Balich Wonder Studio is a global player in the live entertainment and communication industry. Based in Italy, it merges international talents and partners to create and manage ground-breaking events and experiences across five continents.
Born from the experience of Marco Balich, Gianmaria Serra and Simone Merico, the Group has been going through a consolidation and rebranding process recently. In a reflection of the new function and ethos, Balich Worldwide Shows is now Balich Wonder Studio, joined also by Carolina Dotti and Valentina Saluzzi.
The history of Balich Wonder Studio
Stefano Core is CEO of Balich Wonder Studio. He talks to Blooloop about the company’s recent rebrand, its projects and plans. He also offers insights, as a leading voice in the live entertainment business, into the post-COVID era for the events industry:
“From the beginning, the core of the company has always been ceremonies,” he says. “Its approach in terms of production and spectacle became very well known. So, soon lots of other clients, institutions, and also brand companies started to ask them for help on how to produce live experiences for other occasions.
“For instance, the launch of a brand or a company; for a national day, for many different things. All those opportunities were pursued because the company was well adapted to do so.
“So the first three, four, five years started from ceremonies. But the company has been doing other things too and also buying and starting up new companies. And a day arrived when the partners looked at themselves, and said, ‘OK: now we are very big. We are in the first three ceremony businesses in the world, but we do many other things.’
“As a result, they decided to make the company much more structured. They wanted to be ready for a new era of staff evolution as the company moved towards becoming sustainable in the long-term, and independent from the partners themselves.”
“It was a major undertaking, so they decided to hire a CEO – me. I don’t come directly from this business. But I have been in contact with companies of this type throughout my career.”
Highlights of Core’s career include providing executive-level leadership for founding and directing the business development of an Italian furniture design Group, envisioning and implementing strategies as COO of Telecom Argentina; overseeing the responsibility of managing a complete marketing process; and gaining 360-degree-expertise in the Telco and Media, Luxury, Durable Goods and Automotive sectors.
A consolidation exercise
“We started a process of mergers, constructing a better, more integrated company,” explains Core.
The main change involves the transition from a non-operative holding, with six subsidiaries and independent companies each following their own business, to the creation of an operative holding company with an integrated platform designed to benefit all the business sectors. This is organised into four Business Units.
Each is led by a Unit Director and has access to the benefits of the holding’s staff and highly specialised services. For instance, creativity, business development, and more.
The Ceremonies division or business unit (BU) is dedicated to institutional events and Olympic Ceremonies. This is the core business and heritage of the historic team. Then, Events and Brand Experiences, formerly FeelRouge Worldwide Shows creates iconic events and experiences for brands.
Thirdly, there is the Immersive Shows unit. This continues its range of captivating shows, renowned for being unique in format and impact. Finally, there is the Destination Experiences division. This is a laboratory for projects such as L’Albero della Vita (the Tree of Life), the Expo2015 world icon. This division is dedicated to working partnerships with real estate developers and institutions.
“Each division has a specific responsibility. It has a dedicated team, a specific market, a budget, and accountability,” Core says. “We realised at this point that the Group was no longer solely concerned with ceremonies. While this was the starting point, and we were well-known for them, we had so much more to offer.”
A new name – Balich Wonder Studio
The name Balich Worldwide Shows was no longer descriptive of the company’s function. A new name, more in line with the company’s DNA and its new trajectories, had become necessary.
Balich Wonder Studio was born.
‘Balich’ has become synonymous with heritage, excellence and uncompromising creativity. ‘Wonder’ reflects the key characteristic of the company’s projects, and the research, innovation and evolution underpinning it. ‘Studio’ represents the creativity and exploration in which unique projects are rooted.
The Group’s logo, the well-known hand grasping a bolt of lightning remains unchanged. Inspired by mythology, it reinterprets the image of Jupiter capturing and dominating the energy of lightning. As such it reflects the ability of the Balich Wonder Studio to capture creative energy and transform it into successful projects.
Representing the company’s strengths
“The word ‘Wonder’ perfectly represents our way of approaching projects,” says Core. “In everything we do for every occasion, for every client, the value that we bring to the table is to inspire wonder. We manage participants’ emotions in an inspired and exceptional way.”
“Each event that we do is not simply an occasion where people meet together. It is something that has a very strong communicative power, that goes far beyond the two, three hours where people get together.”
“We replaced ‘show’ with ‘Studio’ firstly because ‘Show’ was no longer representative of what we do. And also because although we’re a big, international Group, we still take a customised approach for every client. Each project is unique. We design as a studio for every client.
“Over the last five years, the Group has grown a lot in different directions. The new name is like a message to the outside world that we are doing something different.”
High profile projects
The core team Group has created and coordinated 14 Olympic Ceremonies to date. These are opening, closing and Flag Handover Ceremonies in Torino, Sochi, Rio, Tokyo. It has also worked on 12 regional games ceremonies: Mediterranean Games in Pescara, Aimag in Ashgabat, Asian Para Games in Jakarta, Universiade in Naples and Pan American Games in Lima.
“We are participating in the Tokyo Olympics,” says Core.
The Tokyo 2020 Summer Olympics was originally scheduled to take place between 24 July and 9 August 2020. The event was postponed as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, and is now taking place from 23 July to 8 August 2021:
“We are not the general contractor, but Marco Balich is a senior advisor to the executive producer. Where the name is involved, we have a big responsibility.”
Outlining the challenges of managing such high-profile projects, Core says:
“The ceremony business is unique. That is something I’ve come to appreciate since joining the company. An Olympic ceremony is one of the most complex exercises there is, related to gathering people in the same place. Firstly, because it is huge. Millions of spectators follow it on television.
“Secondly, the values, the community, the storytelling of these events are sensitive. You are managing topics related to the value of sports but also you need to respect every element, from human beings to the culture of a Country.
“Thirdly, everything takes place in two or three hours, with the representatives of countries, presidents, politics. Any mistakes that take place at that moment have a massive impact. The mission-critical nature of that moment is huge. You work for two years to create one hour, and that one hour is crucial.”
The unique skills of Balich Wonder Studio
“From the beginning, the company has developed a process comprising procedures and skills that are unique worldwide, and difficult to replicate. It would not be easy for another company to try to emulate the process. Because it’s not something that can be easily learned.
“Our approach is highly managed and structured, with strong procedures, like an army. It’s an unusual approach in events companies, many of which are run by entrepreneurs. Yes, the ceremonies are no longer our main business revenue. But they are still the most important element; our diamond, in terms of positioning.”
“It is through the ceremonies that we have earned respect and trust. We have a reputation as a business that can undertake complex projects successfully. This is our value. In terms of the fashion business, the ceremonies aspect is our ‘Haute Couture’. In terms of sports car makers, it is our ‘Formula 1”.
Balich Wonder Studio has a firm commitment to urban regeneration and sustainability, through its projects and installations.
“We are currently involved in renewal and regeneration projects with major real estate developers, and we worked on projects concerned with marine conservation and in the sustainability field.
“But, in fact, every time that we undertake projects, there are many key values involved. These are community, sustainability, social, environmental, and – in a sense – spiritual values. It is important to remember that the impact of an event on the environment can be significant.”
Every time that we undertake projects, there are many key values involved. These are community, sustainability, social, environmental, and spiritual values
It is vital, Core says, that such an impact should be positive, bringing wealth to the area and its communities:
“We are also working on an internal official process. This will make our production more sustainable when it comes to the environment. We have a corporate project in progress whereby we will be officially certified to create sustainable events. Plus we are also in the early stages of thinking about a non-profit foundation. This will lean into important social messages, though I can’t go into any more detail yet.”
The impact of the pandemic
Touching on the post-COVID era for the events industry, Core says:
“At the beginning of the pandemic, it was worrying. Along with everyone else in the industry, we didn’t know what was going to happen. We saw companies closing, or changing their strategy too precipitately.”
Digital strategies came to the forefront:
“We did some specific research, to understand what people would want once the pandemic was over. For instance, whether they wanted to attend events in a digital form only, or whether they would be willing to go to live events.
“Digital is important. It is a trend that started long before COVID; the pandemic was simply a trigger to speed up the trend. It will never take over completely from live events, however. In the future, there will be hybrid events, both digital and physical.”
Digital vs. physical events
Core says that this is beneficial for physical events:
“Why? Because before, while there would be social media channels for pictures and so on, the events themselves were transient. They were not designed to be streamed or communicated online. Today, every ceremony or event is designed to exist in digital as well as in a physical form. There is far more integration between the forms.
“The importance of branding, budget and location are higher because the content will be communicated widely online. We have been doing many projects for big brands that were 80% digital and 20% physical, in something rather like a movie production approach. There weren’t many people participating at once. Instead, there was a great deal of organisation and physical choreography that was then all streamed. The budgets of those projects were high.”
While digital is important, he contends, it does not spell the death of the physical:
“Digital music doesn’t mean concerts no longer exist, and the same will be true for the event sector. The physical will remain an important backbone, amplified by the digital.”
In the wake of the pandemic, participation in physical events will rise as part of the bounce-back effect:
“COVID has made people realise how much they value and miss physical presence and interaction. Here in Milan, people are gathering to sit outside the restaurants and meet on the streets.
We, as a Group, are very fortunate in that we are strong enough to prevail, and to be ready for the future
“This has been a difficult time. Many companies have failed to survive. So many professional jobs and capabilities have been lost. We, as a Group, are very fortunate in that we are strong enough to prevail, and to be ready for the future.”
Balich Wonder Studio engages with local cultures
As an international Group that holds events all over the world, Balich Wonder Studio takes pains to engage with and understand local cultures, to create events in which the local audience can feel represented.
“When doing big ceremonies or events, where managing people’s emotions is central to the project’s success, you need to be able to identify the content that will touch that audience’s soul,” Core says.
“To do that, you need to know the people that will attend the show. Those people are always touched by values related to where they live. So knowledge of the local culture is very important.”
Such knowledge can’t be gleaned purely through research or an analytical study:
“You need to understand even those values and nuances of culture that the locals themselves have lost. For example, we did a ceremony in Peru for a Latin American parade. After the ceremony, many Peruvian people told us that we had touched them with what we had communicated.
“There is so much we take for granted as citizens that, when someone presents it to you in a creative, emotional way, we rediscover from a new, fresh perspective. This is what we do.”
Bringing art and technology together
A key mission of the Group is emotional engineering: the fusion of technology and art to impact the audience emotionally and achieve an effect of wonder.
“We don’t start from the technology and we don’t start with the tools. We start from the emotion and then we develop everything necessary to amplify emotion in those watching. This is why we often refer to ourselves as ‘emotional engineers’, because we work with emotion. We know the emotion we want to create and we design what is necessary to evoke it.”
The future of Balich Wonder Studio
Looking at the future, he returns to the four divisions of the business:
“Before COVID, we were already rethinking the future of our company. In a way, COVID forced our hand, because the future is changed. So we moved ahead with our decision to be one company, divided into separate divisions.
“Each division is unique, representing an aspect where we are strong, and which we want to grow in the future. We believe that we are the global leader in ceremonies. And so, we want to maintain this leadership.”
“We have a specialized unit that covers brand experiences, from traditional events to client experiences for brand exhibits, or product launches, digital and physical. We want to grow this division, mainly abroad. People know us in Italy, but we are addressing new markets, for example, France, Vietnam and the Middle East.
“There are many growth opportunities. For instance, through acquisitions or integrations with local or strategic partners. Our positioning is high-end event and brand experiences focused on luxury and prestigious brands.”
Explaining this focus, he adds:
“The events business is fragmented. There are many kinds of events, conventions, festivals. And then you also have those projects where the event itself is not the most important thing. What is important is the impact this event has on the life of a brand.
“We are more than an events company, we are a communication company. We express our communication through the event and the client experience. This is where we want to reinforce our business.”
The remaining two divisions are, he explains, quite new:
“The first covers immersive shows and theatrical spectacles. We have a format, Superlive, where we design, build and produce a spectacle that is not only related to physical performance. Instead, it’s a mix of performance, digital and videos that stimulate all the senses, not just sight – there is also smell, vibration. It’s an immersive experience.”
“We are currently working, for example, on large immersive shows in Dubai and Macau, along with other shows that we are designing which are related to the restaurant business. We are developing immersive dinner and lunch shows.”
The last division, or Business Unit, is concerned with Destination Experiences.
“This is, we believe, the fastest-growing phenomenon, not just for ourselves, but also in general. Everything that we have been doing in terms of ceremonies, including the Olympic Games, were, essentially, for a place.
“Whether it is an urban restructuring real estate project or a hospitality project, you are seeing our experience in emotions, in creativity, in entertainment. We design everything in that real estate investment to make it compelling and unique.”
“For example, when you have a certain area, a neighbourhood of a city, or a hotel business, the realtor focuses on the importance of a well-designed building, or property. But what is important is to invest this area with a soul, with a brand. Something that will create a desire in the client to go there, or for a residential client to live there.
“To achieve this, you need to create an experience. We approach real estate areas properties with an emotional master plan. Every real estate property has an architectural master plan. On top of that, we add our emotional plan. If you think of the unique, well-known, desirable locations in the world, there is a reason they draw people to them.
“In this division, there is a specific involvement by one of the partners, Gianmaria Serra. This is because it’s a new division where we want to structure the business.”
The next focus for Balich Wonder Studio
Balich Wonder Studio will be focusing on this over the next five or ten years:
“We are working closely with architects, with real estate companies and with partners on many projects. These range from redesigning a city in Saudi Arabia, to helping requisition real estate in Milan. That is one of the biggest investments ever done in Europe – it is hundreds of thousands of square meters.”
And then, too, there is the design of icons. As Artistic Director of the Italian Pavilion of Expo 2015, Marco Balich conceived the iconic Tree of Life. A spectacular 37-metre-high installation comprising music and water, as well as pyro fountains, light and projection effects, the Tree of Life was a social media trending topic in 2015.
“This is an example of how an iconic piece can be so much more than a design or a statue. It was an interactive opportunity for people to look at and to become part of this happening, at that moment, through Instagramming, for instance. It was a spectacle every day.”
A bright future
Balich Wonder Studio’s turnover in 2019 was €103m, with a forecast turnover for 2020 of €150m with the aim of doubling in 3 years, by 2023. Unfortunately, due to the COVID pandemic, 50% of the projects planned for 2020 were postponed to 2021. Nevertheless, Balich Wonder Studio is already returning to the turnover levels of 2019.
“2020 represented a period of suspended business,” Core says. “And yet, on the other hand, it was extremely productive in reorganising and planning the new evolution.”
Balich Wonder Studio is now ready to face the opportunities offered by the post-pandemic scenario, betting on the value proposition of its integrated platform and four specialised business units, each with its area of expertise.