Fair ladies who rule with heart and an iron fist? Asia-Pacific’s business events industry is full of them. TTGmice profiles some of them
Adelina Ye, senior director, sales and distribution – East China, Hangzhou, Suzhou, Macau & South East China, Marriott International
The British and American literature graduate could have become a university lecturer after graduation. Instead, Adelina Ye picked the front office job she was offered, fell in love with the industry, fulfilled her passion to discover the world and learnt four foreign languages along the way.
She has worked in the hospitality industry for 20-plus years developing strategies to penetrate key international and regional business events markets for hotels in strategic destinations like Shanghai, Beijing, Tianjin and Sanya.
Due to the dynamic business environment of business events, Ye is constantly challenging herself to innovate and learn from others. “It is not easy to always (be) inspired. Persistence and passion for what I love to do helped me to move up. I always set the bar high and always challenged myself and my team for greater results,” she said.
With the rapid rise of new hotel openings and growth of business events in Asia-Pacific, Ye sees a lot more career opportunities for women today and regards encouraging women to undertake decision-making roles as being critical.
She opined that women in the business tend to be less assertive and some are reluctant to take on leadership roles. “With the increasing number of senior female executives across the region, women will benefit more than ever from guidance and female empowerment programmes (such as Marriott’s Women in Leadership).
“This programme’s mentors are of the highest calibre and comprise senior executives such as Marriott International’s continental, regional and area leaders as well as general managers,” Ye pointed out.
Alicia Yao, managing director, IME Consulting, China
Recognised as one of China’s most respected meetings industry executives, Alicia Yao continues to raise China’s business events profile in the many elected and invited roles she plays in government and private sector industry bodies.
Besides running the company she set up after leaving CITS International MICE, where she was vice president, Yao sits on the China MICE Committee, is a SITE International board member, the IAPCO Education representative in China, regional vice president of ICESAP, and is an active member of MPI, ICCA and PCMA.
In 1983, the English literature graduate was assigned by the government to be an English-speaking guide in CITS.
Yao went on to lead many meeting and incentive programme site inspections and introduced ideas such as dinner on the Great Wall of China, the Great Hall of the People and in the Forbidden City, and cocktails on the Tiananmen Rostrum.
“With business events, there were more opportunities for women to move up the ladder and contribute to China’ economic development,” she said.
The professional standing of women will improve, she believes, if their influence is created and spread in well-known global communities, adding that leaders need to listen, make room for trial and error and encourage others to participate in decision-making.
Amelia Roziman, chief operating officer, Sarawak Convention Bureau
Amelia Roziman grew up in a small village community on the outskirts of Kuching, Sarawak in Malaysia, and regards her career as “an incredible adventure”.
She started out as a graphic designer in San Francisco, in the US, and upon her return to Kuching immersed herself in event management. She then joined the Sarawak Convention Bureau as one of the pioneering team members, first as a sales coordinator, then a bids manager and a destination marketing role.
“Now, I am taking on the bureau’s overall development strategies and championing operational excellence as COO. I have been fortunate to be exposed to so many different roles in the bureau and I believe this has led me to where I am today,” she said.
She regards success as being “synonymous with the drive to learn” and urged the “freshmen of the industry” to be courageous in their pursuit of passion and to never underestimate their talent and the impact they can bring to the society.
For women in business events, she hopes they will be more vocal and not be afraid of executing their ideas.
Anitha Niranjan, managing director, CIM Global India
Having worked in hospitality sector all her life, moving into business events was a natural progression for Anitha Niranjan, managing director, CIM Global.
According to her, strong client relationship has been the key to her success in the association events sector while commitment, confidence and transparency are factors that got her and her team this far.
She finds ample career opportunities for women in business events.
“Women have been in this business for a long time and I see many more are in the industry today. This business is suitable for women and I encourage more to come forward and choose this career and be certified as meeting planners,” she concluded.
For Ho Yoke Ping, having a career in the travel and business events industry has always been her biggest desire. She started off in 2001 with Pacific World Travel, a company with business in destination marketing, airlines and cruises.
“That was how I ventured into marketing. Eight years on, there was an opening in Malaysia Convention & Exhibition Bureau (MyCEB) and I took up the challenge. MyCEB was just being established. I have always enjoyed being part of a new start-up,” Ho said.
She found that the first few years with MyCEB were the steepest learning curve, but they provided her with valuable personal and professional growth.
She does not think that career opportunities for women today are any different from when she first joined the industry.
“To me, this industry is all about passion and perseverance.”
Ho believes that good leadership is not about being right or wrong, but about being able to shape the solution according to the task on hand and the people involved.
Janet McNab, managing director, Sheraton Grand Macao Hotel Cotai Central and The St Regis Macao Cotai Central
As managing director of the largest Sheraton and St Regis in the world, Janet McNab has to fill 4,400 rooms daily, 15,500m2 of meeting space and hundreds of staff. Guess who she turns to for help? A team of general managers – all women except one.
It isn’t deliberate, and McNab herself strongly believes that either a man or a woman can achieve whatever they want in their career if they put in the effort.
“Rising to the top involves hard work,” said McNab, who rose to her current position after 25 years with Starwood Hotels & Resorts, starting as director of sales & marketing at Sheraton Brisbane Hotel & Towers.
“I am driven, passionate and like to take risks. I don’t believe males and females should be treated differently when aspiring to get to the next level. Ultimately, it is up to you and your own ambition to achieve whatever you want in your career. I believe I have been given an equal chance alongside my colleagues to grow in my hospitality career, and I have chosen to make the most of this opportunity,” said McNab.
“In my role as a leader, I devote time to mentoring and encourage potential women leaders on my team to be confident and make sure their voices are heard at the table,” she said.
Karen Bolinger, CEO, Melbourne Convention Bureau
While Karen Bolinger’s career has always been within hospitality and tourism, her move to business events came in 2000 when she commenced her role as general manager of marketing for the Sydney Convention and Visitors Bureau (now Business Events Sydney).
Bolinger has led Melbourne Convention Bureau for seven years and cites leading her team through the move to under the Visit Victoria umbrella while delivering a fifth consecutive year of growth as one of her top achievements.
Recently appointed the president of the Australian Association of Convention Bureaux, Bolinger said that while there are many women in the business, there is an opportunity for greater diversification across stereotypically male roles.
“Around Australia there are very few female general managers of convention centres, more male chefs than female chefs, and more men in finance roles.”
She also sees developing all staff to become leaders, not just women, as crucial to the success of the industry.
As a leader, she encourages her staff to think differently and err away from the norm.
Kitty Wong, president, K & A International Co
Starting out as a casino marketing manager, Kitty Wong stumbled upon conference organisation by accident – when her gynaecologist asked if she could help him organise an OB/GYN congress in 1991.
In 1995 Wong and her sister were requested by Taiwan Visitor Association to organise Taipei ITF tradeshow. In response, K&A – which stands for Kitty and Angela – was founded and began operating locally.
A woman pioneer in the PCO field of the early 90s, Wong recalls several hurdles in the then-male-dominated landscape. She shared: “They only wanted to negotiate with a ‘gentleman’. Sometimes they would say to me, ‘go back and ask your boss, I’m sure he’ll agree with me!’”
At the turn of the millennium, however, more women flocked the playing field and Wong continued to build up K&A’s global connections.
“I spend many hours in the Taiwan Exhibition and Convention Association (TECA) promoting Taiwan and staying friends with our colleagues in the region.
“Now, the business events industry is dominated by women,” she quipped.
Besides K&A, Wong also holds the vice-president and immediate past president seats in TECA and World PCO Alliance respectively.
Liu Ping, founder, China Star Group
The author of My Chinese Dream – From Red Guard to CEO was sent to work in a phosphate mine at 15 and her first job after graduating as an English major was teaching middle school in a south-western Chinese village.
When China started its economic reform in the early-1980s, Liu Ping got a job as an interpreter in the Ministry of Chemical Industry.
“I joined the travel industry in 1992 so that I could get a stable job in the biggest travel company in China and a Beijing hukou (registered permanent residence). I did not know the industry and did not like it either, but later realised that I was so suitable because of my caring and passionate personality,” she said.
Liu was unfazed by corruption, bureaucracy and jealousy or being ridiculed for her naivety and principles. “Now they admire me for my persistence, which has benefited the development of China Star’s business,” she shared.
“I started to focus on business events in 2002 when I set up my own company to… help foreign guests understand and appreciate China more.”
She observed that there are more opportunities for women in business events now than in the last decade, and said she has “been happier and more satisfied working with female professionals”.
“(Women) are more creative, more patient with clients and take more pains in their paper work,” she explained.
Lyn Lewis-Smith, CEO, Business Events Sydney
With a diverse background in financial services, resource management, transport and logistics, Lyn Lewis-Smith made the shift to business events as general manager of the Christchurch Convention Bureau in 2000. In 2003, she joined Business Events Sydney as director of sales, moving up the ranks to CEO in 2012, by which time she said she had identified an opportunity to change the narrative within the industry.
“I could see how much value business events brought, and I knew we had to start thinking differently about them,” she told TTGmice.
Of her four-year tenure as president of the Association of Australian Convention Bureaux, she said: “We established a seat at the table with the government, which is now engaging our industry in their policy agendas, and how business events can support them.”
While Lewis-Smith is of the opinion that the tourism industry has traditionally offered better opportunities for women than many other sectors, she believes there are still nowhere near enough women at senior level.
In terms of leadership, Lewis-Smith is focused on driving change and challenging the status quo to deliver commercial outcomes. “I always encourage my team to look for better ways to do things and bring fresh thinking to the table! I know where I add the most value, but I also know when to defer to the experts in my team.”
Marisa D Nallana, president and founding owner, Philippine Exhibits & Themeparks Corp.
Thirty-five years ago, when there were no schools yet that taught exhibition and event organisation, Marisa D Nallana identified her two valuable teachers as on-the-job training and experience.
Today, as president of Philippine Exhibits & Themeparks Corp (PETCO), Nallana splits her time with the Philippine Association of Conventions/Exhibitions Organizers and Suppliers (PACEOS) where she is chair, and Asian Federation of Exhibition and Convention Associations (AFECA) where she is one of the founding members and secretary-general.
She uses these associations as avenues for professionalising the industry by sharing her knowledge and mentoring especially the millennials.
Her stint at the Philippine Center for International Trade and Exhibition, the country’s first, armed her with the experience in organising events, which came in handy when she and other industry pioneers founded PETCO.
Nallana is proof that the lack of formal training can be compensated for by investing time and resources to learn new things, establish network, form friendships and maintain ties.
In terms of gender diversity in travel and business events industries, the Philippines appears to be ahead of the curve. Nallana said women were already heads of major organisations when she joined the industry. In the 1970s, the CVB was headed by Elizabeth de la Fuente, travel and tourism by Rajah Tours founder Alejandra Clemente, and exhibition and congress associations by Narzalina Lim.
Nallana thinks she makes a “cool” leader, not strict. “I set directions and communicate the desired results. I have no set procedures, only guidelines,” she explained.
Monica Lee-Müller, managing director, Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre (Management)
Monica Lee-Müller rose through the ranks, from a hotel front desk clerk to a department head at 25 years old and eventually helming Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre (Management) in 2012.
In Lee-Müller’s opinion, career opportunities for women in hospitality and business event industries have evolved – there are more females in workplace now than when she first started her career some 30 years ago.
She remarked: “Both genders enjoy equal education and career opportunities nowadays. Among our 17 department heads, seven are female. We also have female chefs in kitchens and female engineers. People at the top and in HR recognise that capability and commitment comes before gender.”
However, the common expectation that leaders are always males still stick.
She said: “When I meet someone for the first time, almost always people will first shake the hands of my male colleagues, thinking they are the bosses.”
When asked how the travel and events industry could be a friendlier place for women, Lee-Müller said it was critical that men and women be confident in themselves. Employers have a key role to play in this, by offering equal treatment for both genders.
Pornthip Hirunkate, managing director, Thailand, Destination Asia
Pornthip Hirunkate, known affectionately as Addie among her friends and colleagues in the travel and business events industries, started off as a tour guide before going deeper into the business of travel with Tour East where she held operational and marketing roles.
Pornthip rose to general manager position at Tour East before the company was acquired by Qantas’ Jetabout Holidays.
In search of “career and personal growth”, she left Tour East and launched Destination Asia with her friends in 1997.
While Destination Asia had begun with operations only in Thailand and Vietnam, today the company is present in 11 countries across Asia-Pacific.
“The creation and expansion of Destination Asia is my biggest and proudest career achievement,” she said.
Today, as she steers Destination Asia’s Thailand operations and manages a team of more than 140 employees, Pornthip takes on a “big sister” role, guiding them in their work and career growth.
She said: “I like to think that my family is 140 people strong. I carry this mentality when interacting with my industry peers too, and I enjoy sharing ideas and exchanging knowledge at events with my peers. In life, one can learn and gain so much more by sharing knowledge and experiences.”
Riyanthi Handayani, president director, Bali Nusa Dua Convention Center, Indonesia
It was at the Jakarta Convention Center where Riyanthi Handayani first started her career in business events. The year was 1993.
“Right from the start I have been hands-on with various international events such as meetings by APEC, Islamic Development Bank and Technogerma as well as Asian African Summit and many more,” she said.
In 2007 she moved to Dyandra & Co, a subsidiary of Kompas Gramedia Group to develop its new business in managing convention and exhibition centres. She was also part of the pre-opening team for some of the biggest convention centres launched by the company – Dyandra Convention Center Surabaya (DCCS), Bali Nusa Dua Convention Center (BNDCC), Santika Premiere Dyandra Hotel & Convention in Medan and Indonesia Convention and Exhibition in Tangerang.
Now that these venues are up and running, her time is spent spearheading BNDCC, Bali Nusa Dua Hotel and DCCS.
When quizzed on the opportunities available in Indonesia’s business events industry for women, Riyanthi said the expanding industry alone meant immense career potential for the fairer sex.
“In fact, we now see many women holding key positions in PCOs, PEOs and venues. As well, our properties’ management teams are mostly filled by women,” she said.
As a leader, she emphasises on establishing a good working relationship with her colleagues.
“My style is to inspire people and motivate the team to take an innovative approach in adapting to global business and market conditions. We need to have an international mindset while retaining national culture and values,” she concluded.
Selina Chavry, global managing director, Pacific World
Selina Chavry found her humble beginnings at 21 years old as an administrative assistant in a London-based event management company. In 2012, she moved to Pacific World as its country manager of Singapore and Malaysia; just two years later, she rose to regional director of Asia and in another year to global managing director.
Globalisation has been the biggest mover for the industry, as it has spurred companies to “look for organisers with the ability to work across different cultures and to adapt to different working environments.
“This creates opportunities for everyone, men and women alike,” she said.
Going forward, Chavry notes that the “events industry needs more women who are willing to speak and give our industry a voice. We (also) need to attract young talent, both men and women, to our industry to enable growth”.
With her experience in both European and Asian trade, Chavry now sits on the Board of Trustees of SITE, where she brings focus to growing attendee engagement.
Sotho Tan, founder, Hanuman Travel Group
Sotho Tan was one of the first tour guides to cater to the trickle of tourists to Cambodia in the late-1980s, as the country started to recover from decades of war.
She devised her own itineraries, learnt English and forged links with other organisations in the trade, opening her own tour operator, Hanuman Travel, in her front room in 1990.
Today, it employs 120 staff and offers outbound trips across Indochina, as well as a business events arm.
The 71-year-old does not think her gender has held her back, and see her determination and vision as contributions to her success
“In fact, I think because I’m a woman I have a better eye for detail and I pass this on to visitors,” she said.
Tan said her greatest challenge was forming the business with no background. “I wasn’t trained in tourism before the war, I had to teach myself to do everything. I did this by following my heart and doing my best.”
And this is a philosophy she passes onto her staff, teaching them to pay attention to service, listen and forge strong relationships. She also puts her employees at the core of her business, organising frequent teambuilding sessions and social gatherings with the teams in Siem Reap and Phnom Penh.
“I want them to love their workplace and the working atmosphere,” she said. “It really pays off.”
Susilowani Daud, president director, Pacto Convex Indonesia
Susilowani Daud started off her tourism career in 1979 when she joined the inbound department of Pacto Tours. By the early 1980s, Pacto begun to handle technical visits for various international conferences and in 1986 Susilowani set up and led the MICE divison for the company which had started to see a build up in requests for PCO and PEO functions from association clients.
“Along the way, my interest in this industry, particularly in conferences, grew and in 1986 I attended an IAPCO course in Amsterdam,” she recalled fondly.
Brief years later in 1992, Pacto Convex was launched, a dedicated PCO that Susilowani had a hand in developing.
“In the same year we were entrusted by the government of Indonesia to organise the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) Summit in Jakarta. The same year we also organised the ICCA Annual Congress in Bali. I was involved in the bidding process for the latter, in support of the government,” she said.
Pacto Convex kicked off with only three staff and has since grown to become one of the leading PCOs in Indonesia with 100 staff and an annual calendar of 75 to 100 events.
Besides her work with Pacto Convex, Susilowani is actively involved in various industry organisations, serving as an advisory board member to the Indonesia Congress and Convention Association and Indonesia Convention and Exhibition Bureau.
As one of the female pioneers of Indonesia’s business events industry, Susilowani believes that women today have an opportunity to carve out a career path within the various segments of business events. She explained that certain personality types may prefer to work in a PCO or PEO environment, while others may be more successful in an incentive house.
“There are a lot of opportunities in this industry as new markets are springing up,” she said, adding that women looking to do well as leaders have room for improvement in leadership and networking capabilities.
As a leader herself, Susilowani invests in developing human capital and values team work.
“Quality of service and training are essential. The transfer of knowledge is important to allow the continuation of the operations system I have developed in the company,” she said.
Vichaya Soonthornsaratoon, vice president-administration, Thailand Convention and Exhibition Bureau
On November 1, 2017, Vichaya Soonthornsaratoon established a new milestone in her career by taking on the new role of vice president-administration with the Thailand Convention and Exhibition Bureau (TCEB). She was last director of conventions.
For Vichaya, it was a timely progress, one which allows her to expand her leadership skills.
“I’ve been in frontline positions for more than 30 years, starting with Thai Airways where I landed my first job and eventually the destination marketing roles with TCEB. Having been on the operational side allows me to understand the range of support my frontline colleagues at TCEB need, and in my new position I can do better to balance that need with organisational goals and regulations.”
Vichaya fell in love with business events right from day one at Thai Airways, where she was placed in the conventions and incentives promotions division. She said: “I was the youngest in that division and I did mainly general work. But it was through supporting (the seniors) that I learnt how to plan an event and service the convention and incentive markets.”
The operational exposure set strong foundations for her future roles with TCEB, allowing her to “right away speak the same language as the business and association event planners who sought our support”, she said.
The dynamic nature of business events kept Vichaya enthralled for three decades, but she recalled it was her former supervisor at Thai Airways that recognised her talent in business events and encouraged her to keep at it.
“Encouragement is critical. A kind word of motivation and support can tide one through a difficult spot,” she said.
And she now hopes to pay it forward, by encouraging more women to aspire towards leadership positions in the industry and more hospitality students to consider a career in business events. Her advice to women: “Do not be afraid of making mistakes, as they will give you valuable experiences”.
This feature is part of TTGmice December 2017/January 2018’s cover story, Graceful powers