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Thursday, April 18, 2024
She made her mark in a male-dominated business
Heather Campagnola’s business is based in Niagara-on-the-Lake but does work internationally. DAVE VAN DE LAAR

Heather Campagnola has had a lot of practice standing her ground.

When she started in the trade show industry four decades ago, she was one of the few women in the business.

So, she’s dealt with people underestimating her capabilities.

“It was really tough and it was a fight,” she says.

For example, in 1998, she was a senior project manager for a Toronto company and was in charge of setting up an exhibition in Paris during the FIFA World Cup, leading a 50-person team.

“The main labour source, he said, ‘You should go shopping.’ And I said, ‘Oh, should I?’ And he said, ‘Oh yes, we’ve got this. You go shopping.’ He would not take instruction from me.”

At one point, she fired nearly every worker in a shift because they wouldn’t listen to her.

However, she found a solution.

“The people that stayed, I paid them double,” she says. “The word got around and then all of a sudden, people wanted to work with me.”

Today, Campagnola is the president of Total Area International Exhibit Management, which provides trade show exhibits in the United States, Canada and Europe. Her company has been based in Old Town for 11 years.

She started as a receptionist for an exhibit house in the early 1980s, a summer job after her first year of college.

She says she loved the atmosphere there and decided to join the production team soon afterward.

Back then, being a young woman in a male-dominated industry meant she had to navigate things differently.

“If I went to a show site, say, at the CNE, or the International Centre in Toronto, I had to be escorted, because I was only 17 and it wasn’t safe for me to be out on the show floor because there were no females at all,” she says.

Campagnola plugged away at her work behind the scenes: she spent 10 years with the company, gaining experience in other departments — including mechanical and purchasing.

She worked for two more companies, including one where she was a senior project manager leading international exhibits, before launching Total Area in August 2000.

Reflecting on how times have changed, Campagnola says today there’s more gender equality in the industry.

“I would say today it’s at least 50/50. It’s greatly changed.”

These days, she’s winding down from work and wants to focus more on collaborating with local companies, including wineries in Niagara-on-the-Lake, and mentoring other women in business.

“That’s probably how I’m going to give back in my retirement,” she says.

While her career hasn’t been without its struggles, worrying about what people think of her as a woman in charge has not been one of them.

“I do what I do and I know I’m good at it,” she says. “I feel I’m going to be recognized by the right people and those are the clients that I want.”

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