And the CSM of the Year Award Goes to ...

They're lifesavers. They're meeting experts. They're mentors. They're you're best friend on-site. They're convention services managers. And here are the best for 2010.

Who could forget the MTV Video Music Awards in September, where Kanye West stormed the stage as Taylor Swift was honored for Best Female Video? He cut the singer off, grabbed the mic, and protested in support of Beyonce.

Fortunately, there was no such drama during this year's 32nd Annual Convention Services Manager (CSM) of the Year Award ceremony as the winners were honored in a dignified manner. Sponsored by Successful Meetings, in conjunction with the Association for Convention Operations Management (ACOM), the awards honor a top CSM at a hotel, convention and visitors bureau (CVB), and convention center each year.

These award winners have demonstrated to the most demanding critics in the business—meeting planners—their ability to provide the highest level of service. They were honored during an awards luncheon at ACOM's 2010 Annual Conference January 8-10 at the Westin City Center in Dallas.

CONVENTION CENTER

Kimberly Kreml, CMP, manager of conference services and facility marketing, University Center of Lake County

Kimberly Kreml, manager of conference services and facility marketing, has broad meeting planning and hospitality industry experience spanning more than 17 years, working on both the planner and supplier sides of the business.

She began her career at a software firm that hosted user seminars and training events and participated heavily in domestic and international trade shows.

"My beginnings in the planning world started there," says Kreml. "Satis-faction came from seeing an event run flawlessly and without incident and sending attendees home with knowledge and a feeling of money well spent."

She has spent the last 11 years on the supplier side, a position the planning side prepared her for.

"You need to first take a group of 300 people into a hotel or conference center to know what the expectations are of the planner and meeting attendees," explains Kreml. "My conference center is my home. Before my guests, who are meeting attendees, arrive, I need to make sure the facility is in order, clean, with the food plentiful and good. Things you would do when you invite people to your home. Only my home has 39 rooms in it."

And what a hostess she is. "Kim greets me and my students at the front door every morning at 6:45 a.m., regardless of rain or snow," says Les Perry, manager of field training for Snap-on Inc. "Whether it is 60 degrees or 5 below zero, Kim is at the front door with a smile on her face. After a long week, she even stays on Friday nights until 9:00 p.m. to supervise my Iron Chef events just to make sure everything is right."

Kreml also goes off-site to visit new restaurants and makes recommendations to her clients to ensure their experience is first class. "All I have to do is suggest that I might want to do something and here comes Kim 30 minutes later with everything I need to know about the venue," adds Perry.

Mary Speer, event planner for West Lafayette, IN-based Purdue University, tries to plan for every emergency, but when one of her speakers called her at the very last minute to explain that he wouldn't be able to travel to the meeting, she didn't know what to do. Thankfully, Kreml was able to offer a solution: set up a teleconferencing link that would enable the speaker to address the audience electronically.

"I have never received this kind of service anywhere else," says Speer. "It is always done with a smile and 'can do' attitude. And Kimberly is able to push this great customer service down to the entire conference staff."

Speer also applauds Kreml's ability to address all issues, large and small. At one meal function, an attendee made the staff aware of a severe food allergy at the very last minute. Kreml created an option that accommodated the attendee's needs.

"Kimberly also followed up with me to determine future dates the student would be in class so that the catering staff could better plan for the student's diet," Speer says.

Sharon Lucius, managing partner at Hingham, MA-based McBride & Lucius, recently had an event at the Center that was fraught with last-minute logistical snafus. When Lucius arrived at the facility the evening before her event to set up, she found another group still using the meeting space that should have been available to her for setup purposes.

"Kim had already gone home for the day, but she worked out the problem over the phone so I could gain access to my space and do what needed to be done," says Lucius.

But Kreml wasn't done for the night. Materials crucial for the next day's meeting had yet to arrive at the center. Kreml tracked them down, and when the materials arrived after the event was underway she hand-delivered them to Lucius.

"She helped me unload and took care of other outstanding issues so I could focus on facilitation," says Lucius. "I love working with her and her facility and will continue to do so as often as possible."

This isn't the first award bestowed upon Kreml; she was also recognized by the Lake County Chamber of Commerce for a women's networking group she co-chaired that raised money for A Safe Place, a local shelter for abused women.

HOTEL

Robin Wilczynski, senior events manager, Hilton Tucson El Conquistador Golf & Tennis Resort

Senior Events Manager Robin Wilczynski truly enjoys being on staff at the Hilton Tucson El Conquistador Golf & Tennis Resort. Not only does she work in the foothills of the breathtaking Santa Catalina Mountains on 500 acres of high Sonoran Desert terrain, but she is surrounded by amazing team members.

"They make a positive difference every day," she says.

And according to planners she has worked with at the Hilton Tucson El Conquistador Golf & Tennis Resort over the past five years, Wilczynski also makes a positive difference every day.

Tressa Patrias, continuing education manager for St, Paul, MN-based American Society of Brewing Chemists (ASBC), had a very personal problem involving the opening day of the organization's annual meeting, at the El Conquistador—it fell on the same day as her daughter's high school graduation. But Patrias had enough confidence in her CSM to let Wilczynski run the show while she attended the ceremony.

"To feel confident on opening day, despite being hundreds of miles away, is a true testament to Robin and her staff. I can honestly say that I sat through my daughter's graduation in Minnesota thinking only about her graduation," says Patrias.

Her other problem was much more common. Like many organizations, ASBC faced a difficult challenge in generating attendance in 2009.

"The attendance for our meeting was a lot lower than what we anticipated and contracted for," says Patrias. "We were extremely concerned about costs and, of course, service given our numbers. Robin's guidance and input allowed us to keep to our budget, and her positive attitude about our group was contagious to the rest of the staff."

When Ashleigh Thompson, deputy director for the office of the University Dean for Health and Human Services for the City University of New York, visited the property, her group presented a few additional challenges. Most planners only have to worry about making arrangements to accommodate a handful of special needs attendees, but Thompson plans a large annual disabilities studies conference in which almost all the attendees have special needs. She constantly has to ensure things like only unscented soap in the hotel's public restrooms; mechanized lifts in the swimming pool; areas for service animals to relieve themselves; registration reconfigured to a better height for wheelchairs; Braille menus for on-site restaurants.

"I worked with Robin closely in the months before the conference, and even from 2,000 miles away, she creatively brainstormed with me about how to make each aspect of our five-day meeting possible," says Thompson. "Her impressive organizational and personal skills helped keep our team on track, and also minimized the stress that running a complex event often generates."

The demand for accessible guest rooms exceeded supply, and Wilczynski even worked with other hotels in the area to make sure all the conference attendees were able to stay in rooms that met their needs.

"Robin was as gracious, competent, friendly, and helpful as anyone I have ever met in my years planning events," says Thompson. "She set the tone for her colleagues' gracious response to us, and all of our requests were acknowledged. She was the first person we saw in the morning and, often, the last we saw at night."

CVB

Susan Schwint, director of convention and visitor services, Visit Charlotte

Susan Schwint started with the Charlotte Convention and Visitors Bureau, now known as Visit Charlotte, when it was founded in 1984.

"Since I was the first person to hold the job of convention services director at Visit Charlotte, I had the opportunity to develop the job as I went along. First, I learned to listen carefully to the needs of the planner and adapt our services specifically to those particular needs," explains Schwint. "Second, we ensure that each individual attendee has all the materials he or she needs to enjoy the city. With the help of our marketing department, we've developed special maps, dining guides, and information on attractions and transportation for the convention visitor to use. Over the years, the Internet has made this job easier. I've also learned to be available. I always give out my personal phone numbers and am ready to respond to any last-minute requests."

Some of those requests have been quite unusual. She has picked up communion bread from a local bakery for 8,000 Mennonites and has found a cow—not just any cow, but a camera-ready cow—for an exhibitor who forgot he had advertised to have pictures taken with the four-legged animal.

Twenty-five years later, she has been named CVB CSM of the Year and she is thrilled. So are the clients she works with.

Take Jeanne Sleeper, CEO of Irvine, CA-based JBS & Associates, who had a large association client planning a show that was to take over the entire Charlotte Convention Center. Eight months out, the client had a financial setback that put the show in jeopardy.

"Susan calmly listened to the story and responded: 'What can our city and bureau do to help?' It was not just lip service," says Sleeper. "The CVB, the convention center, and local vendors bent rules, helped us find work-arounds, and gave the show marketing support that made it possible for the association to move forward and have a great show in Charlotte. Susan's commitment to the group, her reputation in the city, her incredible knowledge and 'never say die' attitude were major factors in the positive outcome that the city, the center, and the association experienced when the show was held in Charlotte."

The Arlington, VA-based National Rifle Association (NRA) has a unique problem for its upcoming annual meeting in Charlotte this year. The city is a perfect fit except for one thing—there isn't a venue large enough for the traditional banquet.

"This is the social event of the meeting," says the event's planner, Jacqueline Mongold, assistant NRA secretary.

Schwint suggested the NRA hold multiple banquets and receptions at various venues throughout the city, then bring everyone together for the keynote speaker, entertainment, and dessert and coffee.

"She then went about ensuring we could secure the Time Warner Cable Arena for our banquet keynote speaker and entertainment portion," says Mongold—no easy feat because the NBA is anticipating the possibility of the Charlotte Hornets making the playoffs, which could be during the annual meeting time frame.

"Susan is very responsive; she willingly and enthusiastically shares her knowledge of her city and its citizens and facilities and doesn't hesitate to steer me in a better direction if she sees me heading down the wrong road," says Mongold. "She has a great understanding of our event and our members and always takes those two pieces into consideration before making a recommendation."

Schwint says that this NRA meeting was held in Phoenix last year and attendance topped 64,000. They anticipate even higher numbers in Charlotte.

"Because we service managers tend to work in the future, helping groups plan as much as two years out, it is hard to even think about a retirement date. By the time the current group you are working with comes along, there's another one waiting in the wings. I do hope to stay with Visit Charlotte as long as they'll have me and then, perhaps, share my experience with students at one of the local university's hospitality programs," says Schwint. "My husband and I recently learned to fly fish, so maybe I'll actually have a chance to spend some time in our lovely North Carolina mountains, trying to catch one of those elusive trout."

Ask any of the organizations these convention services managers work for and they'll tell you they will not easily let these three slip away.

Originally published Feb. 1, 2010

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