A winning combination of determination and confidence are what the Minnesota Meetings + Events’ 2012 class of Hall of Fame inductees bring to the table. Their panache and ingenuity undoubtedly signal a bright future for the meetings and events planning industry here in the state of Minnesota. We recently spent time with the newest batch of inductees to find out how they got from there…to here.
Jan Tolle MacDonald
Business Development Director, Midwest USA at Travel Alberta
In junior high, Jan Tolle MacDonald traveled to Spain. In high school, she ventured to Mexico. After high school, she journeyed to Calgary. And whether via cars, airplanes or Greyhound buses, she trekked across the world on her way to a lifelong career.
"I just knew I wanted to do something involving travel," says MacDonald, a lifelong Minneapolis resident who now serves as the business development director, Midwest USA at Travel Alberta. "It was always in my DNA."
The wife and mother says she feels as if her career has come full circle since beginning her travel management career more than 20 years ago. "I feel so blessed to work at Travel Alberta," says MacDonald, who visits Alberta three to four times a year. "It’s an international destination. I have always been in awe of its beauty and people and history."
MacDonald has a way of sticking with people. "In an industry of big personalities, Jan may not be the loudest, but when she speaks and gives presentations, people always remember her," says Travel Alberta Director Brian Slot, who has worked alongside MacDonald for more than four years. "Being memorable in this industry is a great quality, and Jan certainly has that."
Best Special Events Planner
Julie Ann Schmidt
Managing Partner at Lithium Logistics Group
Julie Ann Schmidt was not in love. She had a civil engineering degree in her hand and a good job in her grasp. Yet, something just didn’t feel right. So Schmidt, managing partner at Lithium Logistics Group for the past four years, picked up a newspaper, searched through the want ads and never looked back.
That was 17 years ago, and this mother of two keeps staring straight ahead at her future goals. With her daily to-do list in front of her, and her travel itineraries often beside her, Schmidt works alongside a long list of political, corporate and governmental clients. "I love helping to guide people in the right direction," she says. "I also love the excitement that comes with the job, especially when it comes to our overseas clients. I can go to bed at 2 a.m. with an empty inbox and wake up to anywhere from 45 to 70 emails."
"No matter what, she can always see the big picture," adds Deb McGregor-Fonteix, senior manager of communications at Honeywell Hometown Solutions and one of Schmidt’s many satisfied clients. "She is similar to an artist in the way she can have a vision in her mind and can guide us as to how to best move forward to achieve that vision."
Up-and-Coming Special Events Planner
Owner of Rocket Science Weddings & Events
Ever since opening her first lemonade stand as a child, Gretchen Culver knew she wanted to own her own business. Her childhood dream came true in 2009 when, in the midst of a devastating recession, the self-proclaimed risk taker decided it was her turn to be her own boss.
"I remember brainstorming about the name of the business, and the phrase ‘it’s not rocket science’ kept playing through my head," says the wife and mother of two, with another one on the way. "That’s just always been my personality. I simply don’t take anything too seriously. I want everyone to have a great time, and I want the event to be about the client, not about me."
Culver tends to incorporate personal touches to the events she plans. "She has a warm and fun personality, and shows clients how important they are to her with each interaction," adds Laura Adler, who has served as Culver’s assistant for the past 10 years. "Gretchen often surprises her clients with little extras that she knows they will love on their wedding day. It’s so clear from her actions how much she cares about the people she works with and the events she plans."
Best Meeting Professional
Manager of Meetings & Expo at ACA International
Just days before starting her third year at University of Wisconsin - Eau Claire in pursuit of an education/math degree, Mary Thao had a revelation. "The last thing I wanted to do was spend another semester wondering what I was going to do," she remembers. "Sure, I was good at math, but I didn’t love it. There was something about the hospitality industry that intrigued me; I was good at it and I enjoyed it."
Before she knew it, she was on the phone with her parents and transferring schools to pursue a degree within the hospitality industry. As the current manager of meetings & expo at ACA International, Thao says she now feels she is right where she was always meant to be. "What I’ve learned over the years has taught me that no matter what industry you’re in, always stay open-minded, and take the time to listen and learn from others," she says. "And no matter what, take charge of your own career."
For some, what makes Thao unique is her positivity and willingness to finish tasks. "I’ve never heard Mary say ‘this won’t work’ or ‘that’s impossible,’" notes Amy Thompson, Thao’s co-worker at ACA International. "Instead, she has the ability to find a solution to every situation. Her incredible work ethic, along with her strong attention to detail, motivates her and the rest of our team to always do our best."
Up-and-Coming Meeting Professional
Director of Education at Midwest Society of Association Executives
Sarah Ruzek has been known to call her own phone and leave a voicemail.
"My mind is constantly racing with new ideas and ways to top what we have done in the past," chuckles Ruzek, who serves as director of education at Midwest Society of Association Executives (MSAE). "I’m always thinking of ways to give people more than what they expect. Having a job that gives me the freedom to make things fun and creative is wonderful."
Ruzek has made quite a name for herself in the meeting planning industry. A former server whose first industry job was with the Roseville Visitors Association 10 years ago, Ruzek says she is always looking for ways to make her events stand out and be remembered. "At MSAE’s 2012 Annual Meeting & Expo, the conference theme was ‘Come Together Right Now!’ and featured a flash mob on the trade show floor, a downloadable conference app and a live rendition of the Beatles song Come Together by the MSAE Band, comprised of MSAE members," she recalls.
Mark Salter, executive director of the CFA Society Minnesota, gives her the utmost praise. "She’s capable and collegial, masterful and methodical, unflappable and unstoppable," he says. "She is, in a word, phenomenal."
Senior Sales Manager at Hilton Minneapolis
The Hilton Minneapolis is one of those places that overflows with energy. On any given day, a famous musician, a pro sports team or even the President of the United States can walk through its doors, and chances are Christine Cayko will be there to greet them. "Every day is new and exciting," explains Cayko, who has worked at Hilton Minneapolis for the past 12 years. "I literally wake up every morning and can’t wait to see what’s going to happen."
"When our customers think of Hilton Minneapolis, they think of Christine Cayko," adds Kimberly Zoulek, director of sales & marketing at Hilton Minneapolis. "Christine truly represents ‘Minnesota Nice,’ and we couldn’t be more proud of her accomplishments."
As senior sales manager at the bustling hotel, Cayko routinely works with associations from around the country to support them in their meeting needs. "I love building relationships with so many different people," says the working mom. "I like the collaboration process, especially. Nothing we talk about should remain in a file folder somewhere. I always want to find a way to make it happen."
Events Coordinator at Campus Club, University of Minnesota
Armed with a Bachelor of Arts and Music degree, Xander Castro graduated from the University of Minnesota looking for a professional career that would fulfill him in every way. And he didn’t have to look very far.
As the current events coordinator at his alma mater’s Campus Club, Castro spent two years working within the university’s conference and events services throughout his time as a student. "He worked in many different venues here on campus and never got stuck within one niche," explains Kimberly Araya, director of conference & events services. "I immediately noticed that he was a go-getter and very ambitious when it came to working with clients."
For Castro, an enjoyable part of his job is the diversity it brings. "It is nice that the Campus Club is essentially an independent organization that does much more than university functions," says Castro. "Being able to work at a venue where I could be setting up three meetings in the same day definitely keeps me always busy and always challenged."