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Themed Design: Future-Proofing, Elephants and Guinness – TiLEzone

TiLEzone (Trends in Leisure & Entertainment) is an annual European event designed to bring together professionals from the themed design and attractions management sectors so that they can discuss latest developments and issues. Organised by Richard Curtis of Andrich International it started out in Maastricht in 1991 and was subsequently held in Strasbourg, London, Berlin, Maastricht and Lake Como, Italy. It has come to be highly regarded as an important date in the industry calendar.  By Charles Read

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This year’s TiLezone took place Thursday 25th February at the London Transport Museum in Covent Garden.  While outside in the piazza the buskers and the bistros warmed up, inside the museum a collection of leading players from the themed entertainment industry assembled tilezone themed entertainment conference logofor a day’s networking. Museum designers, theme park consultants and industry insiders mingled with a variety of overseas arrivals. The latter stood out visually from the Brits like tropical birds at a run down municipal aviary.

After a morning coffee with the estimable Kevin Murphy (Event Communications Ltd.) and  Malcolm Lewis, creative director, Media Projects Associates Ltd., I headed to the museum’s conference room to begin my education.

angela wright md crealy adventure parks at tilezone themed entertainment conferenceAngela Wright MBE (left), managing director of Crealy Adventure Parks in Devon was session chair for the “Planning for and Designing Future Attractions” segment, and under that heading, Rosalind Johnson European Director of consulting firm A Different View, spoke on the topic of creating experiences for the millennial generation. An accomplished public speaker,   I found Johnson so compelling that I half expected her to conclude with “and now, ladies and gentlemen… Diana Ross!”

Meet the Millennials

Johnson describes “Millennials”, aka “Gen Y” (or as Joe Martin later described them, “digital natives”) as a “complex, engaging and critical audience to ‘get’”.   They were born between 1980-2000 and it is vital that the owners and operators of attractions understand this demographic, she explains, as they now form a vast chunk of potential visitors and of course future employees. Some 27%  of the UK population, 12 % of Europe’s population and 70 million Americans are Millennials. To this multi-tasking, highly-educated, molly-coddled (“the most nurtured generation ever”) group, technology is “not an innovation but a social norm”, which affects how they consume their entertainment.

Example: Millennials will happily “tweet” during a live concert performance and doing so becomes part of the experience to them, communicating, sharing the show with their friends. Quite how this sits with older generations is an interesting question. Would you or should you tweet midway through the final movement of Bruckner’s 4th? Reminded me of a spirited debate on BBC4 a few months ago: a Director of one of the major symphony orchestras annoyed with the number of people who, eager to show their appreciation were applauding almost the second a performance finished, obliterating that heavy and wonderful silence. It could be argued that the tweeters, like the clappers, are just enjoying the show. Chinese Millennials spend almost 15 hours a week playing video games, their British counterparts less than four.

Knowing your audience

Susie Fisher of Susie Fisher Consultants – after first removing a rather glamorous but troublesome necklace to discourage it from battling with her microphone – talked about audience development. A new attraction should look to understand its community, and it pays to do so carefully and in advance of opening any new museum or exhibition. She illustrated her point with slides detailing her work on the ASPIRE Academy in Qatar.  The interactive sports  exhibits had to be rethought to avoid offending cultural sensibilities in the Gulf state. Mistakes were avoided due to the care taken by Susie and her colleagues to question the locals before they finalised the contents of the museum.
man with hand on large block of ice museum at  tilezone themed entertainment conference
Steve Simon, the owner & executive creative director of Event Communications then talked about museum design and looked at a number of projects with which he had been involved.

He started with a quote from Jeanette Cochrane. “If the curtain goes up and there is a round of applause it is a disaster”. Thus stressing that (designers) “are all in theater design”, the art of storytelling and that the design, the props, the audiovisual, the technology are there to augment the story not to be the story.

He showed a slide of an unusual – and perhaps unexpected – focal point in the Dynamic Earth Centre in Edinburgh. A huge, misshapen block of ice sits in the middle of the room (right). The attraction educates and entertains with the story of Earth, her geology, her history etc. and the ice is a tiny iceberg with which people can interact.  Visitors have grown to love this freezing, beautiful centrepiece, marking it, carving names in it and some even holding their hand on it long enough to create a handprint, a rather painful but rewarding experience. Unexpected, interactive and memorable.

His was an entertaining talk, insightful when talking of the function and responsibilities of the designer, and moving when highlighting how important a good piece of storytelling can be when showing us various exhibits at In Flanders Fields museum in Belgium.  In using subtle design and presentation alongside objects and materials from World War I itself, visitors are able to appreciate the enormity and cost of the war from a very human perspective: one section consist of notes and thoughts taken from soldiers on the day before they went over the top, and the visitor can gain some idea of what these ordinary, young men were thinking. Dying a virgin, never playing football again, not tasting mum’s cooking… He also told us how a tatty old stuffed horse once made him rethink an exhibit, after a delegation of Belgian townspeople asked him the whereabouts of their much loved tatty old stuffed horse.

Onward and upward

The ensuing “Project Opportunities” session, chaired by Malcolm Lewis, began with London Eye architect David Marks (managing director of Marks Barfield) talking about his firm’s conceiving and designing of various observation experiences around the world and in particular The London Eye (below left). Leading us through the technical innovations involved and detailing the construction process (during which I learned a new word – “gimbels”) we discovered that (1) The Eye – reportedly the largest object ever to be raised to the vertical from the horizontal – is in essence an enormous bicycle wheel and, (2) were it indeed the size of a bicycle wheel, the spokes would be around a third of a millimetre in width, (3) that the Eye has a throughput capacity of 1, 600 passengers per hour (4) that each passenger pod has over 2, 000 parts and (5) that the Eye has carried over 37 million passengers since opening 10 years ago.

Marks also highlighted the recently colondon eye as owned by merlin entertainmentsmpleted Treetop Walkway in the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew. A 200-meter, single-direction walkway, the £3 million design was based on the Fibonacci rule (a recursive sequence in which to calculate the next term one simply sums the preceding two: think petals and tree branches and leaves) and has been a towering success, the first year bringing 600, 000 visitors, one-third of the garden’s total attendance. Finally, he showed us the renderings for a house with a bedroom which can rise up 100 feet in the air if required. Expect a queue of Premiership footballers for such bedroom extravagance…

Developing Abu Dhabi into a world-class tourism destination was the topic addressed by Todd Lauchlan, Head of Strategic Services Team, Real Estate Services, Tourism Development & Investment Company, Abu Dhabi. Lauchlan outlined the emirate’s ambitious growth plans and talked us through the some of the major projects forming part of the Abu Dhabi 2030 plan. This document was formulated in 2006 and details the economic sectors that are being focused on to diversify away from the dominant hydrocarbon sector. With a target of doubling its tourism arrivals from 1.5 million people per annum to 3 million by 2015 Abu Dhabi is aggressively developing itself. Currently over £20 billion worth of projects are in various phases.

Todd was keen to address concerns that Abu Dhabi was recreating Dubai’s asset bubble, by demonstrating that the emirate had learned lessons both from its troubled neighbour Dubai and from observing development in China, and by emphasising the solidity of Abu Dhabi’s economy.

Opportunities in China

Karen Cheng, Trade & Investment Manager, UKTI, British Embassy, spoke of various projects in China, including:

Hengqin Island: the central government administrative district has just obtained approval to develop the island in order to boost the Macau, Zhuhai, Pearl River area development. There is a vision to make it a leading recreation and leisure island.

Two projects with Zhuhai Jiuzhou Tourism Group Co. Ltd.: The Yuanming park regeneration project with a £100M investment to make an attraction centre and a current hotel resort rehabilitation project, also with £100M.

OCT Group has some half dozen new projects in the offing.

West Kowloon Cultural District is a government-funded development project in Hong Kong to boost cultural and entertainment establishments. Located on 40 hectares of reclaimed waterfront land, the district will feature a new modern art museum and 15 world class performance venues. Under the management of the West Kowloon Cultural District Authority, construction will be carried out in two phases and Phase 1 venues are expected to be in operation by 2015.

Elephants and Greenbuilding

After lunch, it was time for the “Future Technologies and Sustainable Approaches” session, chaired by Kevin Murphy (left).

Joe Baskerville, head of new technology, Cogapp started the session by pointing out that museums and visitor attractions have always been among the early adopters of new technology – giving many people their first experience of a touchscreen, a 3D image, a video projection – but that the pace of new developments, together with visitors’ expectations, is accelerating. Technologies that were once exotic are now in consumer’s homes (and pockets). This rapid development has thrown up new ways to engage and excite visitors; and the increasing sophistication of the devices that many visitors will now have in their pockets offers new opportunities to interact. 

In making a potentially difficult subject comprehensible, Baskerville’s was an arresting peek at the potential for new technologies in visitor attractions.  Not only was I interested, I was relieved: I was keen to learn about fascinating new technologies yet concerned that I might not fully comprehend. I had thought about the Oxford maths don who marked a student’s paper with the phrase, “It’s not even wrong”. Or of chess games against my Grandmaster mate, kicking off a game in the dispiriting knowledge that mentally he is already 15 moves ahead.

Following on from these thoughts, Joe Martin, technical designer, KCA, raised the intriguing question of how we can (and if we can) “future-proof” attractions through technological innovation.

I have read before that nothing dates quicker than our view of the future and a look at any science fiction film from the past will confirm this. We simply don’t know what will transpire and our best guesses are often way off the mark. Running a publication that exists only online, I enjoyed reviewing the infamous Newsweek article from 1995 which doubted the future use and growth of the world wide web and has caused much online merriment, the following old computerparagraph a highlight:

“Then there’s cyberbusiness. We’re promised instant catalog shopping–just point and click for great deals. We’ll order airline tickets over the network, make restaurant reservations and negotiate sales contracts. Stores will become obsolete. So how come my local mall does more business in an afternoon than the entire Internet handles in a month?”

Joe also flagged up a quote from a 1949 edition of “Popular Mechanics” :

“Computers in the future may weigh no more than 1.5 tonnes”

He reminded us that what a visitor wants is not technology but a story, a narrative and with the technologies available in the modern home attractions must give visitors, in essence, something that they cannot get by staying at home. After the augmented reality, the high-end technology and the “apps” it was with a rather down-to-earth example with which Joe closed this session – an enormous elephant. An incredible public art installation/performance from the Royal de Luxe theatre company involving a huge moving mechanical elephant and a giant marionette of a girl, The Sultan’s Elephant Show (top) took place on the London streets and provided the four main ingredients for a compelling experience: (1) a great day out, (2) real not virtual stuff, (3) a lot of fun! (4) a great space.

Blair Parkin, managing director, Visual Acuity, spoke about his company’s nine-year involvement in the development of the new California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco, which since opening has gained acclaim as a flagship of greenbuilding as well as for delivering high quality guest experiences. In his talk, Parkin strove to point out the difference between a real adherence to greenbuilding principles and “greenwashing” and to demonstrate that the savings of building green is real and significant in the short and the long term.

From East to East

Opportunities in Poland, Saudi Arabia and Taiwan were canvassed in the final session, chaired by Lesley Morisetti, director, Economics at AECOM. Professor Dorota Folga-Januszewska, Head of Arts, Theory and Modern Museology, Department at the Institute of Art History, Cardinal Stefan Wyszynski University in Warsaw spoke of the needs of Polish museums and the business opportunities available. We learned that of the 1, 124 museums in Poland no more than 17 are actually state run and that there is an enormous amount of work needing to be done. 

There followed an overview of upcoming projects in Saudi Arabia from Ayesha Haider, UKTI Assistant – Kingdom wide lead, British Embassy, Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. Huge growth is anticipated in the tourism sector, she indicated. Saudi Arabia’s 2010 budget is the largest in the country’s history (14% more than the 2009 budget) with the Tourism Industry expected to grow 6% per annum until 2013. King Abdullah’s reign has resulted in significant social changes and business  opportunities for leisure & entertainment in the country. She ran us through a variety of interesting projects :  Al–Uqair Tourism Destination, King Abdulaziz Centre for Knowledge & Culture, Al Hail Economic City, Red Sea Tourism Strategy, Jeddah Eye & City Center Development and a government initiative to restore, preserve and promote Saudi & Islamic Heritage.

Sandy Lin, Vice President, Angel Art Gallery, Taipei, Taiwan, spoke about Angel Art Gallery, which has been chosen by Taipei City Government to run the Pavilion of Modern Living located inside a park in Taipei City. The pavilion will be one of the venues for the upcoming 2010 Taipei International Flora Expo from Nov 2010 to April 2011.

The day ended with a typically energetic talk from Vision XS founder Tony Sefton. His company specialises in looking at what visitors want and expect, and using this knowledge to assist attractions. His discovery that the people who decide to go to UK zoos are largely the mums and the mums don’t have a great interest in seeing ferocious animals led to almost all UK zoos removing snarling tigers from their promotions literature.

He led us through a series of graphs indicating the differences between various nationalities: Chinese people really don’t like queuing, Brits are quite OK with it, and so forth. The day came to an end and I trouped out to the pub to digest all I have learned with the assistance of a Guinness and a curry: like queuing politely, a very English experience.

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