Shaping Tomorrow’s Event Leaders: What Students Learned at ESPA’s Annual Conference

Early talent development is a strategic investment for the event services industry. The sector is strengthened by ensuring a continuous surge of qualified professionals and molding tomorrow’s leaders.

The Event Service Professionals Association (ESPA) recognizes and encourages this mindset. For 30 years, ESPA has been the only association representing event service professionals from convention and visitor bureaus (CVBs), hotels and convention centers across North America.

ESPA provides students interested in pursuing a career in event services a student membership option, which consists of networking and mentorship opportunities with professionals working in the field and remote training and education sessions. Student members also receive priority consideration for the ESPA Conference Scholarship, which offers professional development opportunities at ESPA’s Annual Conferences.

Meet ESPA’s Scholarship Recipients

The following students were honored with conference scholarships and attended the ESPA Annual Conference in Indianapolis in January 2024.

Kenyon Jamaal Bones is a student at Indiana University–Purdue University Indianapolis (IUPUI). His industry experience includes catering, parking and working at the front desk. He believes that these are some of the best ways he’s been able to learn more about the industry and experience it firsthand.







Melia Donner is a junior at Indiana University Indianapolis studying event management. She’s a member of the Professional Convention Management Association, Meeting Professionals International and ESPA, which have helped her develop new skills and further her education. Donner began working in the events industry through a catering company and recently started a new position with Accent Indy, the destination management company for Indianapolis. Outside these positions, she’s gained experience by volunteering for various events, including NEXTGEN Indy, Indiana’s State of Tourism, the Indiana Artisan Fair and the Indianapolis 500. Donner also will be volunteering for the NBA Allstars. 



Gavin Michael McMinn is a first-year student at IUPUI. He’s studying tourism, convention and event management, with certificates in business, hospitality and beverage management. McMinn is an assistant event coordinator at the Indiana Convention Center and Lucas Oil Stadium, supervising the night events.







Scholarship Recipients Q&A

Discover why the scholarship recipients chose to study event management and their key learnings and takeaways from the ESPA Annual Conference.

Q: Why Did You Choose to Study Event Management?

A: Bones: I aspire to learn more about what makes people travel and explore the hospitality of a city. Choosing event management didn’t come easy, but at the end of the day, I realized it’s where I want to be.

A: Donner: About three years ago, I started working for City Barbeque Catering, which is where I found my passion and talent for events. This is when I realized that I belonged in the hospitality industry. Initially, I was a psychology major at a different university. At that point, I quickly realized that I was not meant to be there and started looking for other options that better fit my interests and personality. I didn’t know that studying events, tourism and hospitality was an option until I scanned the list of majors offered by IUPUI. It was a no-brainer once I discovered this major.

A: McMinn: I have a passion for planning and bringing people together. I had an internship in college, where I planned events for a nonprofit and fell in love with it.

Q: What Are Your Career Aspirations?

A: Bones: My career goal is to own a hotel chain. I hope to make it a great place for people to have events and enjoy themselves. 

A: Donner: Ideally, I’d like to work as an event planner. Although, I’ve learned that it’s best to be flexible and open to opportunities. Therefore, I’m not set on one particular job, but I see myself staying in Indianapolis and contributing to the hospitality and events industry here. I excel in areas such as logistics and operations. As such, I’d like to find a job that enables me to utilize those skills.

A: McMinn: My career goal is to become an event planner and own a company where I help nonprofit organizations plan fundraisers. I also would love to work within the government to help cities have better tourism experiences.

Q: What were some key learnings from the conference?

A: Bones: Connecting with people is simpler than one might think. Everyone has something to learn from someone else. 

A: Donner: I learned how important connecting and sharing ideas with people throughout your industry is. Several people I spoke to were looking for solutions to problems—whether those issues applied to the industry or their individual role or company. Many times, new ideas arose from talking to other professionals. Having access to different opinions, experiences and advice will get you further than the internet will.

The other big takeaway was the importance of sustainability and how to work towards this goal. The ideas and strategies presented by the speaker will undoubtedly be incorporated into my future work. 

A: McMinn: My key takeaways were networking is necessary, and the events industry has a lot to do to make it more sustainable.

Q: What did you find most interesting at the conference?

A: Bones: The networking session was so much fun. Everyone was great to meet, and we had many valuable things to discuss and share. It was an excellent exchange of ideas and information between all the attendees.

A: Donner: I found the public safety sessions most interesting. Apart from sustainability, safety is one of the most significant issues to be addressed in today’s world. Understanding how to develop a mutual relationship with public safety officials to protect guests was invaluable. 

A: McMinn: I loved the keynote speaker’s workshop. I learned a lot about how we need to make this industry more sustainable. The amount of waste is unacceptable.


Significance of Nurturing Future Industry Talent

ESPA President Dominique Bonds offers her insights on the value of these educational opportunities for students and ESPA’s role in fostering future event services industry talent. 

Q: How can exposure to ESPA’s annual conferences increase students’ understanding and enthusiasm for the event services industry?

A: Students have a unique opportunity that includes, but isn’t limited to: 

  • Participation in educational sessions.
  • Engaging with peers, seasoned professionals and industry leaders.
  • Learning about the industry’s evolution and current state.
  • Uncovering what’s just beyond the horizon.

Networking and access to decision-makers in the industry can help catapult their professional careers in the event services industry.

Q: Why is it important for students to have these types of experiences?

A: Having the opportunity to network and learn from industry professionals in the conference environment is unique and provides a real-world and real-time understanding of the industry that is different from what students receive in a classroom setting. These experiences go a long way in providing more comprehensive insight into the event services industry. 

Q: What’s ESPA’s role in nurturing event services industry talent?

A: ESPA professionals have a tremendous role in mentoring and teaching future industry professionals. We have an opportunity to share what we’ve learned and what we wish we had been taught earlier in our careers. This insider knowledge can help those new to the industry be encouraged and also avoid unnecessary pitfalls.

Q: How does the scholarship program help contribute to the professional growth of young talent in the event services industry?

A: The ESPA scholarship program recognizes and rewards young talent for their creativity, leadership and professionalism—three essential attributes of an event service professional. The conference’s features and mentorship from experienced professionals provide an ideal setting for advanced learning and growth.

Q: What are the long-term industry benefits of supporting students?

A: Investing in our future means teaching and learning from students, giving them knowledge and insight, listening to and accepting their ideas and opinions, and showing them the way while being open to a new path. This investment will help with the event services industry’s growth, sustainability and evolution. What better benefits could we hope for?

The 2025 ESPA Annual Conference is scheduled for Jan. 31 – Feb. 2, 2025, at the Marriott Louisville Downtown. Don’t miss the chance to apply for the ESPA Conference Scholarship. Click here to learn more about the event service profession and the student membership opportunities that are available.

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