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Creating Heroes: Key Takeaways from the 2015 TEA SATE Conference

Over 250 industry professionals representing a diverse swathe of countries and disciplines gathered Sept 17-18 at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, PA, USA for the Themed Entertainment Association 2015 TEA SATE Conference.

Creating Heroes: Key Takeaways from the 2015 TEA SATE Conference


By Clara Rice, Director of Digital Engagement, Jack  Rouse  Associates and TEA NextGen Chair

SATE stands for Storytelling + Architecture + Technology = Experience. Each letter of SATE represents a curated segment of the conference, which was co-chaired by Shirley Saldamarco of Carnegie-Mellon University, the SATE host venue, and Loren Barrows of Alcorn McBride.

The themes of SATE ’15 were “Explode the Experience, ” “Be Disruptive, ” and “Change the Rules.” But the undercurrent was creating heroes:

How can museums, theme parks and other attractions create environments where the guest is the hero, not passively observing the action, but actively controlling it? What are the tools that creators can use to elevate experiences to the heroic? And does the journey begin with the creator (re)discovering the heroics within themselves and their art form?

Creating Heroes: Key Takeaways from the 2015 TEA SATE Conference

Creating Guest Heroes Through Personalisation

Bookending this year’s conference were two presentations that discussed creating “only here, ” personalised experiences that place the guest firmly in the captain’s chair. After the conference literally got the ball rolling with beach balls thrown into the crowd, Matt DuPlessie (pictured below) of location-based entertainment chain 5 Wits kicked off the Experience segment by asking the crowd where their personal stories began.

He then argued that S+A+T=E was missing the vital Y component (You) and that the proper equation was E=STAY. By providing personalised experiences, YOU (the guest) will STAY longer at an attraction.

Takeaway: According to DuPlessie, despite the prevalence of mobile and media technology, “glowing screens are not the answer, ” and “the ultimate experience is personal, playful and dangerous.” How do you make experiences personal and playful? Make them interactive (where participation is required), challenging (where thinking is required), cooperative (where teamwork is required) and more intimate.

Creating Heroes: Key Takeaways from the 2015 TEA SATE Conference

“Technology has changed our brains, ” said Walt Disney Imagineer and SATE Experience segment speaker Josh Gorin (below) in his presentation “Evolving Guest Expectations, Evolving Theme Park Design.” He kicked off by offering some startling statistics: a recent study from Microsoft revealed that the average attention span had dropped from 12 seconds in 2000 to only eight seconds in 2013. Gorin said, “we will get to a time when we are never off the grid.” On the flip side, tech is making our lives simpler, allowing us to “cut through the clutter.” Attractions can take advantage of this phenomenon through a higher level of personalization.

Brain changing technolgy at the 2015 TEA SATE Conference

Takeaway: By customising a single baseline experience, such as a meal at Be Our Guest Restaurant, an attraction can change the context of the experience based on imbued meanings. The meal could be the starting or end point on a scavenger hunt for one individual, or a VIP evening dining experience for another. By changing an attractions context based on the situation, a digital platform thus does not so much detract as bring on new layers of storytelling – it can serve as a concierge, photo keeper, or gaming helper, and guests can choose how much or how little they want to engage.

Gorin believes that the current lack of attention span could be seen as a negative, or it can be a positive in the sense that people can digest information faster and are savvier about what they visually consume. With the personalisation offered by technology, the guest-hero drives their level of interaction with the parks, controlling their own vacation destinies.

Creating Heroes: Key Takeaways from the 2015 TEA SATE Conference

Creating guest heroes through technology

According to Erik Watts (shown below), Senior Director of Technology for the Pittsburgh Penguins and SATE ’15 Technology speaker, his team has created an app that the guest can begin engaging with before they even leave home. From the comfort of their couches, they can check the app for parking and ticketing info. As they approach the arena, the app offers real-time data on the number and location of available parking spots.

Upon entry, they are greeted with a personal message from a player, are offered ticket upgrades, and are guided to their seat. Additional app features direct guests to concession and restroom locations, bring up player stats and instant replay, and offer personalized content and coupons. The metrics built into the app provide the Penguins with analytics that enable his team to further customize the guest experience, and Watt hopes to eventually include RFID interface so that guests can even control the game-time entertainment.

Takeaway: One of the hero-making properties of technology is its ability to let the guest dial in at the level they desire. Pittsburgh’s resident NHL hockey team, the Penguins, is embracing rather than eschewing people’s obsession with their smart phones, devising new ways that the guest can steer their experience before, during and after the game.

Creating Heroes: Key Takeaways from the 2015 TEA SATE Conference

VR to explode into pop culture

If you ask Jesse Schell (pictured below) of Schell Games, another TEA SATE ’15 Technology presenter, the world should prepare itself for one of the largest and most exciting hero-making tools in history – virtual reality. “VR will explode into pop culture in 2016.” While the technology has been around for decades, new VR systems will “bring a feeling of presence, ” enabling the body and brain to forget that it’s not real and inspiring them to reach out and touch the world. VR, Schell asserts, offers guests something they can’t get from home.

Creating Heroes: Key Takeaways from the 2015 TEA SATE Conference

Recently, Europa-Park paired virtual reality with its Alpenexpress family ride. Before embarking on the rollercoaster, riders strap on a special headset complete with a VR film featuring the park’s Ed Euromaus and his friends in the leading roles. Sensors next to the coaster wheel control the glasses, resulting in a seamless experience with no motion sickness.

For this initial foray into VR, the experience is only being offered for a limited run to season pass holders and hotel guests, but TEA SATE ’15 Technology speaker and Europa-Park Director of Communications Jakob Wahl (pictured below) has not ruled out creating additional films. While he does not believe that the VR-ride hybrid is the “future of coasters, ” he feels it is “interesting technology.”

Takeaway: Time will tell whether parks and attractions use this interesting technology as the next great tool in creating user-driven, guest-as-hero experiences.

Creating Heroes: Key Takeaways from the 2015 TEA SATE Conference

Lenny Larsen (pictured below with Steve Blum of Universal Parks & Resorts) was a competitive diver until 2013, when he was rendered quadriplegic during a trampoline training exercise. Embracing the mantra of “never give up” and believing that “we human beings are very resilient, ” he has returned to the career he loved pre-accident – creating entertainment and experiences for shows, parks and attractions worldwide. “With technology, innovation and inspiration, we can get back to doing what we want to do, ” said Larsen.

Theme parks and the differently abled

He finds that theme parks are increasingly using these three components to open avenues for the differently abled that didn’t always exist, including sign language interpretation, braille guides for the hearing impaired, and different ride configurations for the physically impaired. While he still likens navigating Disneyland to trying to control a “video game in real life, ” he feels optimistic that parks will continue to help level the playing field, creating heroes of all abilities.

Takeaway: Perhaps the most impactful way that technology can enable guest heroics is by enhancing accessibility.

Creating Heroes: Key Takeaways from the 2015 TEA SATE Conference

Creating Heroes Through Social Action

But technology isn’t the only tool in creating heroes. Opportunities to involve the guest in community engagement and social action can also bring out the super(wo)man in all of us. As the Evaluation, Multimedia and Exhibit Designer of the Indianapolis Zoo, Anna Musun-Miller (pictured top) uses storytelling to motivate people toward social action, positioning them as heroes in animal conservation. “Stories are a straight line to a stranger’s heart, ” she said, but on the flip side, she added, “there’s nothing wrong with love, care and action, but you can’t drop the guest into a tragic story without a way to fix it.”

Such was the case with the Indianapolis Zoo’s “Save the Cheetah” project. Today, fewer than 15, 000 cheetahs survive in the primary habitats of southern and eastern Africa and Iran, and their numbers continue to dwindle to due the erosion of their habitat and wild prey, as well as illegal trade. Dr. Laurie Marker’s Cheetah Conservation Fund (CCF) has worked tirelessly for 25 years toward the survival of the species, and the CCF and the Indianapolis Zoo have collaborated on an annual “Race-A-Cheetah” attraction.

For just 50 cents, guests can test themselves against the world’s fastest land animal, chasing a strand of LED lights simulating the cheetah’s speed of 60 miles per hour. They also learn about the cheetah’s story in the wild and the CCF’s efforts to save them. To date, the attraction has raised over $64, 000, with all funds going directly to conservation.

Takeaway: By educating and empowering instead of just soliciting, attractions and experiences can inspire visitors to learn more about endangered species and other compelling causes, and discover ways to help. “We have the power to change peoples’ emotions, ” said Musun-Miller. “What can we do with that?”

To Make Others Heroes, We Must Start With Ourselves

But hewing heroes out of guests is not the first step. In order to craft personalized experiences that empower and inspire, creators first must find the heroics within themselves and their art form, rediscovering why they create in the first place. In his presentation, 2015 TEA SATE Conference Experience speaker “Avoid the Penny, ” Adam Bezark (pictured below) of The Bezark Company posed the fundamental question, “is crafting theme parks art?” He argued that the five key components to providing art are technique, medium, concept, newness and emotion and that there are always opportunities to employ these components in a themed entertainment experience.

Creating Heroes: Key Takeaways from the 2015 TEA SATE Conference

“Can we do what we do better if we consider our work as art?” Bezark asked. The answer was yes, by embracing the following mantras:

  1. Awaken Your Poet (Challenge Your Audience)
  2. Fight for the New (Challenge Your Clients), but “avoid the penny” (an allusion to the 1980 film Somewhere in Time  meaning to yank your audience out of the experience)
  3. Fight for the Weird (Challenge Your Clients and Your Audience)
  4. Have a Vision, Not a Committee
  5. Treasure Your Values

Takeaway: By embracing the above precepts, and by treating theme park design as an art and a craft, themed entertainment professionals can find the heroes within themselves, and find the inspiration to create hero-making experiences for their audiences.

Hilarity at the 2015 TEA SATE Conference

Comedian and motivational speaker David Shoup (pictured below) took the concept of “hero as self” one step deeper in his presentation, “Life is Hilarious.” “Opportunities for laughter are everywhere, ” began Shoup. “You just have to be willing to find them.” He even used LAUGH as an acronym for finding the true joy in life and work:

  • Love the location you are living in, and BE PRESENT!
  • Adopt an adventurous attitude
  • Utterly uncomfortable – “Be willing and ready to say ‘yes’ to those things you want to do and then worry about how to make it happen.”
  • Get great at gratitude – Ask yourself in any situation, “what are three great things about this?”
  • Have a heart for helping – “It’s hard to be nervous when your mind’s on service.”

Creating Heroes: Key Takeaways from the 2015 TEA SATE Conference

Shoup encouraged the audience to find their daily laugh quotient, lose their cool card, and spend time with FUNny people.

Takeaway: By finding the fun within themselves, creators are better equipped to fashion fun, customized experiences for guests.

A Hero’s Welcome at the 2015 TEA SATE Conference

At the 2015 TEA SATE Conference, attendees walked away with newfound knowledge, a digital Rolodex of professional connections, and a firm set of marching orders:

•    Discover the superpower (and laughter and fun) within yourself.
•    Embrace technology as a tool for creating multi-dimensional, individualized experiences.
•    Empower the visitor to be the change they want to see in the world.
•    Take guests out of their daily lives and into the driver’s seat.
•    Inspire action, not merely observance.
•    Make it personal.
•    Make it heroic and powerful

Creating Heroes: Key Takeaways from the 2015 TEA SATE Conference

Dates and place for the 2016 TEA SATE Conference are already set: October 6-7, 2016 at Columbia University in New York City, USA. For more information, including photo galleries, videos, programme, speakers and sponsors of SATE ’15 and registration info for SATE ’16, visit the TEA SATE Blog.

All images kind courtesy TEA apart from Adam Bezark,  David Shoup and image of Chris Salerno’s presentation “Innovation and Emotional Connection” kind courtesy Clara Rice.

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Clara Rice

Clara J. Rice is Director of Communications at JRA (Jack Rouse Associates) and a member of the Themed Entertainment Association (TEA) International Board of Directors.

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