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www.smallmarketmeetings.com www.sma ll mar k etmeet i n g s.co m Conference Report 8 Meeting Leaders: Columbus' Leah Zender By Rachel Carter fect platform from which to jump into her new role as sales manager. She went from recruit- ing members to attracting meetings, and she could take those stories from community members "to share with the world." Because Zender came from a small community to a big city, one of the things that appealed to her about Columbus was how welcoming it was to "fresh ideas and fresh people." "It's a very open and smart city," she said. The city's convention center is in the final stretch of a 22-month, $125 million renova- tion slated to wrap up this summer. When complete, the Greater Columbus Convention Center will grow from 1.7 million to 1.8 mil- lion square feet, and the additional 100,000 square feet will include 37,000 square feet of new exhibit space, for a total of 373,000 square feet of contiguous exhibit space. The project will also add 10,000 square feet of meeting space in 10 new rooms, as well as a new two-story, open atrium entrance. More than 2,100 guest rooms are connected or adjacent to the convention center, and there are 4,000 total in downtown. Attendees will find more than 100 restaurants within walking distance of the convention center, but if they want to venture farther, they can explore the city's five entertainment districts: the college vibe of the University District sur- L eah Zender was born in Lima, a city of about 38,000 people in northwest Ohio, but she grew up in an even smaller town about 30 minutes away. "No hotels, no tour- ism, none of that — and there was no one in my life that was in the hospitality industry," she said. So, like many things in life, she got into it "by chance." "It's amazing where life takes you," Zender said. "I always wanted to help people, and I love making people happy, and I didn't realize hospitality was the perfect industry to do that." Zender, who has been sales manager for Experience Columbus for a little over a year, moved to the city to attend Ohio State University, where she earned her bachelor's degree in business administration with an emphasis in marketing. It was there she saw a posting on a job board for an internship at the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium working in group sales and thought "that sounded like so much fun." Her time there proved to her it was; she spent nearly a year planning and overseeing events for corporations, small businesses and nonprofits. After she left the zoo, Experience Columbus hired Zender as the membership manager who was in charge of "selling our organiza- tion to the community." She went to restau- rants, hotels and attractions, and met with owners, managers and stakeholders to explain Experience Columbus' mission and why they should be on board with tourism. "I got to go to all these places and get a sense of the city, meet the owners and hear their stories," she said. "As a young person, I was so grateful to be in front of people who have built our city." Two years in that position gave her the per- September 26-28, 2017 b 26 28 2017 b 26 28 2017 rounding Ohio State, the fun and funky flair of the Short North Arts District, sporting events and concerts in the Arena District, museums and historic sites in downtown, and the cobblestone streets of German Village. In addition to showcasing the city to plan- ners, Zender enjoys helping to customize groups' experiences when they come to town. One group that brings a conference to Columbus every year has a signature color: pink. So at shops and restaurants throughout the city, attendees saw pink balloons bobbing in the breeze, and the CVB put the company's name up at a major intersection. One experience that resonated with her was when she worked with a local contact to help bring an association to the city. After the initial sales call with the organization, Zender asked if she could connect with the local con- tact. The group said that was important to do, so Zender and the contact worked on the proposal together. When the group came to Columbus for a site visit, Zender asked to set up a time for all of them — the planners, the local contact and herself — to meet. And the group ended up choosing Columbus. "It was an 'ah-ha' moment to have everyone come together," she said. "It made me realize the importance of my role in bringing people together." Photos courtesy Experience Columbus Zender welcomes a group meeting at Columbus' Hollywood Casino. Leah Zender