Themed Entertainment and the Guest-Centric Experience: AO&A’s Bonnie Kersten

AO&A provides comprehensive management services for the development of themed entertainment and thematic real estate projects worldwide. Managing everything from due diligence to design and construction, the firm helps operators mitigate risk and successfully deliver extraordinary guest experiences at theme parks, resorts, restaurants, retail locations and attraction destinations across the world.
chad emerson themed entertainment theme park
With a degree in Interior Design and an MBA, AO&A's Managing Director, Bonnie Kersten (right) brought her extensive experience in a variety of dynamic cruise, leisure, and entertainment projects to AOA projects including The Orlando Eye and various guest experiences at Walt Disney World's Epcot. Chad Emerson caught up with her.

Share with us how you first got started working in the amusement and recreation industry.

I have been exposed to the entertainment business all my life. Art and design have always been a passion of mine. I am naturally drawn to developing fabulous guest experiences which probably ao&a themed design entertainment construction bonnie kersetnstems from my drive to have such a great time in my own life. I took an internship with an entertainment design firm  while in college and returned to work there after graduation. My responsibilities increased quickly as we worked to develop “Vision Plans” for an array of projects from Mexican rodeos, to cruise port destinations, tourism development plans, numerous boutique hotels throughout the Caribbean as well as various branded tours and attractions. I became enthralled with inspiring innovative, new and exciting projects.

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I then went back to school for an MBA to round out my capabilities with the design, programming and feasibility of entertainment and hospitality projects. The added degree truly enhanced my comprehension of the overall business and developed my ability to apply critical, strategic thinking to the creative development process. I started with AOA a year ago in Orlando. Our firm provides project and program management services to the themed entertainment industry worldwide. We are fortunate to work with the largest entertainment companies in the world and to build extraordinary experiences that are unique in every sense of the word.

What have been some of the most rewarding themed entertainment projects you’ve worked on and why? 

They would have to be the ones I’m working on today. The Baha Mar development in Nassau of The Bahamas, The Orlando Eye with Circle Entertainment and Merlin Entertainments, and other various new pursuits throughout the world. It’s interesting that based on what we do, some of our most interesting work stays classified as ‘highly confidential’ for years before we’re able to talk about it.  In some cases we can’t ever really say much about it even after the work is done, which is something that our clients appreciate.  But, we know and are proud of what we contribute and that is reward enough. Past projects I consider very special are those that provide authentic, immersive branded experiences– Port of Historic Falmouth with the Port Authority of Jamaica and Royal Caribbean, the design of the cruise port of Wilderness Alaska of Hobart Bay, Alaska as well as themed attractions throughout the Caribbean – including Appleton Estate Rum Tour and Treasure Reef of Dolphin Cove, Jamaica.
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What about some of the most challenging ones?

The most challenging projects are ones that are more political than pragmatic. Only when people can truly communicate and collaborate toward a common goal will great things happen. Sometimes the challenges are a combination of cultural differences, disconnection between vision and budget, or the project is in the midst of a leadership shake-up and the roles are ill defined.  These challenges can dwarf the actual challenge of the creativity and delivery of the project sometimes.  It always seems to work out in the end, and taking an open and honest approach from the very beginning has always served me well.  I love challenges!

Currently, what types of projects are you working on and how has your experience in the amusement industry influenced those prdolphin cove jamaica logo themed entertainmentojects?

Well as I mentioned, there are a few I really, really wish I could talk about, but I can’t!  Let’s just say that there isn’t a shortage of new projects in the themed entertainment sector right now.  A lot is happening and we are thrilled to be in the middle of some of the biggest and best! The AOA team is working on various projects: entertainment destinations, theme park attractions, resorts and hotels, restaurants and bars as well as branded retail locations around the world. Each project has its own signature innovation in the amusement industry.

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We provide a range of services from front end preliminary programming, scheduling, and cost estimation all the way to design and build management – acting as project owner representatives and facilitators from the initial big idea to opening day.  We pride ourselves on understanding and respecting the importance of theatrical, immersive design and our ability to deliver it in reality to the guests.

The comprehensive nature of my guest-centric experience is likely what influences my work most. To me, everything is about delivering the right project that facilitates the guest experience for the best business case – from a golf course clubhouse or resort hotel, to new ride systems, attractions, and entertainment districts. No matter how integrative or how innovative the project, the technology, and the team this ‘guest force’ is the driver from initial strategic planning to the conceptual creative, design, construction, and operational development. We also pride ourselves in thinking about how hard the guests work for their money to enjoy a great experience that takes them to a place they have never been before.  We believe it’s our duty to support our projects in a manner that gives them the best experience possible.