Mary Pat Heftman’s passion for the face-to-face industry didn’t start in an exhibit hall or a hotel ballroom. Instead, the beginning of her career began in the classroom at St. Mary’s College in Indiana where she credits one of her “forward-thinking professors” for introducing her to the International House + Housewares Show. As a double major in marketing and management, Heftman could have chosen any number of paths for her career, but business events felt like the avenue she most wanted to follow.
“I was really intrigued by the event piece and the business-to-business world,” Heftman said. “There was energy and excitement, but it wasn’t just a party. There was business being done. I was bitten by the bug really early for the power of face-to-face.”
That initial interest has only grown over the years, turning Heftman into one of the premier leaders in the business events industry. She may be best known for her role in fueling innovations at the annual National Restaurant Association Show, but Heftman has also contributed her expertise off the show floor, too, including serving as the chair of PCMA’s Board of Directors and currently PCMA Foundation Trustee. She operates with a can-do mentality that can be traced to her formative years, first at the Illinois Restaurant Association and then working her way up through the ranks at the National Restaurant Association. “My managers kept coaching me and giving me more,” Heftman said. “I was happy to take it on, learn about different parts of the industry, and expand my skill set. I was having fun and didn’t push back.”
That hunger to accept more responsibilities has shaped her leadership style, too. “It has a lot to do with how I manage and develop my team members now,” Heftman said. “I see what they can handle, what they are willing to take on, and how they develop through those challenges.”
Many of those employees have followed Heftman’s willingness to take initiative. She said that some of her employees have worked with her for 15 years, and “they have appreciated the opportunity to see more than what was in their original job descriptions.”
As for her own job description, Heftman’s new role as vice chair of Winsight Exhibitions includes an expanded responsibility over the portfolio of 30 Winsight conferences in the food and beverage space, corporate development projects, and company growth. The National Restaurant Association Show will continue to take up a big portion of her plate (pun intended), and she will also be looking at ways to apply some of the successes from that trade show to other conferences.
“My new role is strategic throughout the company,” Heftman said. “Many of our other events do not have a trade-show component, so I will be working to identify opportunities to integrate new activations at those events and continue to elevate Winsight’s position as the leading food and beverage media and event company.”
While those are big business responsibilities, she looks at her role through a human lens. “My job is to always prepare my team members for their next role,” Heftman said, “to be a servant leader.”
As vice chair, she will no longer manage teams, but will continue to keep a close eye on talent. “It’s my responsibility to assist our team members with the training and the insights necessary to continue advancing throughout their careers,” she said. “If I’m going to move the business forward, I have to always be focused on developing the talent around me.”
A Tall Order
Mary Pat Heftman has plenty of fond memories of her nearly 20 year–stint at the National Restaurant Association Show, but one of her favorites has to do with how she and her team rose to a particular challenge.
In 2011, less than a year out from the 2012 Show, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel announced that the city would be hosting the Global G8 and NATO Summit, a huge victory for the city that came with an asterisk for the tens of thousands of F&B professionals coming to McCormick Place: The global gathering fell on the same dates as the show, which had held that date pattern for more than 60 years. Heftman and her team took it in stride, moving the show dates two weeks earlier and putting years of experience into practice.
“That,” Heftman said, reflecting on the stress, “shows the true power of teamwork.”