Tuesday, November 30, 2021

Jennie Nevin: Leadership and new adventures

interview by Martin Palicki

ABOVE: Jennie during her projection-mapped dress moment at the 2019 Thea Awards Gala. The special gown that doubled as a projection surface was created by Bonnie Sinclair of The Costume Connection. Photo courtesy TEA

Jennie Nevin is just the kind of rainmaker that many organizations dream of finding – enthusiastic, tenacious, a skilled team builder and manager, and dedicated to growing a base of support. During her seven years of service as chief operating officer of the Themed Entertainment Association (TEA), her work and leadership were instrumental in boosting the nonprofit association to new levels of financial stability, global stature and brand consistency. Nevin spoke to InPark about her career, about the art of operations, management and business development; about upholding high standards and best practices, and what her next professional move might be.

How did you get involved in the entertainment industry?

I was a singer at a young age and came to Southern California to sing in college. I joined a country band, whose agent recruited me to help stage manage a local music festival. He also was executive director for the Hollywood Radio and Television Society (HRTS), which serves the executives and business side of television. He got me involved with HRTS and I ended up working there for almost ten years as the director of operations and development. From there I became COO at TEA, where I worked with more of the creative side of the entertainment industry.

What is a leader’s role in an association and how do they keep things focused and moving forward on the mission?

To start, I think it is critically important for an organization’s leader to be completely dedicated to the cause and mission of the group. I am an extremely passionate person and I think that emotional connection to the organization has been key to my success. Surrounding oneself with the right people, helping them shine, thanking them and sharing appreciation daily for what they do is also key. At TEA I was so lucky to have a wonderful staff to work with. In particular, Judy Rubin, Tammie Richards, and Erica Schwehr are dear colleagues and friends. They are truly magnificent people.

An organization’s team is bigger than just staff, though. It also includes members, the board, sponsors and other stakeholders. The association community is really quite a large group, and it’s necessary for everyone to rally around the mission.

My style of leadership always revolves around collaboration, relationship building, partnerships and through endless enthusiasm to share the message. When you lead with intent, care, respect and a sense of gratitude it is easier to inspire others with the message.

As your community team identifies a vision and goals for the organization, it’s the leader’s job to find the help and support to achieve that vision. It’s a constant churning of how to get there, and at TEA I was particularly lucky to have such a creative community to lean on to help develop solutions that helped us reach those goals.

For example, at the 2019 Thea Awards producer Tom Vannucci decided to create a moment where I would be a part of the set to show the magic of our industry and wonder created by Thea Award recipient “Borderless” from Japan. I wore a dress that became the canvas for projection mapped images and colors that flowed onto the stage. Through the script we created I was able to share the mission and purpose of TEA while also representing the spirit of the project. How many association leaders actually get to embody the mission of the organization and magic of their industry in such a compelling way? It was a special experience for me, but also an incredible moment for TEA.

How do you approach working with sponsors?

Sponsorships are the fuel of organizations. Building relationships is how you develop effective sponsorships, and you have to do it with care. By being genuinely interested and curious and learning what sponsors actually need you can then craft a sponsorship plan that makes sense for them.

Effective sponsorships are not a single sale nor are they a product. They are an idea of the future for a sponsor and you both are invested in that future together.

Jennie Nevin’s recommendations for inspiration

Books: “Untamed” by Glennon Doyle and “Storyworthy” by Matthew Dicks
Movies: “Soul” and “Kiss the Ground”
Music: Barbara Streisand, “Yentl” – “Why be given wings if not meant to fly?”
Poetry: John O’Donohue, “For A New Beginning” – “Awaken your spirit to adventure; Hold nothing back, learn to find ease in risk; Soon you will home in a new rhythm, for your soul senses the world that awaits you.”

Naturally, you have to have something to back it up with that can actually deliver. With TEA there are these wonderful foundational elements like the SATE and Summit conferences, the Thea Awards, the creative powerhouse in membership, the leadership of the past presidents and the Board. My job was to take those and amplify them.

You helped guide the association through the pivot to digital interactions for the pandemic. What was that process like to put into place and then run through 2020?

We had a completely planned year of events, with a full business plan already underway when the pandemic hit. The urgency and sudden halt to everything forced us to problem-solve a lot and in a short amount of time. It was a steep learning curve.

Even though we had just expanded the headquarters office we transitioned to remote working right away. I dedicated staff to figuring out the technical challenges as we forged this new world. To compensate for the lack of in-person events we turned to digital experiences. Our whole production team refocused and we researched platforms, quality expectations and pricing methods.

While we had staff working on the operations and technical aspects of producing the experiences we also had to figure out how to create digital content that provided value for our members. It was important for us to utilize a range of media formats such as chat threads, webinars, watch parties, and virtual mixers, to stay connected to and supportive of the membership. That, in turn, inspired the leadership to also provide content for the different regions as well.

All of this was focused on how to serve members during this unprecedented time, while losing many of our major streams of income. The staff team were superheroes; they were inspired to fix and problem-solve.

I think it was all very successful. We did things that no one else was doing and at an extremely high quality level. Really, it was inspiring to see how much care and love people in the industry have for one another. It was like family.

How do you approach brand building?

The quality of the product, the real genuine product, is where everything has to start and then you share that with the world. I was lucky with TEA because when I arrived the look and feel of the physical brand had been so thoroughly thought out and designed with an evergreen logo and message. The new logo and tagline made for a very clear message that allowed me to come in and put it everywhere possible. I have a great appreciation for all the work that went into that branding effort before I arrived.

The tentpole events and products (SATE, Summit, TEA AECOM Theme Index, Thea Awards, trade show activities, regional events, etc) all provide tremendous quality and also great foundations to build branding on. An effective leader then works to get those tentpole events and products to really shine and get them out in front of people as much as possible.

Jennie Nevin with former and current staff of the Themed Entertainment Association. Photos courtesy of TEA and Jennie Nevin.

At TEA, we saw our conference attendance grow exponentially. The annual TEA/AECOM Theme Index also grew to give us great global recognition, including in high-profile media like NPR, The Economist, ABC News and more. It really helped strengthen our brand.

While I’m talking about TEA I’d like to give a shout-out to some of the people I found particularly inspiring to work alongside: Monty Lunde, Roberta Perry, Steve Birket, Michael Mercadante, Michael Blau and the late Peter Chernack.

TEA has placed a renewed focus on diversity and inclusion. Tell us about how you assisted in that.

I have always been deeply committed to a world that insists on equality, inclusion and diversity. As a female leader I’ve had experiences that inspire me to uplift others as much as possible. Throughout my career I have continued to learn how best to contribute to that world effectively.

From a leadership perspective, I have learned to be completely open and to focus on visions that uplift all.

It has to be rooted in a community that is not exclusive. It has to be inclusive and you have to be purposeful about it. You have to make it happen and invite input and then focus on it because if you don’t the old system and ways are self-perpetuating.

The world is a better place when we all are able to participate.

What’s next for you?

I have been blessed and am so grateful to have had some time to rest and for self-reflection and imagining what might be possible for me next. I am so grateful for my husband Mike and his partnership and support (and his amazing cooking!).

I’m open to possibilities that focus on my abilities as a strategist, connector and rainmaker. Ideally, I will lead a team for an organization or company with a deep mission and purpose serving the creative industry. I want to use my voice and enthusiasm to truly make a difference in the world.

My grandmother always said to “be grateful for your health” and my great grandmother Jennie Janicki (whom I am named after) always said “This too shall pass.” I sure hope so and I pray daily for the end of this pandemic and for a brighter future for us all. • • •

Martin Palicki
Martin Palicki owns and publishes InPark Magazine. Started in 2004, InPark Magazine provides owners and operators the perspective from "in"side the "park." Martin has also written for publications like Sound & Communications, Lighting & Sound America, Attractions Management and others. Martin has been featured in Time Magazine, CNN.com and Folio. Martin lives in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, USA.

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