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Themed Entertainment: Keith James, President, Jack Rouse Associates on doing Business in the Emerging Markets

Jack Rouse Associates (JRA) celebrates its 20th anniversary this year.  The group of designers, writers, producers and project managers based in Cincinnati, Ohio, named by the Wall Street Journal as “one of the world’s more prominent keith james president jra jack rouse associates themed entertainment theme parksdesign firms”, promotes its ability to conceive, visualise and realise exceptional experiences for museums, corporations and entertainment clients worldwide. 

As part of this global ambition, JRA is proactively developing business in the emerging markets and has been involved with a number of recent high profile projects:

• HarborLand, Ningbo, China – This new theme park, part of an urban development in Ningbo, China, opened in Feb 2006 with a master plan and design created by JRA.  As a first step in the master planning and design process, JRA created a fairy tale story around which the park is being developed. The story is inspired by the Phoenix, the mythological firebird and a symbol of happiness in Chinese culture.

• Guangdong Science Center, Guangzhou, China – JRA provided overall exhibit design for the children’s portion of this 450, 000 sq ft science centre, set up in Guangzhou in 2007.

• Restless Planet, Dubailand, Dubai, UAE – Projected to open in 2008, Restless Planet will blend entertainment and natural history experiences in a first-of-its-kind destination.  JRA is currently managing the overall design and production of Restless Planet, including development and oversight of all attractions and media. It is being linked with the Mall of Arabia, which is currently the largest mall under construction in the world. Working with London’s Natural History Museum, and other experts, the team is developing a synergy of architecture and experiences that take guests on “the world’s ultimate theme ride back into the mists of time, ” enabling them to explore Earth as it was millions of years ago. From rides that plunge visitors into the world of giant sauropods and terrifying raptors to special zones exploring the prehistoric past and links to the latest discoveries, Restless Planet will combine breathtaking theme park experiences, enhanced by dramatic lighting and audiovisual effects, with cutting-edge educational content.

• Al Kaheel Park, Dubai, UAE – When completed, Al Kaheel Park will become the most comprehensive equine tourist attraction ever built. It will extend over almost 9.1 million square feet of preserved desert landscape. The mixed-use development will have real estate and commercial components. JRA has been hired as part of the consultant team and will provide attraction planning and design for the complex. Al Kaheel will be an educational theme park and working horse farm dedicated to man’s relationship with the horse.

• Ferrari Theme Park, Abu Dhabi, UAE –  Built around the legendary Italian company, the theme park will consist of family rides, driving school and virtual simulations as well as retail merchandising.  JRA is providing design and co-ordination.

Keith James (above left), President, JRA, has been at the center of cutting-edge projects within the themed entertainment industry for more than 30 years and has been instrumental in opening new markets in India, the Pacific Rim and Eastern Europe for JRA.  Blooloop talked to him about JRA’s approach to developing business in the emerging markets and asked him to reflect on JRA’s 20 years in the business:

Which markets are you targeting? 
“Right now we are focusing on museums, theme parks and attractions, halls of fame, corporate visitor centres and sports venue interactive zones.  merlion sentosa singapore jra jack rouse associates keith jamesGeographically we are looking to the Middle East, China, Russia and when the occasion arises, the USA.  We simply go where the work is.”

How are you developing your business?
“We have an ongoing marketing effort that includes tradeshows, advertising, PR the Web site, referrals and our relationship with current and past clients but more importantly our closely-knit industry results in numerous referrals from friends and other companies.

We are always sensitive to the culture of the countries we pursue.  We meet clients, endeavour to understand their needs and satisfy those needs.  As a company we are client sensitive instead of JRA sensitive.  Luckily the approach works both ways for the USA and foreign countries.”

Do you structure work proposals differently from country to country?
“Each proposal depends upon the client needs rather than what country it is from.  Again, the differences between HarborLand and Restless Planet are determined by the client’s relationship with qualified local buyers and requirements of the project itself.  Either way, we always work closely with people the client assigns to us.”

How do emerging markets’ requirements differ from the North America? 
“We look closely at the culture and maintain a sensitivity to the culture that’s local to the project.  For example, in some countries there’s less emphasis on thrill rides than in the US.  Typically there is an independent market analysis that helps us determine the program mix.  Food and menus are always different.”

Are there any lessons you’ve learned from working in these new markets? Any surprises?
“One thing learned is that universally people want to have a good time in a clean and safe environment.  With new markets we recognize it’s important to understand the culture of the region socially and business wise.  We always develop a product jointly with the client.  Collaboration is a MUST. 

Speed in the Middle East to establish business is a challenge more than a surprise.  Some areas of the world are trying to skip generations and land squarely in the 21st Century and when this happens, you have to be careful not to lose the established foundation of experience when you make that leap.  After all, these are businesses that need to be successful.”

What have been the key changes in the Industry over the last 20 years?  How JRA has responded and what changes do you foresee in the future?
“Technology has grown in leaps and bounds.  However, one on one experiences in our projects are still important and we have to make sure people have a personal relationship with the message.  As our CEO, Jack, once said, “the first interactive was two people talking, ” and we have to make sure we don’t lose sight of that in our technology.  The blending of our industries of sports, museums, theme parks and corporate visitor centres are a notable change.  20 years ago museums would not have talked to theme park people and now those lines between them have gone away.  Now they are able to learn from each other and explore areas they might not have looked at before from the audience perspective. 

We always emphasise the people in business and the audience itself.”

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