Imagine Exhibitions has been creating, producing, marketing and operating acclaimed travelling exhibitions for ten years. So what are the secrets of the company’s success, and why did it put a Tyrannosaur on a truck?
Tom Zaller, President and CEO of Imagine Exhibitions and veteran of the entertainment and exhibition industries, is renowned for presenting artefacts and their stories in an engaging and compelling way.
His creations include Jurassic World: The Exhibition, REAL BODIES, Angry Birds Universe and Titanic The Exhibition, Dinosaurs Around the World and Survival: The Exhibition, to name a few. He and his team have also collaborated on The Hunger Games: The Exhibition, Downton Abbey: The Exhibition, Andy Warhol: 15 Minutes Eternal, Discover the Ice Age, Da Vinci The Exhibition, and Living Dinosaurs.
Bar mitzvahs and The Grateful Dead
He spoke to Blooloop about his background, the career path that brought him to his current role, and his long-held dream of becoming a forest ranger.
Zaller grew up in Cleveland, Ohio, where his brother Paul had a production company:
“So I was in the entertainment industry business from an early age. I started working on stage and in theatre, doing weddings and bar mitzvahs at 13 or 14 years old.”
After working weekends and over the summer with his brother for a few years, he had the experience to go out on tour with his first band at the age of 16. During his tenure there he worked with well-known acts such as Joe Walsh, Todd Rundgren and The Grateful Dead.
“Cleveland was a big rock and roll town, but also had the Cleveland Orchestra and the Cleveland Art Museum. It’s a very cultural city, though it gets a bad rap.
“By a variety of circumstances, I ended up in this entertainment space. My dream, though, was of becoming a forest ranger and rescuing people off the side of the mountains. This led to why I like climbing so much, and why I became an Entertainment Rigger,” Zaller says.
He went on to college with the aim of furthering his forest ranger ambitions, while continuing to do gigs in his free time.
A Titanic attraction
Regarding his time at college, Zaller says: “I was working more than I was studying. I never finished school, and ended up going on a long term tour with David Copperfield, the magician.”
He spent seven years touring with Copperfield. “After my time with David, I talked to my producer to find out what would be next. I imagined it would be some other tour. However, he said: ‘We’re building a permanent attraction focused on the Titanic in Orlando. Why don’t you go work on that?’
“I went and saw the movie, and then met the people that owned the wreck site of the Titanic.”
He also took part in a submersible dive at the site of the wreck, which afforded the insight that enabled his sensitive handling of Titanic: The Artefact Exhibition.
He says: “We started by licensing the artefacts from RMS Titantic, Inc., the company that owns the salvage rights to the wreck of the Titanic. I’d spent quite a lot of time in museums as a kid, and this was the first time I knew of an entertainment group wanting to create a new sort of immersive storytelling, using artefacts from a wreck site to tell the story.
“When we opened our first big exhibition in a museum in Chicago, almost 900,000 people came in 7 months, so we knew we really had something.”
Plastinated bodies and travelling exhibitions
This was the starting point for numerous different travelling exhibitions with Zaller as Production Manager.
On the evolution of his role in the entertainment business, he says: “I then moved to Atlanta in 2003 to build a new division at RMS Titanic Inc. related to travelling exhibitions. I told the CEO at the time that the Titanic is wonderful, but that I would like to create an exhibition using plastinated human bodies. So we formed a company, Premier Exhibitions, in early 2004.”
Zaller was instrumental in growing Premier Exhibitions, which now owns 5,500 Titanic relics with approximately 1,300 on display in various countries, along with several plastinated body exhibitions. That first bodies exhibition, BODIES…The Exhibition was a major success from the start.
“At one time we had as many as 17 of those travelling exhibitions touring the world,” says Zaller. “We also did a BODIES Revealed, Our Body: The Universe Within; Star Trek: The Exhibition, and Dialog in the Dark. The company had a very successful run for the 5 and a half years that I was there.”
His decision to move on was driven by the company’s growth. He explains: “As these companies grow and start making more and more money, different investors come in: it was a publicly-traded company. To me, it seemed to have lost the original idea of creating content and travelling exhibitions and had become all about making money, so I left in 2009 and started Imagine Exhibitions. That was 10 years ago.”
Zaller began by producing other people’s exhibitions. In that first year of operation, he was asked to oversee the development of a new museum called the ArtScience Museum in Singapore, for the Sands Corporation.
“I ended up becoming Founding Director of the ArtScience Museum, Marina Bay Sands, which is a beautiful building on the bay of Singapore. The project lasted about 3 years, and during that time we planned, opened and operated the museum as well as bringing about 13 different travelling exhibitions through during that time.”
Working with major IPs
On returning to the US, he continued to build Imagine. “We started developing some of our own stuff, as well as doing licensing deals.
“We licensed Angry Birds from Rovio, initially, opening that exhibition in Dubai and then Qatar: it is still travelling today. Then Lionsgate asked us to assist in the creation of a Hunger Games exhibition and be their marketing and tour operator. We opened this in New York City, San Fransisco, Sydney and Louisville. Then in 2014, we licensed the Jurassic World brand from Universal Studios and created a tremendously successful and record-breaking exhibition, which was sold in 2017.
“We were also hired around then by NBC Universal to create and tour Downton Abbey touring exhibition which is currently wrapping up a very successful run in Boston, and then travels to the famous Biltmore in Asheville, NC, starting in November.
“Along the way, we built a whole variety of different exhibitions, as well as opening and operating multiple venues and locations in Las Vegas.”
There are currently more than 40 travelling exhibitions touring.
Managing travelling exhibitions
Zaller says: “Imagine handles the sales, marketing, logistics and operations for all of them, from creative construction toy brick exhibitions to dinosaur exhibitions, exhibitions on Da Vinci, science museum exhibitions, natural history exhibitions and some pop culture exhibitions.
“We own and operate our own venues and content, and we also operate, market and produce other people’s exhibitions. In our little world – and this is a very small sector; we’re one of the largest players in the space.
“I think I’m unusual in that I’ve been specifically focusing on travelling exhibitions for 20 years. It’s a great time. There is a lot of movement in this space now, with a lot of activity around immersive experiences. Ticket prices are going up; we are having interesting conversations not only with our shows but with pop culture branded entertainment from film or TV series, as well as those who are interested in bringing their brand to life.”
A consistent track record
Zaller says Imagine occupies a unique place in the market because it has the internal design capacity as well as operations and marketing capabilities.
“There aren’t many who have had such a consistent track record with these entertainment immersive experiences. Not all of them are blockbusters because not everything can be, but every once in a while we’re lucky enough to hit the right thing at the right time.”
Ten years since its inception, Imagine Exhibitions is, he says, stronger than ever. “We have a great team all over the world, and are doing travelling exhibitions on pretty much every continent.”
A factor in the success of Imagine Exhibitions is that much of the investment in the company has been his own.
He says: “A lot of people are out spending other people’s money. Much of the investment in Imagine has been from me personally. You are always in a different position when you’re spending your own money. I am pretty realistic and have always carried that perspective through. So, even when I’m working for other people it has felt like I am spending my own money.”
The experience factor
“There are a lot of grandiose projects out there where people think they have no consequence if it doesn’t work. I take a different view: if I’m recommending you do something, it is the same kind of risk that I would take.
“That has definitely helped us over the years. I understand the business aspect as well as the creative, so I come to a meeting or into a relationship with those thoughts in mind. I don’t just make a fee and move on, I want to see success.
“And the other factor is that I’ve been around so long, I’ve seen so many things happen, both good and bad, and I can use that as a gut-check. People ask me, ‘Why do you think it’s going to do these numbers?’ or ‘Why do you think this is going to work?’
“I don’t always have some feasibility study background; it’s really a gut feeling about timing, content selection and creation, rooted in experience.
“Not everything can be an immersive experience, but there will be certain things that work, and that you can translate into an experience.”
Immersion in a world
He offers an example: “I got called by a consultant working for NBC Universal, who wanted to pick my brain. He wanted to hire me for a couple of days to tell him about the travelling exhibition business. I explained that I’m not a day-rate guy who gets hired to teach my business. But I asked him to tell me what it was about, and he told me about Downton Abbey.
“I said: ‘You don’t have to pay me. I want to do the deal as I think it makes total sense. He insisted on paying me as a consultant. However, my goal from the outset was to be a part of this experience, because I believed in it.
“I had seen the TV show, of course. It was historical fiction with incredible character development, set in an era where so many interesting things happened. I thought that we could recreate those spaces. We could take you to Downton Abbey and really immerse you in that world.”
It was the same, he says, with the concept of Jurassic World.
“I knew dinosaurs worked; dinosaurs are fantastic. Everybody knows Jurassic Park and Jurassic World; I felt the timing was great, the movie was positioned to be a great success and I thought that we could really take you to Jurassic World.
“It was a big push for me with Universal but in the end, it was one of those things that we were right about. It worked.
The experts behind the experience
Real-time analytics is a fascinating diversification that Imagine is exploring. Zaller says: “You have to start with something that works. Once you have the content and design organised, and you create what has to be a quality experience. Nowadays, with social media and real-time responses, you’re going to find out very quickly if it isn’t.
“So you don’t want to go out there without quality. We have spent a lot of time developing something we call Imagine Insights. This is about analytics, tracking data and doing lots of survey work. We watch the sales transaction from the time they get served an advert on a digital platform, all the way through to the sale. We then follow up to talk about their experience.
“It is vital to gather that data because no one tells you better than your customers about what you’re doing right and (probably) wrong, and our clients love it. We can tell the museum that, ‘Hey 40% of the people who came to see our new Survival exhibition had never been to the museum before!’ The data is there, and it doesn’t lie.”
The value of data
Unlike the ‘snapshot’ obtained by a two or three-day survey, Imagine’s surveys log data continuously throughout the show.
“The surveys are ongoing, so we’re looking at thousands of responses, not a couple of hundred. We are learning every day that this digital landscape is really interesting and revealing.
“I think a part of running and operating any business is looking at the key data points. We have all this great technology that’s allowing us to see information in a real-time fashion. It also allows us to test other topics. So, as much as I think my gut is right, when we go out to certain museums we can ask their customers, ‘Are you interested in dinosaurs or our Survival exhibition?’
“We can gather data on what topics are most appealing to each museum or venue and help that client to find the right exhibition for their customer base. All of these insights make us more informed and better at our jobs. They allow us to help our partners and clients to achieve their goals. ”
T.rex on a truck
Zaller’s theatrical background has made him adept at promoting travelling exhibitions in original ways.
He says: “We do some fun things. Recently, for example, we were opening a dinosaur exhibition in Philadelphia, and we put a T.rex on the back of a truck. We drove it across a bridge, and that got lots of attention.
“Perhaps part of this is the promoter aspect of the showman. It is us trying to make some big activity that gets people excited whether you’re in the museum or you’re in the community. We’re always trying to do some kind of little stunt to gain exposure.”
He adds: “Whether we’re working it ourselves or with the museum partner or promoter, ultimately we’re selling tickets. That is a really important aspect. Because, as I look across the industry I see a lot of people doing or attempting immersive experiences. However, it is one thing to create a great piece of content, and quite another to market it. You need to get out there and form a real understanding of the consumer or the landscape.”
Understanding the consumer
Furthermore, Zaller says: “Every culture is different. We have operated in Singapore and China, New York and Las Vegas, France, Spain and Dubai. They are all different, and it is so important to understand, as much as you can, not being a local, that culture and how they consume, how they purchase tickets, how they interact with that brand. It is a really important aspect in making sure you have success, no matter how great the concept is.”
Imagine Exhibitions has several projects in the pipeline, some of which are still under wraps.
Survival: The Exhibition launched this year, the first travelling exhibition ever offering practical, science-based techniques to prepare visitors for real-life survival situations.
“It’s a pet project of mine that I’ve wanted to do for many years,” says Zaller. “I originally wanted to rescue people off mountains. It is a great project. I think everybody wants to have some of these life skills, whether or not you’re out in the wilderness. It’s been a great success.”
Unique travelling exhibitions and continued growth
“We also have a ten-year agreement with an artist in New York named Sean Kenney, an artist who creates sculptures out of LEGO bricks. He has some unique award-winning shows in a lot of zoos and aquariums. We’re taking him into science centres and natural history museums, too.
“We also have a lot of great new content. We’re helping to develop and deploy this throughout North America and in other territories where we have relationships with clients. These might be zoos, aquariums, natural history museums, casinos, or, in some cases, theme parks. Theme parks are always looking for new content.
“You can’t build a new gallery or a new ride every year. However, you do need to continue to draw foot traffic. Our shows are there for that purpose. We saw working with Sean Kenney as a great opportunity to drive traffic to these places.”
The future of Imagine Exhibitions
For the next ten years, Zaller envisages continued growth. “We’ve had a great beginning. We’ve had over 50 unique travelling exhibitions in 155 venues, 92 cities, and 23 countries. I think we will continue to increase our footprint globally. We will also continue to nurture the current relationships as well as developing many more. Our strong sales team is constantly out in the market.
“We will continue to license IP for things that we think make sense. And we will continue to operate out of our own venues that we will discover in the markets where we’re going. We have just signed a new five-year agreement with a company in the UK called Live Company Group. They create brick-based models that we will tour as exhibitions for zoos, museums, gardens and aquariums in North America.”
“There are also a lot of interesting things happening in real estate right now. With online retailers taking over, commercial developers are finding themselves with empty retail spaces that need to be reinvigorated.
“Exhibitions can be a great way to fill those spaces and to drive foot traffic to commercial corridors. Without giving away the confidential part – our idea is to own and operate a variety of locations where we can have our content always deployed. This will allow for better planning and better opportunities.
“Again, it’s about engaging with our consumer. The more we learn about them, the more we can bring the right thing to them. Retail is struggling; because we’re Imagine, we say ‘re-Imagine retail.’
“We’re talking to many of the people who own and operate these spaces and offering them a new solution.
“What makes us unique is that no-one else in the industry has the amount of content that we have. So the idea of partnering with those people and creating locations where we can rotate content is a great long-term strategy.”