Thursday, July 25, 2024

2015 Hall of Fame

By Photos by Dan Cudney

COLORADO MEETINGS + EVENTS is proud to introduce our 2015 Hall of Fame, made up of seven top-notch individuals who are positively impacting the meetings and events industry. Our editorial advisory board, composed of 15 industry professionals from around the state, nominated and selected this year’s inductee for their unique contributions and committed dedication. Now in its eighth year, the Hall of Fame has 56 distinguished members.

Lifetime Achievement

Senior Director of Events
Hyatt Regency Denver at Colorado Convention Center

For Monica Cheeks, CMP, relocating to Colorado from California 10 years ago to open the 1,100-room Hyatt Regency Colorado Convention Center was a “huge opportunity and a nobrainer,†she says. “I was actually returning to a city I enjoyed as a college student at University of Denver.†As senior director of events for the hotel, Cheeks is responsible for producing and managing more than $20 million in food, beverage and miscellaneous hotel revenue annually and overseeing a team of 20. She is one of the founders of the National Association of Catering & Events Greater Denver Chapter and is passionate about mentoring college students and co-workers. “Part of planning that perfect event or meeting lies in strength of trust and foundation of the relationships we build over time,†says the 32-year Hyatt veteran, who grew up working for her family’s small motel in the Lake Tahoe area.

COM+E: Why do you like working in the meetings and events industry?
No. 1: Coaching and mentoring over the course of my career has been incredibly rewarding. No. 2: Partnering with clients/guests to plan and execute the perfect meeting or special event. No. 3: The variety of challenges and successes we experience every day. We enjoy one of the most exciting and inspiring industries.

COME+E: How have you seen the industry evolve over the past five years?
: The industry has experienced a steady rebound in meetings and events highlighted by increased attendance; basically, business is good. Expectations of the attendees and guests are ever increasing, with an emphasis on increasing creativity with food and beverage options and how the attendee will learn and network. How to incorporate technology and social media continues to play a greater role throughout the events industry. Sadly, the planning window in preparing for a unique experience is shrinking.

COME+E: What advice do you have for people who are new to the meetings and events industry?
Be excited and open in learning from mistakes and successes. Be present in every situation and prepared to apply these experiences as you grow in the meetings and events industry. Most of all, have fun!

Best Meeting Professional

Director, Village Gatherings
DaVita Healthcare Partners, Inc.

Gail Schuster has experienced the meetings and events industry from almost every angle, including as a corporate planner, account executive for a third-party meeting planning company, catering staff and convention services manager for a convention and visitors bureau, and front office agent and night auditor for a hotel. “I enjoy meeting new people and seeing the impact meetings can have on those that attend for personal and professional development,†Schuster says.

Armed with knowledge gained over the past two decades, Schuster brings valuable tools and experience to her current job as director of village gatherings for Denver-based DaVita Healthcare Partners, Inc. She leads and manages executive meetings and large gatherings that range in size from 10 to 4,500 attendees, guiding support teams of 15 to 40 individuals. Managing a large budget, Schuster instituted a company-wide meeting policy of sourcing, booking and contracting all meetings of 100 room nights or more.

As senior event manager for six years at Arrow Electronics, Inc., she directed top business partner, client and internal events such as the CEO’s Global Annual Meeting and the components division’s multicity trade show. Prior to that, she spent two years as an account executive for Experient, Inc. and six years as convention services manager for VISIT DENVER, where she established and chaired a quarterly Transportation Forum and quarterly “Service!†meeting for hotel and convention center event staff and the membership.

Armed with this unique set of experience, Schuster says she hopes the meetings and events industry continues to evolve in three specific ways: consistency between hotel event orders, increase in service excellence skills and better acceptance of change.

Her start in the industry was at the front desk of a Drury Inn, giving her keen observation from the other side of the desk. “Currently hotel compression is high, and it’s a seller’s market,†she says. For those new to the industry, she suggests being flexible: “Look at the big picture and be open to advice.â€

Up-and-Coming Meeting Professional

Association Planner
Cas Strouse & Associates, Corporate Meetings and Events

Gina Kim’s first experience working in hospitality was as a birthday party host at Brunswick Zone in Lone Tree during high school. “This fueled my interest in the meetings and events industry, which led me to where I am today,†says Kim.

While completing her degree in hospitality, tourism and events at Metropolitan State University of Denver, Kim became very active in the National Society of Minorities in Hospitality and student chapter of the Professional Convention Management Association (PCMA), serving on the PCMA National Student Advisory Board and attending her first Convening Leaders Conference in 2012. Currently, she
is sponsorship committee chair for Rocky Mountain PCMA and was marketing co-chair for the MPIRMC & RMPCMA Annual Golf Tournament last year.

She was employed as a marketing intern in events for EchoStar Corporation and after graduation worked for nearly two years as corporate engagements planner for CH2M HILL in Englewood and joined a firm recently started by her former director, Cas Strouse. “The reason why I chose the meetings and events industry is because each day is different. Although I may be doing the same tasks every day, it is never really the same because I am working on different projects or programs and with different industry partners,†Kim explains.

“There are so many different directions you can go, and it is important to choose the path where you are excited to go to work every day,†she says. “I would like to continue gaining knowledge from my peers within the industry in the hopes of one day being an independent planner with my own meetings and events business.â€

Over recent years, she has noticed the continued impact of technology. “The industry has continued to keep up with technology and the use of smartphones, tablets and meeting and event apps,†she says. “The use of apps has been helpful because information is readily available and economically friendly.â€

Best Special Events Professional

Director of Sales
Winter Park Mountain Lodge

Tiffany Carson’s jobs have been all about making sure groups have fun. She first dipped her toe into the meetings and events pool as a part-time receptionist at ESPN Zone in downtown Denver, which transitioned into becoming sales assistant for event sales, associate sales manager in Chicago and then back to Denver, booking and coordinating logistics for group events of 15 to 900 guests.

After nearly eight years with ESPN Zone and a brief time at Buca di Beppo in Broomfield, Carson accepted an event sales manager position at Lucky Strike Lanes Belmar in Lakewood, where she worked for almost five years before starting as director of sales for Winter Park Mountain Lodge in December.

“While I love building events for clients from beginning to end, my favorite part of this industry is the people,†she says. “I have been so lucky to work with some of the best in the business; not only are they my mentors, but also my close friends.â€

One way she has built relationships is volunteering for Meeting Professionals International Rocky Mountain Chapter (MPIRMC), Downtown Restaurant Leads Group and South Restaurant Leads Group, which she chaired for two years. She has co-chaired the MPIRMC/RMPCMA Golf Tournament Committee and Meetings Industry Council of Colorado’s Serving Up Hope luncheon and served on the MPIRMC board since 2011.

“Get involved in an association in some way; even if you only have a couple hours a month, you can find a way to volunteer,†she suggests. “Most people learn by doing, and if you volunteer, your knowledge grows.â€

Carson also believes that the challenges of the past five years have brought the industry closer. “We realized that while we are competitors, we need one another to succeed,†she says. “Now that sales are returning, we are still working together and Denver is growing by leaps and bounds. We have seen the Downtown and South Restaurant Leads Groups grow from small groups of 10 to 20 venues represented to over 30 in the south group and over 40 downtown.â€

Up-and-Coming Special Events Professional

Commencement & Special Events Coordinator
Metro State University of Denver

Leticia Duarte graduated with a degree in hospitality, tourism and events management from Metropolitan State University of Denver less than two years ago, but she is a woman with a clear mission and a job that impacts many at her alma mater. Few people know who works behind the scenes to make things happen for their college graduation, but its part of Duarte’s duties at MSU, along with coordinating approximately 20 events each fall and spring semester, including a programming series, holiday parties and donor/fundraising events.

As an MSU student, she served as special event assistant for almost one year, was active in the RMPCMA student chapter and chaired a Latina youth leadership conference through Lambda Theta Nu Sorority, Inc. “This event sparked my passion for organizing and planning. Once I accepted a position as an event programmer, I knew I was where I wanted to be in terms of my career and haven’t looked back,†Duarte says.

She believes paying close attention to small things is a big part of an event planner’s success equation. “Taking time on all the little details will help you stand out from the crowd,†she says. “For the day of, don’t stress and always smile—there is not a whole lot you can change at this point.â€

One of Duarte’s long-term goals is starting her own event planning and design company. “I enjoy having a vision and executing it. I love knowing that my work brings people together to collaborate, to inform or to celebrate!†she says.

Changes Duarte has already noticed are a greater respect for the industry as a whole and the greater use of technology. “Companies are seeing the value in having an events-specific position,†Duarte observes. “Technology plays a huge role in our industry. The ever-growing tech industry continues to simplify an event planner’s life with smoother and more efficient processes.â€

Best Supplier

Senior Manager, National Group Sales
Vail Resorts

Sometimes moms do know best. After graduating from Southern Methodist University in 1990, Ellen Collins returned to her hometown near Cape Cod, Massachusetts, and went back to work as a waitress. “My mother told me ‘it is time to get at real job’ and insisted that I go up to Boston and knock on doors,†she recalls.

Resume in hand, she decided to stop by the nicest hotels in Boston, such as The Ritz-Carlton and Four Seasons. The third try, Swissotel Boston, was a charm. “While there, the concierge asked me to stay put for a minute. Their sales coordinator had just given notice that morning and as luck would have it, I was hired on the spot,†she says. “This position was perfect; it let me experience every facet of the hotel, and I received excellent hands-on training.â€

After two years in Boston, Collins returned to Dallas to work for Loews Anatole Hotel (now a Hilton property) before assuming the director of sales and marketing position for Loews Giorgio Hotel in Denver. A decade later, in 2005, Collins joined Vail Resorts in a national sales role. “This position has opened the door to sell an entire brand and our majestic mountains,†she emphasizes.

“Life in hotel sales has allowed me to meet with customers on their turf, from big cities to small rural towns in North America. I have worked with Fortune 100 companies to startups and have helped to secure groups at our hotels and communities for 10 people to 10,000,†she says. “As a result of criss-crossing the country, I have built a career and many valuable relationships. Many customers have become dear friends.â€

Collins currently serves on the Destination Colorado board of directors and has been a board member for MPIRMC, which she continues to be very involved in along with RMPCMA and other industry-related groups. She hopes the meetings industry continues to thrive regardless of what’s happening on Wall Street. “When people get together, they move forward,†she says. “Sparks and ideas come from collaboration with all sectors.â€

Up-and-Coming Supplier

Peak Beverage Catering Inc.

“Don’t make any enemies. You never know when someone who is skeptical of your concept at first may one day be your greatest client,†suggests Andy Klosterman, who moved from San Diego to Denver three years ago to start a business. “It took me about eight months to make any money at all, while working two other jobs to stay afloat. If you get 100 ‘no’s for every one ‘yes,’ then guess what? You have become successful, and you have made money for your business.â€

Klosterman hopes to build a company that his employees are proud to work for and respect the work they are doing. “The beverage industry is extremely rich with stories to tell and lessons to learn, and I hope to enrich the meetings and events industry by using that information. My goal is be the go-to source for all beverage needs in the industry here and have my team gain the expertise and ability to execute the coolest bar concepts out there,†he explains. “Too frequently, I see bars at events that are simply a service and not an experience that adds to the event.â€

Starting as a bar-back at age 18 for some of the busiest clubs and bars in San Diego, Klosterman worked his way up to bartender, lead bartender, bar manager, outlet manager and sales rep during college. “This industry is not like other normal jobs,†he says. “I love how every day is different. One day I could be having meetings all over the state with people who are planning events for a wide variety of organizations, and the next day I could be working with my team serving 2,000 guests at a high-volume, high-energy, nightclub-style event.â€

Planners have become more open to liquors, wines and beers that perhaps would not have been accepted in the past, Klosterman notes. “Every client has a different vision,” he says, “and it’s a blast trying to come up with ideas out of thin air and see them come alive.â€