Recently re-elected for a second term as TEA (Themed Entertainment Association) President, Christine Kerr has been at the cutting edge of theme park and visitor attraction development throughout her career.
A strong champion of the next generation in the industry both in her TEA role and as Vice President of BaAM Productions, she cut her teeth at Canada’s Wonderland before moving on to the iconic CN Tower and then opening both LEGOLAND Windsor and LEGOLAND California
Charles Read caught up with Christine to talk about her professional life and plans for the TEA.
"Both Kind of Hats" – Canada's Wonderland
After studying drama at Queens University , Ontario , Christine followed her interest in costumes, taking a role at a new theme park in Toronto – Canada’s Wonderland – looking after the costumes for a unique group of performers including costume characters, musicians, jugglers, magicians and stunt performers in a pirate show. She met Jack Rouse and Keith James there and progressed quickly upwards through the organisation to become a full time Production Manager for the Entertainment Department by the end of the third season and then Director of Entertainment the following year aged just 25. She attributes her success there to hard work, a combination of being in the right place at the right time and sterling support from Jack Rouse.
As a place to start a career in the attractions industry, Canada’s Wonderland was, she says, “absolutely new so a very exciting thing to be involved in.”
The role gave her both operational and creative experience. “In those kind types of parks you have to wear both kinds of hats so we created all of the special events for the park all on our own. We had Jack and his crew as a resource for all of our live shows, but we got to collaborate with them and contribute to the content of the shows and how it would all come together, especially because we were in Canada and the other parks in the system were American so we were trying to help them make sure that culturally it was relevant.”
Lightning and Mindwarp at the CN Tower
From Canada’s Wonderland Christine went on to the CN Tower. Her role there was operational but with a remit to “change the corporate culture and make the group more customer service and more guest focussed.”
The role proved to be very varied with her being put in charge of capital projects to create new special events and to rework the Tour of the Universe simulator attraction at the base of the tower.
“Working with Forrec we completely redid that whole experience and turned it into something called Mindwarp Theatre. Then I did a lighting project on the tower where we put powerful giant light fixtures at the base and then from the roof up to illuminate the tower – it’s a big expanse of concrete to light! We unveiled the new lighting for the launch of the Calgary Olympic torch relay.”
“It was a completely different experience for me because it was a tourist attraction … but when you come from the entertainment world, anything that’s grey or that they’re not sure who should do it you end up doing which is great.”
Innovation and a Cultural Shift at Legoland Windsor
From the CN Tower Christine was persuaded to work on building the new LEGOLAND Windsor park as Operations Director. “Bob Montgomery , who I worked for at the Tower, was headhunted by LEGO to go to Windsor and he called me and said, “OK, you have to come and do this with me.””
Once there, she found a marked cultural shift in working for LEGO. “It was very surreal because they were a private company and their commitment to children and their families was all-important.
Over the two years until the park opened she was heavily involved in the design process and creative development. “I was embedded in the design team to make sure that anything related to ops was considered. I was also responsible for the development of all the live shows so I worked with Jack Rouse and his guys in developing the concepts for all the live shows.”
LEGO had operated a successful park at Billund for many years but wanted to make the Windsor park relevant for the UK market while still retaining their family focus.
“LEGO had determined that they should approach this park a little differently and look at it from an operational point of view and a creative point of view. For instance there was a puppet show at the park in Denmark and that was it, very little tradition of live shows, so we developed a live show programme. There were no special events, so we created a whole Guy Fawkes event and did fireworks, but more than fireworks because it was LEGO. Then we integrated more hands-on interactive elements into the park. Now there are lots of things that were developed for that park and LEGOLAND California that have been transferred to Billund.”
As far as translating the experience for a UK audience, Christine’s father and maternal grandparents were British, giving her a national insight.
“It was very much taking what LEGO had done in Billund and making it right for the British audience. And then also taking it to a new level, but maintaining the LEGO commitment to children and families and quality and experience. So we worked with a lot of toy designers and LEGO marketing and educational people to make sure it struck the right balance.”
Ticketing, Sponsorship and Legoland California
One of the most innovative elements of the LEGOLAND Windsor operations was advance ticket sales; a commitment that the theme park made to the local authority to minimise the impact on traffic in the area.
“It’s a beautiful, unique site and we worked closely with the town to make sure that we didn’t impact traffic, which was a really important consideration. We sold tickets in advance back in 1995/96 which was unheard of in the theme park industry – all done over the phone. This way we knew how many people were coming. Over 60% of our tickets were sold in advance so we could control the experience in the park by controlling the attendance. It was very, very different and now of course everybody’s doing it online, but it was pretty radical at the time.”
Another operational practice in which LEGOLAND Windsor was ahead of its time was with corporate sponsorship.
“Integrating sponsors into the park in a way that made sense for LEGO and the LEGO brand from a creative point of view was a really interesting exercise.
When we started working at the park, Billund had no sponsors and they served 3 or 4 types of cola in the park. So we got to work more creatively with sponsors to work out how to integrate their brand with our brand and make sure that it made sense for our target audience.”
Aside from Disney, the LEGO brand was well established and one of the first to realise the brand value. Christine says, “It was cautiously leveraged. We were definitely meant to be a revenue source for LEGO and not just a marketing extension. But we integrated the brand into everything we did with things like making the child the hero; making everything interactive so there was nothing passive about the experience; things to discover and the subtlety and layers to everything. It was really very, very important to us because we were building something pretty special.”
The next move was over to California to build another new LEGOLAND park for a very different target audience.
“We went from being a fairly big fish in a small pond in the UK to being in a very competitive market. But we had learned a lot, we had all the overwhelmingly positive feedback from our guests in England, and so we took that product and made it different for the US market.”
BaAM Productions and the "Brand Experience"
After four years at LEGOLAND California, Christine felt that it was time to go home to Canada. She accepted a job with Bronskill & Company, the parent of design and project management firm BaAM Productions, where she is now Vice President.
She had worked with members of the BaAM team at LEGOLAND California on the original show set for the Big Test and at the CN Tower on MindWarp Theatre. When she was looking to move back to Canada, Bronskill felt that would be a “good fit” and provide an “opportunity to do something different, and yet the same.”
Although her theme park background was a big draw for BaAM, it has been Christine’s brand experience with LEGO that has translated particularly well into her present role.
She says that brand is “a big part of what we do with our sports clients and also with museums and science centres …. The brand experience and the educational experience from the LEGO work is invaluable.”
In her time with BaAM she has widened the company’s traditionally sports-based portfolio to include museums and science centres. “It’s an area of business that they weren’t doing when I started and which we’ve developed in the past 10 or 11 years.
“We have done some work in the theme park world but the significant shift is to the culturally focussed work in museums and science centres. Sometimes that work is also sports connected; one of the first permanent projects we did was a hockey museum in Northern Ontario. That allowed us to take our sports experience and to learn at the same time in a context that we were really familiar with.”
The Themed Entertainment Association (TEA)
In November 2012 Christine was elected President of the TEA, only the second woman and also second non-US president in the organisation’s history.
Christine’s plans for the organisation have focussed on running the TEA more like a business. She says that she wants to “look at the opportunities that we have to increase our revenues and to increase the services that we provide to our members.”
Her initiatives so far have included launching the TEA’s Asia Pacific Division and reaching out to younger members with NextGen. Another very important project she has been working on is the TEA’s new website. With plans to go live in the Spring of 2014, its primary goal will be to create a communications and business hub for the association.
The Asia Pacific division of the TEA was launched at the IAAPA Asia show in June 2013. She was confident that the dynamic nature of the attractions industry in the region would more than justify the move–confidence that has been proved right: “We’ve got a really great cross section of people and places and businesses in that area and also the momentum to continue.”
She is passionate about developing talent in the next generation starting out in the business. The NextGen programme is close to her heart.
“Next Gen has been a big initiative for us and is really important to all of our members. Our NextGen membership has increased dramatically and we have done a lot of events focussed on that group and involved them in all the other events that we do. I’ll tell you it changes the energy level and the atmosphere at the events to have that next gen group involved and they’re learning and getting jobs, and our members are also benefiting because they’re being connected with trained, interested, eager people who are very capable as well.
“I wrote an article for the TEA directory last year and said that we need to remember what it was like when we got our first job, our big break and take that risk. Sometimes people think that it’s too big a risk but the rewards are so many and so great that we need to jump and do it. The benefits are instant because this generation has so much energy and bandwidth and capacity to do work that it tires me out! I think “My goodness was I like that?” It’s really refreshing and a great reminder.”
Plans for the TEA and Re-election
Re-elected for a second term in August, Christine says that having been very hands-on to date, in the next year she is shifting to a more strategic approach. As part of this she will be working closely with Gene Jeffers’ replacement to put in place initiatives for the future.
“We are currently recruiting for the COO for the TEA: the leader who will replace Gene as exec director. Part of the thinking behind changing the job title is that it’s a more business-like approach to the way that we run the association and were looking for someone who is the ideal mix of a generalist, a very experienced manger, with not-for-profit and for-profit experience, who will run the association as a not-for-profit but like a for-profit business. We’re getting a really incredible response to our posting. That transition will happen in the fall and Gene officially retires in December.
“Now I would like an opportunity to work with the new person we bring in and become more strategic in our thinking to determine what our next new initiatives should be and how to make them happen. The TEA relies heavily on a fantastic group of volunteers from around the world – on our boards and committees – it is such a pleasure to work with such an inspiring and committed group of people.”
1. 2011 PanAm Games Handover Ceremony – Creative Producer for musical/dance/video production celebrating the PanAm Games in Toronto in 2015
2. Christine Kerr
3. CN Tower at night
4. Christine Kerr in her office at LEGOLAND Windsor
5. LEGOLAND Windsor’s 1st Birthday – Christine Kerr, Operations Director & Joanna Oswin, Marketing Director
6. Christine Kerr and son Alex taking in Miniland while visiting LEGOLAND Billund
7. Lego magazine advert, 1980s
8. 100th Grey Cup Festival
9. Bruce County Museum and Cultural Centre, Southampton, Ontario – Museum Design Build
10. NHL Winter Classic – since 2008, BaAM has Project Managed all aspects of this new tradition in professional hockey – a New Year’s Day game played outdoors – all planning and execution including integration of broadcast, entertainment and build of an regulation NHL rink
11. TEA logo
Images 1, 8, 9 and 10 kind courtesy BaAM Productions, images 2, 4, 5 and 6 kind courtesy Chrisitne Kerr.