Women at the Helm: Laura Purdy, General Manager, Exhibition Place
The story of how Laura Purdy found a career in the exhibitions and meetings industry will be a familiar one for many event professionals: she fell into it – and never left. While in the process of building a marketing and retail management career at a prestigious commercial real estate firm in Toronto, Canada, Purdy had the chance to participate in new business development projects, including responding to RFPs for management contracts for global commercial real estate properties.
One of those projects was for The National Trade Centre (now Enercare Centre), which was under construction at Exhibition Place and had issued an RFP seeking a third-party management company to open and run it. Purdy worked on the bid team with SMG (now ASM Global) on the RFP response and shortly after helping the company win the contract, was invited to take on the role of director of sales and marketing for what was to become Canada’s largest exhibition and convention centre. With some hesitation, she agreed to take on the role for a year to get the building opened and start up the team.
“It didn’t take me long to fall in love with the convention and exhibition industry,” Purdy says. “Last year I celebrated my 25th year at Exhibition Place and now lead the venue team as general manager. I love the dynamic nature of the events business. There is always a new challenge, and as a team, we are constantly learning and innovating. I still get that adrenalin rush with the signing of a new piece of business and watching delegates and exhibitors flow into the convention centre every day.”
Now an accomplished leader in Canada’s exhibition and event management industry, Purdy has been a part of the leadership team at the sprawling, 192-acre Exhibition Place campus throughout some of its most high-profile events, including the Pan American Games, the Papal World Youth Days and the G20 Summit.
A strong believer in giving back and making a positive impact on the industry she loves, Purdy proudly sits on the board of various industry associations including the Canadian Association of Exposition Management (CAEM), Convention Centres of Canada and Meetings Mean Business Canada. A passionate advocate for sustainability, DEI and women’s empowerment, she also co-founded the Women in Exhibitions North America Chapter.
TSNN had a chance to sit down with this inspiring industry leader to get her thoughts about gender and racial parity in the exhibition and meetings industry, what important lessons she has learned running Exhibition Place and its myriad venues, and what the events industry can do to help support more burgeoning women leaders as they forge a path to the C-suite.
What can the meetings and events industry—and the women in it—do to help create more gender (and racial) parity in convention center leadership?
We should continue to support women’s careers at every level; identify and challenge future leaders to expand their knowledge, even if it is outside of their current job function. Sometimes growth occurs within your organization, or through volunteerism in an industry association – either way, we need to encourage diversity, equity and inclusion to keep the convention and exhibition industry well-served for the future. The industry should continue to encourage flexibility in the workplace for hybrid work (role-appropriate), and support women to earn industry designations and training to expand their knowledge base.
While gender diversity in the leadership roles within the events industry is moving in a more equitable direction, what do you see as the biggest challenges of being a women leader at this time in our industry?
In my experience, leadership has its challenges regardless of gender. Women leaders may approach challenges from their unique perspective, however encouraging diversity in the workplace at all levels increases collaboration, sparks innovation and improves organizational decision-making.
What are the qualities that women bring to venue management that empower them to excel at their jobs?
I appreciate qualities such as intuitiveness, empathy and conscientiousness that women bring to venue management. These traits allow them to effectively connect and collaborate with their colleagues and apply those qualities to deliver a high level of customer service to their clients.
During your time managing Exhibition Place, what have been your most important lessons and biggest successes?
Some of the most important lessons have been around ensuring that we take the time to ‘peel back the layers’ when dealing with issues or crises. Often a problem presents itself one way and only after active listening, investigation and inquiry does the underlying issue reveal itself and in turn, we find our way to a solution.
One of my biggest successes was my participation on the project team for Beanfield Centre, which is a beautiful LEED Silver conference centre that was thoughtfully designed to service our clients’ and attendees’ needs. I am proud of how we traversed the pandemic, turning our 1 million-square-foot convention centre into a film production studio. In fact, one of the more than 30 productions filmed here during the pandemic has just been nominated for two Oscars. Not only did we adapt during the pandemic and retained our incredible staff, who became film production experts, but our team also surpassed expectations as we re-opened to an incredible volume and pace of events last year. I am very proud to lead this team of high-performing convention centre professionals.
What advice would you give to women in the events industry wishing to follow a leadership path?
I would recommend that women should put their hand up more often to take on special projects – even if it doesn’t have an immediate payback. It contributes to experience, awareness and a knowledge base that can be drawn upon in the future. The events industry is all about experiences and responding to new situations, and we benefit in unexpectedly positive ways by getting involved. I would also encourage women to connect with other women in the industry.
During the pandemic, and in conjunction with industry leaders Martha Donato and Stephanie Selesnick, I had the honor of co-founding the North American chapter of Women in Exhibitions – a network to connect, support and empower women from all facets of the exhibition industry. Participating in WIEN, or volunteering for any one of our many industry associations, will help build a woman’s network, grow her experience level and contribute to her community.
Know of a dynamic woman leader in the meetings and events industry who deserves recognition? Reach out to firstname.lastname@example.org.