How the Meetings Industry Is Empowering the Next Generation of Female LeadersFebruary 3, 2020

No Glass Ceiling? By
February 3, 2020

How the Meetings Industry Is Empowering the Next Generation of Female Leaders

No Glass Ceiling?

Lisa Messina, vice president of sales at Caesars Entertainment, says, “There’s been a collective movement within business in general to support women rising up.

The meetings industry is overwhelmingly populated by women. So why are there still gender discrepancies in so many areas of the industry?

At IMEX America 2019, part of Smart Monday was devoted to the organization’s She Means Business initiative, and, yes, men were invited to participate. Topics included lessons from influential women in business, the gender pay gap and the still-in-place glass ceiling. Women spoke on why diversity and inclusion matter and the challenges of balancing career and family. One session, ‘What I Wish I Knew Then,’ focused on how to get more women into leadership roles, noting that the already small number of female Fortune 500 CEOs dropped from 2017 to 2018.

Recently, Bizzabo released its gender diversity study, which found, among other things, that, in spite of women’s dominance in the events industry, 66% of all speakers are men. Some countries had even worse numbers, and the tech segment of the industry is the worst with 76% of speakers being men. Why does the gender breakdown of speakers matter? Because speakers are the acknowledged experts and leaders in their fields, and women should be in that mix too, experts say.

All of these studies and education sessions should be applauded. But, perhaps, the place to start is at the beginning. How can the industry empower young women today so they’re ready to change the dynamic tomorrow — or sooner?


Linda McNairy, global vice president of American Express Meetings & Events, says there are several ways companies can empower young women:

• “Aligning and introducing the next generation of women to mentors within our industry. Females can benefit from both male and female mentors, and I recommend both.

• “Fostering organizational cultures where all voices and points-of-view are valued — even those outside our industry. As an avid fan of innovation, I recently sat down with the CEO of a start-up meetings tech company who is in his 20s and never worked in our industry. It was fascinating to hear his views of how he’s designing a technology solution for our industry. Collaboration at all levels is key and I believe women often do this more naturally.

• “Continue to emphasize the business impact of our industry. Sadly, some still perceive it as ‘party planning,’ which is unfortunately augmented by the higher number of females in our industry. It’s vital that the next generation of women can articulate the business impact of the industry and the value we’re delivering.

• “Championing social responsibility and supporting key women’s causes and movements, such as International Women’s Day.

“Empowering the next generation begins with the ability to recognize and develop top talent across the organization,” McNairy says. “There are always team members who are eager to learn as much as possible and take on additional responsibilities while remaining collaborative. It’s key that leaders spot these individuals and provide them with professional development opportunities and experiences that will be both challenging and rewarding.”

Michael Dominguez, president and CEO at Associated Luxury Hotels International (ALHI), thinks the industry must be proactive and outreach in new and creative ways. “So many organizations are focused on what this generation needs and we need to find better ways of bringing that voice into the conversation,” he says. “We have so many seasoned professionals who have much to offer in terms of challenges and approaches for this next generation. We need to work together to determine a better way to formalize a connection and mentor programs to capitalize on this experience. A mentor program would impact both men and women, and it’s imperative that we focus on behavior and leadership skills that will shape future leaders.”

Jessie States, CMP, CMM, director of the MPI Academy, points to three key elements that support empowerment of women — and others. “Businesses that successfully empower young leaders offer:

• Mentorship programs with diverse leaders who authentically and transparently teach and coach the next generation.

• Professional development opportunities and funds that fuel future-ready and senior-level skills.

• Access to evidence-based leadership, diversity and inclusion training programs.”

Beyond that, she continues, “Organizations should offer flexible schedules and focus on productivity rather than face time. “Doing so can empower women to grow professionally without impacting their family decisions,” she notes. “Also impactful are active mentorship programs and human resource materials and policies that reduce conscious and unconscious bias.”

And diversity, States says, doesn’t just help individuals. “Our industry’s businesses, organizations and nonprofits should also ensure diversity of employment at all levels, for a variety of people — not just women. The more diverse an organization, the more profitable it is. It’s not just the right thing to do; it makes business sense.”

Lisa Messina, vice president of sales at Caesars Entertainment, thinks the industry is going in the right direction. “At Caesars Entertainment specifically, we have an initiative to ensure that 50% of our director-level positions and above are occupied by women. Other hospitality companies and organizations have similar initiatives,” she says. “Within the last three to five years, I’ve seen a large movement of female-focused seminars, workshops, education and conferences. There’s been a collective movement within business in general to support women rising up — networking groups, learning from trailblazers, mentorship programs — things that did not exist or weren’t readily available to us even five years ago.”

Like most experts, she points to work-life balance as critical to empowerment. “First and foremost, I support anybody who has the baseline desire to start a career path in hospitality. If they desire to grow and achieve positions like mine, I will figure out a way to support them, even if it’s differentiated from my own personal desires and needs.”

Messina has firsthand experience making that work. “Most of the 11 women who directly report to me are working mothers and, in some instances, the financial head of the household. Respecting these women and the fact that they essentially have two careers is crucial. Additionally, providing them the tools, resources and support to function at those two jobs is critical. That allows you to open a larger pool of applicants and talent. If you say, ‘I’m not going to be flexible, pick one’ or ‘I’m not going to allow time off when you need it most,’ then you’re going to shut off a highly talented pool of women.”

That said, Messina echoes States in noting that this type of flexibility is good business, too. “You must make sure to support women in whatever those passions outside of work are. For example, one of my direct reports is an aspiring pro golfer. She has produced at the workplace, so what do I care if she takes time off in the summer to practice golf? I’m glad I can provide that sort of benefit to my team because I think I get better people as a result.”

Regardless of how the industry is performing on empowerment, States says there’s always room to improve. “Our industry’s leaders should continue to ensure that they elevate women’s voices in the industry and within their own organizations. If we look around the boardroom or C-suite and there are no women, there’s likely an endemic or unconscious bias that should be addressed. Start the conversation at your organization about the lack of women in leadership positions in our industry and beyond. There are a record 33 women CEOs of Fortune 500 companies this year — cause for celebration, of course — but still less than 10%. The problem isn’t just in meetings, hospitality and travel, it’s pervasive in business. That doesn’t mean our industry can’t or shouldn’t be the one to step up and be part of a positive solution.”


Lack of empowerment is often rooted in company culture. “If young men and women don’t feel valued,” McNairy says, “if they’re in a company that doesn’t focus on professional growth and work-life balance, I’ve seen them become frustrated and not perform to their full potential. And some organizations may not encourage a diverse management or leadership team, which could make it more difficult for a young woman to advance.”

Candie Beane, DMCP, vice president of business development of Hosts Las Vegas, a Hosts Global member, agrees there are multiple reasons young employees don’t feel empowered — but there are ways to counteract them. “It could be lack of self-confidence, self-limiting beliefs, or feeling intimidated or fearful to speak up and act. Looking back on my career, I realize that I was recognized by leadership when I confidently provided my honest opinion, even if that meant going against popular opinion. Today, I encourage others to do the same.”

Yet, young workers often aren’t listened to, despite the diverse and unique experiences they bring to the table, which can lead them to disengage,” States says. “Employees who are heard, acknowledged and empowered are much more likely to buy-in and work for the common good of their colleagues, their businesses and their clients.”


McNairy thinks learning from failures is important, and businesses need to allow that to happen. But, perhaps most important is helping the next generation understand and be comfortable with who they are. “It’s a balance,” she says. “You need to learn, grow, challenge yourself and adapt; yet, all of these behaviors must take place within the authentic person you are. I’ve worked with emerging leaders who felt they needed to be ‘different’ to lead people and, suddenly, when put in that role, they lose the essence of who they naturally are. It’s critical that we embrace our own authenticity as we improve ourselves along the way.”

McNairy advises young workers to pick a mentor who will challenge them, make them “uncomfortable” at times and push them to look honestly at themselves. “Be willing to learn from that introspection and make changes in the way you conduct yourself to continue growing,” she says. “Share your point of view, take ownership of your work, think outside of your current role and understand the bigger picture.”

States advises young women to focus on what they can control — leadership core competencies, continued professional development, strategies and solutions that positively impact their businesses and bottom lines. “Consider your role as the strategist who helps your organization use the business tool of meetings to solve problems no one else has yet solved. Document and measure your successes, and use data to show your value.”

Being open to learning from others is key. “Always be open to learning from anyone and anything that you come across,” Messina advises. “Listen to others who have done well in their careers and ask about their journey. You might learn the steps you can emulate, or some pitfalls that you want to avoid. Talking to others and having a strong network is really important. That’s been my baseline for finding success in this industry.”

Dominguez says it’s important for any young leader “to understand that there’s a preparation, experience and learning curve that’s necessary if you’re going to have an impact when you have ‘a seat.’ It’s about influence and contribution and knowing what you’re going to contribute. The greatest lesson about having that seat is that it can’t be about you.”


The importance of mentorship can’t be overstated. “I wouldn’t be where I am today without my mentor,” Beane says. “Good mentors teach you more than the responsibilities of the job. They teach life skills that help you navigate our ever-changing industry, like how to lead and challenge others to get the best out of them and how to embrace change even when you want to resist. They give you the autonomy to make critical decisions and provide guidance and support along the way. Mentoring creates confident future leaders and is an incredible opportunity to pay it forward.”

She continues, “My approach is to always be open and available, patient and a good listener. I ask mentees questions to learn their thought process and provide support to encourage their confidence. I challenge them to think differently and find alternative solutions to issues, and I hold them accountable when needed. I also genuinely care about their growth and success, which ultimately fosters a relationship built on trust and respect.”

McNairy calls mentoring “vital” and also encourages mentees to invest in a personal coach. “Most highly successful people I know have enjoyed the benefits of having a mentor and are more than willing to pay this back to those developing their own careers. I’m extremely grateful for the many mentors and my personal coach who have helped me along the way,” she says. “I make it a point to be a mentor to help empower young women. My door is always open if they need advice or would like to develop a more formal mentor/mentee relationship. I’m inspired by the courage and confidence so many young women in our organization have.”

States notes that mentoring is critical for young leaders as they look to not only hone leadership skills but to develop the cross-function abilities of tomorrow’s professional. “My team is primarily women, and I encourage them to apply smart goals to their careers as well as their jobs. I ask where they want to be in the next three to five years — even if that’s sitting in my seat; what net-new skills they want to adapt, accelerate or acquire, and how I can help their growth. I empower them to be problem solvers, agents of change management and strategic thinkers to elevate the critical skills necessary as they move into leadership roles.”

If young leaders don’t find these types of programs at their organizations or within their networks, States says professional associations are an ideal platform for experimenting and growing, including leadership roles on the boards of local and regional chapters and international boards of directors.

One professional association invested in mentorship is MPI. Says States, “MPI’s membership is largely women in business — be that corporate, association, government or NGO. Our business is the growth of women and we take that role seriously. From the recent codification of our women’s community and our future-ready skills training to our Women in Leadership and Meeting and Event Strategist certificate programs, we strive every day to elevate the role of women in business. Key to this are our Certificate in Meeting Management offered by Indiana University’s Kelley School of Business and the master’s degree program MPI supports at San Diego State University.”

Dominguez has been fortunate to have many mentors in his journey up through the industry. “I talk to this often as there have been many mentors in my life. But a gentleman named Brad Poncher with Hyatt Hotels pulled me out of F&B operations, which was nine years of my career, and drove me into sales. I can confidently say that we would not be having this interview if it weren’t for Brad.”

Mentorship, many also note, is a two-way street. “Time is the greatest gift we can give,” Dominguez says. “I’ve always had a policy where anyone can get on my calendar. Those conversations are for advice both personally and professionally. The rewarding part to this approach is that the learning and fulfillment are reciprocal.”

Paul Van Deventer, MBA, president and CEO of MPI, puts it this way: “I’ve been blessed to have a number of inspirational and influential mentors and have invested a lot in nurturing my network. Being in a position to pay-it-forward and help others with their careers and professional growth is both personally fulfilling and central to building a meaningful legacy, so I welcome opportunities to mentor and educate those who seek guidance and advancement.”

Messina also calls herself blessed to have had so many people in her personal and professional life who are a part of who she is today. “I try to make every interaction a learning experience, whether I encounter you in a brief meeting or work with you over a long period of time.”


Although many steps are yet to be taken, changes are in place. “When I was coming up as a young salesperson, many reporting up in organizations saw only men in leadership positions,” Messina says. “Men were the vice presidents of meetings and exhibits. Men were the directors of sales and marketing, essentially controlling all aspects of big convention hotels. Now, when you look around the country, on the customer and supplier side, we’re seeing women occupying jobs that were not available to them 10 years ago. When you get more women into those roles, you end up recruiting that way.”

Messina is proud of what Caesars Entertainment does on that front, but says there are others, too. “That’s something that stands out compared to even five years ago; the mindset of corporations has changed. We’re now doing whatever we can to ensure that women have opportunities, not only at the entry level but also the bigger roles.”

And, she adds, those changes don’t just benefit women. “The way we approach work-life and allow for balance is beneficial to all. It’s come full circle to help men as well, as Caesars Entertainment and other hospitality companies now offer paternity leave.”

Dominguez notes that while some organizations have made strides, others need more support. “I do believe there are differences in different sectors of our industry due to scale, maturity of the organization and formalized programming. Many larger organizations are doing really great work and making impact in this area. Since our industry is made up of many independently owned and small businesses, I think there’s an opportunity to share these lessons and structure to help support more businesses.”

With all of the industry willingness to support future female leaders, perhaps a look back on this issue in a couple of years will show that things have moved forward significantly. C&IT


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