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.
Senior Vice President of Business Operations
Adina Erwin, senior vice president of business operations for TD Garden in Boston, is a Certified Venues Executive who has served as vice president and chief operating officer of the Fox Theatre in Atlanta, where she launched the Fox Theatre Institute, a community engagement and consulting division that’s provided over $3 million in grant funding and support to Georgia communities. A VenuesNow “Women of Influence” honoree in 2017, the same year she was selected as one of the Atlanta Business Chronicle’s “Women Who Mean Business,” Erwin is a University of North Carolina graduate who started her career in venues as an event receptionist at the Charlotte Coliseum. On the advice of Coliseum general manager Sporty Jeralds and Steve Camp, who was in charge of the city’s event/entertainment venues, she entered the UMass Amherst graduate sports management program before taking a post as ticketing director at Charlotte’s Blockbuster Pavilion (now PNC Music Pavilion). From there, she moved to SMG, working at the Mobile (Ala.) Convention and Civic Centers and later the Times-Union Center for the Performing Arts in Jacksonville, Fla. She then joined current International Association of Venues Managers President and CEO Brad Mayne at Center Operating Co., which ran Reunion Arena in Dallas, before moving over to the new American Airlines Center as director of guest services. She returned to Jacksonville to become director of the Times-Union Center and served on the Super Bowl XXXIX Host Committee and Event Team before making the move to Atlanta. She assumed her current post in Boston in January. Erwin is currently chair of the Board of Trustees for the IAVM Foundation, has served since 2003 as an instructor at the IAVM’s Venue Management School, where she has chaired its Board of Regents and in 2013 was awarded the Ray W. Ward Award for her work with the VMS.
How has the adjustment been going from Atlanta and the Fox to TD Garden and Boston?
It’s been a good adjustment because of the great team of people in Boston. I really appreciated that they were willing to step outside of the box and look for someone in this position that will bring a different perspective on the business as opposed to just having worked in arenas, with sports teams. It was refreshing (that they expected) me to come with a different perspective and impact the guest experience and all of the components that touch the guests that come to TD Garden.
What do you like best about this industry? What ultimately drew you into it?
It’s never the same thing on any given day. I remember when I started working at the Charlotte Coliseum as event receptionist, I soon after that became kind of an intern and became almost obsessive about learning anything that I could, anything that anyone could tell me, any area that they would let me work in. So I would work in the ticket office, with the maintenance crew. I was just so enamored with this industry and all of the different moving pieces and the role that those play to culminate in this amazing experience for people, and then the different types of people. I remember when I was an intern working a Grateful Dead concert. That was my first time seeing the Deadheads descend upon the Coliseum days before and take over the parking lot. I was walking through … and there was this man who had a (Ford) Pinto and in the back he had grown yeast. The entire back seat was this giant yeast ball. I didn’t know that stuff like this happened. I didn’t know who the Deadheads were. I was like, wow, I’ve got to be here. I’ve got to be in this.
I remember when the circus came, and this was when Gunther Gebel-Williams was still a star, and I was walking through the animal compound and saw some of the performers. People that performed with the baboons were sitting in a row with the baboons and they were grooming each other. The keepers were grooming the baboons, the baboons were grooming the keepers. And then Gunther was over there with a water hose up an elephant’s behind. He was giving the elephant an enema and his whole arm was in the elephant’s butt. This was the kind of stuff I was seeing when I first got in the business and I was like, of course I want to be here!
Are you the kind of person who welcomes a challenge and what do you find most challenging about this business?
I do welcome a challenge. You almost have to because it’s ever-changing. It’s always something different on a different day, different people, you have to learn to have a really good relationship with change and a good relationship with different types of people. Everybody’s motivations are different. Everybody is trying to get something different out of the relationship they have with you or out of the venue, so understanding all of the different nuances and motivations and desired outcomes and all of these things on an ever-changing type of landscape and ultimately putting on a product, on the stage or the field or the court that is impactful to people beyond anything that you could do in many other professions, I think that’s what makes it challenging. But that’s also what makes it so desirable and so fun to be in on a day-in and day-out basis. I think you have to have a certain type of personality to be OK with change and flux all the time.
What’s your view on the degree of diversity in the venues industry and why it’s important and beneficial to have wide representation on various levels of people from different life backgrounds, ethnicities, races and genders?
I think it’s been shown and talked about a lot all across industries, the benefit of having a diverse environment, employing diverse people because you get diverse perspectives. You’re not just doing things the same way on a different day. There’s a case to be made about how that impacts morale in an organization, how it ultimately impacts the culture of a company, how it impacts the bottom line. All of those things that you read about and hear about are all positives. I’ve not heard anything negative about expanding the thought leadership and the thought participation in an organization just by making sure there’s a diverse employee group.
As far as our industry is concerned, I think it has been up and down over the years. I remember at least feeling like, early in my career, probably in the late ’90s-early 2000s, where there were a lot more, I can speak about African Americans, in the business. Maybe not at the top-top levels but in the entry and the middle management areas. I remember the year that I went to the Venue Management School and graduated was 2002. That year was the largest class of African Americans that they had ever had and I think it was like 20 of us and we took a picture. It was a big deal because before that they may have had three or four people in the entire school between first- and second-year students. And I remember going to what was then IAAM’s national conference and just feeling like there were more African Americans who were active in the industry at the time and then I feel like we kind of went down a path where we were on a decline, not just with African Americans’ participation and other diverse (groups) but women as well. Women in positions in the industry also began to be on the decline.
I don’t know if I could speak to the why. I can tell you one of the things that existed then, and that still is an opportunity for the industry to explore now, is that as far as African Americans are concerned, many people don’t even know this is even an option. They don’t know you can do this for a living. They’re thinking basically like I was back in 1994 when I stumbled upon this industry as an event receptionist. They don’t know that you can build a career and a life around managing sports and entertainment venues. There are so many ways to participate in this industry. If you’re looking at the pipeline, (you could) go to the colleges and even more specifically the historically Black colleges and universities, because especially in those … you’re probably not finding sports management programs or other programs that are going to introduce people into this industry. So that’s a start, to look in that direction. I would say the same thing around other ethnicities. If we are going to be really purposeful and really truly try to make an impact and try to make change happen in that area as far as building a pipeline of diversity, we have to be very purposeful about where we go to try to raise awareness about this amazing industry. I don’t think that we’ve always been that way as an industry. I would say in the last two years or so there’s been a push through the Diversity and Inclusion Committee within IAVM, and I know through recruitment strategies with executive search firms and for a lot of sporting teams and other areas in this business there’s a desire to always have a diverse slate of candidates, but I think if you talk to any of those executive search firms, finding that at the levels that they are looking for, sometimes it gets to be difficult. So it draws you back to a conversation about the pipeline and what are we doing to feed the pipeline? Are we being strategic about how we do that? Are we looking at strategies that are sustainable over time? To build a pipeline, it can’t be a one-off kind of action, where you do this for one or two years and then expect it to feed itself. It doesn’t work that way.
You mentioned Sporty Jeralds. When I spoke to Frantzer LeBlanc he was saying Jeralds was a mentor to him and when I spoke with Larry Perkins he also spoke highly of Sporty. How important is mentoring in this process of feeding the pipeline and achieving greater diversity?
I think it’s extremely important because, let’s just say we come up with some good strategies to feed the pipeline, where people are committed to the strategies for a period of years so that it takes root and you start to see a change in outcomes, once you get people working in these buildings, you need, especially if you are someone who is Black or brown or female, someone or some people you can reach out to, to help shepherd you through situations and new jobs and all of the things that come into play in this industry. So Sporty Jeralds’ name comes up because I feel he is probably the mentor extraordinaire. He’s mentored so many people. I wouldn’t be here talking to you if it wasn’t for Sporty. I would say that every job that I have taken, every move that I have made, every change that you see on that LinkedIn page, know that I picked up the phone and called Sporty before I made the decision to take it, or to move. You need that person. You need someone that you can trust, that you know has your best interest in mind, that’s experienced in the industry, that’s also connected to help guide you through your career. You need multiple people.
But I would also say that many of the people who have helped me, who have become mentors to me, didn’t look like me. There weren’t a bunch of Sporty Jeraldses out there. There are probably more people that didn’t look like me that mentored me. I think of people like Bob Newman, who gave me my first job in Mobile, or Robin Timothy, who was in Jacksonville. Both of them are white, white male in Bob, white female in Robin. Brad Mayne. (They) continue to be people I call upon if I need advice about something in the business in general. I think it’s extremely important. You talk about the pipeline and I say strategies; one of the strategies is a mentoring-type of program and it has to be deliberate and it has to be sustained and consistent. I don’t think you can have a pipeline that sustains over time to deliver what we want it to deliver on the other end without having mentoring in that equation.
Given the events of recent weeks, do you feel there is gathering momentum for change in terms of race relations in the U.S. and even elsewhere at this moment in time?
I do. I just hope this is not a blip, if you will. … If you look at what happened (at the time of the Rodney King riots) and look at a time line of different things that may have happened to where we are right now, there are things that have been kind of awakening moments around race relations that have made people stand up and question, have conversations and even protest, and then we always go back to some kind of lull. We may not go all the way back to where we were, but we always kind of sink down to a space of comfort, you might call it. So my hope with where we are right now is that we have entered into a space where those people or those organizations that are unaffected are as outraged as those who are. I take that from a quote from Ben Franklin I found recently and I was like, this is exactly what I feel like is different about right now. Everybody seems to be outraged about what’s happened. A few years ago when the Black Lives Matter protests and focus took place, Black people were upset and that’s how it was talked about, whereas now, it’s everybody seems to be upset and you’ve got large organizations making big statements of support around diversity and (people are) appalled at police brutality and organizations that didn’t make those types of statements ever before are coming out with these statements. And you’ve got NASCAR banning the Confederate flag. That’s huge right there. They are basically saying that we know we are going to lose some of our fan base potentially over this, which means we are going to lose some of our dollars, but the cause that we are supporting is far more important, far greater than that. That’s huge to me. That, you have not seen before. My hope is that these grand statements that we’re seeing coming from large organizations – I was going down the Connector in Atlanta and Porsche has their statement up on an electronic billboard about where they stand on human rights and racial equality. You’re hearing from organizations that have taken a neutral stance and kept quiet for many, many years and they’re making a statement now.
But moving from statement to action, that’s to me the telltale of whether or not this is a watershed moment or not. It’s easy to make a statement. Right now, you’ve got to make a statement. It’s almost at a point where you need to because if you don’t, as an organization people are looking at you and questioning you. I want to be able to see that organizations, including venues, take a different approach moving forward as far as action is concerned. When I look at our venues and our industry, they all have mission statements and a lot of them have things like enhancing the quality of life or creating extraordinary experiences and fond memories and wanting to be a beacon in their communities as a great place for work and play. That’s all well and good, but what are you doing outside of what you put on your stage, or what you put on the court or the field, what are you actually doing in the community in the areas where they need support and help? I’m talking about stepping up. Sometimes, it’s not going to align with your mission or your business model, but you need to get involved as a venue in a city that you benefit from day in and day out and get in the game around affordable housing, education, criminal justice reform or specifically juvenile justice reform. Get in the game around stopping food deserts. There are so many ways to jump into the community and participate meaningfully after you’ve made your statement, because racism shows up in all of those things and if you are participating in education, if you are, for instance, an organization that works with a school on a reading program, and your desire is to improve reading for kids who are K through three, so that by the time a child gets to the third grade they are reading at grade level, then you’ve made a huge impact on that community. I think that we have an opportunity here. I know sports teams sometimes are more active, but our venues themselves can be more active in the communities that they serve.