Top Young Professionals

In celebration of young government meeting talent, SGMP set out on a search for the Top Young Professionals in the government meetings industry. The program recognizes individuals under 40 (at time of nomination) with proven leadership skills and a dedication to the betterment and sustainability of SGMP. 

Members were nominated by their peers and honorees were selected by a panel of industry professionals. Congratulations to the Top Young Professionals for 2022-2023! These honorees will also be recognized at the SGMP State of Society at NEC in Pittsburgh on June 16, 2022.

Read on to learn about their stories of accomplishments within the government meetings industry.
 
Nikki Fisher | Sarah Goodell | Kiel Miller | Christine Pribbernow | Danielle Rivenbark | Joel Smith | Randi Talmage | Theresa Thomas | LeAnna Toups Bennett | Wendy Whitaker | Stephanie Wohlfert

Nikki Fisher - St. Cloud Convention & Vistors Bureau (Northern Lights Chapter)
 Who/What influenced you to become involved in the government meeting industry?
After moving into the sales manager role at Visit Greater St. Cloud, the SMERF market was one assigned to me, which included the government sector. I was thrilled to continue with our SGMP membership and attend all the Northern Lights monthly meetings I could. I was not very familiar with how government meetings worked and how the planning process occurred. SGMP has literally taught me everything I know. Our state chapter has amazing content and the conversations I am able to have with both planners and suppliers has been so valuable. It's exciting to work with such dynamic individuals.
 
Share an accomplishment that you are very proud of …OR…Share your most unique experience as a meeting professional. 
My most unique experience would have to be when I was presented a military “challenge coin” from Dr. James Tourila, MN State Surgeon with the VFW. What began as a supplier-planner relationship turned into a lifelong friendship. What I’ve learned is that I’ve been given a beautiful opportunity to become friends with so many different people that I normally wouldn’t have had the chance to meet. I come from a military family and receiving this token of comradely from someone so high ranking at a state military level, reaffirms that being kind and showing empathy can impact everyone you meet.
 
How would you prepare for the future success of the government meeting industry?
A Quote by Brenda Eckler says “When one door closes another door opens, but we often look so long and so regretfully upon the closed door that we do not see the one which has opened for us.” While the hospitality industry suffered tremendously during the pandemic, there was a lot of learning that took place. From hosting virtual events to hybrid, all that we've learned is going to be of huge assistance moving forward as the industry rebounds. I want to advocate how best to work with suppliers to get their needs met, while also supporting the local economy.
 
Sarah Goodell, CGMP - Insight (Arizona Chapter)
Who/What influenced you to become involved in the government meeting industry?
I had been involved in the planning industry for over a decade but had never experienced the government side. I thought that it would be a challenge and a place to make a difference.
 
Share an accomplishment that you are very proud of …OR…Share your most unique experience as a meeting professional.  
I am proud to hold the CGMP designation and achieved that within my first year of membership in SGMP. It is a great conversation started with individuals who email me and ask what the credential means, and it is a way that I can shine light on the importance of our industry. 
 
How would you prepare for the future success of the government meeting industry?
I think the best way to prepare is to continue to equip and educate myself as to the ever-evolving practices, technology etc. of the meetings and events industry. I think being willing to be flexible and open to ideas and strategies is a critical component to ensure the success of our industry. 
 
Kiel Miller - Stoney Creek Hotel & Convention Center (Oklahoma Chapter)
 Who/What influenced you to become involved in the government meeting industry?
My coworker Piper Wofford helped me start my journey with the government meeting industry when I first started in sales at Holiday Inn Tulsa City Center. I began handling contracts for University of Oklahoma, and SGMP contacts helped me better understand how billing and competitive bids work with the state government. The more complex nature of government meetings posed an interesting challenge to me, and I felt I had a chance to be among the best in the hotel industry with the education that SGMP provides.
 
Share an accomplishment that you are very proud of …OR…Share your most unique experience as a meeting professional.  
I am very proud to have contracted another year of state government training meetings after starting at my current hotel 6 months ago. Stoney Creek Hotel Broken Arrow has many more square feet of meeting space than my last property, and my knowledge of government meeting bids that I learned through SGMP helped me land a deal for meetings almost every weekday. I am also very proud of the efforts our hotel staff make to keep the meetings running smoothly.
 
How would you prepare for the future success of the government meeting industry?
Our preparations need to include more education about the simulcast technology that exists for hybrid meetings. I am receiving a few leads each month that mention hybrid meeting technology. Knowing how to procure this technology for a hotel would also be helpful to prepare for the future success of our industry.
 
Christine Pribbernow, CGMP - Minnesota Department of Employment & Economic Development (Northern Lights Chapter)
 Who/What influenced you to become involved in the government meeting industry?
Like many event planners, I didn’t seek an education for this field initially. My professional experience prior to this job prepared me well for the contracts side of events but I needed education with best practices for on-site. The most influential person in my event journey is Jenn Beninga, former colleague, and past president of the Northern Lights Chapter. Jenn reflects the positivity and professionalism that I strive to emulate. I am eternally grateful that she continues shares her knowledge, connected me to SGMP, and is active within the Northern Lights chapter.
 
Share an accomplishment that you are very proud of …OR…Share your most unique experience as a meeting professional.  
As a government planner for the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development, my position hosts a wide array of events ranging from trade shows, to international events, to career fairs, to internal meetings and public events as required by the department. I’ve been able to see every corner of the state as well as across the globe how our agency works improve the lives of Minnesotans and for the promotion of our exports around the world.
 
How would you prepare for the future success of the government meeting industry?
The future success of government meetings can be driven by the education and resources available through SGMP. The connections, networking, and current trends of government meetings best prepare government planners and suppliers with the ever-changing trends and challenges. We must continue outreach throughout the United States so that access to SGMP and its resources are available for all in the government meeting industry.
 
Danielle Rivenbark - North Carolina Department of Public Instruction (North Carolina Chapter)
 Who/What influenced you to become involved in the government meeting industry?
I fell into the government meeting industry when I took a job at the UNC School of Government. I had no idea that there was a professional organization dedicated solely to this profession. I immediately saw the great things the chapter was doing and thought I could definitely lend my leadership skills to this group.
 
Share an accomplishment that you are very proud of …OR…Share your most unique experience as a meeting professional.  
Like so many meeting professionals, I was preparing for a 2,000+ person conference for teachers in summer 2020. I managed to make a change to virtual in a matter of 2 months and more than doubled the attendance for the conference.
 
How would you prepare for the future success of the government meeting industry?
I plan to be flexible, creative, and open to learning. I'm always interested in improving my event execution, but always know there will be something that I didn't plan for. I also know that being creative allows me to think differently about events, especially when it comes to budget restrictions. Finally, I plan to keep learning about the latest new tools that can improve the attendee experience.
 
Joel Smith - Wilmington and Beaches Convention and Visitors Bureau (North Carolina Chapter)
 Who/What influenced you to become involved in the government meeting industry?
I became interested in the meetings industry while getting my Master’s Degree at NC State, in Sports, Recreation and Tourism management. My education truly sparked my interest in this field and began my journey to where I am.
 
Share an accomplishment that you are very proud of …OR…Share your most unique experience as a meeting professional.  
More recently, I was awarded "Supplier of the Year," from NCSGMP.
 
How would you prepare for the future success of the government meeting industry?
Continued involvement in SGMP. Being part of SGMP has assisted me with having a pulse on where the industry is and where it is going.
  
Randi Talmage - AHC Hospitality (Michigan Chapter)
 Who/What influenced you to become involved in the government meeting industry?
Very early in my career I became determined to learn from the professionals surrounding me and joined my colleagues at an SGMP Michigan chapter meeting as a guest. I was immediately welcomed into the SGMP family, and I knew the moment I walked in, I found my people. I feel valued in the group for my knowledge, willingly contribute at every opportunity based on my hospitality experience, and I take advantage of the education provided through SGMP to further my professional development.
 
Share an accomplishment that you are very proud of …OR…Share your most unique experience as a meeting professional.  
I am incredibly proud of where I am, how far I have come and all that I have achieved. I am proud of the balance I have established in juggling the things that are the most important to me; being a mom to amazing 1st and 3rd graders, coaching my son’s robotics league, managing my children’s needs, my career, and my involvement in SGMP.  I am proud that, as Second Vice President, I have not one, but many personal and professional accomplishments that I am immensely proud of that have helped me advance in all areas of my life.  
 
How would you prepare for the future success of the government meeting industry?
 I’ve learned recently that I can’t prepare for what the future holds; all I can do is equip myself to move forward to the best of my ability.  This has, sometimes, meant leaning on others. SGMP has provided me opportunities to lean on others, and to support others. Being a member of SGMP reassures me that I am not alone, that others are facing the same struggles. It provides a platform to share best practices, build a support network and help me with industry challenges. Involvement in SGMP equips me to face the future of the government meeting industry.
 
LeAnna Toups Bennett, CGMP - Louisiana Economic Development (Louisiana Chapter)
 Who/What influenced you to become involved in the government meeting industry?
My husband has worked for the State of Louisiana for the last 20+ years. Six years ago, when I was looking to make a change, he encouraged me to consider state employment for the stability. Government meetings began as an “all other duties as assigned” portion of my work. When my team realized it was an area I excelled in, a quick pivot made meeting planning the driving component of my work. I enjoy the unique challenges government meeting planners get to solve for on impossible budgets, often under stringent requirements. It makes every day different.
 
Share an accomplishment that you are very proud of …OR…Share your most unique experience as a meeting professional.  
In 2020 when the stay-at-home order was implemented, I pivoted the planning of the in-person three-day Teacher Leader Summit to a virtual delivery spread across two weeks. This is a conference I had worked on for 8 months prior to the order. When so many things were being cancelled, the importance of professional development for the educators in our state made me determined to see the event through. Over 8,000 educators attended the 2020 Teacher Leader Summit - The Virtual Series. I leaned on my SGMP contacts to make it all possible and contracted with another member. 
 
How would you prepare for the future success of the government meeting industry?
Thinking about our industry and where it is going, I have two big focuses in 2022. The first is participating in all the learning events and trainings I can. The only way to get better is to constantly keep pushing yourself to level-up. My second focus is to find my digital voice (social media presence and blogging) and actively begin promoting and advocating for government meeting planners. We have so many unique challenges and considerations most industry professionals are not aware of. Because of this, we bring a unique lens to the table.
 
Theresa Thomas - Drury Hotels (Texas Lone Star Chapter)
 
Who/What influenced you to become involved in the government meeting industry?
I was given the opportunity to relocate to Austin with my company to focus solely on the government market. Little did I know how much it would truly change my perspective on the hospitality industry. Stepping into this role, I was able to learn more on a new market and how unique and truly special the government meeting industry is and how important it is for our hotels regardless of the brand. Government business truly keeps our hotels alive.
 
Share an accomplishment that you are very proud of …OR…Share your most unique experience as a meeting professional.
I am most proud of completing my Graduate program (Masters of Education) in May of 2020. My intention with going back to school was to obtain a degree that I could spread awareness of the hospitality world and how wide the scope is with options for us to grow and learn. This Masters will allow me to teach college hospitality students all about the options we have available including the opportunity to work the Government market, my favorite yet during my almost 15-year career journey.
 
How would you prepare for the future success of the government meeting industry?
Learning and adapting with clear communication. If we have learned one thing over the past year in our industry, it is to adapt to any situation we are given. We can all grow together and succeed if we have clear communication on our expectations. Which means communicating to the fullest on both sides. We know times have changed for our industries, but we can still be successful and pull off amazing events in person, virtually or hybrid. If we just stand together.
 
Wendy Whitaker, CGMP - Wyndham Orlando Resort (National Captiol Chapter and Central Florida Chapter)
 Who/What influenced you to become involved in the government meeting industry?
My prior Associate Director of Sales, Frankie Stua. When my position became available within our team, Frankie was the one who encouraged me. She felt my meticulous nature and attention to detail would prove to be an asset when working government planners. She also believed that the relationships I held with my clients at the time would prove invaluable with the new relationships I would encounter my role. I am grateful for Frankie’s belief in me and her support as I initially made my way into the Society and navigated my way in to learning the nuances of government planning.
 
Share an accomplishment that you are very proud of …OR…Share your most unique experience as a meeting professional.  
I’m proud of every program I’ve supported: DVA programs teaching nurses and doctors learn the best care for our country’s veterans, United States Air Force bringing together contractors to share best practices, Department of Treasury and the delegates from 200 nations working on international policymaking on financial terrorism and the Florida National Guard with their ongoing training support.
 
My most unique experience was with the United States Special Operations Command by hosting the Warrior Care Program (Care Coalition) Conference in 2019. An event in which active and veteran service men and women to participate in series of adaptive sports events.
 
How would you prepare for the future success of the government meeting industry?
Wendy has shared her love to learn and share with others. The unique group of professionals within SGMP has been vital to the accomplishments of Wendy's career and it is her deepest desire to support the Society as the landscape of meetings evolves and we evolve along with it. Success doesn’t lay with one person but the whole of our efforts. Therefore, Wendy has committed to be with SGMP in any role which aides in the development of our professionals. The future success of SGMP is the future success of the government meetings industry.
 
Stephanie Wohlfert - Greater Lansing COnvention and Vistors Bureau (Michigan Chapter)
 Who/What influenced you to become involved in the government meeting industry?
 I have been a SGMP member the past 15 years in three different states. I originally joined SGMP because I was working in the hotel industry, in the government market. I am currently working for a Convention and Visitors Bureau (CVB). In my role with the CVB, I have the privilege of working with government meeting planners, association planners, and supplier to help promote our locations, our community, and 'both sides' of the meeting industry. I maintain my membership in SGMP because it provides me with incredible networking opportunities and outstanding education sessions which enhance my professional development and leadership skills.
 
Share an accomplishment that you are very proud of …OR…Share your most unique experience as a meeting professional.  
This past year I earned a Diversity, Equity and Inclusion in the Workplace Certificate through University of South Florida. I'm very passionate about DEI and specifically bringing what I learned through the course to my community in Lansing, Michigan. As a result of acquiring this education, I am on the Greater Lansing Convention and Visitors Bureau's DEI Task Force. The Task Force is actively engaged in incorporating the concepts and practices of DEI into the many ways we attract, welcome and interact with visitors, meeting professionals, and meeting attendees. 
 
How would you prepare for the future success of the government meeting industry?
The return to in-person government meetings has been extremely slow and limited in Michigan. My involvement with SGMP helps me maintain authentic relationships with meeting and other industry professionals. I believe we will, soon, see an increase in in-person meetings. It is apparent that attendees are looking forward to returning to in-person meetings and planners are eager to plan and hold in-person meetings again versus virtual/hybrid meetings. When that time comes, I am prepared to present planners with the accurate, complete information about my community to inform decisions, and to help planners provide meetings for organizations and attendees at the highest level.