An Interview with DMC Operations Director Rita Davidson

Things I love about Rita:  her shared enthusiasm for Halloween and appreciation of costuming, her personal color palette of black and white and bright pink, her necklace game, her willingness to try new things, and last but not least, the cat window decal that used to be on her car (RIP, cat sticker).

I've known Rita about 4 years, and I've spent those 4 years mystified by her job. I have enough access to Rita's personal life to know how much she works and, big picture, what she does. Because of that, I had a pretty emotional reaction to her answers to this questionnaire. Rita didn't have to be this honest about how demanding and stressful her job can be. So give it up for Rita, because she loves her job, and she's real good it, but sometimes she can't handle it, which is a truth I find validating. Meet today's bitch, Rita Davidson!

What is your job title and where do you work?

I'm the Director of Operations for Destination Nashville. Destination Nashville is a DMC, which stands for Destination Management Company, and unless you are in the meetings, conventions, or events industry, you might not have heard of a DMC before. 

The short answer is that I am an event planner or events manager, but that really only tells you 1% of what we do. As a DMC, we work hand in hand with our clients, who are usually meeting planners, either from a third party planning company, or someone who works directly for a corporation or association, to be their local experts in planning a meeting or convention. There are companies just like us in cities around the world, most cities have multiple DMCs. We do not travel with our clients or produce events in other cities which is why we consider ourselves to be the experts in our respective cities. Most of you have attended a work conference and if so, it is extremely likely that a huge percent of your experience was crafted by the careful work of a DMC, even if you never see or interact directly with them. 

Here is a recap of all the services we provide for our clients:  airport arrival and departure management and transportation, custom tour programs, entertainment both local and national acts, theme parties, block parties, fireworks shows, awards ceremonies, decor, transportation logistic shuttles, on-site staffing, and everything in between. In short, we spend a lot of time in hotel and convention center ballrooms and local venues working with anywhere from 10 - 25,000 people at a time. Here is a really excellent article breaking down the difference between a DMC and an event planner.

When did you first learn about this field of work?

I was a college student at Belmont University in an event management class. Each week we had a different speaker who educated us about their particular role in the events industry. The Director of Operations for Destination Nashville at the time, Julie, was also a Belmont graduate herself. I kept her card, and when I graduated in May, I sent her my resume. They offered me the position of Operations Assistant, and I jumped on it. Since then I think I’ve been promoted four times, finally landing in the role of Director, just like Julie. It will be 10 years this May.

How did you know it was what you wanted to do?

This was my first real job out of college, and to be honest, I wasn't sure that this would be a long term career for me. I knew that I was extremely organized and that drew me to events. As a Nashville native with a deep love for the city, I was drawn to the idea of a job that allowed me to show it off (and maybe show people that we weren’t barefoot in overalls).

What was your path that lead you to the job you have now?

Our company is divided into three units:  Sales, Creative, and Operations. The Operations team are the people who, for lack of a better explanation, do the dirty work. It is not glamorous, and I cannot stress that enough. 

I started out as the assistant to the Operations team. From the assistant position, I was promoted to an Operations Manager, meaning I would be working with my own clients and managing their events on my own. Now as the Director of Operations I oversee the entire department which includes 5 Operations Managers, 4 Operations Coordinators, a Senior Operations Specialist, and we are currently looking to fill 3 more positions. To say we are growing would be an understatement, and as you can imagine, this is a direct reaction to how much Nashville is growing. 

Watching Nashville’s trajectory is wild enough as a native, but viewing it through the context of my job is exciting, and terrifying. I’ve watched us go from having a record breaking year, to the economy tanking, then, just as we were bouncing back, to experience the massive flood in 2010 which essentially put us back to square one. Now, here we are doubling that original record breaking year, with hotel room rates exceeding those in cities like New York and San Francisco. It’s bananas. 

Favorite piece of advice, business or otherwise?

Who told you that you had to be so perfect? 

To say that this job is stressful is downplaying it. Event planners consistently pop up in the lists of top ten most stressful jobs, right next to Police Officers, Military Personnel, and Airline Pilots. It’s crazy, I know, but this is a 24/7 job and a lot depends on it.

I am in the office Monday through Friday 8:30am - 5:00pm, and then on-site for the events we produce, which as you can imagine, happen nights and weekends. That said, our CEO is amazing, and understands how demanding our schedule is, and because of this, she is very generous with our time off. I’ve been fortunate to be able to travel the world including two weeks that I spent at a retreat in Bali. This retreat was focused on raw food chef training, detox coaching, and personal growth. I had been quiet the first few days of the retreat, and on day three, in a group session, my coach looked at me and asked “Who told you that you had to be so perfect?” I lost it. All the stress from work and life came crashing down on me in that jungle. I have no idea how she knew or picked up on my type A perfectionist qualities, but she did and she called my ass out on it. 

Now when I am stressing out and upset because something isn’t going as planned I ask myself, "Who told you that you had to be so perfect?" Ninety percent of the time the answer is ME, the perfection is self imposed... and that I can control. Asking myself this question is a reminder to be kinder and take better care of myself.

Failure you learned from or that helped you improve the way you work?

I don’t have a particular instance, but I always encourage the other managers to have a backup plan. Things are going to change on-site at an event, things are going to go wrong and honestly, if they didn’t, we wouldn’t have jobs. When I’m driving to set up for an event, I’m always asking myself, where is the closest liquor store, grocery, or pharmacy, etc. You just never know when the CEO’s wife is going to insist on an appletini and Lord have mercy, you best be on your way to pick up some green apple pucker. 

If you’re looking for war stories though, my first big event was a black tie awards show at the Country Music Hall of Fame, and one of the VIP’s fell into the fountain in a black velvet evening gown. I make sure that fountain is blocked off at my events now. 

What would you do with 2 more hours a day?

I’m training for a half marathon and I am finding that I have the stamina to go far, but not the time. So, I would probably run a bit longer, carve out some time for meditation, and spend a few extra minutes in bed with my husband, three cats, and puppy. 

What is your greatest success (or something you’re most proud of) in your professional life?

Last summer we produced the largest event ever as a company. We closed down Broadway from 1st Avenue to 8th and produced a 6:00am televised workout for 25,000 people. It’s worth mentioning that most of us were on about an hour or less of sleep as we had an event the night before and set up started at 3am… also it was July, and I was on the Whole 30.

What’s the first app or website you open when you wake up in the morning?

I probably look at my work email first, especially if I’m working with an international client and they are sending me emails at odd hours. Second would be Instagram and then Facebook. 

How do you decompress at the end of the work day?

I am by nature, a very anxious and high strung person, so this is a tough one. For me the most helpful thing is to exert some energy somehow and get that extra nervous energy out, so I would say exercising, followed by a glass of wine and anything that makes me laugh. 

What’s the hardest thing about your job that isn’t obvious?

The thing that makes this job desirable, is the same thing that makes it so difficult for me. That is, every single day it’s completely different. Even if I’ve produced a million events at one particular venue, each client and their expectations are different. This makes it exciting and certainly keeps me on my toes and always learning, but on the flip side, sometimes it can be hard to feel at ease. Similarly you are almost never in charge of your own schedule. Most days I set out with my schedule mapped out in my agenda, only to have it change the second I walk in the door. We are at the mercy of our clients, vendors, and hotel partners, and that’s okay, because that is what the Hospitality Industry is about. If you can’t be flexible, then this is not the industry for you.

What is one thing everyone gets wrong about what you do?

Have I mentioned that we’re an all female company? Usually when I do, the reaction is “Oh, that must be so hard, with a lot of backstabbing and drama.” NOPE. Everyone I work with is extremely professional and operates as such. I like to think of it this way, women have it tough enough in the workplace, the worst thing we can do is work against each other.

Also, I do not do weddings. Sorry if you were picturing me as JLo in The Wedding Planner

Lastly, and most important, what is your favorite TV show and what is your favorite snack?

Currently I’m very into Transparent, but truly, if I just want to zone out and not think about life, I’m going to watch How I Met Your Mother or Seinfeld re-runs. My favorite snack or food in general is… and this is weird, but avocados. Also, I drink a lot of coffee.

All photos courtesy of Rita Davidson

P.S. Meet last week's bitch:  Fashion Designer and Stylist, Amanda Valentine!

P.P.S. Full list of My Bitches here.

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