Despite COVID-19, the experience economy continues its rise and, post-lockdown, the appetite for entertainment is likely to speed up the tide. Illuminarium, a new experience featuring a fusion of immersive environments, big-budget movies, and theatrical design, is poised to ride that wave.
Illuminarium is the brainchild of serial entrepreneur Alan Greenberg, David Rockwell, architect and founder of Rockwell Group, and Jon Kamen, founder of filmmaking company RadicalMedia.
Visiting an Illuminarium, audiences enter an 8,000-sq ft space at timed intervals. Inside, they join a multisensory experience that has the immersive intensity of VR. The opening spectacle, WILD Safari, which is projected on the floor and walls to a height of 22 feet, has an approximate runtime of 50 minutes.
Guests can enter and leave (through the gift shop) at any point. Another equally stunning offering, called SPACEWALK, will put visitors on the surface of the moon and mars.
Meanwhile, a second, smaller Illuminarium serves as an immersive pre-show for spectacles like WILD Safari. This also then converts into Illuminarium After Dark, an immersive bar in the evenings.
What differentiates the experience from similar concepts is the sheer quality of the cinematic approach, the extraordinary scale and the technology, as CEO Alan Greenberg explains to blooloop:
“Our technology partners like Disguise, Holoplot, and Lightware who do immersive related projects all over the world have told us that they have never seen anything quite like the scale of projection, interactivity and multi-sensory elements as Illuminarium.”
Introducing Illuminarium Experiences
Greenberg, who was publisher of Esquire Magazine in the 1980s, leverages a career defined by the creation and operation of both traditional and interactive media in several sectors – healthcare, global travel, and education. He founded the Illuminarium concept in 2019 along with Radical Media and The Rockwell Group.
“We are excited about it,” he says. “It’s been about three years in the making, and we hope it will become one of the great attractions, the great experiential entertainment offerings worldwide.”
Illuminarium is an immersive experience that is, effectively, a sociable, headset-free form of VR, which people can enjoy together.
Greenberg identifies two problems with conventional VR:
“From an enjoyment perspective, you can’t share it. It’s not a communal experience. You can’t take pictures; you can’t have a ‘wow’ moment together with someone you care about. And from the business side, the throughput is challenging. People have to strap computers on their back and wear a headset.”
A varied career
Touching on his eclectic career and how it informs this venture, he says:
“This is my fifth company. I started in media and then went into healthcare communications, travel, then education, and am now in entertainment, or what you might call edutainment. I think there are some common threads.
“To me, the key to success when starting any business is doing something distinctive; doing something that has been carefully thought through. It sounds simple. But it’s about doing something that can take people’s breath away. That can be in a school, or the pages of a magazine, or it can be in an experience like Illuminarium.”
“As we considered the concept, we took a look at people like Cirque du Soleil, and many of the people blooloop writes about; TeamLab, Paris’s Atelier des Lumières, Meow Wolf: all these great experiences over the world that draw a crowd, surprising and engaging people in different ways.
“What we have tried to do with Illuminarium is take that to a completely different level, both technologically and in terms of the consumer experience. We have created something truly distinctive, and scalable.
“One of my investors once told me, long ago, when we were raising money for our school, ‘One school is a school; two schools is a business.’ In that light, we already have four Illuminarium venues in play. We hope that in five or six years from now we’ll be talking to you about the 50th Illuminarium from somewhere around the world.”
Illuminarium transports visitors to new places
A limited number of people can afford to go on a genuine safari. For those on a more modest budget, or those who want to tread softly in terms of environmental footprint, the Illuminarium concept brings the sights, smells, feelings of a safari within reach. Right down to the rumble in the ground as an elephant passes.
“Content-wise, our initial concept is that we have major spectacles, multimillion-dollar productions like Safari. We plan to bring out a new one every six to nine months. Constantly changing the content means people will have a reason to return. We can also, through our technology, flip a switch and transform our Illuminariums into different things.
“For example, we have Illuminarium After Dark, an immersive bar experience. You may walk in one day, and you’re having a cocktail at the bottom of the ocean. Or you come back next week, and you’re in an Asian night market, or the Himalayas.
“We also have a fantastic event space. If you want to have a wedding in Paris, we can have that in Atlanta. We can turn the Illuminarium into anything you want. Do you want to have a wedding surrounded by the most beautiful flowers in the world? We can do that. We can make it anything you want it to be.”
Extraordinary experiences for all
Illuminarium is about ‘Democratizing extraordinary experiences.’
“When we open our doors in Atlanta with our Safari experience, which is phenomenal, it will truly feel like being in Africa,” he says.
“People will drive in from hundreds of miles away. We may have perfectly timed that, in some ways; we’re that regional trip. There might be people driving in from Nashville, in this location. When we open in Las Vegas, driving in from LA etc. to go on Safari, rather than getting on a plane for 14 hours, sounds like a pretty good idea.”
Concerning the target demographic, he adds:
“Illuminarium is aimed at everybody. Safari and Spacewalk are Disney-esque in their breadth of market. It’s going to be as interesting or for a young family as it’s going to be for grandparents or millennials.
“Then, different things may appeal to different people. Our evening After Dark experience may appeal to a younger crowd than our Safari experience. But I think everything that we do, at least from the big spectacle perspective, is broad-based. We can also do things that are niche.
“For example, we’re thinking about the possibility of doing a morning meditation and yoga at Illuminarium, again using our projection and sound. We can make it feel like you are in the most serene, beautiful, spot in the world.”
Cutting-edge tech powers Illuminarium
When it comes to technology, Greenberg says:
“When you walk into an Illuminarium, you’re walking into something different from any place you’ve ever been. We use the best projection systems in the world – the latest, greatest from Panasonic.
“We’re using what is, for our purposes, the most extraordinary sound system in the world from HOLOPLOT, who are going to be doing the sound for the MSG Sphere in Las Vegas and London.
“That 3D beam forming technology is amazing. If you walk in with someone and you’re 20 feet apart, you’re hearing different things. And what you hear doesn’t get louder when you’re up close versus further away. It’s the perfect sound for us.”
“We also have low-frequency haptics built into our floor systems from Powersoft, and a LIDAR system from Ouster in our ceiling. This creates interactivity as well as allowing us to track customer movement. And then we have scent diffused through the air.
“We coat our walls with a special optical coating that adds vibrancy. When you walk into an Illuminarium, you see it, you feel the rumble, you smell it, you hear it, and you are part of the narrative. If you’re walking on the surface of the moon, you will leave footprints on the surface and will kick up moondust.”
Creating a new venture in a COVID era
“A lot of things are coming together that, three years ago, we probably couldn’t have done. We are also thinking about it differently. There are a lot of great things out there, but we are essentially thinking about how we can build a place that can take you anyplace. That’s the idea.”
The timing is optimal. Post-COVID, people are attuned to digital experiences. They are also rethinking travel, and desperate to engage with the experience economy.
“Part of that is luck,” Greenberg says. “We are very lucky. We raised a fair amount of our $100 million of capital pre-COVID. Plus, we didn’t have to shut down and restart like so many attractions and businesses have had to do, which is expensive and gut-wrenching.
“Our timing, as it transpires, has been almost perfect. The world is yearning to go places, do things, have fun. Illuminarium is showing up at just about the perfect time.
“We are taking things to a very different level. There is $15 million of technology in each Illuminarium. Then there are the productions themselves; Safari is a $10 million production.”
Illuminarium experiences coming soon
On the roll-out, Greenberg says:
“We are opening in Atlanta in July, and then, we hope late December in Las Vegas, or worst case early January. We’d like it to be in time for Christmas and New Year in Vegas.
“The walls are up. It’s an amazing location at AREA15, basically across the street from Meow Wolf. They are going to be such a perfect complement for each other. They are great kinds of experiences that do completely different things.”
“We’ve signed our lease and created our plan for the Miami location, in the Wynwood arts district of Miami. It’s a wonderful 33,000 square foot facility. We’re submitting that for approval by the city. It will probably open in summer to fall of ‘22.
“We also have an LOI on an interesting location in Chicago and are fairly close to a deal in Mexico City. This would be our first joint venture (JV).”
He plans to take the venture in two directions:
“One is owned and operated Illuminariums. Our first four are exactly that. And then we’re also going to have JVs. We have signed a JV with a prominent group to bring Illuminarium into Mexico and Spain. We can imagine four to six Illuminariums in places like Mexico City or the Mayan Riviera, perhaps Monterey. And then in Spain, certainly, we want to be in Barcelona and Madrid, maybe the Costa del Sol.”
“We’re also working very hard right now on Asia Pacific. I think that will be our largest territory, in the long term. We’re spending a lot of time on Zoom these days in China, Australia, Japan, Singapore and the like. The Middle East, likely starting with Dubai is also of significant interest to us.
“Then there are cities like London and Paris. We’ve looked at quite a few spots in central London, and haven’t found the perfect situation yet, but we will.”
In terms of selecting locations, Greenberg says:
“Broadly speaking, we’re looking to be in megacities and mega tourism destinations. London is a perfect example because it’s both a megacity and a mega tourism destination.
“We also envisage a significant number of Illuminariums partnering with theme park operators, where they already have a significant audience, and real estate that is already zoned for entertainment.”
“Doing an Illuminarium in a major theme park would give people a reason to stay longer, to come back and spend more. Many theme parks need indoor experiences, which is something else we bring to the party, and places that draw people day and night.
We see interesting opportunities for us around the world.”
Illuminarium has talented partners
There are, he explains, four main partners in the business:
“Firstly, there is me, representing management. Then there is our content partner, RadicalMedia, a phenomenal Academy award-winning, Emmy award-winning, Grammy award-winning global production company – the filmmaker behind ‘Hamilton’.
On the design side, we have Rockwell Group. They have just designed the set for the Oscars. They’ve done everything from Nobu restaurants and Taos restaurants to hotels, bars, all over the world to the Ted theatre. They have won Tony Awards on Broadway for their theatrical design.
On the operation side, we have Legends Attractions ,who operate 150 venues around the world, including the Shard in London, Wimbledon, the One World Observatory in New York City, and all the Live Nation venues in the United States.
“They really make the trains run on time. They handle everything from ticketing through food and beverage, construction management, and work with us on marketing. Those are the four partners of the business.”
Making a difference
There is also a social impact partner:
“We want to be giving back in important ways in every spectacle we do,” says Greenberg. “Our first partner in that regard is WildArk.”
WildArk.org promotes and supports activities that educate, enable, provide resources or inspire humanity to conserve, protect and restore the world’s ecosystems, natural resources, wildlife and wild places.
Illuminarium will donate a portion of the ticket and merchandising revenue annually to WildArk. Through this strategic partnership, WildArk will direct this funding, as well as additional donations made at Illuminarium, to conservation partners working to protect prioritised wildlife and habitats across Africa.
Illuminarium will also provide opportunities for customers to engage personally with WildArk and other mission-based partners they bring to the experience.
Illuminarium plans to become an engaging educational platform. We will be curating field trips for children of different ages. For example, young children will have programs involving identifying different species, whereas older children will learn about extinction, biomimicry and careers in conservation.
To minimize negative impacts on the environment, Illuminarium’s policy is not to use any single-use plastic items across the facility. Instead, biodegradable and compostable straws, plates, cups, lids and cutlery will be used. The gift shop bags are reusable totes designed to be repurposed for everyday use.
“In Atlanta, which is our corporate headquarters, we have built not only our Illuminarium venue but also the multi-million-dollar Illuminarium lab, which is all about what is next in the field of experiential entertainment.
Partners like Panasonic and HOLOPLOT and so forth can visit the lab, bringing us their latest, greatest technology, which we test. We also test all our spectacle and evening content ideas. The lab is like a mini Illuminarium, with all the technology that we have in the real Illuminarium. But it’s really an R&D centre.”
Greenberg sees the potential of Illuminarium as limitless:
“If you can dream it, we can do it. I’m sure we’ve only scratched the surface. If you look at really great companies out there, they start with a great idea. They execute it well, and then they go, ‘What are we doing next?’
“AR and AI, for example, are certainly going to be part of our future. One of the great things about our partnerships with companies like RadicalMedia, Rockwell and Legends is that they’re among the first to be aware of every major technological development. So, we get an inside look at what’s coming from the major technology providers. And as technology develops, if it applies to our business, then we’ll embrace it.”
Illuminarium opens soon in Atlanta
Illuminarium’s inaugural permanent venue opens 1 July 2021 on the Atlanta BeltLine, premiering the first spectacle experience — WILD, produced by RadicalMedia. Tickets are now available and WILD: A safari experience will run until early 2022 when SPACEWALK will debut.
Illuminarium Experiences also use state-of-the-art, post-COVID safety protocols. Each venue will have sophisticated air purification systems and incorporate a contactless environment, from automated restroom fixtures to point-of-sale locations. Guests will have temperature checks and guest flow will be managed to allow for physical distancing.
A second venue is under construction at AREA15 in Las Vegas. This will be opening in Winter 2022, with other venues to follow in Miami and Chicago, also in 2022.