Nevadan at Work: Daily challenges propel Orleans Arena manager

Darren Davis got an early start in the entertainment business.

He was just 3 months old when he appeared in vaudeville tent shows owned by his parents, who performed in rural Illinois and Missouri. His dad wrote three-act plays for the shows and used his sons as child actors.

“Why have a prop baby when you can have a real newborn one?” Davis said.

These days, Davis no longer performs. Instead, he oversees the Orleans Arena, one of the busiest arenas and highest-grossing ticket-sale venues for its size in the United States.

As executive director, the 41-year-old Davis recruits programming from three main categories — athletic events, motor sports, and family shows — to fill the 9,000-seat venue in ultracompetitive Las Vegas.

Few sites in Las Vegas offer the buffet of events served up by The Orleans. Back-to-back college basketball tournaments were just there. It is also home to the minor league hockey Las Vegas Wranglers and a professional soccer team called the Las Vegas Legends.

The Orleans Arena has also booked everything from offbeat events such as the Fetish & Fantasy Halloween Ball and Pimp ’n Ho Costume Ball to Coyote Countryfest and cheerleading competitions.

Davis, who helped open the facility a decade ago, has been executive director since 2008.

He began in the venue business in 1999 as the events coordinator for the Fort Worth Convention Center in Fort Worth, Texas.

His first day on the job saw the arrival of the Ringling Bros. Circus in Fort Worth, he said, and “I’ve been hooked on the events business since.”

Question: What aspects of running an arena get you excited?

Answer: What I enjoy most about this profession is the variety. It is not uncommon to have an elephant in your building one day with the circus, and then the very next day have a celebrity performer on stage, followed by the next day, which may include hosting a nationally televised event of some sort. The variety and spontaneity is what keeps me coming back every day.

Question: Have you established friendships with some of the entertainers who have come through the Orleans Arena? Which ones?

Answer: Over the past 10 years, I have developed a number of great relationships with both peers in the industry as well as the performers who play our building. I am looking forward to having Brad Paisley come back to our building in April, almost 10 years to the day when he first opened the venue back in 2003. I have a number of great friendships that have developed with promoters who come back to our facility again and again. One is Bill Cunningham, our circus promoter. He and I share a passion for the circus and that genre of entertainment. My family used to be in the tent-show business, and we have swapped many a story about that unique lifestyle. Another great friend, both personally and professionally, is Gary Becker with Ghost Entertainment out of Houston. Gary has been with us since Day One. He is our partner on our motor sports shows and most of our concerts.

Question: What’s the challenge like in booking acts when there are so many venues in Las Vegas?

Answer: Las Vegas is a very unique city; you can’t find anything like it in the world from an entertainment standpoint. There are nine major venues that all compete for the same piece of business, all within just a few miles of each other. If you include all the residency shows and showrooms in this town, you have over 100 performance spaces, which have over 230,000 tickets on sale any given week. It’s just incredible the amount of shows people have to choose from in this town. We figured out very early on with our venue that in order to stand out and compete in an environment like this, we had to do something different from the rest. This is where our model of attracting the local Las Vegas customer and doing events that are different from the rest of the venues in town came from. We did this with a strong emphasis on three major categories — family shows, motor sports and sporting events. This model has proven to be successful and has achieved for us international recognition as a top performing venue in the world.

Question: What makes Orleans Arena unique among the venues in Las Vegas?

Answer: I believe that our focus on major sporting events is what sets us apart from the other venues in town. We have five major sports play in our facility. Each year, we host 36 hockey games, 70 basketball games, 10 indoor soccer games, three indoor football games and we’ve even hosted a conference championship volleyball tournament. This is all in addition to a variety of other sporting-related events in our booking calendar that include national cheerleading competitions, pre-Olympic curling competition and pre-Olympic wrestling events to name a few.

Question: While growing up, did you think you’d be an arena director?

Answer: I got my first taste of “entertainment” when I was just 3 months old. My family owned a traveling vaudeville tent theater and I was on stage performing from then until about 10 years old. My family continues to be involved in theater and performing to this day. My mother has performed in Branson, Mo., as well as right here in Las Vegas where she appeared nightly in the Steve Wyrick magic show at Planet Hollywood (Resort). My brother is also in the arena business. He works for the RaboBank Arena in Bakersfield, California. I got started in this line of work when I lived in Branson, Mo., and worked for Silver Dollar City Theme Park and their property, the Showboat Branson Belle. I was in charge of all of their special events. That job prepared me for my first position in arena work, where I was an event coordinator in Fort Worth, Texas. I spent four years there before I was offered the opportunity to move to Las Vegas and open this fantastic facility. That was 10 years ago and three titles prior when I started with The Orleans, and now I am really enjoying my time with Boyd Gaming (Corp.) as the arena executive director.

Question: When did you decide to go into the arena business?

Answer: I don’t know that anyone in this line of work ever decides this is what you want to do. We all go to events at various buildings, but really don’t think you can make a career out of “going to events.” I guess I was lucky enough to have the right opportunities at the right time, and it has developed into a very nice career for me.

Question: What’s the hardest part of your job?

Answer: Balancing work and personal life is the most difficult part of this job. You spend a lot of time inside the venue and give up almost every Friday and Saturday night with events. You have to have a very understanding and supportive family at home.

Question: What other arena across the country do you admire and why?

Answer: The Orleans Arena is part of a network of arenas across the country and in Canada called Venue Coalition. I think there are some very creative and successful venues as well as venue managers in our group. Any building that is successful and has great programming is something I admire. I think arenas have a personality and each of them are unique and individual. They are all known for certain things compared to others. I hope that our arena personality is one of a fun and friendly place to come enjoy great entertainment and to interact with our fantastic staff of employees.

Contact reporter Alan Snel at asnel@reviewjournal.com or 702-387-5273.

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