco Live US 2017 (which drew 28,000-plus  attendees) was inviting them to create their own "superhero" personas for the event,  introducing a redesigned exhibit show, launching Cisco's collaboration platform Spark and delighting them with a showstopping concert by pop superstar Bruno Mars.

When asked what she loves about the job, Doyle says, "My adrenaline is at the highest when I get to see the vision for an event come to life and know that what we create makes an impact on our customers and partners, both personally and professionally. Ninety-six percent of our attendees have a strong emotional connection with the Cisco Live brand, and that's priceless."

Carrie Freeman Parsons
It's hard to think that a company with more than 7,000 employees across numerous offices could be considered a family, but that's the goal of Dallas-based Freeman, the exhibition, experience and decorating company founded 90 years ago. Carrie Freeman Parsons, vice chair of the company, says, "It's always been very important to align the family values with the company values, and we've always been specific about what it means to work for Freeman and what our higher calling is: connecting people in meaningful ways."

A working mother, Freeman Parsons feels she brings a female touch to the leadership level of the company her grandfather started and her father now chairs. "I don't know if this is unique to me as a woman or just how I look at things," she says, "but we are giving latitude to leaders and saying you can put culture first and it might make your strategy stronger."

In recent years, Freeman Parsons has advocated for changes in how meetings are designed, rebuilding events from the ground up and eschewing the "that's how we've always done it" mentality.

"It has to start with the CEO or the board having a vision of what they want to achieve with the event and what it means to the organization overall," she says. "We might be pushing the boulder up the hill a little bit, but that's our noble quest, trying to equip clients with the best way to move forward."

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."

Caryn Taylor Lucia
Starting her career with financial services firm SEI with managing just two staffers who "planned a few sales meetings and managed a few trade shows for the year," Caryn Taylor Lucia, now vice president of corporate event marketing, helms a team of 19 and has become an integral part of the company's strategic vision and overall success. Taylor Lucia notes her group now handles roughly 500 projects a year, organizing everything from face-to-face marketing events and extraordinary client experiences to leading the company's employee recognition program. And now she is working with SEI's business units to raise the bar for client experiences. "Next month, I will celebrate my 24th year at SEI," she says. "I know I am one of the fortunate few that love their job."

Somehow, Taylor Lucia also finds time to serve on the board of directors for Financial & Insurance Conference Planners and as chair of the FICP 2017 Annual Conference, which will take place Nov. 12-15 in San Diego.


Theresa Thomas
When Theresa Thomas landed at risk-management firm iJET from the meetings world seven years ago, she was struck by how much more focus on risk there was in transient travel than in meetings and events. "Obviously, meetings and events have at least the same, if not greater, risk with respect to their attendees vs. the solo business traveler," she says. "But getting the message across to planners has been a slower evolution when compared to travel managers."

Why? "Most of the time, planners tend to assume that the event venue has responsibility," says Thomas, senior vice president of Powered by iJET, iJET International. But in too many cases, she adds, planners aren't really doing their due diligence to ensure the venue has things covered. Executives realize this needs to change, Thomas notes, and planners can benefit themselves and their organizations by stepping up collaborative preparedness efforts.

"I think they're in the perfect position to lead the way," says Thomas. "From the RFP to post-event support, planners really are in control of a lot of the interaction and information exchange with respect to attendees. One size doesn't fit all for every meeting, but I think planners will play a really key role in getting their organizations up to speed."

Leonora Valvo
As a founder and the original CEO of Etouches, Leonora Valvo played an integral role in forging the event-tech landscape as we know it today. Now, as director of the event-registration platform Swoogo, she's striving to modify a blueprint for the future.

Valvo co-founded Etouches and served as CEO for its first five years, helping to create software in the cloud before such solutions existed. But as companies like Etouches and Cvent have, in recent years, gobbled up complementary tools and competitors alike, Valvo has developed an alternate vision for tomorrow's event tech.

"Building everything, trying to be all things to all people -- that's not really the future of software in general," she says. "The future is to have really focused, really good products that are API-driven and well-connected from a data point of view." In other words, the ideal tools are highly specialized but also easily integrated with one another.

Yet, being easily integrated wasn't enough for Valvo, who foresaw a solution in which planners could have multiple best-in-class vendors committed to working together. That was the genesis of Event Tech Tribe, a coalition of six event-tech vendors -- two co-founded by Valvo, including Swoogo, which she runs, and another in which she was an early investor. "It isn't just about data integration," she says, "but also about the leaders being aligned. We have to be transparent with each other. It requires a very trusting environment."

The Tribe even runs a customer-success Slack channel, in which each company has a representative. So customers are never sent away from one supplier to another to have their problems solved; each company is committed to ensuring the optimal customer experience.

"This is the future of software in general," says Valvo. "This is the enterprise killer."

Carrie Westergard
For the past three years, Carrie Westergard has served as executive director of the Boise (Idaho) Convention & Visitors Bureau, where she is responsible for overseeing, planning and directing the operations and programming for the CVB. Under her aegis, the city has upped its game as a meeting and convention destination through customized targeted marketing programs, social media and public relations outreach, as well as special events.

Vogue, which named Boise to its list of the 10 Hottest Travel Destinations of 2017, said the locale is "quietly setting itself up to be one of America's most desirable second-tier cities."

"I believe we are able to offer more marketing and pubic relations services to our clients that are of value and meaningful to them," says Westergard, a member of ASAE and who in 2016 was named one of Idaho Business Review's Women of the Year honorees. "But we have to consistently educate our partners and constituents about our value and what we do. The best part is when groups come to Boise for the first time and are surprised by everything we have to offer." 
To read about the five outstanding women who made M&C's Top Women in the Meetings Industry Hall of Fame, go online to