It’s summer intern interview season here at PGAV Destinations. Nary a day goes by that I don’t see some fresh, young face being toured around the office by one of our destination designers.
By Mike Konzen, Chairman and Principal, PGAV Destinations.
I am reminded of my first days at PGAV, also as an intern. So, I know what they’re thinking. Dressed to the nines and eager to make a great impression, their faces transform with wonder and excitement as they’re shown models, renderings, and drawings of places they grew up visiting with their families, and which might have inspired them on the career path they’re on today. It seems so easy, so full of potential, it just rolls off the tongue: we design destinations. What they see is a well-oiled machine brimming with confidence, curiosity, and innovation; an office with an enviable culture of sea lion debates and paper airplane competitions; an office that they are doing everything in their ability to become a part of, even for just one summer.
What they don’t know is that very little of it was planned. Like many things in life, our approach was an amalgam of the circumstances, personalities, and opportunities that have made up PGAV for 50 years. Our success is more about readiness than orchestration: when the moment was right, we were ready for it.
Around the turn of the century, I had an exciting phone call. Almost imperceptibly I could hear thunder roaring in the background. It was Niagara Falls. The next several minutes on the phone were thrilling, filled with exciting possibilities of the future of this incredible natural wonder. When the call ended, my mind was racing 100 miles a minute. There was an opportunity here; not just to create an even more amazing experience at Niagara Falls, but something even bigger. Something national. Something international.
I pulled the corner of some site plans across my desk and feverishly began to jot down my own bucket list of places I would love to travel to around the world; incredible destinations that were “Niagara Falls” class. And the most remarkable, serendipitous thing began to happen.
The planets must have been aligned, because many of these places began to seek exactly what we offered.
The US Bureau of Reclamation sought a master plan for the Hoover Dam. Shortly thereafter, we were talking with National Geographic, wondering what we could do with their visitor’s centre at the Grand Canyon. Before long, we were in Egypt, asking us to take a look at a series of museums and the Sound & Light shows at UNESCO World Heritage sites. I simply couldn’t believe it; something was shifting, something was changing, and it was an opportunity we couldn’t pass up.
My then partner, Jim Moorkamp, and I started to discuss a way to address this growing client base; evolving the business beyond “PGAV Architects” and “PGAV Planners” to create a focus dedicated to destination development. It was not a simple sell. While we’d been active at designing theme parks, zoos, and museums for decades, we remain grounded as an architectural firm. But, we felt there was an incredible opportunity bubbling up in the tourism space for PGAV, and we felt that our team had the skills to go after it.
At the inception of this endeavour, some of the founding partners of PGAV weren’t 100% convinced of the success of what they called “our little experiment.” They thought it was a risky venture; “what happens when the destination market dries up?” I remember them asking. But, that market wasn’t going to dry up; it never has, and we’re 99.9999% confident that it never will.
According to Statista, in the year 2000, the global revenue from tourism topped out at $475 billion, and today has exploded to more than $1.15 trillion annually.
If PGAV could even capture a niche, fraction of that market, we could be tremendously successful.
Thus, PGAV Destinations was born, a formal title to the services we had been providing to tourism destinations for years. What we were providing was more than design; we were a strategic consulting partner, and that resonated deeply with destinations.
To our surprise, virtually everyone was on board from the start. Our designers were excited by the prospect, and our clients thought the leap made perfect sense. We began thinking deeply about the customers, the guests, of this market, and began sharing our research with our clients to help them year-round, even when we weren’t engaged in a project.
Over time, this deep thinking, and a reciprocal relationship with our clients in sharing industry insights, theories, and lessons, has led to five core functions of our practice. They’re near mantra; and while we haven’t literally written them on our walls yet, we have been in the remodelling mood recently…
1. Focused, With Benefits: Empowerment is a formidable perk. Instead of hiring designers to be generalists, or forcing them to fulfil a single assembly-line role for years on end, we empower our staff to choose their paths within PGAV, and grow as experts in specific types of destination attractions or fields of design. With programs like PGAVGO, we actually help fund and promote this development of focused skills and knowledge.
2. Narrow, Yet Broad: Narrowing our field of vision on destinations not only helped us hone our skills, but it (potentially counterintuitively) actually broadened our opportunities as well. Today, “destinations” for PGAV encompasses zoos, aquariums, theme parks, museums, culture, hotels and resorts, and brand destinations. To those markets we can offer a wide variety of services, from master planning to exhibit design and more. And we are adding markets services all the time as needs and opportunities arise.
3. Making Mission-Making Our Business: As a mission-based organization (…enriching lives through destinations….), we attract the best designers in the business because it gives them an intrinsic reward to “do good” in the world. This advances our own mission, of course, but is dually rewarding as we empower our clients to better advance their missions.
4. Horizon Scanning: We’re endlessly curious about destination visitors, what makes them tick, and how to create the best experiences to enrich their lives. Therefore, we’re constantly conducting research to unravel industry trends and guest perceptions; and not only leveraging those insights in our designs and strategies, but sharing them with our clients through our publication, Destinology.
5. Cultivating a Creative Community: The creative people we’ve attracted have now taken on a form all unto their own, actively teachers and students at every moment. Our staff learn together with each new project and naturally share those lessons with everyone else in a perfect, flowing cycle. We challenge one another, we challenge ourselves, and together we grow into our best selves.
Creating an environment that cultivates and celebrates leadership on all levels, I think, is one of the things that will make PGAV endure for many more 50th birthdays: the firm leadership is not based tenuously on a single creative leader, it’s based on 80 that are recruiting the next 80. That was the opinion of my late friend and colleague, Jim Moorkamp. Before Jim passed away in 2013, we agreed in one of our last conversations that PGAV would be just fine because we have a great leadership team.
Spirits are as high as I’ve ever seen them at PGAV. It’s our 50th anniversary, we’ve got countless, incredible projects around the world tacked up on our walls and drawing boards, and we’re investing in our staff like never before with programs like PGAV Go, PGAVIA, continuing education, recruiting, and more. My old friend Fred Guyton, the origin of our staff mascot Spot the Zebra and who asked what would happen when this risky venture “dried up, ” said to me recently, “Mike, we’ve got the best people in the company now that we’ve ever had in our fifty years.”
I can’t say any of us planned for that to happen; but we have an incredible team of honest, malleable, passionate staff who are ready to grow with the challenge of opportunity. I have complete faith that they’ll continue to push PGAV Destinations to evolve, to explore new digital frontiers, expand our destination practice to new markets, and reach into the farthest corners of the world to spread our mission of enriching lives. Our core values laid the foundation to bring us this far, and it’s exhilarating to see where our designers will lead us next.