Like many recent transplants trying to navigate downtown Nashville, Coloradan Kevin Stevenson needed some guidance.
A little lost, a little overwhelmed, and knowing that he was surrounded by tourists who probably knew about as much as he did, he looked around for help.
That’s when he spotted a smiling man in a bright yellow shirt, guiding a Segway through the crowd and stopping to answer questions from other lost visitors.
“He helped me find where I needed to go, and then I started asking him about his job,” he says.
“I thought it was so cool to have a job of riding around and helping people. He told me how to apply, I did, and about a week later I got a call back.”
That was four years ago.
Now, Stevenson is one of Nashville Downtown Partnership’s Downtown Ambassadors, operating a Segway from 3 p.m. to 11 p.m., in the downtown business district.
He keeps an eye out for tourists (and the occasional locals) who need advice on a good place to eat, or want to know if it’s safe to walk down by the riverfront after dark, or wonder what happened to that store on Broadway that they loved when they visited here 20 years ago.
Oh, and there’s one other question he answers a few times a day.
“People always ask about the Segway,” he says with a laugh.
“It’s funny, because I’m so used to it now that I forget sometimes that I’m on it.”
Okay, let’s talk about the Segway
Kevin spent three days learning how to operate the Segway before he went out onto the streets.
The smooth-rolling vehicles make it easy to navigate downtown Nashville’s steep hills, but also make the Downtown Ambassadors stand out in a teeming crowd.
“I had never done it before and I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to learn,” he says.
“It’s scary because you don’t have any back support and I would think, ‘If I fall off, that is not going to be good. And it will be in public. So I can’t get this wrong.’”
Once it kicked in though, riding the Segway became second nature. And while he has to decline requests from people who want to try it themselves due to liability issues (“People always ask me that, especially at night.”), he’s happy to guide them to the nearby Segway tours, where qualified instructors have the time to give thorough lessons and then roll groups out to see the sights.
“You know, these have been around for ten years, but people are still amazed by them,” Kevin says.
“And it’s great for the job because when you’re riding around on a strange vehicle like that, people are more willing to approach you to talk.”
That’s something of a change for Kevin, whose previous experience of dealing with the public was a job as an armed security guard in Denver.
That role required him to keep others at arm’s length and spring into action as an enforcer. A welcoming smile was not part of the uniform.
“I like this atmosphere better,” he notes.
Keeping things friendly
The Downtown Ambassadors are managed by the Nashville Downtown Partnership, a nonprofit dedicated to making the area a place where people want to live, work, play and invest.
The ambassadors are part of the group’s 25-person Clean & Safe Team. The Clean Team’s tasks range from removing graffiti and picking up litter, to pressure washing streets and sidewalks in the early morning hours after the crowds are gone.
Kevin belongs to the Safety and Hospitality team. Every day they get a briefing about what’s happening in the area that day so they can answer any questions. They keep a stack of visitor guides on hand to give out when appropriate and always watch what’s happening all around them. If necessary, they can quickly alert emergency services or the police.
Fortunately, such incidents are few and far between.
“I think the funniest one I’ve seen happened on Church Street in front of the H.G. Hills Urban Market,” Stevenson recalls.
“A guy stepped out into the middle of the street, stopped traffic and started singing. It was funny, but also dangerous, so we had to call the police.”
Every day is a learning experience
Though he’s lived in Nashville for just five years, Stevenson spent a good deal of time in the city when he was a kid visiting his grandparents. It was a city he always loved, and became even more of a destination once his parents made the move here. It was only a matter of time before he decided he needed to live closer to family and traded Denver for Music City.
Back during his childhood visits, downtown wasn’t nearly the whirlwind of activities it is now, and his work as a downtown ambassador introduces him to something new nearly every day. He chats with visitors who remember clubs or stores or people from decades ago, and they end up teaching him a little more history about downtown Nashville.
Scooting around the streets on his Segway, he got to know a few people from the Nashville Symphony, and decided to check it out. Now he’s fan of both the music and the building, considering it one of the city’s hidden gems.
He’s watched the downtown landscape change in the four years he’s worked there, and often needs to adjust his route to adapt to all the new construction.
But more than anything, he loves interacting with so many different kinds of people, from all over the country and all over the world.
- He’s amused by the hordes of bachelorette parties that roll into town regularly, a trend that he first started noticing about three years ago.
- He has a good rapport with the many characters who perform on Broadway — and still gets a kick out of the guy who “plays” a cup to sound like a saxophone.
- He knows he’ll be super busy during CMA Fest, the SEC tournament, Titans games and Bridgestone Arena concerts.
“You have to have a positive attitude. When you have tourists come in, you want to be inviting. So if someone looks lost, I go up and ask them if I can help,” he says.
“That my job, but you know, now I find myself when I’m not on the job — if I’m out shopping, say, and I see someone who seems lost — I reach out to see if I can help them.
“When you do it everyday it becomes a part of you.”