Events Industry Veteran Reflects on 40-Year Career

After a 40-year career as an events professional at tech companies, including the past 16 years spent at Cisco Systems in global strategic meetings and digital events management, Carolyn Pund, CMM, DES, announced her retirement — but not withdrawal — from the business events industry. She plans to stay involved in the industry that has given her so much and to do what she can, she said, to contribute to what is yet ahead.

Author: Michelle Russell       

smiling woman in pink shirt

“You look back and you think of people who have given you breaks and hired you — or have even impacted you negatively,” Carolyn Pund said. “When you have gratitude, it all works out.”

Carolyn Pund, CMM, DES, recently reflected on her long career — most recently in global strategic meetings and digital events management at Cisco Systems — and volunteer leadership roles, what it’s like to be a working mother, and spoke with Convene about the long and short of the industry and what she sees coming next.

How she got her start

“I’m one of those accidental professionals in the events industry,” Pund said, although she had an early taste of event planning while earning her undergrad degree in business: She worked for a nonprofit in Washington State where she helped plan an Apple Blossom Festival. After a few years, she was recruited to work at another nonprofit in San José, California, where she worked on leadership conferences and travel tours. Following that role, she was hired by a tech company and did PC training.

After she had her first child, she tried to work out a more flexible, job-sharing arrangement at the tech company, but her manager was unsupportive of mothers in the workplace. “That was just so stressful,” Pund recalled. “So, I thought, ‘I’m going to go do some informational interviews in the other parts of the company.’” She ended up having “a wonderful conversation and great connection” with the head of the company’s events marketing group who told her that her timing was unfortunate: She had offered a job to someone else only days before that Pund would have been perfect for.

“I said, ‘No problem. It’s just great to know who you are,” Pund said, “‘and who knows what’s in the future?’” The future arrived more quickly than she imagined — a few days after they met, Pund got a call from the department head to let her know that the new hire hadn’t cleared the security background check and the job was hers if she wanted it. Within the space of seven days, Pund went from PC trainer to standing on Boston’s Hynes Convention Center show floor learning trade shows for the first time as a corporate event planner.

“By the end of the show,” she said, “I had such a sense of pride and accomplishment from being a part of a team. I worked my tail off, but I thought, ‘I can do this! I like this.’” In her new job, she helped organize incentive events, board meetings, user conferences, and customer events. Six months after she started, her boss left and she stepped into her role. “You look back and you think of people who have given you breaks and hired you — or have even impacted you negatively,” Pund said. “When you have gratitude, it all works out.”

Life as a traveling working mom

“I think every mom in the workforce has that little gut check when they’re leaving on a trip,” Pund said. She recalled the lengths she went to when she traveled for work with three young daughters at home, including recording bedtime stories on a VHS “so that they could have story time with mom,” and laying out all their matching outfits with hair bows for each day she was gone.

“And then I’d cook for a week before. Everything that I cooked, I’d make double so that I had meals in the freezer for them for the whole time that I was out,” she said. “I look back now, and I think about the hours that I used to spend when I was a young working mom in events, to get ready to go on a trip.” Ever the planner, Pund used to leave five-page travel itineraries magnetized to the refrigerator so her family would know where to reach her at any time — along with a full schedule of family activities, like school events, soccer matches, and birthday parties, for her husband to follow for the girls.

Where she left her mark

In 1999, Pund cofounded an organization of corporate high-level event managers from several major corporations to share and benchmark best practices in Strategic Meetings Management (SMM). MCAF (Meetings Competitive Advantage Forum) is still in practice, 25 years later. “When you’re working with smaller companies, SMM is not a big deal because you know who’s planning all the meetings. But in a larger company, it’s different. When I worked at Nortel, there were almost 300 admins planning meetings, with many of them calling every Hilton, Hyatt, or Marriott directly when they were searching for a meeting venue — who knew how many contracts were out there, the terms under which they had signed, and what the spend was? Looking back over the years, I think there was no time that was more critical for an SMM program to be in place than when the pandemic hit,” she said, because companies needed to know where their outstanding contracts were. They all had to be canceled or renegotiated for reschedule. Without an SMM in place to capture the volume and terms of those cumulative contracts across the many organizations, there was no true understanding of the company’s event related liability.

“The core of SMM is really about leveraging a major corporation’s event spend while protecting your budgets from contractual and legal risks,” she said. “A mature SMM policy will outline the standards — this is how our company does business, and these are our event and hotel partners. These are our brand standards, our event technologies, our master contracts, these are the terms that we do business by. And as a result, that naturally created savings because of the pre-negotiated rates, consolidation, and visibility of spend — that, and the knowledge of what was being spent where was the original emphasis behind SMM.”

Pund remembered the inaugural CMM (Certificate in Meeting Management) program she attended in 1998 as being “really pivotal in my career, if only because of the people who attended that session. The value of that event was the networking, making contacts, and the friendships that changed the opportunities for me in the industry,” she said. “That’s what made me become such an advocate for volunteering.”

Pund also was part of the GBTA task force that created the SMM Maturity Index Model. In 2015, she received PCMA’s Distinguished Meeting Professional of the year award, and in 2020, she received PCMA Northern California chapter’s Bamies (Bay Area Meetings Industry Excellence) Industry Legend award.

The value of serving on industry boards

Pund served on the PCMA Board of Directors and the Executive Committee for a total of five years, from 2017-2022. Through the years, she also has served on city, hotel, and company advisory boards. She recalled some highlights from those experiences, including when she was on the Maui Technology Advisory Board “when they were trying to make Maui recognized as the technology hub of the Pacific between Asia and Silicon Valley.” And while on the PCMA board, she said there were once-in-a-lifetime experiences, like having afternoon tea in Parliament, butler’s service on the London Eye, and dinner aboard the Royal Yacht Britannia in Edinburgh, Scotland.

Pund acknowledged that despite the benefits, volunteering has required a big commitment of time, and recalled the hours she spent in the evenings or on weekends catching up on her work or using PTO to attend board meetings. She finds it interesting that companies want to reap the benefits of having insights from staff’s industry involvement, yet accommodating the time for them to engage is difficult with demanding event calendars. “But it was important enough to me to invest my personal time in staying involved and giving back because I got so much out of that — what I learned and the networking, and it gave me opportunities to do things I may not have ever had if I hadn’t been part of the association and part of the board. So it was definitely worth it.” On the other hand, Pund hopes she offered real value to the boards she served on by providing advice and recommendations from her corporate perspective.

What’s next in business events

“At the heart of every event, the thing that people get the most value out of is connecting with other people,” Pund said. “What changes them the most is that interpersonal connection and learning and developing as a person and in their career. I don’t think that’s ever going to be replaced by technology. It’s true that from an educational perspective and just core training, I think online can be more effective than in person — just because of what you capture with technology when you’re sitting at your desk. But that connection with other people who do what you do, it gives you a sense of credibility and belonging — validation that you’re understood in that part of your life. And I think that’s the value of being in person at events.”

After a career spent working for tech companies, it’s not surprising to find that Pund plans to continue as a lifelong learner and thinks “coming up, the biggest benefits as well as changes will be around AI. I think just personally when I read an article or even look at a picture these days, I question, ‘Is that real or is it AI-generated?’ And I think that’s going to pervade the events industry — Is this real, is what’s being presented real? I think the need for truth and credibility is more important than it’s ever been.”

Michelle Russell is editor in chief at Convene.

Become a Member

Get premium access to provocative executive-level education, face-to-face networking and business intelligence.