Event Innovators 2017: Cathi Culbertson

The vice president of event marketing and conferences at Forbes has a go-to strategy of making guests feel special.

By Mitra Sorrells June 14, 2017, 5:21 AM EDT

Photo: Glen Davis

Cathi Culbertson credits her mother—and luck—with her entry into what has now been a 26-year career managing events and conferences at Forbes

As a young girl, Culbertson learned hosting and table-setting skills by helping her mother organize formal dinner parties for friends. She says that training equipped her for a job managing the executive dining room inside the headquarters of the now defunct Chemical Bank, after she decided not to pursue aspirations to act. 

And then it was what she describes as a stroke of luck—filling in for a friend who was slated to work an event on the Forbes yacht—that introduced her to Steve Forbes at a time when the company needed help with its events.

“They needed a person to run their townhouse and gallery events. And here I am 26 years later. It was definitely being at the right place at the right time,” she says.

“We always want to make sure there’s some great experience that brings you culture or history about the area.”

Culbertson started managing the events the company hosted for clients in its New York townhouse, which was a dedicated event space, followed by an expansion of her work to the company’s art gallery, and then the corporate yacht and the family’s New Jersey estate. She’s now Forbes’s vice president of event marketing and conferences.

“It was expanding and learning on the fly—how to do an event on a yacht, how to do an event from the ground up at their estate in New Jersey. It was very exciting,” she says. The on-the-job learning continued for Culbertson as she added the company’s growing portfolio of conferences to her domain—starting with Forbes’s C.M.O. Summit, which celebrated its 12th anniversary in 2016, to what is now a slate of nearly a dozen conferences and more than 100 client events every year.  

Her go-to strategy, whether for an intimate corporate dinner party or a large conference, is to make every guest feel special and to provide memorable experiences for them. “At our conferences, yes, there’s a portion when you sit down and listen to content and that’s great, but we always want to make sure there’s some great experience that brings you culture or history about the area,” she says. At the brand’s most recent “Under 30” conference, which took place in Israel in early April, Culbertson combined content, culture, and networking by offerings sessions that included an archeological dig and a trip to Palestine. 

The company’s events target a range of attendees—from farmers and food-system pioneers at the AgTech Summit to young entrepreneurs, celebrities, and investors at the Under 30 events—and Culbertson works to tailor the events to each unique audience. For example, at last fall’s Under 30 conference in Boston, she intentionally started the program later than usual, at 10 a.m., and scheduled long breaks to facilitate networking and offered wellness activities—all to appeal to the event’s millennial attendees.

To better coordinate sponsors for each of the conferences, Culbertson created a new position on her event management team. “We wanted to make sure there was a designated person so the sponsors felt they were given the white-glove experience. She follows up, she makes sure no one misses deadlines, she makes sure they get the most opportunities they can have for showing their brand at our event or conference,” she says.

In March, Culbertson’s newest conference debuted: Forbes Top Advisors Summit in Las Vegas. Looking ahead, she says they will continue to find new opportunities to create events that can evolve out of their existing offerings. It’s that continual growth that fulfills her creativity and explains her longevity. 

“Not in a million years did I think I’d be doing this [as my career],” she says. “But if you look at it, I’m producing here so I’m still in the theatrical world of sorts. It’s just a different side of it, and I love it.”

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