The 25 Most Influential People in the Meetings Industry for 2016: The Trailblazers

top 25 people in meetings industry 2016

When we think of trailblazers, it's generally in the terms of iconic individuals who hacked out paths where there weren't any before. We note them and remember their accomplishments, as well we should. But then comes the gritty work of making the trails easy to navigate -- less glamorous and publicized work, but important and worthy of note as well. The people on this list have all done commendable work in advancing trails a little further and ensuring that the paths stay navigable. (View the full "25 Most Influential People in the Meetings Industry for 2016" here.)

Julie Coker Graham
, president and CEO of the Philadelphia Convention and Visitors Bureau

In joining the Philadelphia CVB in 2011, Julie Coker Graham jumped into the deep end of the DMO industry from the hotel side. Now as president and CEO since December, she is the only African-American woman currently leading a CVB in a top-50 U.S. market. Coker Graham played a key role on the host committee that brought the 2016 Democratic National Convention to the city and now co-chairs the Delegate Experience committee for the convention, which will be held later this month and is expected to generate as much as $300 million. She also was actively involved when the World Meeting of Families and Pope Francis' visit tested the city. But those are not the only reasons that Philadelphia is a city on the rise as a destination. The Pennsylvania convention center's renegotiation of more exhibitor-friendly union contracts has brought in more business, and Philly has grown from the 21st to the 15th most visited destination in the U.S. by overseas travelers. She serves on the boards of the U.S. Travel Association and DMAI.

Amanda Kotze-Nhlapo, chief convention bureau officer of the South Africa National Convention Bureau

As the head of the bureau that puts on the continent's largest annual MICE trade show, Meetings Africa, every February in Johannesburg, Amanda Kotze-Nhlapo has long championed the idea that the 11-year-old show is a platform for "not just South Africa but the entire continent," she says. Its goal isn't just to bring more MICE events but to help "realize the potential and opportunities that the meetings industry presents to our objectives in development, the knowledge economy, growth, and education." 

That pan-African view is why Kotze-Nhlapo played a leading role in the creation of the African Society of Association Executives (AfSAE), which launched at the 2015 Meetings Africa, and opened its headquarters this year. "The launch of AfSAE is one of the many ground-breaking and innovative developments," she says, adding that "encouraging meetings to be held and rotated across our own continent … really is about collaborative partnerships that serve to benefit our African economy. The more important and often immeasurable aspect of hosting a meeting or conference is the impact of the knowledge transferred and solutions shared."

Richard Gray
, LGBTQ managing director of the Greater Fort Lauderdale Convention and Visitors Bureau (GFLCVB); vice chair of the International Gay and Lesbian Travel Association (IGLTA)

After a career in investment banking and a second career as a hotelier, Richard Gray joined the GFLCVB, which goes by "Visit Sunny," in 2012, becoming the first full-time CVB sales and marketing executive whose sole responsibility is the LGBT market. It was a good fit for the man who helped created Visit Sunny's first-in-the-U.S. LGBT marketing initiative in 1996, subsequently becoming the CVB's volunteer LGBT liaison and helping build this segment of its business. 

Gray's budget, which started at $35,000 two decades ago, now exceeds $1 million, and helps attract some 1.3 million LGBT travelers, who spend approximately $1.5 billion in the area -- including, last year the 1,000 attendees at the 25th Southern Comfort Conference, one of the largest transgender conferences in the country.   

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This article appears in the July 2016 issue of Successful Meetings.