Women at the Helm: Clarion Events CEO Lisa Hannant on Female Empowerment, Speaking Up and Being Authentic

October 9, 2023

It’s a familiar story within the events industry: Like many trade show professionals, Lisa Hannant fell into the industry by chance, realized she loved it and never looked back. 

“I didn’t know what I wanted to do, only that I didn’t want to go into the city and finance, which is a path many of my peers pursued,” Hannant said. “I was fortunate to land a job with a family-owned U.K. exhibition organizer called Brintex. I started to work on their B2B fashion shows, and I loved it from day one.”

She continued, “I’ll never forget seeing my first show come together. The culmination of so much work, so many different teams and, of course, the live experience was memorable. I love the variety of what we do. The influence you can have on a business, a product and, of course, the people in the industry, make it very special.” 

Since then, Hannant has inarguably earned her place in the C-suite. With more than three decades of industry experience working across a broad range of sectors and international markets, she acquired extensive experience building market-leading brands, both organically and through acquisition, and also across a wide range of customer-driven formats, including large-scale live events and digital products.

Upon joining U.K.-based event organizer Clarion Events in 2008, Hannant worked her way up the corporate ladder, becoming part of its senior management team that led and delivered a strategy of expansive growth, later serving as group managing director and board member, and most recently, taking the helm as CEO in October 2022, a role she calls a privilege as Clarion continues its next stage of post-pandemic growth and evolution. Besides signifying the fulfillment of a long-held ambition, the promotion earned Hannant bragging rights as one of a small handful of female CEOs at top trade show organizers throughout the world.  

TSNN had a chance to catch up with this much-respected, dynamic industry leader to get her thoughts about being Clarion’s first female CEO, why being authentic and speaking up is so important for women event professionals and which industry veterans have been her biggest role models throughout her career. 

You’ve been CEO of Clarion Events for almost a year now. How does it feel to be the company’s first female leader and what have been your biggest focuses during your first 11 months on the job?

Firstly, I can’t believe it is nearly a year, and time is moving so quickly. Being CEO is a huge responsibility but one I relish. Yes, I am female, but I would rather not be known or remembered for that. I have used this first year to focus on bringing to life Clarion’s vision that every one of our products be a market leader in customer satisfaction and delight and to realize that vision: that our brands and products must deliver exceptional customer outcomes and experiences. I am, therefore, very focused on how we design and develop our products and shows, ensuring they have a strong purpose and that customer needs and value are placed at the forefront of everything we do.   

Of course, none of that is possible without a focus on our people, too. Attracting and retaining the best, most diverse talent for Clarion is clearly a priority, and it is an area we are investing time and money in at every level of the business. 

What have been your most important lessons and biggest successes since taking the helm of Clarion Events?

One of the biggest lessons I have learned is the importance of listening and communication. In my experience, the best CEOs I have worked with ask many questions and listen to the answers! As a new CEO, I am conscious that my words matter both internally and externally. I have always tried to communicate openly, honestly and directly. I hope my communication style has helped me this past year and is appreciated.    

Then there is, of course, the business performance globally. I am delighted with the progress we are making on all fronts. So many of our shows and brands are delivering extremely high levels of growth but just as importantly, are delivering high levels of customer satisfaction and net promoter score results. We are also pushing hard on innovation across the business, whether that be in digital or new event formats. It’s an important next phase for Clarion and for me personally.    

While gender diversity in executive roles within the events industry has been shifting in a more equitable direction, what are the biggest challenges of being a women leader in a historically male-dominated industry?

I agree that gender diversity in our industry has been shifting, which is good to see, but I also think this is just as much a generational shift as a diversity shift. Historically, senior leaders in our industry typically came up through sales or finance, but increasingly we see different pathways to the top – content, marketing and from outside our industry. In my view, this is a very positive trend and will help drive greater diversity. 

As for the challenges, I would say it can be hard to be heard at times as a female leader, so it’s important to speak up. Many of us have incredibly valuable contributions to make and offer a different perspective, so finding a way to voice that with confidence is so important. There is also the challenge of entering established networks of senior leaders. All I will say is go for it! Most will find, as I did, that you are welcomed with open arms, and the only thing holding you back is yourself. 

Have you always had top leadership aspirations since you got into the industry, and was it your goal to work your way into a CEO position? 

I have always been ambitious, and through the two startups I was involved in, including The Energy Exchange, I had an unusual amount of responsibility and ownership early on. That, coupled with being part of the leadership team at Clarion that grew the business 10-fold, meant that assuming the CEO role was the next natural step for me. It’s a business I love and one that continues to offer huge opportunities going forward, so yes, becoming CEO of Clarion was the goal. 

What advice would you give to women following leadership paths in the events industry and how can more women support their fellow aspiring female leaders along their pathways to the C-suite?

I am sure I am not the first to say this, but be authentic when pursuing any leadership ambition. If you are not true to that, others will quickly work that out, and creating trust and buy-in will become very difficult.    

Put your hand up for new opportunities and take on challenging projects that push you outside of your comfort zone. Without this, you won’t grow in experience and develop real leadership skills. It will also help get you noticed, and along with that will come respect and recognition of what you are really capable of.

I also advise anyone who wishes to pursue leadership to find themselves an internal sponsor. I have been very fortunate, both at Clarion and before that, to have had very supportive sponsors, which has been a game-changer to my development and motivation.   

What female role models in the industry have inspired you the most in your career, what kind of a role model do you hope to be for other female event professionals and why are role models important for women in our industry?

Going back 10 years, there were not many female role models in our industry for me to be inspired by, so I took inspiration from leaders I admired, which is something I encourage others to do. While diversity is hugely important, it doesn’t have to be defining. I was very fortunate to work with Russell Wilcox and Simon Kimble for 15 years. Those who know them will understand how very different they are, but they both played a significant role in shaping my future.

In recent years there have been some notable achievements by female leaders such as Mary Larkin, Monica Lee Muller, Cassandra Farringdon and Carina Bauer, assuming chairs of our industry associations and their own businesses. They are most definitely role models for the younger generation in our industry, and rightly so. In addition, I also can’t help but admire the tenacity and spirit of Joanne Kellaway. She demonstrated that she could build and create a business herself, which went global.  

So I guess having said the above, and seeing how times have changed and recognizing there are now a number of senior female leaders in our industry, I hope that we are able to bring a different voice to our industry that inspires a new wave of future leaders.   

Know of a dynamic woman leader in the meetings and events industry who deserves recognition? Reach out to lpsavas@tsnn.com.


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