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3 inspirational lessons to take from Joe Rohde’s move to Virgin Galactic

Attractions can learn a lot from the Disney icon’s approach to storytelling & creativity

joe rohde virgin galactic

by Louis Alfieri of Raven Sun Creative 

louis alfieri raven sun creative
Louis Alfieri

Virgin Galactic announced in February that Joe Rohde was joining the team as Experience Architect. When I heard, chief among the emotions I experienced were a sense of uplift, profound inspiration, and a bit of relief. This makes total sense. This is not the end of an era – instead, it is the dawn of a new one.

Like many, when news broke late last year that Joe Rohde was retiring from his four-decade career at Walt Disney Imagineering, I was saddened and disappointed.

I’ve long admired Rohde for his work and also for his insights into art, life, and the planet. I’m far from unique in this regard. “Legend” is a heavy title to lay on any human being. However, if anyone in our industry today has earned the label of legend, it’s him.

A new chapter for Joe Rohde

I’ve had the opportunity to meet with Rohde only once for a couple of hours. I came away with a sense of a creative who is infinitely dedicated to his craft. One who believes deeply in the power and potential of experiential design to transform humanity.

Disney's Joe Rohde
Joe Rohde speaking at blooloopLIVE 2019

Since the news broke I have thought about what an extraordinary new journey Rohde is embarking upon. He will be one of the lucky individuals on the forefront of humanity’s next great adventure: our transition into galactic explorers.

I hope that Joe Rohde’s move to Virgin Galactic awakens the destination industry’s awareness and gets it thinking about what’s possible.

While I have no wish to assign any motivation or thoughts to his actions, I’d like to share what it has inspired me to think about over the last few months, and how that may help contribute to your business and creative opportunities:

1. Embrace a pioneer spirit

We are in the midst of an epic evolutionary moment as a civilization. No other point in history has seen such a monumental confluence of technological, social, cultural, economic, and environmental forces. New windows of opportunity are opening (and closing) all the time.

The pandemic has offered us a brief opportunity to reimagine the kind of world we want to be a part of. We shouldn’t retreat from big ideas as we go forward. Our ambitions need to be greater than our challenges. 

Starry Sky by Louis Alfieri
Photo by Louis Alfieri

From an inspired and equally envious standpoint, Rohde has moved from a geographically based entertainment business and IP strategist to join an entrepreneur in opening up the future of humanity. From my perspective, he has elevated his mission from linear storyteller to bringing context, meaning, and value to the human spirit on the journey beyond our planet.

Rohde is acting as the guide on humanity’s journey of the hero and I can think of no one better suited to achieve this end. He is also doing this in support of a leader he believes can achieve this or he would not have left a very comfortable position at Disney.

Joe Rohde is pursuing a vision to change the status quo and the future of mankind in partnership with Richard Branson and a growing group of remarkably talented people at Virgin Galactic. Like NASA, the Cosmonauts, and the China National Space Administration, they will become the emissaries of our species to whatever is out there in the universe.

Today, the spaceflight industry exemplifies a sense of boundless possibility. The commercial space business is going to become the standard-bearer for innovation, optimism, and a belief in human potential.        

2. Tap into the power of deep generalists 

The deep generalist is a master of associative thinking. Their most important characteristic is the ability to make meaningful connections between disparate ideas, disciplines, and points of view. They look at the stars and see constellations of meaning and previously unseen connections.

A deep generalist…

  • …is intensely curious. They hunger for knowledge and don’t start with assumptions.
  • …knows everything is interconnected. They are sensitive to underlying patterns, hidden relationships, recurring themes, and crosscutting concepts.
  • …welcomes a diversity of viewpoints to the table.
  • …excels at integrating diverse elements into a whole greater than the sum of its parts.
  • …relates with empathy.
  • …is an inveterate collector of knowledge with a talent for finding special relevance in unexpected places.

That talent for networking knowledge from a variety of sources is invaluable in today’s world.  As our challenges become increasingly complex and multifaceted, our thinking needs to be wide-ranging and multidisciplinary. 

Space exploration artwork by Louis Alfieri
Artwork by Louis Alfieri

Joe Rohde and Virgin Galactic’s Richard Branson are both terrific examples of deep generalists. They span boundaries and have a talent for synthesizing far-flung ideas into uncommon solutions.

Not everybody is wired to be a deep generalist, and that’s good. You can hire and collaborate with deep generalists. You can foster cultures of collaboration in which they thrive. And even if you’re a tried-and-true specialist, you can benefit from cultivating the traits of a deep generalist in yourself.

3. Human experience is at the heart of it all

Joe Rohde Disne yparks blooloop 50 theme park influencer list 2018
Joe Rohde

We talk a lot about the convergence of technology and media shaping the 21st century. However, what is easy to miss is that the point where it all converges is the human experience. That’s the common denominator.

One thing I’ve always appreciated about Rohde is that he recognizes and articulates the profundity and beauty of the human experience privately and commercially. He has always seen meaning, purpose, and the possibility of affecting positive change through experiential design.

As an artist and executive, Rohde understands that every decision is a negotiation up (with Executives and Brands), adjacent (with global team members), down (to downstream vendors and support personnel that must implement and activate the project’s creative vision) and in partnership (with the guests who will act as co-creators in the life of the experience).

Throughout all of this, he understands the power of adventure to transform a person, place, and organization.

A bright future for Joe Rohde & Virgin Galactic – and the LBE industry

Through his body of work, team and statements, I can feel and admire (again from an observer’s standpoint point) that Joe Rohde is a great storyteller. His energy is contagious, his passion unlimited, and his presence is such that it is able to draw many people around the fire to be taken on a journey from the fire’s warm light to the bright light of the suns and stars, and back again to the light burning in our souls.

No matter what space you occupy in the guest destinations industry, you are also a steward of human experience. People come to us to live their best lives.

Virgin Galactic
Image courtesy of Virgin Galactic

I am very excited at the steps he is taking and what it means for creatives in all art forms, especially those in experience development. Joe Rohde’s next chapter with Virgin Galactic is an emphatic reminder of the true breadth and potential of what we can (and already) do. I take it as inspiration to break new ground and meet new challenges. 

You don’t need to send anyone into space to bring context, meaning, and value to their lives. You need to ask what’s possible, how can you contribute to it, and what you can do to elevate it.

Top image courtesy of Virgin Galactic

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Louis Alfieri

For over 30 years, Louis has worked with global brands as an authority in leading, designing, and building experiential entertainment destinations, mixed-use developments, immersive media-based attractions, retail locations, cultural sites, and experiential events. He has a long track record of success collaborating with large multidisciplinary teams on the conceptualization, design, and implementation of location-based entertainment mixed-use resorts, theme parks, waterparks, museums, and cultural destinations.

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