New PCMA Board Chair Focuses on Inclusivity, Sustainability, and Development of Future Leaders

Desirée Knight, chair of PCMA’s 2023 Board of Directors and Trustees, talks about her goals during her term and the challenges facing the events industry.

Author: Casey Gale       

Desirée Knight

Desirée Knight speaks at the 2022 PCMA Visionary Awards. Knight is the new chair of PCMA’s 2023 Board of Directors and Trustees.

Desirée Knight, CAE, CMP, DES, has held several key volunteer roles at PCMA, contributing to the efforts of the Convening Leaders Content Committee from 2016–2017 and the Diversity and Inclusion Committee from 2018–2019, as well as serving as a member of the PCMA Board of Directors since 2019. All of that work culminates in the role she assumes tomorrow, a job she has had in her sights for years.

“During my first Convening Leaders, I whispered to myself, ‘I will be the Chair of PCMA someday,’” said Knight, senior director of education and meetings for the American Railway Engineering and Maintenance-of-Way Association (AREMA). “Thanks to perseverance and always saying ‘yes’ when I was asked to volunteer when I got a call, that dream is finally coming true.”

She recently spoke with Convene about challenges facing the industry, her views on the evolution of work, and her goals during her term as Chair — for PCMA, and for herself.

What will you be focusing on in 2023?

I am passionate about youth development and the PCMA 20 in Their Twenties program. Although that program has a great structure, it must be revamped to create a pipeline for future PCMA leaders. Currently, the program recognizes the brightest in the industry, but we need to make available professional development opportunities that will help architect their future leadership capabilities. This includes providing them with an executive coach and an industry mentor. There are so many talented, experienced planners who would make great partners for this group of individuals.

We must take a front-row seat in developing programs for a more sustainable environment. Since the earth is warming at alarming rates, certain crops cannot yield results because the area is too warm. Why is this important to business event strategists? Supply-chain issues are a major problem with sourcing certain foods and the price of F&B will continue to rise — while Mother Earth suffers. Not only is this a human issue, but this is also a bottom-line issue. According to [entrepreneur agency] Common Thread Collective, the F&B [market] in 2021 was $435.3 billion, yet globally by 2025, [revenue] is expected to increase to $856.9 billion. This will affect all our meeting budgets.

Finally, inclusivity is high on my list. I have been invited into collaborative and strategic environments because of my skillset and every organization should have this mindset. PCMA has been at the forefront of having an inclusive board, however, there is still room for growth within professional development. During my term, I would like to see all our programs have a scorecard to ensure they are inclusive and inviting for everyone. We currently work with groups such as LGBT Meeting Professionals Association and are starting conversations with the National Coalition of Black Meeting Professionals. I would also like to see a partnership with an organization that focuses on disability, which can help us round out our inclusive environment.

What motivated you to take on this voluntary leadership role?

I started my career many years ago in Los Angeles, and when I moved to the East Coast, I was asked by my employer to get involved with PCMA. I was told it would be a great community for me to create industry friendships that would be part of my village. My CEO at the time was so correct. My first volunteer role for years was on the Awards Committee, and then I moved on to the Convening Leaders and EduCon Education Committee. … I believe in PCMA’s mission and vision and wanted to help shape the future of PCMA’s global presence. Sheriff Karamat has done a great job of helping to mold our vision, along with the board and volunteers who are at the backbone of PCMA’s legacy.

What are some of the greatest challenges facing meeting professionals in 2023?

COVID-19 certainly has changed how we do business, and our industry is still trying to recoup lost revenue. We are still dealing with supply-chain issues, staffing, mental health, and increased costs. Staff is stretched beyond capacity with increased workloads and little or no additional support.

What are some of the greatest challenges for CVBs, venues, and other industry partners in 2023?

Costs are at an all-time high, yet as business event professionals, we are responsible for the bottom line. We will have to work together to find a happy medium and help to create attendee experiences that will not break the bank. The challenge comes with developing a narrative that will be enjoyed by our customers and that requires a partnership between the city, venue, industry partners, and planners. More than ever, working collectively to design a well-orchestrated immersive experience is extremely important. Especially since we are competing with maintaining attention spans and still overcoming fear for some to travel.

The pandemic has changed a lot about the way people work. Has your mindset about work and leadership changed, and if so, how?

No. I have always believed that if you get your work done, there is no need to work in an office. Has COVID made that easier? Yes. We have had the tools before to create a collaborative environment, virtually, but the world knows now globally, that we can meet at any time via a virtual platform. I believe by allowing people to work where they are most comfortable, I am helping them with their quality of life. Self-care is important to me and if working without commuting to a building will provide time for staff to get up later or spend more time with their families, then I am helping them be happier employees. After all, happy employees create great customer experiences for all stakeholders internally and externally.

What are some of your own goals for 2023, personally or professionally?

I finished school during the pandemic and acquired my Bachelor of Science Degree from the University of Maryland. I also got my DES to round out my skillset. I enjoy attending school and would like to start working on my MBA sometime this year.

What is one book you feel everyone in the events industry should read?

I am trying to read or listen to more books, with the goal of finishing 12 books this year. The book I feel everyone should read is How to Win at Anything by Jo Owen. This book discusses strategies for building and maximizing your influence in any setting.

Casey Gale is managing editor of Convene. This interview has been edited and condensed.

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