by Andrea Doyle | February 02, 2015

They're lifesavers. They're meeting experts. They're a planner's best friend on site. They're convention service managers (CSMs). For the last 37 years, Successful Meetings, in conjunction with the Event Service Professionals Association, has honored the top CSMs at hotels, convention and visitors bureaus, and convention centers. Here is a look at this year's three CSM of the Year honorees.

Vikki Valencia Kelly
CMP, Convention Service Director,
Visit Denver

Talk about longevity. Vikki Valencia Kelly has been with Visit Denver for 30 years, nearly 27 of those as director of convention services. Kelly works with 13 convention sales managers and oversees eight full-time convention services staff, including a convention housing department.

There was no grand plan to become a convention services director -- she fell into this industry. "I planned on being a hairdresser and owning my own salon. New to Denver, after my husband was transferred, it was tough to make a living as a hairdresser with no clientele. So, as an interim fix, I went back to my hospitality experience and interviewed with, at the time, the Denver Metro Convention & Visitors Bureau. I had no idea what a CVB was, but it was a perfect match for me," she says.

As a CSM at a CVB, Kelly says it's important to be a Jack-of-all-trades. She enjoys the fact that every day and every group she works with is different.

"It's exciting to be able to be a part of a major convention that brings an economic benefit to a city that I love. It's rewarding to be part of their team, be a problem solver, a liaison to your community, and provide an outstanding experience for the organization and its attendees," says Kelly.

One group she has won over is the Risk and Insurance Management Society (RIMS). Over the past year, Kelly and Stuart Ruff, CMP, RIMS director of meetings and events, communicated almost every day leading up to RIMS 2014 Annual Conference and Exhibition held from April 27-30 in Denver.

"She anticipated RIMS' every need and stayed a few steps ahead of us all. She proactively engaged the city to help us build risk and insurance management education around the new Colorado marijuana laws, she served as a one-stop shop to the entire city: bagging meters by the convention center, gently encouraging hotels to partner with us, and communicating with the city about the importance of our show and the value we were bringing to the region."

Peter Bordes, exhibitions and sponsorship manager for RIMS, New York, agrees with Ruff. "Vikki's level of professionalism, coupled with her friendly outlook on life, made her extremely easy to work with. She was always available whether it was for a quick chat, or to discuss a serious aspect of the conference that needed extra attention. Her experience within the industry and business sense shines through with every interaction," says Bordes.

Kelly is an involved member of the Denver community, active in programs such as the Mayor's Commission to End Homelessness, Downtown Safety and Environment, and Taxi & Transportation initiatives.

"It's important to understand all facets of meeting planning and everything about your city's amenities. In order to do my job well, it's imperative to have my finger on the pulse of what's going on in Denver, which keeps things fresh and interesting," she explains.

Joe O'Donnell, CMP
Associate Director of Event
Management, Walt Disney World
Swan and Dolphin Resort

It's amazing how quickly Joe went from being a total stranger to a member of our team," says Jessica Schade Tamasi, manager of conferences and exhibits for Metal Powder Industries, based in Princeton, NJ. "It was evident he had reviewed the contracted space and walked into our first planning meeting having read everything that had been previously sent in preparation of the meeting. He was ready to go. He's one of those people who you know loves what he does and you know as his client he's there for you 100 percent."

O'Donnell has been with the Walt Disney World Swan and Dolphin Resort for more than 12 years. These properties were built with meetings in mind, boasting over 329,000 square feet of flexible indoor meeting space with 110,500 square feet of convention/exhibit space. The hotels are currently getting the largest makeover in their history. A multi-phase, $125 million redesign is underway that will transform every guest room in the 758-room Swan Hotel and the 1,509-room Dolphin Hotel -- and will keep O'Donnell busy.

"It really is a special place and the success of our events is a result of the dedication and passion that flows from the heart of the house and throughout the entire cast," says O'Donnell. "Much of what we do in events on a daily basis seems to include major accomplishments, if not miracles, but somehow at the end of the day it's hard to put in to words what was accomplished."

One personal accomplishment that has also left him at a loss for words was climbing Mt. Fuji. "Doing it without getting divorced was also an accomplishment, because I came up with the worst plan: starting the trek after having 24 hours with no sleep," he jokes.

In fact, it is his planning and foresight that impresses the groups with which he works. "He's always thinking of how we could potentially do something a little better or more efficiently. I know he works for the hotel but he also became such an important part of our team. He walks the delicate line of being a company employee and having a razor-sharp focus on you, your meeting, and your bottom line too," explains Tamasi. "He knew my program by heart, he knew my VIPs by sight, he was always a step ahead on our potential hot-button issues, and he was there at every meal and special event we had. He is the perfect zen to any meeting planner's frenzy."


McKinna Allen
Event Manager, America's Center/Edward Jones Dome

As a hostess at a Lone Star Steakhouse when she was 16 years old, it was McKinna Allen's job to make a good first impression. She continues to do that today as an event manager at the America's Center and Edward Jones Dome where she has worked for the past three years. Hostessing at Lone Star was a part-time job while she attended the University of Missouri in Columbia -- so Allen thought. Her sights were set on becoming an attorney.

"As I got further into the degree and got a job at a local law firm, I realized I hated it and that I preferred the customer service aspect and day-to-day excitement of the hospitality industry. So, I changed course to hospitality management," she says. "It's not only the excitement of events but the satisfaction you feel when you work so hard and then get to see the end product of all that work that I really love."

Allen impressed Vanessa Kane, manager of meetings, events/exhibits for Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) of the U.S., based in Kansas City, MO. They worked together on last year's 115th VFW and Ladies Auxiliary National Conventions in St. Louis at the America's Center, which drew about 10,000 attendees.

In order to get a better understanding of the conventions, Allen attended the 114th Convention in Louisville. "I found this to be a very proactive approach on her part. I was impressed that her management supported this as well," says Kane. "McKinna took detailed notes, was respectful of my busy schedule during the convention in Louisville, and asked questions on items that needed further clarification, like functions and set-ups, to better help her understand what to expect and to prepare for our convention in her facility in 2014."

A highlight was a patriotic celebration complete with a Welcome Home Veterans parade that ended with a picnic complete with food and music. The last time the VFW met in St. Louis was 1948. Given the success of last year's conventions, the organization may not wait another 66 years before coming back.

"I am a one-person department and it's very important to partner with individuals who can become an extension of our staff. I depend on them for the success of our meetings and it's a huge help to know that the details are covered accurately so that I can focus on other areas where my attention is required," explains Kane. "McKinna provided me with updates and information where needed and was an integral part of the overall success of the conventions."

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This article appears in the February 2015 issue of Successful Meetings.