Women at the Helm: Sonia Fong, Senior Vice President, Convention Development, Louisville Tourism

May 8, 2023

As May begins, TSNN is celebrating Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) Heritage Month in the U.S. by spotlighting an AAPI woman who has enriched the event and trade show industry and been instrumental in its future success.

Sonia Fong, senior vice president of convention development for Louisville Tourism, has worked in the hospitality industry for more than 25 years. Her current responsibilities include managing the convention sales team to achieve annual room night goals, developing and implementing the convention sales and marketing plan, outlining specific sales objectives and priorities for the convention sales staff, and establishing sales policies and procedures to maximize Louisville as a convention destination. 

Prior to joining the Louisville team, Fong served as vice president of convention sales and services for the Greater Miami Convention and Visitors Bureau. She worked with the bureau for 21 years, serving in a variety of sales positions. Previously, she represented a variety of Miami hotels, including the Biltmore Hotel and several Marriott properties. Through her past career experiences, Fong has worked with many high-profile groups such as Bitcoin, the Democratic National Convention bid, Art Basel, the Miami International Boat Show and many national trade shows.

Her career in the hospitality industry began at her uncle’s restaurant in Miami. “While attending college, I was an intern at a hotel and had the opportunity to cross train in different departments,” said Fong, who has a Bachelor of Science in Hospitality Management and her MBA from Florida International University. “I worked as a sales assistant and quickly aspired to be a sales manager one day.” 

In 2022, she was one of several recipients to be awarded a Momentum Award through Smart Meeting’s Catalyst Awards. In April, the Louisville Business First recognized Fong as 20 People to Know in Tourism/Hospitality

Her industry involvement includes active participation in Meeting Professionals International, Professional Convention Management Association, International Association of Exhibitions and Events, American Society of Association Executives, Destinations International (DI) and Society of Independent Show Organizers. She is currently completing her Certified Destination Management Executive (CDME) from DI.

TSNN had a chance to sit down with this inspiring industry leader to get her thoughts about gender and racial parity in the exhibition and meetings industry, what important lessons she has learned during her more than two and a half decades in the hospitality industry and what advice she has for AAPI women in the events industry wishing to follow a leadership path. 

What would you like to share about your heritage and how it has shaped the leader you are today?

My Chinese heritage is rich with traditions and moral values, including respect, perseverance and resilience. Family and friends are priority. Those values shaped me as a person and as a leader.  

When did you get into convention sales management and what do you like most about it?

While I’ve worked in the destination marketing organization (DMO) space for more than two decades, I started as a convention sales manager and worked my way up. I enjoyed the entire sales process, loved engaging and used my creativity to win the business. It’s gratifying to impress clients when they least expect it. You only have one chance to make the first impression. I provide my team with the support and resources they need to be successful. I’m happy to coach them and help them achieve their goals.  

What’s one mantra you live by at work?

I do as I say.  

During your time at Louisville Tourism, what have been your most important lessons and biggest successes?  

So far, it’s been an incredible experience. I’m most grateful for how the entire Louisville Tourism has welcomed me and the community has embraced me. I’ve learned to be a better listener and always keep people’s best interests in mind when providing advice and guidance. Also, be kind to people, as the degrees of separation among us are very small. Being able to empower my team and help them win some key accounts, and to book some major meetings in Louisville due to my previous relationships are some of my biggest successes. Transferable networks are powerful, and the impact it has for our team and our community is invaluable.

While gender diversity in the leadership roles within the events industry is moving in a more equitable direction, what do you see as the biggest challenges of being an Asian American female leader at this time in our industry?  

Asian American women have had challenges advancing to leadership roles, and I hope that a greater focus on gender diversity and equality will help move the needle. Often, their capabilities are underestimated, and people think they lack the confidence in speaking up. There’s still a lot of room for improvement for Asian American women to be included and be part of high-level boards. Those opportunities will help advance Asian American women to be seen, heard and supported.

Last October, you had the opportunity to share the stage at IMEX America with your daughter, Lia Cheung, a student at UNLV who is pursuing a degree in hospitality management. Tell us about this experience. 

It was very special to share the stage with her. I never had imagined that opportunity. Lia was poised, displayed confidence and eloquently answered all the questions. 

Sonia and Lia Fong at IMEX

What advice would you give to AAPI women, like your daughter, in the events industry wishing to follow a leadership path?   

Build your personal brand and network by investing in continuing education and professional development. Seek mentors, get involved and volunteer in your community. 

Who are some AAPI females in the industry to watch — besides your daughter, of course?

A few females to watch are Kai Chen, assistant director of finance, 1 Hotels; Katie Ligon, executive assistant to CEO/president, Memphis Tourism; Lina Farrell, senior director, business development, Levy Canada; and Alyssa Yamauchi, senior product support analyst, Simpleview.

Who do you seek for advice and mentorship?

I’m fortunate to have a group of friends and industry colleagues with different backgrounds and expertise who continue to provide me with advice, support and guidance. My No. 1 mentor is my husband, Joe.  

What do you enjoy doing when you are not working?

I love to travel with my family, try new restaurants and enjoy being outdoors. Most recently, we welcomed a new member of our family, Beau, our Chow Chow dog. He has brought so much joy and happiness into our family. We love spending time with him.

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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