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Leia Baez - keynote speaker

Leia Baez



Leia Baez knows firsthand the power of storytelling. In more than 14 years as an award-winning journalist, Leia experienced how stories can magically connect, inspire, and uplift people with all different beliefs and backgrounds. She took great pride in sharing other people’s stories of hope. But on January 27, 2018 – for the first time in her life – Leia publicly shared raw details of her life on a stage in front of hundreds of people. She had just graduated with a master’s degree from Bellevue University and was selected to be the commencement speaker. Even though it was one of the toughest things she’s ever done, Leia said she found the courage to be vulnerable and talk about the darkest times of her life – a divorce and custody battle. She told the audience how she felt like a failure as a wife and a mother, and she thought her life was over. That one courageous moment sent Leia on quite the adventure, opening doors to opportunities she never imagined. She became a viral motivational speaker overnight, leading her to a career as a keynote speaker and an award-winning author. Owning her story and being authentic paid off in major ways and was the proof she needed that all of the good stuff happens on the other side of our fears. Leia believes we step into our true power every time we find the courage to share a piece of our own journeys – especially the hard-to-talk-about stuff. Leia said that vulnerability is the key to authentic connections.

About Leia: Leia Baez, an Omaha, Neb. native, is an award-winning author, a government communications director, a mindset coach, and a motivational speaker. While Leia spent most of her career telling other people’s stories as an award-winning newspaper journalist for the Lincoln Journal Star, The Denver Post, The Indianapolis Star, and The Omaha World-Herald, her own story of overcoming adversity went viral online, reaching more than 6.5 million people worldwide. Leia’s memoir, A Star for Stella, A Mother’s Journey to Overcome, is a story of self-discovery, healing trauma, overcoming alcoholism, dealing with divorce, and fighting to be the best version of herself so she can be the best mother possible. Leia’s book has received rave reviews and earned six awards at the International Latino Book Awards in Los Angeles, California in 2022. Leia’s greatest passion is speaking with others — empowering them to live as the best version of themselves, have a positive mindset and embrace the difficult times in life. Leia was recently named one of the “Best Commencement Speakers of All Time” by Goalcast, the world’s leading empowering media company. Read more about her at

Matt Stewart

Matt Stewart

Leveraging the Media to Promote Yourself and/or Destination or Attraction

As a morning reporter for Fox 4 News, Matt Stewart travels all over the city to inform viewers of all the great places to visit in the area. Over the past five summers, he’s been a part of the Fox 4 Zip Trips, where they pick a small city nearby and go live all morning to share the wonderful things to do and the great restaurants in that town. Some recent favorites include Bonner Springs, Kearney, LeCompton, and Excelsior Springs. Through the power of the press, Matt is able to encourage others to travel to these small towns and help infuse their local economies with new visitors. He will share tips on how your destination and attractions can get media attention without breaking the bank. He’ll give you ways to pitch to the media and once your pitch gets accepted, how to make sure you make the most out of it.

About Matt: Matt Stewart is an Emmy-award-winning reporter and anchor at Fox 4 News in Kansas City. A graduate of Northwestern University, Matt has spent the past 25 years working at various television stations in Omaha, Nebraska; Sioux City, Iowa; Kearney, Nebraska; Dayton, Ohio; and Kansas City. Matt is also the author of four books. His first one, “The Walk-On” details his experience as a walk-on football player at Northwestern University and how he not only earned a full-ride scholarship but helped Northwestern go from the worst team in the Big Ten to winning two Big Ten championships. His latest book, “Unique Eats and Eateries of Kansas City”, explores the most iconic restaurants in the metro. It details the stories of the people who’ve found success sharing their culinary talents with the City of Fountains. Matt lives in Lenexa with his wife, Chrissy, their three children, and two dogs.

Brandy Gleason

Brandy Gleason

How to Organically Grow Your Audience Using Facebook Groups

Social never sleeps and we are seeing trends changing fast and organic growth seems out of reach. Facebook Groups is the answer to that dilemma. In this fast-paced session, I will tell you how to create a Facebook group, attach it to your page, how I have been successfully using this tool to grow an email list, and how to engage the people that join your group. If you’re a CVB/DMO I’ll show you how this connects you with your community, fan base, and potential visitors. Writers and bloggers, you’ll learn how to reach a more niched audience and grow your follower base.

About Brandy: Brandy Gleason is the CEO of Gleason Media, LLC. , chief writer at Gleason Family Adventure and Admin of Ohio Road Trips Facebook group. She has written two books, 100 Things to Do in Ohio’s Amish Country Before You Die, and co-wrote the Ohio section of Midwest Road Trip Adventures, currently, she is writing 100 Things to Do in Ohio Before You Die. She has spoken at National Conventions on education and virtual conferences on travel and is a brand ambassador for THOR industries and Heartland RV’s.

Brandy loves to travel and explore and has a passion for the environment and the outdoors. She buckles up for a road trip any time she can and her driving force behind her social media is to encourage others to find their own adventures. One of her favorite quotes is “In order to write about life first you must live it.” by Ernest Hemingway and she fully embraces each day. 

Steve Maly profile shot

Steve Maly

Cut Fat and Maximize ROI: Stop Lighting Your Marketing Dollars on Fire

Put aside the sexy pitches and learn what really matters in marketing DMOs. This presentation will provide insights into the trends that consistently drive growth in your community, how to figure out what story to tell and how along with the metrics and insights that we consistently use to report back to tourism boards.  Let’s get to the bottom of what actually works and leave the rest of the shiny but unproven objects behind.

About Steve: Many times you can find Steve speaking at conferences throughout the Midwest on relevant topics such as, how tourism entities can stop lighting their marketing dollars on fire and get trackable results.  In the office, he helps to set the vision for the organization and leads day-to-day operations.

Steve and his team’s work has resulted in Maly Marketing winning numerous American Marketing Awards and the Friend of Tourism award given out by Nebraska Tourism. He also sits on the board of the Nebraska Travel Association along with numerous business boards in Lincoln Nebraska.
Away from the office, Steve likes to chase little white balls around the golf course and is passionate about continuing education.
Erin Sturm

Erin Sturm

Make it Once, Use it Ten Times: How to Repurpose Your Content Across Social Media Platforms

As a busy mom of two, Erin Sturm is very familiar with the fact that there’s never enough time to get everything done! She’s been able to leverage her limited time by working smarter when creating content. With a background in Marketing, social media management, and professional writing, she knows that quality content is the way to stand out and get noticed in your niche. During this presentation, you’ll learn how to manage your time and work smarter when creating content, how to write and optimize an eye-catching caption format, and how to take one piece of media, ideally commissioned, and use it to create multiple social media posts – all of which could potentially be monetized!. She’ll also be talking about User Generated Content and how you can embrace the trend and the rise of the micro-influencer and why you need to position yourself as one NOW! You’ll leave the presentation with a better grasp on repurposing the content you already have and actionable tips, templates, and ideas for your next social media post!

About Erin: Erin Sturm is the owner of Stateline Kids, a hyperlocal website dedicated to family-friendly fun in Northern Illinois and Southern Wisconsin. In just four years, she’s grown her audience to more than 13,000 across social media platforms and leveraged her micro-influencer status to appear monthly on a local lifestyle news program. In 2022, she was presented with the NextGen award by her local chamber of commerce and was deemed a “woman to watch” in the future. Erin has a Bachelor of Arts in English and a Master of Business Administration, both from Northern Illinois University. She is a mother of two elementary-age kids and resides in the greater Rockford, Illinois area with her husband. In her spare time, she enjoys reading, trying new restaurants, and leading her daughter’s Girl Scouts troop.

Theresa Goodrich

Theresa Goodrich

Self-Publishing 101: from Blogger to Author

Gone are the days when writers had to rely on publishing houses if they wanted to be authors. Now they can take the reins. Self-publishing not only establishes and enhances credibility, it also can be quite profitable.

Writing a book can seem overwhelming, but if you’re blogging, you’re already ahead of the curve, and you can turn those efforts into a book. Author, Publisher, and Emmy winner Theresa Goodrich shares tips from concept to bookshelf, including the pros and cons of self-publishing vs. traditional publishing, tapping your existing audience to create a successful launch, and how publishing a book builds an even bigger audience for your blog. She’ll share personal stories of her own journey and how she uses transparency and authenticity to create a network of raving fans while slogging through the self-doubt that accompanies such an epic undertaking.

In this session, you’ll get a broader understanding of what’s involved with self-publishing and by the end, you’ll not only know if it’s the right path for you, but you’ll also have an action plan to get started in your indie author career.

  1. Why you – yes, you – can write a book

  2. Why self-publishing is a good idea.

  3. A-Z steps involved with self-publishing, from concept to finished product.

  4. How bloggers can turn their existing content and research into books.

  5. What is KDP (Kindle Direct Publishing), D2D (Draft2Digital), and why you should care?

  6. The basics of advertising on Amazon to turn your book into a revenue stream.

About Theresa: Theresa L. Goodrich is an Emmy-winning author and content creator with a penchant for storytelling and a keen eye. She’s the founder of The Local Tourist and Your Chicago Guide. As the author of multiple books, including the Two Lane Gems series, Living Landmarks of Chicago, and COMPLETE Road Trip Guide (for grown-ups), she’s a firm believer that self-publishing can be life-changing. In 2022, Theresa published Midwest Road Trip Adventures, 2nd Edition, a collaboration with members of the Midwest Travel Network, under The Local Tourist imprint. Also that year, her first mystery series featuring travel writer Alex Paige debuted.

Theresa has spoken at the Chicago, Denver, and San Diego Travel and Adventure Shows and will also appear in Los Angeles in 2023. Other speaking engagements have included many Chicago-area libraries as well as the Chicago Auto Show. She’s appeared in several Chicago media outlets, including Crain’s Chicago, the Chicago Tribune, WGN, WLUP, and WCIU. She was one of the founding bloggers of ChicagoNow, was the Chicago Expert for, and is syndicated on Microsoft Start. She’s also spoken on marketing, motivation, and entrepreneurship at several panels and conferences, and was a mentor at the exclusive 2019 Bloghouse conference in Scottsdale, Arizona.

Obsessed with writing from a young age, in 2022 Theresa launched an online writing course based on her Midwest Travel Network Writers’ Workshop. Writers looking to improve their skills have traveled to Hendricks County, IN; Gulf Shores, AL; Dubuque, IA; SE Montana/Billings, and Sheboygan, WI, to learn from her at these intense multi-day retreats. When she’s not writing or on the road, she’s cooking and planning her next adventure.

Photo of Andrea Etzel

Andrea Etzel

Best Practices to Capture Visuals that Tell a Story

In this session, we’ll cover the principles of storytelling through photography and other visuals. From planning to publishing, attendees will be guided through the different processes and provided useful tips when capturing photography (or video) while traveling.

About Andrea: Andrea Etzel is an award-winning photographer and published writer. For over ten years, she’s worked in the travel and hospitality industry. Currently, Andrea is the publication manager for Kansas’ state tourism office. In this role, she is the Editor-in-Chief of KANSAS! magazine and publisher of the state’s official travel guide. 

Based in Topeka, KS, Andrea is also a freelance content creator as Ad Astra Explorer. Visually telling stories of her journeys around her home state and the Midwest. Andrea is also passionate about history and sits on the board of several historical organizations. She graduated with her BFA, in Photography from the Savannah College of Art and Design.

Kim Reiner

Thinking Like a Marketer to Grow Your Blog Income

Kim Reiner has spent years as a marketing director and blogging at Oh My! Omaha on the side. When she started applying marketing tactics to her blog work, amazing things started to happen. Her audience grew because she understood their wants and needs, and in the process, she started earning more money.

Marketing at its core is simple: It’s creating a profitable customer action. There’s a strategy behind everything a marketer does, and when it’s successfully executed, both the marketer and the customer get what they want. Kim will guide you through creating your own marketing strategy for your blog, using tactics that help you maintain authenticity. When applying a marketer’s mindset to blogging, you can better plan how to meet your readers’ needs and increase your income.

About Kim: Kim Reiner has been involved in writing in some form or another for more than two decades. Graduating from DePauw University with a Bachelors of Arts in Communications and Spanish, Kim has worked as a print journalist and editor, marketer, public relations manager, and social media consultant. She’s settled on travel blogging and is happily the owner and publisher of two blogs, Oh My! Omaha and Let’s Go Iowa. She’s also the author of “Lost Restaurants of Omaha.” Kim lives in Omaha, Nebraska, with her husband and two kids, who’ve learned to wait to eat their food at restaurants until Mom has had a chance to take a picture.

Megan Bannister

Setting Yourself Up For Success with Systems

Stop spinning your wheels and learn how to create systems that set you up for success. With a background in project management, Megan Bannister has years of experience helping teams structure their work so they can focus on being creative. Megan will show how by working smarter, not harder, you’ll not only be more efficient in your day-to-day tasks, but will have the extra capacity for big picture thinking and truly meaningful work.

From time blocking and checklist creation to spreadsheets and automations, Megan will give an overview of systems you can set up for your business or team that will help you prioritize your work, accomplish more and stop second guessing yourself. We’ll also have time to hear from our attendees about systems and softwares that have helped them. If your to-do list is starting to feel tedious, this is the session for you!

About Megan: Megan Bannister is a freelance content creator and blogger at Olio in Iowa, based in Des Moines, Iowa. When she’s not sampling and writing about food, Megan enjoys visiting unique destinations, roadside attractions, and “world’s largest” things across the Midwest and beyond. She is also the author of the book, Iowa Supper Clubs, which highlights classic eateries past and present from around the state, as well as the forthcoming book, Secret Iowa: A Guide to the Weird, Wonderful & Obscure, which will be released in late 2023.

Profile photo of Lesli Peterson

Lesli Peterson

Unique ways to work with bloggers to promote your destination

Social media is all the hype these days, but blogging is far from dead. We’ll talk about the best types of destination coverage for visiting bloggers, unique ways to get your region noticed on Google, how email marketing has changed for travel (hint: newsletters are not the only way anymore) and tips for vetting a bloggers’ ability to provide ROI to your location.

About Lesli: Lesli Peterson has traveled her entire life, living in multiple states and several countries. After 18 years in software development, Lesli bailed on the corporate scene to share her love of travel with the world, full-time. When she’s not on the road, she’s hiking in the summer… snowboarding in the winter… and constantly formulating a plan for her family’s next road trip. She owns two travel blogs with her husband, as well as an email integration service for tour operators.

Jarrod McCartney

Jarrod McCartney

Good Enough Isn’t Good Enough: Civic pride, Destination Tourism, and Rural Revitalization

In this session, you will learn how community leaders in Red Cloud have been patiently overcoming entrenched scarcity mindsets, building civic pride through strategic marketing campaigns, embracing a culture of philanthropy, and fostering a steadfast belief that rural citizens deserve access to high-quality products, experiences, and services. RCHTD (Red Cloud’s Heritage Tourism Development) is dedicated to building a community that is a center for arts and culture in rural America. Learn how this is being accomplished, why this approach will make the community a better place to live in as well as visit, and why writing about it helps more than anything else.

Red Cloud, NE is a community of around 1,000 residents located in south central Nebraska within the rolling hills and sharp ridge crests of the Republican River Valley. Red Cloud was home to novelist Willa Cather, is the setting for her famous novels, and has the most historic sites dedicated to a single author in the United States. Red Cloud and Webster County, NE is also the home of the world’s largest “true” round barn, 2 National Historic Landmarks, 36 sites on the national historic register, the former home of MLB Hall of Famers Cy Young and Dazzy Vance, and much more history than can reasonably be listed here.

Red Cloud’s Heritage Tourism Development (RCHTD) project is an attempt to leverage the community’s historic and cultural assets as a catalyst for community and economic development.

About Jarrod: McCartney was hired as the Heritage Tourism Development Director in Red Cloud, NE in 2015. McCartney’s position is the result of a collaboration between The National Willa Cather Center, the Red Cloud Community Fund, the Nebraska Community Foundation, the City of Red Cloud, and the Red Cloud Area Chamber of Commerce–all of whom recognized the need for an economic development professional who focused on developing the community’s unique cultural heritage tourism assets. McCartney holds a bachelor’s degree from Hastings College (NE), a Master’s degree from Kansas State University, and completed his Ph.D. coursework at the University of Oklahoma. Born and raised in Red Cloud, McCartney has family roots in Webster County, NE that stretch back to the original homestead claim. McCartney is also the Chair of the Red Cloud Community Fund, President of the Red Cloud Hotel, LLC board, and past President of the Nebraska Travel Association. McCartney is hopelessly enamored with his wife Rachel and daughter Louise. He’s also a dedicated follower of the New York Mets, Nebraska sports and Tennessee Titans–he spends his spare time making “best of” lists about music, movies, and television. He coaches girls’ youth soccer and basketball as well.

Stay tuned for more speaker announcements coming soon!