TEA’s new President is proud to usher in change
by Gabrielle Russon
Ten years ago, Melissa Ruminot was a novice in themed entertainment. Now, she’s become a rock star in the field.
She is the new (as of January 2023) International Board President of the Themed Entertainment Association (TEA), and she is Vice President of Marketing and Client Development at The Companies of Nassal. Ruminot is only the third woman to lead TEA’s International Board of Directors in the organization’s 32-year history. At 40, she is also among its youngest executive leaders. She represents the changing face of the themed entertainment industry.
“Through her hard work and dedication to learn our business and the industry, Melissa has evolved to become an extraordinarily influential individual,” said William P. Nassal, a partner at the Companies of Nassal.
Ruminot said she ran for TEA President because she wants to help effect change. She wants to see the organization continue to address the true breadth of the industry, which extends well beyond theme parks. Themed experiences at resorts, zoos, cultural institutions, cruise lines and brand activations in retail for promoting new brands are the types of experiences that she wants TEA to elevate its advocacy for.
“We have to think more broadly about the different types of industries we can serve and the stories we can tell,” said Ruminot. “That’s the change in the industry that I see really TEA being on the cusp of. Together, we can champion that this is so much bigger than just one way to tell a story.”
Life is busy, with her Nassal Vice President role sending her around the world for projects, plus her presidency role at TEA, in addition to being a mother of three children (ages 7, 13, and 14). “It’s refreshing, I think, to see a leader who is also a mom, juggling real life and taking on a leadership position within the industry,” Ruminot said, adding it sends a message to others: “This is obtainable. You can do this.”
Colleagues say she has the personality and the right mentality to excel on the job at TEA. “She operates with high integrity. She operates under the banner that it’s all about the members, and what she can do to help all of us as members be more successful in our jobs, in turn helping our companies grow,” said Roberta Perry, a founding TEA member who served as the organization’s president in 1995-1996 (and its first female president). “She’s the right president at the right time.
Women missing on the podium
For TEA, diversity has emerged as an important issue as the organization took a deeper look last year on how to better represent its members. Steps were taken to push for more inclusivity and better representation. TEA approved a new strategic plan that adapted core values guiding the organization to take into account the importance of diversity, and an overall super-strategy for the association – to apply when deciding on representation on industry or thought leadership panels and sessions being developed by TEA. The association has also encouraged members from a wide range of backgrounds and industry perspectives to step up and seek leadership roles when the organization holds elections.
Because the association is primarily made up of companies and not individuals, TEA doesn’t maintain data on the gender breakdown of its membership. Anecdotally, Perry sees a roughly 50-50 split between men and women at events. But it’s clear there has been a lack of women on the podium if only three women have ever served as president of the association over more than three decades (Christine Kerr was TEA’s second female president, serving 2013-2014).
“We talk a lot about diversity,” Ruminot said. “Traditionally, people have entered this industry with degrees in such fields as architecture, interior design, film, theater crafts, engineering or construction management.” In a construction- and technology- heavy field like themed entertainment, top leadership tends to skew upper-middle class, as people from diverse backgrounds often face barriers accessing affordable higher education. It’s a systemic issue facing many other industries as well; themed entertainment isn’t unique in this challenge.
Ruminot sees one possible solution as finding ways to reach the next generation while they are middle school and high school students, to expose them to the potential for careers in themed entertainment, educate them on the opportunities that exist in the industry, and help create a more diverse future workforce.
“How can you be innovative if you always have the same voices trying to innovate? You need a diversity of perspective,” Ruminot said. “And how do you do that? You need to look at other ways and other areas in which you are getting people as a workforce to join this industry or to know about it.”
Still, Ruminot already sees changes happening as more women are promoted to higher-level positions in individual companies – the stratum from which candidates for TEA President can generally emerge. “Women are becoming more recognized as part of the leadership team and for their expertise – which is refreshing to see,” Ruminot said. And with that, more women, like Ruminot, are volunteering to step into higher-profile roles in TEA.
“There’s a huge aspect of women in leadership positions kind of rising up and saying, ‘I’m willing to do this,’ and taking on the balance of work, life, and volunteerism,” she said.
The TEA president job carries a heavy workload that, Perry noted, is a challenge for any member to take on. “There are women out there who definitely could be elected as president, but they have to make the decision. It’s like having a full-time job,” Perry said. “In my experience, not every company is willing to give up one of their employees for a year. You need to have a company that totally supports you being in that role.” Nassal, where Ruminot works, has been supportive of TEA from early days, Perry noted.
Nassal’s complementary business
Ruminot, a Connecticut native, studied marketing at Western New England University in Springfield, MA. She interned at Six Flags New England in college, doing media buys and marketing, and loved visiting theme parks on vacation with her kids, but “the theme park industry was never on my career radar.” Instead, she worked in other fields, like hospitality and finance.
While on a shopping trip in Vermont, Ruminot struck up a conversation with another customer at the hotel lobby bar who turned out to be William P. Nassal. “In true Melissa fashion, she owned the room and disarmed everyone,” Nassal said, recalling their chance meeting. “Melissa has never met a stranger.”
While Nassal had plenty of suggestions for Ruminot’s next Florida vacation, he also had other ideas. Ruminot was going to get something more than just travel advice. Soon, she was traveling to Florida to meet the Nassal team and started a new career with the company in 2012.
“I’ve always considered that our introduction really reinforced the thought that things are meant to happen. Melissa had just decided to make a career change and we had just made the decision to seek out someone to drive the sales and marketing efforts for our companies,” Nassal said. “I convinced her to meet with my business partners in Orlando and I’m proud to say that more than 10 years later we are still working together and she is our Vice President of Sales and Marketing.”
On a recent day, Ruminot led a tour of the 100,000-square-foot facility, a former recycling plant near downtown Orlando that houses a flurry of activity. Between its Orlando and Los Angeles facilities, the company employs 350 people. On the tour, a CNC machine cuts a foam piece so it looks like fallen snow. Workers are fabricating custom pieces – top secret – near signs forbidding photography in covered spaces designed to protect against theme park bloggers and influencers flying overhead (this form of lay reconnaissance really does happen). Ruminot is often the first person in the room representing Nassal as clients show their ideas and ask the question: Can the impossible be built?
Starting out in a new industry where she wasn’t familiar with construction or design, Ruminot was hungry to learn, at Nassal and in the industry in general, when she joined TEA. She began volunteering at the check-in desk at TEA events in 2012, which helped her make connections and grow her knowledge base. “I just completely immersed myself into this world. I started asking questions and really thinking, ‘OK, I don’t know what this means. Who’s the right person for me to ask?’” Ruminot said. “Getting involved in the TEA was a way for me to understand the industry.”
She was named president of TEA’s Eastern North American Division Board in 2018 and 2019. “It was an opportunity for me to connect directly with members. I heard on a day-to-day basis what members need and want and was able to cut the red tape and cut the politics,” she said.
Outside of TEA, Ruminot also served on the Annual Conference Planning Committee for the Association of Zoos & Aquariums. According to Ruminot, she was the only commercial member on the board, which pushed her outside her core strengths to look at challenges differently, since animal care was the organization’s top priority. She brings the same, open-minded philosophy to her roles with TEA and Nassal. She knows she isn’t the expert in building or designing attractions. Instead, her role is the connector, the communicator, the person who “makes sure the right people are talking to the right people and asking the right questions.”
Roberta Perry is certain Ruminot’s past experience in TEA will make her a successful president. “She has an amazing ability in her interactions with her ability to communicate, to get people to go, ‘Hey, I’ll help you,’” Perry said. “It’s all about relationships.
It’s all about connections.” • • •
Gabrielle Russon ([email protected]) is a freelance journalist who lives in Orlando. She previously covered the business of theme parks for the Orlando Sentinel, earning several statewide and regional honors for her coverage on theme park injuries, the economic challenges facing theme park workers and the pandemic’s impact on the tourism industry. A Michigan native, she is a Michigan State University graduate and has worked at the Sarasota Herald-Tribune, the Toledo Blade, the Kalamazoo Gazette and the Elkhart Truth during her newspaper career. In her spare time, she loves visiting Orlando’s theme parks and running marathons.