This esteemed class of meeting professionals, planners and suppliers continues to impact the industry from every direction-and we are better for it. The seven distinguished executives picked to be inducted into Illinois Meetings + Events’ 2013 Hall of Fame were all honored to be recognized for their dedicated efforts to keep our local industry alive and well. While they all have different roles and provide unique assets, all seven agreed on one thing: There is still so much work to do.
PRESIDENT AND CEO AT CHOOSE CHICAGO
It only took seasoned tourism executive Don Welsh 30-plus years and 12 cities to know that sweet home Chicago is where he was always meant to be. "The beauty of the city-the cleanliness and the depth of it-and the genuine kindness of the people here have always attracted me to Chicago," says Welsh, who serves as president and CEO at destination marketing organization Choose Chicago. "The same things that first excited me about the city are still what excite me every day to sell and market what we have to offer to [tourists and groups]."
As a child with the gift for gab, the Baltimore native set his sights on being either the next John Lennon or the next member of the New York Giants. When neither of those aspirations came to fruition, Welsh headed to college-the first one in his family to do so. After graduating, he took on jobs in Chicago with United Airlines and then moved to Seattle, where he was one of five to work on the startup team for Horizon Air. When Horizon Air was sold to Alaska Airlines, Welsh then moved to the management team of Westin Hotels, which aligned him to his current job.
In the three years since taking the reins at Choose Chicago, Welsh and his team have worked tirelessly to reach the lofty goals of Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who is striving to bring 55 million visitors to the Windy City between now and 2020. "It’s definitely an attainable number," Welsh says without hesitation. "If any, our dilemma now is how quick can we get the word out to the meetings industry that this is a new Chicago. This is not the Chicago of 10, 20 or 30 years ago. This city has never been in a healthier position."
Welsh attributes this new state to the true partnerships in place within the Windy City’s political, labor and business realms. "When there is a unified front, incredible things can happen," he concludes. "In a lot of cities, it’s the exact opposite. I’ve never seen a city work in such a team fashion. It’s truly a new day in Chicago."
Best Meeting Professional
MEETING & EVENTS PROJECT COORDINATOR AT ILLINOIS SOYBEAN ASSOCIATION
Dustin Scott is constantly looking out his window, wondering if the clouds will bring rain or the sky will bring sunshine because, often, the weather determines just what the day will hold for him.
"I work with farmers, so everything we do is determined by the weather," explains Scott, who is a meeting and event project coordinator at the Illinois Soybean Association, where he handles meeting and conference arrangements, reservations, staff and board travel and approvals for all Short Term Educational Opportunities (STEOs). "If we have a meeting in the month of May, and it’s a nice day to be in the fields, chances are that [those indoor sessions] are going to be cancelled at the last minute [so the farmers can work]. It’s stressful and challenging, but also fun, and I couldn’t imagine my job any other way."
A resident of Bloomington and a selfproclaimed aviation buff, Scott says it’s interesting to see how technology is slowly but grudgingly making its way into the agricultural sector, too. "We are moving towards more electronic meetings," he says, "but here, face-to-face meetings are still extremely important-and there is nothing wrong with that."
UP-AND-COMING Meeting Professional
MEETING PLANNER AT BDO USA, LLP
Lydia Polek prides herself on being extremely organized. And as someone who planned and managed 20 events in 2013 alone, that’s a pretty important quality to have.
"I’m a true planner, so I am pretty good at having all my ducks in a row way ahead of time," says Polek, who routinely works on meeting logistics such as food and beverage, conference agendas and room setups.
A 2004 graduate of the University of Wisconsin who turns to yoga to calm her nerves, Polek says the fast-paced atmosphere of the industry is something she has always thrived on. "I like to think and work quickly," says Polek, who also enjoys the international opportunities BDO offers. "I also love being behind the spotlight. Sometimes, believe it or not, it gives you the best view."
Best Special Event Planner
OWNER & SENIOR EVENT CONSULTANT AT CLEMENTINE CUSTOM EVENTS
Years ago, as all the other little birthday girls around her were worried about what dress they would wear and the amount of presents they would receive at their birthday parties, Kelly Cavanaugh had a more specific agenda in mind: pleasing her guests.
"I was always very specific with my mom about what kind of cake I wanted served and what decorations would look good in the room," recalls Cavanaugh. Since then, that little girl has grown up to be the owner and senior event consultant at Clementine Custom Events, where she and her team have orchestrated events at some of the state’s most prestigious venues, including the Renaissance Blackstone Chicago Hotel, the Harold Washington Library Center and Chicago Botanic Garden. "I guess it’s always been my nature to make sure everyone is having a good time," she says.
Opening her business during the precarious year of 2009, the mother of two says her event firm has grown in the most perfect of ways. "From the beginning, everything has felt very organic," she says. "We have grown thanks to our reputation. We are doing 60 weddings a year, and I feel we are really good in terms of size. Being a boutique firm here in Chicago is a great place to be."
UP-AND-COMING Special Event Planner
EVENT DESIGNER AT HMR DESIGNS
Brittanie Ahrens once took a job at a pizza place at the age of 14 because she wanted to save up enough money to buy a car. Throughout college, she worked three jobs because she wanted to keep herself busy. And just 48 hours after moving to Chicago from Florida, she secured an internship that would guide her to her eventual career. Ahrens is one hard worker.
"I pride myself on being a positive person who can keep a smile on my face through just about everything," says the 29-year old event designer at HMR Designs. "It’s all about keeping calm, no matter what. If one person freaks out, it can be like a line of fireworks. I simply smile and remain in control, which seems to relax everyone."
Working on out-of-town events such as the Super Bowl and the CMT Music Awards keeps Ahrens energized and on her toes. "Not being able to pull from a warehouse 20 minutes away can be crazy," she says. "But in those situations, it’s all about teamwork, and we have an amazing team here."
ACCOUNT EXECUTIVE AT FROST CHICAGO
After the last attendee has left and the doors have closed on another event, Jonathan Bancroft’s work is still waiting for him. Because these days, social media is his second job.
"You go to events and almost everyone is connected to a phone in their hand," chuckles Bancroft, an account executive at Frost Chicago. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing, he says: "I look up our event’s hashtag on Instagram and, all of a sudden, there are all these amazing photos that capture the reaction of people walking into the event with fresh eyes. There is nothing better than seeing people get excited about what you are doing."
Motivated mostly by the planning and creative parts of his job at the turnkey production company provider, which provides everything from staging to video to lighting, Bancroft says he thrives on the last-minute projects. "It’s almost easier to produce the hurried events than the ones that drag out for months at a time," he says. "Too many client meetings can mean people will change their minds many times. When things are last-minute, you get one shot to get it right-and I like that challenge."
NATIONAL SALES MANAGER AT OAK BROOK HILLS RESORT-CHICAGO
During her 45-minute commute from her home in Geneva to her job in Oak Brook, Liz Kara passes approximately 20 different hotels that she could have probably found a job at, easy. But then again, Kara isn’t looking for a job at just another hotel. She wants a retreat.
"You drive in here and, all of a sudden, you find yourself in a 150-acre getaway," explains Liz Kara, who, as national sales manager at Oak Brook Hills Resort, works to fill the property’s 36 meeting venues and 42,500 square feet of combined meeting and function space. "You are 30 minutes outside of the city and have 300 sitdown restaurants within 5 miles. It offers the unexpected, and that’s why I love it."
Inspired by the travels she went on as a young child, Kara loves her role, which is also variable every day. "The challenge of sales is that it changes constantly," she explains. "I never have the same experience twice. But when a client comes up to thank you for the advice you were able to provide-there is nothing as rewarding."