Thousands of attendees. Hundreds of events. Dozens of mentees. Six Hall of Fame inductees. One Lifetime Achievement Award recipient. You could call the 2011 Minnesota Meetings + Events Hall of Fame a numbers game. Our editorial advisory board did the math, and this year’s inductees more than add up.
Lifetime Achievement Award
CEO and CFO, Best Meetings, Inc.
“I didn't realize there was such a profession as meeting planner,” Louis explains. The work she did as a volunteer at her children’s school, bringing in art exhibits from the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, organizing parent-teacher group activities and volunteering to help with political fund-raisers were just things she did, and did really well. “One of my friends said, ‘You’d be really good at this—you could be a meeting planner,’ ” she adds.
Today Louis plays the role of both executive director and executive assistant for clients at her company, Best Meetings, offering comprehensive services for association management, meeting, event and trade-show planning to associations, corporations and government agencies. The variety is huge and every client is different.
“We use the subtitle ‘Details are us,’ ” she adds. She may have worked as a professional and a volunteer for the meetings and events industry for 30 years, but she still remembers her first event for the Minnesota Hospitality Association, with 10,000 attendees, 350 exhibits and 120 break-out sessions.
“I truly believe that you have no idea what a meeting planner is until you go through one really large conference. Because you learn so much; if attendees don’t see any wrinkles, that’s how you know you did your job right,” Louis says, recalling that first event. “One of the things I will always think of is the wonderful people I’ve had the opportunity to work with. I have a lot of people that call me their mentor. They say, ‘If it weren’t for you I wouldn’t be doing this,’ and that is very rewarding—one of them is my niece, another is my son.”
NIKKI CLOUTIER, CMP
Senior Meeting Planner, Allianz Life
In her second year of college, one of Nikki Cloutier’s professors suggested she take a class on corporate and incentive travel. “I thought, why not give it a shot? I ended up taking the course and I was hooked,” Cloutier explains. The same professor got her involved in the travel and tourism club, in addition to helping her gain her first internship at Carlson Marketing Group in the small groups department, which led to her first job as a trip director.
Cloutier still thinks of that first professor and how she was motivated by her: “I’m an educator every day, whether walking in to work or keeping business planners informed and updated on progress.” Today she takes that idea a step further in her new leadership role overseeing three other planners, passing along best practices and improving processes.
“Today I have the best of both worlds,” she explains. “It’s an amazing opportunity to lead a high performing team while still planning and delivering meaningful events.” Cloutier celebrates 11 years at Allianz Life and 17 in the industry in March.
“In my heart of hearts, as long as I am able to apply the skills, I can contribute to something much bigger and have a team to be part of in the long term,” she adds. “I just see myself growing here as an individual, a manger and as a teammate.”
Special Events Professional
Special Events Coordinator, The Basilica of Saint Mary
As an executive assistant for Episcopal Community Services, Meghan Gustafson didn’t think of herself as a planner when she organized monthly board meetings for groups of at least 30, mostly because she was also taking on tasks like fund-raising and development. It was a job that got her noticed, however, and eventually she was recruited to her current position as special events coordinator at The Basilica of Saint Mary.
For the past five years, Gustafson has taken on the Basilica’s giant events schedule, including its Masquerade Ball, Santa Bash and, most famously, the Cities 97 Basilica Block Party, which averages 13,000 attendees per day. “I do everything from black-tie galas to the block party, so I’ve had to teach myself a lot about different events,” she says. “But they’re all fun and they let you expand your repertoire. It’s always fun to come up with a new event and see it unfold.”
Now an active member of the meetings and events industry (she served as 2011 production co-chair for ISES-MSP’s Minnesota Star Awards), Gustafson has some advice of her own to share. “One of my favorite things I have learned is from an auctioneer, and it’s the ‘three Fs’: fix it, fake it or forget it,'” she says. “I think the other lesson is to be open to new ideas.”
Director of Sales and Marketing, Hilton, Minneapolis/St. Paul Airport, Mall of America
Shawn Anderson had a choice to make as graduation from the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire approached: become a manager-in-training for a retail store or take a group sales representative position for Breezy Point Resort & Convention Center. “And I’m sure glad I chose the hospitality!” he says.
He probably had an easier time deciding because of a “fast-paced and engaging” summer position he’d had as a busboy in the Marina Dining Room at Breezy Point some time before. “After experiencing that side of the business, I felt like I was in the right place. There was something especially gratifying about contracting a group and then seeing everything come together.”
Reflecting on projects he’s been involved in as director of sales and marketing, Anderson remembers a special partnership with The Miracles of Mitch Foundation in 2005 to help in their mission: supporting families of children battling cancer. “We’re in the business of hospitality, and I can’t think of a better definition or use than to open our doors to help support a cause like that one,” he says. “It’s by far the most meaningful work I’ve been involved in.”
After more than 15 years in the business, however, it’s still the day-to-day role of his job that he thinks about. “The best part of my job is that every day brings something new—whether it’s working through a challenge helping my sales team or pitching in to help turn the ballroom for a big event in the evening—no day is ever the same.”
Up-and-Coming Special Events Professional
Senior Event and Conference Manager, Type A Events
The Minnesota meetings and events industry almost lost Taci Tolzman twice- first to the field of funeral direction (“I wanted to work with families”) and later to the Wisconsin meetings and events industry when she was hired by the American Association of Medical Society Executives in Milwaukee. Luckily, she’s finally settled in the Twin Cities at Type A Events. “I’m really excited to start networking here and really get a good name out,” she says.
It’s a name that already has a President’s Award for Outstanding Leadership from MPI’s Wisconsin Chapter attached to it, so she’ll probably do just fine. Tolzman received the award for revamping the association’s website, a project that eventually landed her on its board of directors. “I really do like the association side of it—that’s where my heart really lies,” she says.
Today Tolzman is organizing events that range from hundreds to thousands of attendees, often overseas. She’s expecting 1,500 for an event in Boston this June, and she’s going back to Europe in November. “There is never a dull moment in the life of a meeting planner,” she says. “If you are not a flexible, energizing person, you will not succeed in this career. The amount of change and stress and pressure and craziness that you experience in this industry is just unmatchable and that’s what I love about it.”
Up-and-Coming Meeting Professional
Nonprofit Solutions, Inc.
A public relations job straight out of college gave Kristin Koonmen a taste of what it was like to live in the meetings and events world, but it wasn’t enough. “I found the part of the job I liked most was helping with events, and there wasn’t a lot of opportunity to do that with PR clients,” she says. So she left to join the Minneapolis Downtown Council, a nonprofit responsible for one of the city’s most renowned events: the Aquatennial.
“It feels like a new job every day,” Koonmen says of her professional gig. “It would make a lot of people nervous, but that’s what keeps us on our toes.” The Aquatennial, held over 10 days in July, includes some 70 events ranging from a tennis tournament and parade to a fireworks show and sand-castle building competition. “I can’t believe I get paid to do this,” she adds, reminiscing about the event’s success.
Of course, it’s not all “sun and games.” Koonmen also organizes more than 50 educational sessions per year and coordinates multiple conferences, with upward of 60 volunteers to oversee, along with the usual work with speakers, vendors and suppliers. Is she happy she left public relations? “I will always stay in the nonprofit area if I can help it,” she says. Next up? “More volunteering.”
Account Manager, AVEX
Avex Account Manager Tim McVean’s first foray into the audio-visual industry was in front of the spotlight, not behind it. “I was always very active in music and theater arts,” he says of his time spent acting at Augsburg College. “I never thought I’d be a technical guy.” But a mentor’s invitation to earn extra credit in the theater’s scene shop piqued his interest and the rest, as they say, is history.
McVean credits one of his first jobs as a technician, delivering and installing equipment, working in the field with clients and taking on special projects in particular, for getting him to where he is today. “If I hadn’t done that I wouldn’t be at the place where I am now,” he says. “And you don’t realize that stuff. You never know who is going to become a close friend in this industry.” Climbing the professional ladder has also given him respect for crews that report to him now.
He’s quick to credit the technicians. “Those are the guys that really make us look good, allow me to have fun and be light-hearted and charge a fair price when I can. It’s because of how good they are at their jobs—[they] stay late and don’t think twice about it; but that’s how they’re wired to always go the extra mile,” McVean says.
These days, McVean can still be found on stage from time to time. In 2010, in addition to serving as AV Chair at the Minnesota STAR Awards, managing a committee and supplying all the equipment for the program, he also performed an opening number, singing and dancing in front of hundreds of his peers.