Larry Perkins is vice president of guest relations at PNC Arena in Raleigh, N.C. (Courtesy Larry Perkins)
In the weeks after the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police and the protests that followed, three Black professionals in venue management spoke to VenuesNow’s James Zoltak about their career paths and experiences, their thoughts on whether America has reached a tipping point regarding race, and what the industry must do to create positive change.
Larry Perkins is a venues industry veteran who, since 2000, has been assistant general manager at PNC Arena in Raleigh, N.C., home of the NHL’s Carolina Hurricanes, where he serves as vice president of guest relations. Before that he spent 24 years at the Meadowlands Sports Complex in East Rutherford, N.J., where he helped open the Meadowlands Racetrack, Giants Stadium and Continental Airlines Arena and eventually served as vice president of guest services and facility operations for the stadium and arena.
He served as president of the International Association of Assembly Managers (now IAVM) during 2006-07 and is a Certified Venues Executive. Before going into the venues industry, he was a private investigator and regional security manager with Pinkerton. He is the author of “Crowd Safety and Survival: Practical Event and Public Gathering Safety Tips” and “Buck Seventy-Two: A Destiny of Will,” a memoir that delves into his life’s journey, which began as the son of a sharecropper in Enfield, N.C.
Among the most accomplished black executives in the live events facilities industry, he recently spoke with VenuesNow’s James Zoltak about his career, U.S. race relations and mentors who have helped guide and propel him to success.
How did you get started in the venues industry and what have been some of the highlights of your career as you look back?
Like most things, people get lucky and I happened to be one of those lucky kids, I guess. I had been a private investigator and met this gentleman when I walked into headquarters one day and we got to chatting and he wanted me to come out of the field and come to the security side of things. So I did. I trusted him for some reason. I had to go take this huge test to become an official with the company. And he taught me. We rode together every day so he could teach me and I could study these books and then of course I passed the test.
A few years later the Meadowlands Sports Complex was being built and they needed somebody to come down and head their security program for them. So they took a gentleman from New York racing to head the racing side and they took me to head the racetrack side and stadium side at that point because I had an investigative background and of course I had a security background. So I got to go to the Meadowlands Sports Complex back in 1976. We weren’t sure the Meadowlands was going to succeed. After all, they only had $50 million in a start-up fund at the time. And then there was an article in the paper that people would die from the fumes caused by cars. … Obviously, it turned out to be one of the world’s premier sports complexes and I happened to be a great part of it.
During my tenure I got to meet seven presidents, including our current president before he was president. I got to meet the pope and Bruce Springsteen and every single star you could think about. The Meadowlands Sports Complex was truly a city within a city in itself; five miles around, 770 acres of land.
We had four helipads on the grounds. We had animal hospitals. We slept 1,700 people and housed 1,200 horses. So it was truly a magnificent place.
I remember when that was built. I was a teenager. It’s funny what you say about the fumes from cars because growing up in New Jersey we used to think that we were pretty much immune to pollution. But I don’t want to come across as sounding like I’m badmouthing my home state because I love New Jersey. I still have a lot of family and friends there and there are things about the state I think would surprise a lot of people if they checked it out.
So true. I’m glad you said that. Me too, I love New Jersey. I still have kids there, family there. … There’s a reason they call it the Garden State, because if you get off the turnpike or the Garden State Parkway, it is country … but people don’t see that. But it is beautiful and that’s why so many people are moving there.
From the Meadowlands, where did you go?
I came to Raleigh. That was 20 years ago. I came down in 2000. My boss, Dave Olsen, called me and (he had) just become vice president (at what’s now known as PNC Arena). He was in Hartford and I was in the Meadowlands and I would always have events for IAVM there at the Meadowlands. We did the International Crowd Management Conference there. We did other things and would bring people down there all the time and he would always see me. And I taught at (the IAVM’s Venue Management School at) Oglebay and he was one of my students there and we had become friends. So when he got promoted he called and said, “Hey, Larry, how would you like to come to North Carolina?” It was a godsend, in that my dad (who lived not far from Raleigh) had had a stroke so I got to come back here and spend a few years with him before he passed on.
How important was it to you to achieve Certified Venue Executive status? That’s a fairly rare designation. There aren’t a lot of those in terms of percentage of people in the industry, and as far as being African American, even more so.
Achieving my CVE certification was hugely important to me and for several reasons. I got mine in 2005. I sat for the exam in Washington, D.C., and the late, great Joe Floreano was the guy leading my panel to interview me for the CVE. (Floreano was executive director of the Rochester Riverside Convention Center in New York when he died in 2014 at age 67; the facility is now named for him.) I wanted to set an example. It’s almost like anything I do in life. And you’re right, being a minority, you really have to be … a step above in order to be looked upon seriously and I knew at this point that I wanted to be president of the (IAVM) and I wanted to make sure that I had all of the qualifications that I needed to be in line as I went forward for that. So I did a lot of things. Being the first African American chair of the Venue Management School was important to me as well. All of those types of things helped me along the way. But again, it’s like anything else. You want to put yourself in the best possible light and you want to be a role model, and I hope that my career and other things have shown folks that I take my job seriously, that I take being a role model seriously and that I’ll do all that I can to be that ultimate professional. Achieving my CVE was an important part of that.
In what key ways do you see the industry as being different now as compared to when you were starting out?
I think in a lot of ways, but one, there are more educational opportunities. Sports management schools were few and far between. Over the years the IAVM has recognized the need to do more in educating people that were coming into the industry and I’m glad I played a small role in that.
How are things different in terms of diversity?
Well, it’s been up and down. It’s hard to say why more minorities aren’t in this business but I can see now with (the IAVM Foundation’s) new program, the 30 Under 30 program (launched in 2015 to identify and develop the talent of venue industry professionals), that’s helping push diversity more. Robyn (Williams who received the Women of Influence honor from Venues Today in 2007 and is now with Portland’5 Centers for the Arts) is doing a great job with her leadership in the diversity department as well. She’s doing great in bringing awareness about it, and I think the more we do and the more we keep it out there in the forefront is good. I think if more minorities can get into the (IAVM’s Mentor Connector) program would be good as well. I just think a lot of us have not found this industry yet. They don’t know about it. Sports management is something that may not be on the plates in a lot of predominantly African American schools. So I don’t know if these things are being taught in those settings. In the sports management programs, we get students from all over the world come in here, different professors bringing kids here on tours and different things. I’m seeing more than I did see, but let’s say a class of 35, there’s one or two, still, within that class. So while we are seeing more and more, there is still a long way to go in that regard.
Do you see the reaction that has followed the George Floyd killing as an inflection point for significant change for the better in U.S. race relations?
Yes. The protests bring awareness. Obviously, the violence takes away from it, but a lot of folks don’t understand what African Americans go through. They don’t stand in our shoes so they don’t know about the subtlety of racism.
I happen to be a person that was born in the South so I’ve dealt with racism all of my life. In fact, when I went to live with my dad at the age of 9, he was a sharecropper and we lived in a slave hut. And then the plantation owner worked us in the field and different things, so I got to experience racism almost like our ancestors did, the African American ancestors. My dad talked about how we couldn’t go into the same side of a store the whites could go into. My dad taught me about not looking a white person in the eye or walking to the other side of the street, get out of their way, don’t look at them and different things. That’s the mentality that you had and that’s how we were raised.
So, yes, I’ve experienced racism all my life, but let me tell you this, I have never allowed it to stop me from achieving my goals. In fact, it might be a catalyst that keeps me motivated. Being a PI was one of those things, if you can imagine, back in the day, back in the early ’70s, as an African American PI, I was going on assignments and trying to infiltrate these organizations and being a black guy it was hard for me because of the color of my skin. When I became the chair of Oglebay, I was the first African American to chair that. I was the first African American to go to Australia for IAVM to teach over there. I was the first African American to chair the International Crowd Management Conference. All these things have helped me push forward because I wanted to show, not prove, but show that we too can do great things, not just for our industry but for humanity in general.
And let me say, I think what guides me is this: As I said, I’ve lived with racism all my life. So how do I combat that? First of all, when I wake up in the morning, I don’t see color. That doesn’t mean I don’t see you for your skin color. I do, but what I try to do, and I try to live by this, is that I see character. Because as you and I and other folks talk, it doesn’t matter what your skin color is, it only matters what your character shows me. If we interact long enough, pretty soon your character and your beliefs are going to come out and then I will know how to interact and deal with you. In the South, if a white person didn’t like you, you knew it. If they liked you, you could become their best friend. So, I tell my kids this all the time: We need each other. And I go back to the slavery days of Harriet Tubman and I say to them Harriet Tubman couldn’t have achieved what she achieved if it wasn’t for helping hands of white folks, the people who believed in the righteousness of others. I try to give them and show them that just because a person is a different color than you, doesn’t mean that they are against you.
Why do you think the movement has gained so much momentum at this particular point in time? Does it have to do with COVID-19 sort of slowing everyone down? Is it a combination of that and a straw that broke the camel’s back kind of thing? Why do things feel different now than they have in the past?
Obviously we’ve seen uprisings before. Rodney King, for instance, some years ago. I don’t want to say that we got complacent, but I want to say that we were moving in a fairly harmonious relationship and then we start seeing various incidents — of people being killed and different things and then the rhetoric starts to ramp up. I think people were saying it’s going to get better, just give it time. And all the while it becomes a brew, like a perfect storm, all these little pieces together and then what you saw actually with (George Floyd) was the time frame. I think the amount of time that (the officer) had his knee on his neck, it was just an inordinate amount of time and what I think sparked (anger) too was the appearance that he was smiling and pushing other people back and I think people were looking at this and saying we have put up with this way too long; the Trayvon Martins of the world … where people can’t walk home and things of that nature. … This last killing, because of how it was and how it played out, really sparked anger.
I have 20-year-old twins and I don’t know if it’s naïve of me, but it seems there is a more egalitarian perspective in the younger generations for any number of reasons and that does give me hope.
I agree with you. It does give me hope as well. I remember my kids being in high school. … My kids went to a predominantly white school, so predominantly all their friends were white, and they would all be over to the house. You would think that our teachings and everything would impart the right things to do and include everybody into your mix. That’s one thing I’m proud that my kids have done. They’ve had a great mixture of friends of all walks of life and that’s good.
I always talk a little bit when I’m giving speeches, I talk about looking at character, I say, now ask yourself or go back in your mind, and in the last six months how many African Americans or other people that have a different skin color than you have you had over to your house? Look at that and then think about what messages are you sending. When you go out to dinner, were there other people with different skin color than you with you? I’m not saying you have to do that, but what I am saying is you might want to take a closer look at your habits to determine, am I giving off different vibes? My speech is one thing, but (are) my actions different? I don’t know. I’m just thinking we should be able to look at our actions and determine if our actions match our deeds. And that goes on all sides — it’s not white only, it’s black, it’s everybody. Do we invite people of different ethnic groups and skin colors to participate in our personal events and business events?
It’s not an easy thing to do, to look back and find, “I really don’t.” And it’s not something you want to do on a rote basis. You want it to be genuine.
I think about when I go to my hometown and on Sundays at church, it’s the most segregated time in the world because Protestants go to one church and blacks go to another church. Different people go to different churches. I think that could be a great starting point, if you could have people interact in religious services together. If we could just get together and get to know each other, that would be a big thing. You can look at my skin color, but until you get to know me, to sit down and understand my guiding principles, I’m not sure if you know me.
What would you do when you faced bigotry or bias in business or in life in general? How would you typically react to that?
I take it on its face and I always say that’s their issue. I still have to do my job. I still have to go about doing what I am employed to do, regardless. Whether that bias is internal, external, it doesn’t matter because I still have a job to do and I’m still going to do it with professionalism and to the best of my ability. I’m not going to harbor their bias against me, because that’s going to cause stress on me. Is it there? Absolutely. Do I know that they have bias? Absolutely. But again, it is how I handle that bias that propels me and my way is to go ahead just recognize and deal with it … recognize that that’s their issue and not mine. I’m still going to put forward the best business plan and approach that I possibly can.
Talk to me if you would about the importance of mentorship. Have there been people who’ve mentored you in your venue management career and do you think that mentorship can be important in bringing about greater diversity and opening up this industry to a wider variety of people, ethnicities, races, genders?
We all stand on the shoulders of somebody else. We don’t blaze trails alone. There are always people that come before you that you stand on the shoulders of: the late, great Ray Ward, for instance, John Smith, Dexter King, Jimmy Earl, Cliff Wallace, all of these folks, and of course not to forget Frank Poe and Carol Wallace, two of the first people I met in this industry back in the ’80s and who have been steadfast people. They have so much character, they never have to say anything. It’s the deeds that they do. These are the folks that I am standing on the shoulders of, that have been great mentors to me and I am so much appreciative of that. What I try to do is to be that consummate professional, so that they can see, here is a black American that we have mentored, that’s done well and there has to be others out there that we can mentor and (who can) do well. And they have and I am so appreciative of the folks I stand on the shoulders of each and every day. Without their leadership and guidance, I wouldn’t have succeeded to be president of the (IAVM). You’ve got to have people who believe in you … that guide you … and mentor you and set you on the right path. You need it. No one walks alone.
Who are some of the people outside of the industry who have been inspirational to you over the decades?
My grandfather was my greatest hero in life. When I was a young boy before I went to live with my dad, I used to live with my grandparents. My grandfather was born in 1883. His mother was born into slavery. My grandfather got to accumulate 150 acres of land and I was always in awe of that. You know, African Americans weren’t allowed to read or write. So my grandfather had to sneak to learn how to read and write and accumulated all this wealth as an African American, but I was always in awe that he was keeping his books and I didn’t know how he sold his crops because you weren’t allowed into these various places. To listen to him talk to other business owners, that gave me a lot of inspiration. Another man who became my hero and leader was Lee Morrow, a young African American who had just retired from the military after 20 years. He went in as an 18-year-old and came out as an E8 (sergeant), which is the highest status of an enlisted person that you could achieve. He took me under his wing and guided me for almost a year studying and preparing me to pass the exam I needed to become an official in the company (Pinkerton) and I did, I became the youngest official in the company, at 25 years old, white or black. He was one of my heroes in life. I’ve just had some great folks in my life that have been pretty good to me.