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Grand Aquarium Hong Kong Ocean Park Konzen

PGAV Destinations’ Mike Konzen – empathy key to managing employees and satisfying clients

Mike Konzen, Principal and Chair at PGAV Destinations, once did a TED talk centering largely on a theme of empathy.

Empathy is something to which Mike Konzen returns when, speaking to Blooloop. He outlines the defining factors that shaped his career with PGAV Destinations, and the groundbreaking company known for designing world-class entertainment venues.

Mike Konzen standing Profile Photo, PGAV Destinations
Mike Konzen

Konzen has been with PGAV Destinations for three decades; something far from his intentions when he started out as a newly qualified architect.

He had fallen in love with architecture at the age of 12.

PGAV Destinations Logo

He says: “It was probably a function of a few things all coming together. I grew up in a professional family; my father was an attorney, my mother was a nurse. And there was a sense that one was expected to get a professional career somehow.”

Uniquely in his family, he possessed an artistic bent: “I loved to draw and paint. I also had the conundrum of how one creates a profession out of something that otherwise might not be known for paying very well.”

Architecture proved to be the answer.

Mega Storm Everland pgav destinations mike konzen
Mega Storm Everland

“It fed my creative interests, and seemed like a way to go forward professionally. But what I thought it was then is not what I know it to be now. Somehow, I still managed to like it,” he says.

Expanding on this, he says: “Back in the 1960s, there was a television show called The Brady Bunch. The father of the family, Mike Brady, was an architect. What he did, as depicted on the show, was to sit in his office, all by himself, in his suit coat; and look like he was thinking about something creative all on his own.

“Someplace more glamorous”

“This image of a solitary designer turned out to be a bad example of how the creative process works.”

ruby falls expansion design by pgav destinations
Ruby Falls expansion

When he joined PGAV, Mike Konzen had no idea he would remain there for the next 30 years:

“In fact, I was pretty sure I would be here maybe a year or two.”

He graduated from Washington University in Saint Louis: “I did not have the sense then that Saint Louis was a place to pursue a career in design, but, while I planned to leave town as soon as I could, I was so broke I couldn’t even come up with the bus fare.

“I took a job at PGAV, viewing it as a stepping stone situation, for a year or two, maybe; until I could pull some money together, and move on to someplace more glamorous.

“But as it turned out, they got their hooks into me, and never let go.”

Non-stop challenges and opportunities

Aerial view ChishuiPeninsula Resort designed by PGAV Destinations
Chishui Peninsula Resort, China

He elaborates on this: “It was a long process. They never ceased to find something that interested me. I’m known for getting bored very easily. And so if there hadn’t always been new challenges, I was probably going to leave; but the challenges never stopped coming. The opportunities to travel the world and do fantastic projects never stopped either, and I was given opportunities to grow. It was all very fortunate for me. Because in the end, it provided some things that I didn’t even know that I needed.”

At the point when Mike Konzen joined PGAV, the company was beginning to develop theme parks, zoos and so forth, but it was still only a small percentage of the work done.

“Over time, we started to build that up. I grew up with that shift in the kind of work that we did. And about 20 years ago, we decided that the best thing we could do for our future was to focus on destinations, as well as to move away from traditional architectural projects.

“I was part of that decision process, and we developed the brand that we call PGAV Destinations.”

Making the world a better place through destinations

Boys water a river otter at Otter Passage at Milwaukee County Zoo
Otter Passage, Milwaukee County Zoo

Explaining the appeal of creating destinations, Mike Konzen says:

“Over time, I became aware that the kinds of experiences a person has when they are travelling for leisure, whether to an attraction or some destination in a far off place, are very enriching, and life affirming.

I became a big believer in the fact that, when we did our job well; creating inspiring, highly entertaining environments, we were really making the world a better place.

two girls in sunglasses at colour run event

A sense of mission grew out of that, and it is a big part of the mission that our whole organisation has here today.”

As people increasingly realise, it is more important to collect memories than possessions, the experience economy continues to grow.

Konzen says: “We see our work broadening in a number of areas. We have grown considerably in the amount of work that we do for consumer product industries, for instance; we find our work venturing into the broader tourism spectrums, such as resorts and travel experiences that are more events-driven. The kind of expertise we have applies well to a broad international spectrum.”

Empathy the key to understanding what people really want

For PGAV, creating attraction destinations all over the world involves forming a deep understanding of the people for whom they are building.

Mike Konzen says: The main theme of my TED talk is this concept of empathy; the idea that to create places that are really enriching for a certain audience means that you have to understand them deeply. And also to pull on those threads that reach them in places that are meaningful and emotionally powerful.

While some themes are universal, I think you have to spend a lot of time in the country; understanding what a consumer base really wants and seeks in a leisure experience, before you can design it.”

The project becomes a two-way communication, where the people’s expectations feed into the design process. Konzen says: “And it doesn’t hurt that going into those places becomes a kind of life adventure for us and our people. It is very enriching for staff, and they become increasingly attuned to seeking out those kinds of experiences. You get hooked on it pretty easily.”

Unlearning biases to learn something new

Outlining a project demonstrating process and where learning happened, Konzen says: “One of our first international projects where we took something on from the ground upwards was the development of PortAventura, in Spain.

“That project was conceived originally as an American-style theme park that would be transplanted into Spain, to serve the Spanish market. It would also serve the Northern European market that holidayed in that part of the Mediterranean.

Mike Konzen, Michael Konzen with construction hard hat, PGAV Destinations
Konzen and team tour the under-construction Space Shuttle Atlantis museum

“We were, of course, taking forward our American biases into that process. We had to unlearn those, and learn new ways of thinking about it.

“The original Park was conceived as ‘Destinations around the World’. And we started to explore different themes for different nodes within the park. I remember getting excited, for instance; about the idea of exploring Morocco as a theme. However, we learned through some focus group testing that it simply was not very appealing to the target audience. So that one fell off the table pretty quickly. But we also found that some themes resonated very powerfully, and we had to embrace that kind of thinking.”

The importance of flexibility

Chimelong Ocean Kingdom
Chimelong Ocean Kingdom

He says: “Another learning experience from that project where we didn’t get it perfectly right from the get go, was the dining habits of that audience. They tended to take a big block of time in the middle of the day where they occupied the restaurants; which in the United States you would never do as you would miss out on your opportunity to get into the next queue.

“In this case, it was a new thing. And the whole concept of dining capacity was something we had to rethink. We had similar experiences when we went into China, and some other places. There are constant learning experiences.”

These are examples that demonstrate the importance of remaining flexible. Likewise, it also demonstrates the importance of not falling too much in love with an idea. They have been fortunate, Konzen feels, in having clients who understood that learning aspect:

“They wanted us to do our best work. And so a lot of times we got on the road and travelled with them.”

Junior Red Force roller coaster at Ferrari Land Kids' Area
Junior Red Force roller coaster at the new Ferrari Land Kids’ Area.

Intentional progression

The company has been on a careful growth trajectory over the last five or six years; growing in terms of headcount by around 10% a year.

The rate of growth, Konzen says, is intentional. “While taking on a bigger and broader range of clients, one of the things that we look at from a management standpoint in terms of the company is making sure that even as we get bigger, the company doesn’t lose its family atmosphere and culture, and that we are constantly meeting the needs of a larger and broader professional group.”

Today, the PGAV team are an eclectic and dynamic group with a range of creative perspectives:

Guyton, Mike Konzen and Howard with construction hard hats, PGAV Destinations
PGAV’s VP Emily Howard, Konzen, and late founder Fred Guyton touring the under-construction Space Shuttle Atlantis museum

“When I joined PGAV, the vast majority of the professionals had architectural backgrounds. Today, I would say we architects now represent less than half of the professional staff.

“It really is a very broad and diverse group from many design disciplines, and that is exciting. It also represents the kinds of talents that are needed in today’s world; to look at projects in so many different ways.”

A dynamic evolution

“We are happy to evolve in that direction. And the thing that is, frankly, most exciting about it is that while no one knows what the next five years will hold, I believe it will be more of the same; more change, more growth, and more innovation as we change the mix of people here.”

Expanding on this, Mike Konzen says: “Sometimes the best architectural ideas come from someone who has a background in set design; or the exhibit design ideas come from someone who has a background in industrial design.

“We don’t harbour jealous guardrails in terms of the way that our people contribute. It is when you break down those barriers that it really gets to be a fun mix.”

There have been challenging times and hard lessons learned.

St. Louis Aquarium Entry Clock pgav destinations creative talent
St. Louis Aquarium at Union Station rendering

Mike Konzen says: “One of the things that I have learned is that no one person is more important than the organisation. And no one person can be relied upon for the future of the organisation.”

This was a lesson learned in a terrible way.

“Almost 6 years ago, I lost my business partner, Jim Moorkamp, here in Saint Louis to cancer. He was such a large figure in the industry and for us.

“When Jim got sick, we were successful, starting to grow, and were getting exciting assignments around the world. It was a moment of reckoning for me personally. Because he and I had created what I believe to be a very successful business formula together.

“And it was a recognition that you just can’t assume that the same thing can continue.

“We had to re-conceive a success formula, with an understanding that we could build on our track record. However, we had to move forward in a new way. And the new way became a much broader sense of leadership. It also became a much broader sense of how our team could pull together and work together.”

A team effort to move forward

Mike Konzen and the entire PGAV Destinations team at the Kennedy Space Visitor Complex in 2013

“I credit a number of individuals here for committing themselves to that; working with me to reconfigure our success formula, and frankly, since that time, we have grown beyond my expectations.

“I think our future is good, based on a broader base of leadership, less reliant on any one individual. That was the big life lesson for me to learn. It was a hard lesson, but what came out of that was a better, more durable sense of our company, and also a stronger family environment. We pulled together in a very deep way.

space shuttle atlantis
Space Shuttle Atlantis

“Jim passed away in January. And in the summer following that, we took the entire company to Orlando. It was because we were opening two exciting projects there. A project at SeaWorld called Antarctica: Empire of the Penguin, and a project at Kennedy Space Center, Space Shuttle Atlantis.

“Those two projects represented some of our best work. More importantly, by doing this sort of company-wide retreat and getaway, it bonded us in a new way. And everybody began to realise what an amazing group of people we have, and how together we can move forward in a good way.

“It was very powerful.”

Necessary to find the right people

PGAV's newly-renovated "Aviary" collaborative space
The Aviary

PGAV has a knack for attracting – and keeping – the top talent.

Identifying the factors contributing to this, Mike Konzen says: “We are in an interesting spot here; in the middle of the United States, in a part of the country not known as a hotbed of entertainment design; we are an outlier within our own community.” This, he says, is fun, in a lot of ways:

PGAV's newly-renovated "Cafe"

“But it does mean we have to be very thoughtful about recruiting, and part of that is that we have been promoting the reputation of our company as a strong work environment, as a place where a person can come and work on the best projects, advance, and become part of a family culture here that cares deeply about employees.” 

PGAV makes a commitment to invest in its employees long-term:

“We have just spent 3 ½ million dollars renovating our offices, partly to expand them to accommodate our growing headcount,  but also because we wanted to have an inspirational studio environment for creative folks doing world-class work at the highest level.”

A commitment to their employees

PGAV's New Hive: Highly Immersive Virtual Environment

Lead designer, brand experience Amanda Yates and designer April Neal take you inside our new cutting edge Hive: Highly Immersive Virtual Environment, as our latest installment of our PGAV Studio Renovation Tour!

Posted by PGAV Destinations on Friday, June 1, 2018

These, Mike Konzen reminds us, are people challenged to work at that level every day:

“It is like a high wire act that never ends; you have to perform at a very high level all the time. The expectation is that when you come here, we hope to keep you for your entire professional career.”

In fact, the retention rate is at well over 90%.

Konzen says: “ We have a program called  PGAV GO!, where everyone here gets $1,800 to spend on anything they can justify as self-enriching growth.”

The majority of employees use that money for travel: “They go to places like the Galapagos Islands. Or they look for snow leopards in the Himalayas, or visit Patagonia. We’re going into our fifth year on this program right now. And I know they have collectively travelled well over 1 million miles. Last year our expenditure on PGAV GO! was $184,000, and it is every bit worth it. If you spend your whole career here, we need to make the commitment to ensure that you grow and thrive not just as a professional, but as a person.”

PGAV Destinations design Chihuahuan Desert Exhibit at El Paso Zoo
El Paso Zoo

Passionate leadership

PGAV is characterised by leaders within the company who have grown through following a genuine passion, rather than because they were assigned a place to be. Konzen says:

Mike Konzen sitting Profile Photo, PGAV Destinations

“We have people here who spend a lot of their time thinking about or advocating for advancement in environments for animals in zoo and aquarium settings. They have put their hearts into it, and it has really shaped their career.”

The company is currently expanding its portfolio of work geographically.

Konzen says: “To be perfectly honest, several years ago, getting into projects in different parts of the world was not so much a function of a business strategy as it was to serve clients who wanted to take us on the road with them.

Global expansion

“It wasn’t until the last 10 or 15 years that we became more aware of and more deliberate about the way in which international expansion could be suitable for us.

“We never, and probably will never, set up the idea of creating a base of operations in China, for instance. We do best when we have our core leadership and our core professionals operating here out of a common place. And it has not kept us from doing work on several projects.

“It is obvious, and easy to understand that the entertainment industry is growing more in an international direction than anywhere else; therefore we are going to continue to pursue that. We are very selective about the projects that we take on. So when someone from a place like China reaches out to us, we invest a tremendous amount of energy making sure that the fit is right, in both directions. And I think that has yielded a good track record of success.”

visitors look at hammerhead sharks at georgia aquarium
The shark habitat, Georgia Aquarium expansion.

An exciting time to be in this industry

“We have grown a lot. Our staff has grown a lot. We now have staff that represent around a dozen different countries here at Saint Louis. And a lot of that has to do with the international growth we have experienced through our projects as our reputation grows.

“It’s a really exciting time to be in this industry. Understanding that the state-of-the-art of what we do is constantly advancing is a great motivation for us to keep looking to innovate.

Voice of the Visitor: Annual Outlook on the Attractions Industry research by PGAV Destinations
PGAV’s annual Voice of the Visitor report

“We are going to keep doing that both in terms of the staff that we recruit, but also in the way in which we invest in things like research around the world. We publish our research findings very openly. Not only are we interested in the advancement of the profession, we are also interested in the advancement of it in ways which help our clients, and clients like them, succeed.

“The worst thing for everybody in this profession is for some project to be done in a way that doesn’t turn out to be successful. Nobody benefits from that. We all benefit from a common sense of success, and best practice.”

In terms of industry trends and developments, Konzen says: “I tend to think that a trend is often a manifestation of something that has been around for a long time, looked at in a new way.”

Patriots Point USS Yorktown
Patriots Point USS Yorktown

As an example, he says: “We have always considered ourselves to be a storytelling organisation. We believe in creating dramatic environments with tremendous research, authenticity and depth; and that the environment itself can tell an interesting and powerful story.

“Now, I think the tools have evolved in such a way that we spend as much time talking about media and the digital aspect of storytelling as we do the architectural or environmental aspects.

“The lines between those elements are blurring faster than ever before. And the fact that we are operating as much in a media-based as a physical realm derives largely from the multidisciplinary evolution of our company.

“It’s exciting and will, I think, take us to new places.”

Chimelong Ocean kingdom
Chimelong Ocean kingdom

Developing a transcending form of authenticity

“When the visitor has access to such tremendous content on something like Netflix, in order to get them to travel to consume an experience, we have to develop a kind of authenticity that transcends that; something that is its own kind of reality, its own kind of powerful, transformative experience.

“We spend a lot of time talking about creating something that changes visitors’ perspective, whether it’s a theme park, zoo, aquarium, or museum. There is always that underlying sense of mission in those project: how can they add richness to someone’s life?

“And I think that comes from understanding the visitor and understanding the world they are living in, and delivering to them experiences that go beyond what they get at home or on their mobile device.

“That’s a challenge, but it’s also a really interesting opportunity that we have.”

All images courtesy of PGAV Destinations.

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Lalla Merlin

Lead Features Writer Lalla studied English at St. Hugh’s College, Oxford University. A writer and film-maker, she lives in rural Devon with husband, children, and an assortment of badly-behaved animals, including an enormous but friendly wolf.

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