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Florida MPI Chapters Igniting Relationships at the Sunshine Education Summit

Sunshine Education Summit (SES)

The Sunshine Education Summit (SES), a cooperative effort between the four MPI chapters in Florida, has been going strong for nearly three decades, bringing professional development and networking opportunities for planners and suppliers alike. This conference, previously called the Southeast Educational Conference (SEC), not only has a new name, but a new partnership with MPI Global, which is collaborating with the Florida chapters in managing and marketing the event for the first time.

Conceived in the early 1990s and held annually during August at rotating locations in Florida, the conference is the brainchild of Tampa Bay Area, Greater Orlando Area, North Florida and South Florida chapter leaders who formed a group called TONS. While responsibility for hosting the conferences was previously rotated between the four chapters, SES is now a statewide effort led by the TONS Advisory Council, made up of two representatives from each chapter in collaboration with MPI Global.

This year’s conference will be held Aug. 22-24 at the Sawgrass Marriott in Ponte Vedra Beach with a program featuring three days of educational sessions, including MPI certificate programs Healthcare Meeting Compliance and Women in Leadership: Executive Leadership Skills. Other components include keynote speakers such as Ken Rutkowski, host of the nationally syndicated radio talk show Business Rockstars, and the MPI Exchange, which offers a hosted buyer program providing appointments between suppliers and qualified planners.

Future Goals

The new involvement of MPI Global, with its marketing reach and international database, will help expand the reach of SES, according to Vickie Corder, CMP, founding president of the MPI North Florida Chapter and a two-term past TONS chair. She estimates that about 90 percent of attendees are based in Florida.

But while a goal is to broaden attendance, which has grown to about 500 in recent years, it’s also important to not lose the intimate, regional nature of the conference, she adds.

“People really like the fact that this is not a huge conference,” Corder says. “It’s great to walk in the door and run into people you know and have worked with. You can ignite those relationships that you have built over the years, along with enjoying the opportunity to meet new people and build new relationships.”

Joanna Berens, past TONS chair and a member of the MPI South Florida Chapter, has a similar view.

“I really enjoy the chance to see my fellow Floridians—we’re such a big state and I don’t get to connect with people in North Florida that often,” she says. “We need to strike the right balance of keeping the Florida nature of it while still welcoming our neighbors.”

Bonnie Brownell, CMP, a member of the MPI Greater Orlando Area Chapter, past TONS chair and co-chair of the 2012 conference, believes there is plenty of reason for planners based outside of Florida to attend SES.

“Those who come will not only get great education, but they will be exposed to our wonderful suppliers, some of whom they might not meet at a national conference,” she says. “A lot of planners who don’t live in Florida do plan meetings in Florida, so this opens up new connections for them.”

Professional Growth

Organizing and attending the conference has brought significant rewards over the years, according to those who have done both.

Richard Miseyko, CMP, CMM, president of Site Search Inc. and a member of the MPI Tampa Bay Area Chapter, led the charge to form the TONS Advisory Council, serving as the TONS chair for two terms 2003-2005 and also serving twice as conference chair—challenging endeavors that he doesn’t regret.

“Though many questioned my mental capacity for a second round, they were two of the most rewarding experiences of my professional career,” he says. “The downside is that it takes on a life of its own and is truly a second full-time job if you want to do it right.

“Personally, the visibility of hosting an SEC helped my career and brought me new clients,” he adds. “From an attendee standpoint, the event reinforced longstanding relationships with suppliers and put me in a position to engage new relationships with other planners, ultimately leading to business opportunities.”

For Corder, senior director, global accounts for HelmsBriscoe, an encounter during the 1999 SEC brought a career opportunity that has lasted nearly two decades.

“When I attended that conference, I was between jobs and trying to decide what to do,” she says. “A friend of mine, Lori Morgan, past president of the Tampa Bay Area Chapter, introduced me to Bill Briscoe, who was also at the conference. That meeting and her referral led to my 18-year career with HelmsBriscoe. That’s just one example of the value of MPI connections I have greatly benefited from over the years!”

Joanna Berens, president of Joanna Berens Hospitality Inc., says involvement with the conference has been beneficial throughout her varied career, which has included destination management, hotel sales and the establishment of her own site selection firm.

“As a small business owner, I can’t justify the cost of attending a national conference, so I’ve made SEC a priority in my budget,” she says. “When you are solo, you have to keep the business networking going and stay current with what’s out there.”

Berens, who has attended almost every conference since 1991, says attendance was equally valuable when she was employed by Starwood Hotels.

“As a planner, I feel there is good bang for the buck and when I was on the supplier side, I felt the same way,” she says.

In particular, Berens believes the conference does a stellar job with bringing in top keynote speakers and presenters, something she got a behind-the-scenes look at while serving as education chair for the 2014 conference held in Miami.

“I’m a planner and logistics person and content has never been my focus, so this was an incredible dive for me,” she says. “That platform let me spread my wings and do something different and get involved with another aspect of the meetings business. I like to think we raised the bar that year. We brought in a big-name speaker—Brad Meltzer, the author and producer of Decoded on the History Channel.”

At this year’s conference, Berens will delve into educational content by serving as a presenter herself at a session called “Food Rescue at Your Events - It’s Easier Than You Think.”

“Event food rescue has become a real passion of mine, ever since a hotel told me I couldn’t donate leftover food because of liability reasons,” she says. “All of us who have planned events have seen so much food go to waste. I want to help inspire the industry to do something about this.”

Brownell, director of convention sales for Vista Cay by Millenium in Orlando, has also found the conference invaluable for professional growth. In particular, a breakout session led by professional organizer Audrey Thomas, CSP, president of Organized Audrey LLC, had a lasting impact.

“Not only did she have a lot of helpful hints, but she gave us a pamphlet with the hints in bullet form,” Brownell says. “Every so often, I go back and refer to her tips—they’ve been tremendously helpful to me. Another great session was on effective email communication, which has helped me avoid some of the mistakes you can make with email.”

Brownell believes that SES provides an important opportunity for attendees to receive a fabulous education experience at an affordable cost.

“Over the years the four chapters have really worked well together in providing good recommendations for speakers—everyone is proactive,” she says. “We’ve built up a good reputation with the speakers bureaus, plus it doesn’t hurt that people are attracted to coming to Florida.”

MPI Sunshine Education Summit

At the MPI Sunshine Education Summit, Aug. 22-24 at the Sawgrass Marriott Sawgrass Golf Resort and Spa in Ponte Vedra Beach, the business of meetings and events complements the resources, beauty and energy of Florida. Learn more and register at

About the Author

Maria Lenhart

Maria Lenhart is a former editor of multiple meeting and event industry publications, and has won numerous awards for travel writing, including a prestigious Lowell Thomas Award from the Society of American Travel Writers.