The 30th Annual Convention Services Manager of the Year Award

It's awards season. But forget the Grammys, Golden Globes, and Oscars—our favorite is the Convention Services Manager (CSM) of the Year, where those seemingly ubiquitous, 24/7 pros at hotels, CVBs, and convention centers finally get their well-earned kudos from the folks at the Association of Convention Operations Management (ACOM) in conjunction with Successful Meetings. Here are the top CSMs for 2007

Convention Centers
Shawn-Ta Wilson, CMP
Tampa Convention Center, Tampa, FL

Shawn-Ta Wilson may well owe her award this year to the trait planners seek most in their convention services manager: dependability. After graduating from Radford University in her home state of Virginia, Wilson offered to go with a friend on an appointment with an executive search firm. While there, the firm met Wilson as well and coaxed her into an interview for herself. "They sent me to meet with a show management company and, almost by chance, I got my first job in the industry," she says.

Over the next five years, Wilson immersed herself in the trade show world, got engaged, and moved to Florida for her husband's career. In the process she landed at the Tampa Convention Center and has since been making life much easier for planners who book their events at the center. "She's a 'straight-shooter' who gives honest and clear answers," says Barbara Hill, president of Barbara Hill Events in Alpharetta, GA. "I always feel I'll get the best that I can get with Shawn-Ta. She balances the needs of the clients but operates within the center's standards."

Hill's last point particularly resonates with Wilson. "After being the client for almost five years I thought it would be nice to go into the facility side," she says. "The funny thing is, I still feel my show management roots. I find myself looking at things from their perspective."

For example, Wilson uses her client's spec sheets as a jumping off point for good service. "Maybe they have a guest with a disability who needs special parking, and if that's the case, I should also be thinking ahead," she says. "Do they may need a ramp for the stage as well? I need to look not just at what they've handed me for specs, but what they haven't asked for."

That attention to detail impressed Kathy Driggers, the meeting planner and office manager with the Cam Tech School of Construction in Lutz, FL. "Shawn-Ta anticipated our parking needs on a weekend where there was a huge boat show at the convention center," she says. "She mailed parking passes weeks ahead of time, which made us feel as if we were just as important as the boat event."

Brandy White
Hilton El Conquistador Golf & Tennis Resort, Tucson, AZ

Ask Brandy White about why she loves her job, and you'll need a few minutes to hear her enthusiastic reasons. For starters, she says, "I get to help groups fulfill their needs." To wit, during the Land Title Association of Arizona's recent convention in Tucson, "Brandy suggested we move our breaks into the room where the exhibitors were, which gave them more exposure and opportunities to network," says Anna Kane, the group's vice president. "She was always available and checking to see that things were running smoothly."

Then there's the variety of the job. "I get to work with all kinds of different people—it's a little bit different every time out," she says. "It's exciting when the contract comes over and I get to speak with the planners for the first time, and get their vision of what the meeting means to their company."

Of course, that meaning is at least partly defined by the bottom line, presenting yet another challenge that White rises to regularly. "She was extremely sensitive to my cost-conscious group and went out of her way to see that we maximized every dollar spent," says Mickey Wright, president of Meeting Management Unlimited in Portsmouth, VA. For example, White first secured a handicap-access, ramped riser for Wright's group, then, noting the ramp lack of aesthetics, had the hotel staff re-paint it for a fresh, new look. "She then took it upon herself to negotiate a rate half of what was originally quoted on our behalf," adds Wright.

How about extra effort? "Brandy arranged for an outside music company to bring in a piano for our event at an exceptional rate," says Debra C. Brill, vice president for ministries at the North American Division of Seventh-Day Adventists. "Brandy was pregnant, and she looked like she was near term, but she worked like a trouper for our event." And when it comes to promoting Tucson, White speaks from personal experience when educating visitors about why they should come early and stay late. "We're located right next to the Push Ridge Mountains, and Sabino Canyon and Catalina State Park are nearby," she says. "So there's a lot to do here, like hiking, mountain biking, golf, and tennis."

Theresa Sellers
Rockford Area Convention & Visitors Bureau, Rockford, IL

Part of being a great CSM is the ability to wear a lot of different hats. That's why Theresa Sellers didn't hesitate to don a cowboy's Stetson and become wrangler for a herd of Ayrshire cows when the situation arose. "We had a national convention of this one particular breed of cow, and lots of people brought in their families and, of course, their cows," says Sellers. "We had entertainment, educational sessions, and a cow competition of sorts, and they're all coming back here in a couple of years."

When they do, they'd be fortunate to have Sellers once again at their service. Born and raised in Rockford, she honed her people skills from an early age by helping out with her families turf grass business. "I worked not only selling the grass but serving the needs of the customers," she says. Thus, transitioning from sales into convention services, where she's been for the past three years, seemed like a natural fit. "I didn't have to learn anything new except recommending some of my favorite places and taking care of slightly different kind of customers," she says.

Clearly Seller's has learned her new trade well. "Her service on site was amazingly exceptional," says Terese Houle, manager of events for the Association of Floriculture Professionals, a Columbus, OH-based group that recently held its annual America in Bloom symposium in Rockford. "Theresa was our CSM representative for the city and exceeded our expectations," says Houle. "Since we were not local, we relied on her insight and relationships with the local community to help us complete the details." Sellers went beyond her usual duties, though, and remained with Houle and company at the on-site hotel for the entire event. "She was our troubleshooter with everything, from being our liaison with the local planning committee to working the registration desk because a volunteer did not show up," says Houle.

Still, Sellers can always find room for improvement. "I didn't pay as much attention to the cows as I'd wanted," she says. "But I can honestly say that they were a wonderful bunch of bovines and I was honored to work with them." No doubt the cows are looking forward to their return to Rockford as well.

Originally published March 01, 2008

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