14:18 PM

Employee Spotlight: Maria Cook, Events Manager

For someone who has an intense love of travel and adventure, Maria Cook has arguably one of the more fun jobs an event planner could have. As the Hillsborough County Aviation Authority’s Events Manager, she gets to create new and fun ways to celebrate new airlines and routes, construction milestones and other happy occasions at Tampa International Airport.

She’s become a pro at whipping up a party on short notice. She knows who to call in town for the best balloon sculptures, acoustic musicians and elaborate cakes depicting scenes from Zurich, Havana, Hollywood and even Madison, Wisconsin.

You can bet that no one is more excited about that new route than Maria.

Her love of flying began in an unexpected place: Her hometown of Sofia, Bulgaria. In a Communist country that afforded very few the opportunity to travel beyond its borders, Maria’s father worked as a mechanic for Balkan Bulgarian Airlines, the nation’s sole government-owned air carrier. She grew up on and around planes.

“Back then, the only way you could fly and see the world is if you were a top government official, or if you worked for the airline,” Maria said. “So my family got to fly and we took full advantage of it.”

Those flights were limited other Socialist Bloc countries but they made the most of it, visiting the Black Sea coastline, shopping in East Germany. The family travels also ingrained in Maria a life rule she still strictly follows today.

“You never, ever skip on a vacation,” she said. Time off work means time to get away, to explore, to escape.

When Maria finished high school and fulfilled her childhood dream of becoming a flight attendant for Balkan Bulgarian Airlines, her world opened up even more.

In exchange for meeting the strict requirements for flight attendants at the time – hair and makeup a certain way, weight limits, little white gloves, a visit to physician before boarding each journey – Maria was able to see the the pyramids of Egypt, the crystal blue waters of the Maldives, the waterfalls of Zimbabwe, the temples of Sri Lanka, the skycrapers of New York.

She loved it but knew she couldn’t do it forever. At that time, flight attendants had to retire by 37, so many went to college and got degrees while they worked. Maria studied business administration and finance to prepare for a less glamorous life beyond her airline career.

The benefit of free tickets on all big European Careers gave her the opportunity to explore other places during her time off. Her vacations took her to all over the United States. On one of those vacations, Maria met Kevin, now her husband of 27 years.

The couple married and settled in the Tampa Bay area and Maria got a job in accounting for a large real estate company. It was okay. After she gave birth to her son Patrick, the new mother began looking for something different, and air travel called her name again.

She applied for a job at the Hillsborough County Aviation Authority in the Public Information & Community Relations department, and three months later, she got an interview and landed the job.

Along her 24-year career, the department evolved and branched off into forming TPA’s excellent Marketing Team, and Maria is now responsible for planning all of the Airport’s public-facing events, such as new air service launch gate parties, the grand opening of the new Rental Car Center and SkyConnect train, TPA’s 50th Anniversary and other exciting occasions.

The COVID-19 pandemic slowed down not only the Airport’s events but Maria’s travels as well. But as airlines have been adding quickly adding new routes and TPA has been filling up again, she’s been as busy as ever.

She made the most of limited travel, visiting places like Yellowstone and Zion national parks, Las Vegas and New Orleans.

“There are many, many more places to go,” Maria said. "I like discovering new places and different things. I always look for places the locals like to go. I'm a very independent traveler. Budget, but not frugal."

And she never, ever skips on a vacation.

When it’s time to take a break in her busy schedule at work, she’s off on another journey to somewhere she’s never been.

This week, she’s going to Alaska.