People News: Connect, VISIT Milwaukee, Fern Expo and More Welcome Fresh Faces and Seasoned Pros

February 27, 2024

The U.S. trade show industry is continuing its steady pace of hiring and promoting, with event-related companies boosting and appointing staff as business forecasts signal a positive outlook for the year ahead. Here’s our monthly recap of new hires and promotions.


Matt Johnson has been promoted to managing director of meetings, events, travel and tourism industry leader Connect, which was acquired by Informa in 2023 and is now part of Informa Connect. A part of the Connect team for nearly 19 years, he is responsible for spearheading new initiatives to best serve customers through engaging business development and networking opportunities via Connect’s live events and BizBash’s industry-leading editorial content. Most recently, he served as President of BizBash and COO at Connect. 

VISIT Milwaukee

As vice president of communications and advocacy for VISIT Milwaukee, Claire Koenig will continue to oversee the company’s internal and external communications, its government affairs work and now its community engagement and DEI strategies. An award-winning communications leader, she started with the CVB as its communications manager in 2017, and prior to that, worked as a journalist. 

Tony Snell Rodriguez was tapped to serve as the organization’s first-ever director of community engagement and inclusion. He started with the CVB in 2017 as its volunteer coordinator after serving as a volunteer for two years, and before that, worked in the hospitality industry in food and beverage management. 

Fern Expo

Leading trade show and expo services provider Fern Expo recently welcomed Eric Hoffend as vice president of business development, focused on the Las Vegas market, private and association events and company growth strategies. He will be responsible for driving business development, expanding market presence and enhancing customer relations. 

A 20-year event industry veteran, Hoffend is known for his innovative work with industry-leading trade shows in the Las Vegas region and international work servicing events in cities including Beijing, Shanghai, Abu Dhabi and Dubai. A CEM, he is also an instructor for IAEE.   

Cobb-Marietta Coliseum & Exhibit Hall Authority

At Cobb-Marietta Coliseum & Exhibit Hall Authority, Bassem Maarouf has been promoted to director of food and beverage, responsible for providing strategic leadership and execution of the company’s food and beverage concepts. A 26-year veteran of the organization, which he initially joined as a banquet server, Maarouf most recently served as banquet manager.

Kristin Evans was hired as the director of administration for the Cobb Galleria Centre, Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre and Galleria Specialty Shops, tasked with working on implementation and management of projects, procurement, contract compliance and risk management. Bringing 27 years of event experience to her new role, Evans joins the Authority from Kennesaw State University, where she held several roles within the leadership team in the Department of Events and Venue Management over the last 12 years.

Synergy Design Group 

Synergy Design Group, an international exhibit design company for trade shows and branded interiors based in Greater New Orleans, has welcomed Eric Shaffer as strategic account director. Bringing more than 25 years of creative consulting experience in the trade show and live events industry to his new position, his most recent roles included several positions with the Syand Corp. 

Visit Baton Rouge

As leisure sales manager at Visit Baton Rouge, Marie Stagg works with tour operators, wholesalers, online travel agencies and travel agents to expand the domestic and international tour/travel market. A Certified Tourism Professional, she joined the organization with 11 years of tourism and hospitality experience, previously serving as the director of sales at the Louisiana Office of Tourism. 

As destination sales manager, Sydney Harris oversees the marketing and sales efforts targeting the educational and sorority/fraternity markets. She previously held a supervisory position at Baton Rouge Metropolitan Airport’s American Airlines before joining Enterprise. 

Sarah Noles and Elise Tauzin recently joined as destination experience managers, responsible for playing a pivotal role in ensuring exceptional services for clients and enhancing the overall visitor experience in Baton Rouge, including managing visitor materials and collateral, conducting site visits, overseeing promotional items and crafting engaging itineraries. 

Noles brings more than 10 years of experience spanning retail management with a focus on business operations, process development, continuing education and staff training, marketing and human resources, while Tauzin brings a decade of experience in various industries, including healthcare, automotive and traditional media. 

Exhibitor Group

Trade show and corporate event marketing education provider, Exhibitor Group, tapped Chris Bruce as its new CTSM portfolio manager, responsible for supporting Certified Trade Show Marketer candidates through their portfolio requirements, strengthening the portfolio advisor community, executing portfolio reviews and refining portfolio processes and procedures. Bruce has worked as a trade show and project manager for the last 20 years.  


Premium webcasting solution and virtual event leader GlobalMeet has a new CEO. Pivotal Group, the company’s private equity sponsor, recently tapped tech industry veteran Kim Niederman to drive GlobalMeet’s technology and digital events expansion. He previously served in a variety of leadership roles, including president at 8x8 and CEO roles at FreeWave Technologies, Anagran and LongBoard, along with senior executive positions at Polycom and Cisco.

Big Red M

Association sales, research and consulting firm Big Red M (BRM) tapped association industry veteran KiKi L’Italien as its new vice president of marketing and community engagement. Bringing more than 22 years of experience and a diverse range of roles within the association industry, including 11 years as a chief strategist, L’Italien is also editor-in-chief of the Association Chat brand, which includes a podcast, blog, special events, education and an online community.

Atlanta Convention & Visitors Bureau

As the Atlanta Convention & Visitors Bureau’s new vice president of public relations, corporate events and membership, Heather Kirksey will lead the membership and events team in addition to the organization’s public relations department. She will oversee member relations along with production of the organization’s corporate events, including its annual meeting, Atlanta Hospitality Hall of Fame induction ceremony and quarterly member networking events. Kirksey joined ACVB in 2014 as public relations manager and has served as its director of public relations since 2016.  

Jon Herr joined ACVB as citywide sales executive, responsible for selling and marketing Atlanta as a destination for prospective trade shows and group meetings, and for generating leads and subsequent bookings for trade show and national account sales requiring 1,201 rooms or greater on peak night. He previously served as senior sales manager at Waldorf Astoria Atlanta Buckhead.

Haewon Jang was recently appointed international tourism sales manager, tasked with promoting Atlanta globally as a top tourism destination, focusing on servicing and expanding Asian inbound visitation markets. She will also coordinate international trade shows, sales missions and familiarization tours. 

Visit Myrtle Beach 

Zavier Jones has joined Visit Myrtle Beach as group sales experience coordinator, responsible for collaborating with the group sales team to create memorable experiences for meeting and event planners during destination and venue site inspections and familiarization (FAM) tours, as well as during meetings or events held within the Myrtle Beach area. He brings valuable hospitality experience to the CVB’s team, having previously worked for Hilton Hotels and Resorts as a sales coordinator. 

Sphere Entertainment

Sphere Entertainment Co. recently named Jennifer Koester president of Sphere Business Operations, tasked with leading the strategy and execution of all business aspects of Sphere, a next-generation entertainment medium and venue that opened in Las Vegas in September 2023. Most recently, Koester worked at Google as managing director, Americas strategic alliances, global partnerships at Google Commercial Operations, and prior to that, as director, telecommunications and video distributors, global partnerships.

Louisville Tourism

At Louisville Tourism, Rebekah Courtney has been promoted from convention sales manager to national sales manager, responsible for selling Louisville to groups utilizing 301 peak night hotel rooms and above for the corporate, agricultural, fraternal and veteran convention segments.  

Emily Yarbrough was promoted from convention sales assistant to strategic alliance coordinator, where she will serve as the primary point of contact for new Louisville Tourism partners and 78 Social members providing extranet training, facilitating community connections, managing databases and organizing events. Yarbrough joined Louisville Tourism in 2022.

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Partner Voices
Overview: The award-winning Orange County Convention Center (OCCC) goes the extra mile to make every day extraordinary by offering customer service excellence and industry-leading partnerships. From their dedicated in-house Rigging team to their robust Exhibitor Services, The Center of Hospitality brings your imagination to life by helping you host unforgettable meetings and events. With more than 2 million square feet of exhibit space, world-class services and a dream destination, we are committed to making even the most ambitious conventions a reality. In October 2023, the Orange County Board of County Commissioners voted to approve allocating Tourist Development Tax funding for the $560 million Phase 5A completion of the OCCC. The Convention Way Grand Concourse project will include enhancements to the North-South Building, featuring an additional 60,000 square feet of meeting space, an 80,000- square-foot ballroom and new entry to the North-South Building along Convention Way. “We are thrilled to begin work on completing our North-South Building which will allow us to meet the growing needs of our clients,” said OCCC Executive Director Mark Tester. “As an economic driver for the community, this project will provide the Center with connectivity and meeting space to host more events and continue to infuse the local economy with new money and expanding business opportunities.” Amenities: The Center of Hospitality goes above and beyond by offering world-class customer service and industry-leading partnerships. From the largest convention center Wi-Fi network to custom LAN/WAN design, the Center takes pride in enhancing exhibitor and customer experience.  The OCCC is the exclusive provider of electricity (24-hour power at no additional cost), aerial rigging and lighting, water, natural gas and propane, compressed air, and cable TV services. Convenience The Center is at the epicenter of the destination, with an abundance of hotels, restaurants, and attractions within walking distance. Pedestrian bridges connect both buildings to more than 5,200 rooms and is within a 15-minute drive from the Orlando International Airport. The convenience of the location goes hand-in-hand with top notch service to help meet an event’s every need. Gold Key Members The OCCC’s Gold Key Members represent the best of the best when it comes to exceptional service and exclusive benefits for clients, exhibitors and guests. The Center’s Gold Key memberships with Universal Orlando Resort, SeaWorld Orlando and Walt Disney World greatly enhance meeting planner and attendee experiences offering world-renowned venues, immersive experiences and creative resources for their events. OCCC Events: This fiscal year, the OCCC is projected to host 168 events, 1.7 million attendees, and $2.9 billion in economic impact.  The Center’s top five events during their 2022-2023 fiscal year included:  AAU Jr. National Volleyball Championships 2023 200,000 Attendees $257 Million in Economic Impact MEGACON 2023 160,000 Attendees $205 Million in Economic Impact Open Championship Series 2023 69,500 Attendees $89 Million in Economic Impact Sunshine Classic 2023 42,000 Attendees $54 Million in Economic Impact Premiere Orlando 2023 42,000 Attendees $108 Million in Economic Impact