Some college friends taking a wine tasting class eventually led to a Citizen Potawatomi woman earning national recognition for her work in the hospitality industry.

The Connect Association, which recognizes event and meeting planners nationwide, recently named CPN member and Anderson family descendant Kristen Vencl as one of its 40 Under 40 for 2020.

Kristen Vencl receives prestigious accolade for her professional career. (Photo provided by Adam Murphy)

Thanks to the pandemic, the Connect Association postponed its awards ceremony scheduled to be held in Orlando, Florida, and instead moved the event online. However, that did not diminish the importance of the accolade to Vencl.

“Receiving the award was an honor just based on the amount of time, relationship building I’ve done since being in the industry,” she said. “This whole hospitality business is all about people. When you can’t see or meet with people, it makes it more challenging.

“It’s been an interesting year to be in the hospitality industry, and I think that’s made everyone get more creative and think of other ways to make those personal connections.”

In her role as the national sales manager for the Tulsa Convention and Visitors Bureau, Vencl helped figure out ways to show professional organizations and associations from all over the world why they should bring their events to northeastern Oklahoma once the pandemic is over and mass gatherings are safe again.

With in-person meals, trips to Tulsa landmarks and other pre-coronavirus promotional standards not safe or feasible for most of 2020, Vencl turned to the web instead. Working in conjunction with local hotel managers and restauranteurs, she put together virtual tours and condensed what would normally be a three or four day trip into an hour.

“Obviously, they don’t get the full aspect of getting to see, smell, taste the food … but they get an idea,” Vencl said. “When it’s safe, they can come experience it and might have a better idea of what they want to go and do.

“It (virtual tours) has given us the chance to get in front of some planners who wouldn’t normally consider Tulsa or Oklahoma, for that matter. We might have some opportunities in the future that we might not have had before.”

Vencl fell in love with the hospitality industry while an undergraduate at Oklahoma State University. Initially an accounting major, she did not know hotel and restaurant management was a degree option until some friends mentioned they were taking a wine tasting class.

“I like people too much to be behind a desk,” she said with a chuckle. “When some friends said they were taking a wine tasting class, I was intrigued.”

In the 15 years since completing her degree, Vencl has worked across Oklahoma, including stops in the Enid and Tulsa areas, building connections throughout the hospitality industry and with professional organizations looking for convention sites. She credits those relationships with making it easier not only to move among markets but to stay in it during tough times like those brought on by the pandemic.

“It’s been such a fun group to be with,” she said.