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MRLA Star of the Year Awards Announced for 2023

Annual celebration held at St. John's Resort

By Kathy Gibbons

Jennifer Sistrunk of the South Haven VanBuren County Convention and Visitors Bureau received a 2023 MRLA Star of the Year Award. || Courtesy of Michigan Restaurant & Lodging Association

For Jennifer Sistrunk, it’s been a long road from when she started out in the hospitality industry to recently receiving a MRLA Star of the Year Award. She’s been named the Michigan Restaurant & Lodging Association’s 2023 CVB Star of the Year.

“As I stood there accepting the recognition, I couldn’t help but reminisce about the countless hours I spent in the trenches of the hospitality industry—waiting tables, meticulously cleaning rooms, and burning the midnight oil to craft the next marketing campaign for a local establishment,” says Sistrunk, executive director of the South Haven VanBuren County Convention and Visitors Bureau since 2021, about being called to the stage as a MRLA Star of the Year awardee.

She first entered the industry as a restaurant busser and waitress, worked in hotel housekeeping, and went on to a career in graphic design. “Having been in those roles, I intimately understand the yearning to be seen and acknowledged,” she says. “This award, to me, felt like a representation of not just my journey, but also a nod to the hard-working individuals in the industry who often go unnoticed.”

Sistrunk was among multiple individuals who were recognized as part of the MRLA Star of the Year annual celebration of excellence within Michigan’s hospitality industry. The 2023 Stars of the Industry Awards Dinner, held annually, was at Saint John’s Resort in Plymouth in November.

Emcee Ryan Patrick Hooper of WDET described Sistrunk’s MRLA Star of the Year award as being given to a professional who “eats, sleeps, and breathes for your DMO working around the clock to design marketing programs and motivate travelers.” He told the audience that Sistrunk is “a torchbearer in the tourism industry who has been instrumental in developing her hometown as a true haven of hospitality.”

“Drawing upon my years of experience in the hospitality sector, particularly in a tourism-heavy beach town community, I’ve had the privilege of interacting with countless travelers from all walks of life,” Sistrunk says. “I believe in being relatable and understanding that authenticity resonates far more than a sales pitch.”

MRLA Star of the Year Award Stellar Legacy Awards were presented to Larry Brown of Affinity Group and Dave Lorenz of Travel Michigan. Both are retiring at the end of 2023. Brown served both on the MRLA’s board of directors and, as its foundation chairman for many years, and Lorenz is wrapping up a 21-year career with the Michigan Economic Development Corporation/Travel Michigan.

Additional awards were presented as follows:

Hospitality Star of the Year: Tina Pietrangelo of Castanon Holdings LTD (PNK LLC)

North Star of the Year Award: Beverly Demeter of Downtown Restaurant Investments/Old City Hall Restaurant

Restaurant Manager Star of the Year: Michael DeRose of Anna’s House

General Manager Star of the Year: Heather Gates of Restaurant Partners Management Group/Grand Beach and Sugar Beach Resorts

Emerging Hospitality Leader Star of the Year: Emily Moir of Epoch Hospitality

Women in Hospitality Leadership Star of the Year Award: Mandy Gray of The Highlands at Harbor Springs

Heart of the House Star of the Year: Jorge Alberto Nopala Mendez of Gilmore Collection/Paddock Place

Sustainability Recognition Star of the Year: Holly Moorehead of Mission Point Resort

Guest Experience Star of the Year: Joel Berghorst of Amway Grand Plaza Hotel, Curio Collection by Hilton

Seasonal Operator Star of the Year: Seth Britton of Grand Traverse Resort and Spa

Jennifer Suchocki of the Daxton Hotel was named the Sales and Marketing Star of the Year Award recipient. || Courtesy of Michigan Restaurant & Lodging Association

Sales and Marketing Star of the Year: Jennifer Suchocki of the Daxton Hotel

Bartender Star of the Year: Curry Lund of Suburban Inns (Big E’s Sports Grill)

Engineering + Operations Star of the Year: Marcelo Ponti of Saint John’s Resort

Room Attendant Star of the Year: Marina Hernandez of 6PM Hospitality

Resort Star of the Year: Crystal Mountain

HR Professional Star of the Year: Ellen Winterburn of Project Barfly, Inc.

Allied Partner Star of the Year: SpotOn

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