2018 Virginia Business Meeting Planner of the Year: Karen Surmacewicz
When Karen Surmacewicz responded to a newspaper ad in 1995 for a receptionist job with the Virginia Chamber of Commerce, she didn’t know it was the start of a 23-year ride.
Today, Surmacewicz is vice president of membership and event management for the chamber, where she oversees some of the most popular business gatherings in the state. Her duties have changed since those days of answering the phone, but Surmacewicz’ spirit of professionalism and desire to represent the Virginia Chamber has not.
“What people thought of me when I answered the phone or when they came into the chamber is what they think of the Virginia Chamber,” Surmacewicz says. She says the events she organizes also factor into people’s perceptions of the organization.
Surmacewicz’ success as an event planner has made her this year’s Virginia Business Meeting Planner of the Year. The annual honor is a collaboration between Virginia Business and the Virginia Society of Association Executives (VSAE), which serves the commonwealth’s association management industry. Surmacewicz was selected from 10 nominees by a panel of judges from VSAE and Virginia Business. She will be recognized at VSAE’s 2018 Fall Conference at the Greater Richmond Convention Center on Oct. 4. About 350 people are expected to attend.
“Karen anticipates better than most,” says Barry DuVal, president and CEO of the Virginia Chamber. “She has been able to rise to the occasion for the growth in our events.”
DuVal says since he took the reins of the Virginia Chamber in 2010, the organization’s events went from under 1,000 attendees annually to more than 5,000.
The Virginia Chamber puts on 10 events per year and three board meetings, which are overseen by Surmacewicz. That includes the Virginia Economic Summit, an event that attracted more than 900 people to the Williamsburg Lodge last year. The chamber initially planned for 700 attendees. When it became clear more would be coming, Surmacewicz arranged for an extra room for the overflow.
“It’s that anticipation that allows her to be such an excellent event planner,” DuVal says.
Terry Stroud of In Your Ear, a Richmond audio and video studio, says Surmacewicz takes care of the little things that make events top notch. He recalls a day when the flu season sidelined some musicians Surmacewicz had scheduled to play at an evening event. Surmacewicz reached out to Stroud who connected her with different performers.
“She was able to roll with the punches,” and knew where to reach out for resources, Stroud says.
Surmacewicz is thankful to DuVal for believing in her and promoting her to her current role in 2015.
“I really have to give the credit to Barry for recognizing that I could do more,” Surmacewicz says.
She also praises her colleagues at the chamber, director of events Lindsay Borge and Samantha Quig Moore, director of communications and program manager.
Surmacewicz says the Virginia Chamber shapes its events around policy issues and important topics to the business community. She said importance is placed on the programming and on attendees.
Surmacewicz has honed her meeting planning skills with on-the-job training rooted in a passion for working with people. After about four years as a receptionist, Surmacewicz started helping the Virginia Chamber with its events. She split her days by doing the reception work in the morning and working with the events team in the afternoon. She learned a lot from Cyndi Miracle, who today is the senior vice president of programs at the chamber.
“When I went to college there was not an event planning (program) or a hospitality and travel or any of those, or I might have majored in that,” Surmacewicz says. “It was all on-the-job training.”
Prior to joining the chamber, Surmacewicz worked in local government in North Carolina and Northern Virginia. She grew up in Arlington and studied sociology at Virginia Tech.
Surmacewicz says she has no immediate plans to retire but will likely do so when DuVal finishes his tenure at the Virginia Chamber. In the meantime, Surmacewicz likes to keep in mind what Dennis Treacy, a former board chairman for the chamber, said about retiring — train people well and everything will continue on after you pass on the torch. She’s taken that approach working with Borge and Moore.
“We also have the public policy folks that help us with ideas and topics and speakers,” she says. “It just is a cohesive organization in putting events together.”
About Karen Surmacewicz
Title: Virginia Chamber of Commerce’s vice-president of membership and event management
Residence: Henrico County
Hobbies: Beach vacations, reading, crafts and spending time with her granddaughter.
Work history: Surmacewicz has worked at the Virginia Chamber since moving to Richmond in 1995 from Burke in Northern Virginia. She previously worked for the Forsyth County Government in North Carolina and for a member of the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors.
Most memorable event planning moment: The Virginia Chamber’s first Economic Summit in 2010 at Kingsmill Resort. The keynote luncheon speaker Karl Rove attracted so many people the Kingsmill staff had to re-set the ballroom in 45 minutes.
Role models: Mother and father, Barry DuVal and Hugh Keogh (Virginia Chamber of Commerce), the late Nicholas M. Meiszer (former Forsyth County, N.C., county manager) and the late Jim Scott (former Fairfax County supervisor and Virginia House of Delegates member).