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In depth

Themed Entertainment: TiLEforum in Florence, 2011

What are the trends in themed entertainment?  How will technology impact the experience of the museum or attractions visitor?  What does “glocalisation” mean? The  TiLEforum conference, held in Florence, Italy 26th and 27th October sought to answer thspeakers at tileforum conference in florenceese questions as  a variety of speakers from the museum, themed entertainment and visitor attractions business spoke about developments in museums and themed entertainment. Many great discussions were had, provocative opinions aired and professional friendships made.

The brilliant Mark Twain (though wrong about Shakespeare), was an experienced traveller and knew Europe well.  He must surely have been thinking about Florence, the birthplace of the Renaissance, when he observed* that, "The Creator made Italy from designs by Michelangelo." The city is overwhelmingly beautiful and having been for centuries a destination for leading artists from around the world – where Milton once met Galileo, Dostoyevsky finished The Idiot and where everyone from Dickens to EM Forster marvelled at the “Athens of the Middle Ages” –  it played host to a fresh generation of leading creatives during the TiLEforum.

Palaces of Experience – day one

After a warm welcome from Richard Curtis, organiser Andrich International’s MD , the first speaker was Electrosonic’s founder director,   Robert Simpson.  Robert spoke about the phenomenon of the International Expo and ran us through a potted history of the Expo’s development from the very first, back in the mid nineteenth century, to last year’s Shanghai World Expo. Having visited and worked on many Expos himself (he saw his first – Brussels- in 1958 as a student) he was ideally placed to cast his eye over what was a frequently surprising and rather inspiring story.  He made it clear that the Expo has always been a showcase for technical innovation.  Expo visitors over a hundred years ago were treated to a fully immersive, experiential balloon “ride”, in which they stood in a huge balloon basket and through the ingenious (if hazardous) use of innovative white-hot projectors  took a journey over a city’s rooftops.  This and other remarkable tales made for a superb start to the conference.

Of brands and users

The pre-lunch session had three speakers, each of whom talked about how destinations and attractions were reacting to the changing demands of the visitor. First was James M. Bradburne, the Direttore Generale of Fondazione Palazzo Strozzi in Florence.  James has brought to the Palazzo Strozzie many new initiatives, some of which could be viewed as radical in the occasionally rather conservative museum community.  He did not talk of guests or visitors but of “users”. Part of his aim is to make the city of Florence itself a more dynamic, contemporary place and help increase the quality of life of its citizens. To this end, unlike almost every other museum in Florence, the Palazzo Stozzi does not actively court the tourist. Instead, its desire is to engage with the local market, and in accordance with its bold mission statement (“not just exhibitions”) involve the Florentines in “visible listening” thus creating an active and enthusiastic local community of “users”.

James showed us examples of labels for exhibits written not by seasoned academics but by Children.  A group of Cezanne bathers frolicking in a woodland glade brought out this comment from a 13 year girl, “Boy, this guy did like green!”  Refreshing for sure, different yes, but isn’t there something to be said for the tried and tested formula of labels written by experts?  Are we at risk of underestimating the “user”?  Like the best speakers, James, engaged us, provoked us and left us thinking.

Brandstory Italia’s co-founder, Rick Ray,   a Chicago native now based out of Sardinia, thennetworking at tileforum florence themed entertainment ran us through a number of examples of brands being turned around and given a new lease of life via smart promotion and reworking. 

London’s St. Pancras has for decades been a rather unappealing, rather seedy station, hang out of prostitutes and various ne’er-do-wells.  Now rebranded, the “destination”, has seen an enormous change in both the profile of the visitor (over 20% of whom are not there to catch trains) and the reputation of the station itself.  Boasting the world’s longest champagne bar, it is now viewed as a chic place for the young and trendy.  If the new strapline, “Meet me at St.Pancras” might ten years ago have been greeted with a raised eyebrow, not anymore.

Dennis Ivisovic is tasked with rebranding not just a building but an entire region.  As the Director for Istria Tourism, his role is to help develop the tourism and attractions infrastructure of the beautiful Croatian peninsula of Istria. Basking in a Mediterranean climate, studded with remarkable Roman ruins and with its own distinct gastronomy and culture, Istria – which until recently was riven by civil strife – has enormous potential as a destination resort.  Mindful of the rampant overdevelopment of many once glorious coastal regions in the Mediterranean, part of Dennis’ challenge is to ensure Istria  is not overdeveloped, and his drive is to create “unique Istrian experiences” whilst maintaining both integrity and character.

speakers tileforum conference florenceDesign, trends and pushing the boundaries – day two

The first session on the second day was entitled “Rising to the trend challenge”.  Lucy Von Weber, Deputy Director, South Wales regional Tourism Partnership, talked about the rise of digital technologies and looked at how these are impacting how  museums and other attractions interact with their visitors.  Starting off with Moore’s law (computing power doubles very two years) she ran through many different examples from augmented reality, to location based services powered by GPS and mobile technology. One remarkable app she mentioned  was the Museum of London’s StreetMuseum, which allows the viewer to see how whichever London view he/she is looking at would have looked like 50 or 100 years ago.

In a brilliant speech highlighting what the very latest technology is offering the museum sector and littered with correspondingly state-of-the-art terminology it was nice to hear her utilising a much underused Lancastrian phrase during her Q & A session. In response to a question about a well known travel review website she described it as being, “a bit bobbins really”.  She also premiered (and apologised in advance for) a new buzzword, “glocalisation”, which refers to an individual or group able to think or act globally.

There then followed two speakers on the subject of retail.  Ashleigh King, principal, Ashleigh Associates, told us how to create a successful product licensing programme and looked at the impact having your attraction’s own branded products on the high street can have on your onsite and online business. With many branded museum products available at massively reduced rates via the internet (some museum branded products are over 70% cheaper on Amazon), she explained the importance of having exclusive products and detailed the at times delicate relationship between a museum’s retail operation and its licensing team. 

Larry Gilbert, president Event Network Inc, in a speech entitled “No margin, no mission”, whose company deals with retails stores in the museums and not for profit sector, then talked about maximizing the effectiveness of the gift shop. Harry Potter provided a great illustration of the seamless integration of brand, experience and merchandising operation.

The next subject was design and co-chairmen Malcolm Lewis and Kevin Murphy introduced a quartet of leading designers and thinkers in the field of experiential and immersive design: Peter Higgins, Prof Franz Fischnaller, George Wiktor and Oliver Vicars-Harris.  In an intriguing discussion, each aired their philosophies, explained how their own experience had shaped their thoughts on design and wondered how attractions might in the future engage with their guests/ visitors.  George had some remarkable images from the Burning Man festival in Nevada, Franz looked at examples from Italy and Oliver, without a PowerPoint slide, indeed without anything but an orange, reminded us about the importance of “the real”.  In museums, he reminded us, the technology and the design are all very well but at the end of the day it is about the exhibits, the content.

Pushing the boundaries

The penultimate session, “pushing the boundaries” was chaired by KCA London’s Leila Schrembi.  4 speakers looked at how museums and attractions are engaging with modern audiences.

Anthony Richards , Galleries Development Manager at London’s Science Museum,   spoke about the challenge of working with an attraction that for many people is not in itself the most exciting.  Even the name itself is in some ways a hurdle. “Science Museum” is made up of two words which could be viewed as having  dull and elitist connotations.  How can you make a destination something people want to come to as opposed to one they feel they ought to come to?

Two hugely popular initiatives have been the “adult-only” evenings and the children’s sleepovers, each held once a month.  For the adult’s evening, the museum had anticipated hosting around 200 people.  With word spreading fast via the museum’s social networks over 3, 500 people turned up. The sleepovers too have been an enormous success and both evenings have become wildly popular.

Rhys Evans, Business Development Manager at Cardiff’s Techniquest (the UK’s first and biggest purpose built science centre) then explained how the attraction is reaching beyond its own walls by designing and delivering a range of portable outreach kits. Alongside their own workshops and shows, these allow the attraction to have an impact right across the world and to reach many thousands of people who could never hope to make it to Techniquest itself.

I then spoke about social media and how attractions are creating communities and communicating with their visitors in the virtual world. I also looked at how the key is not the numbers but the engagement – just as money can’t buy you love, nor can it buy you engagement.

Getting real

The day was rounded off with an inspirational talk by Terry Stevens, MD Stevens & Associates, who emphasised the importance of the “real”- the stories, the people, the authentic items, objects and narratives that make up the attraction. His call was for new concepts and fresh business models to be relevant and to excite and engage new audiences.

The formal event concluded, delegates gathered for a TEA (Themed Entertainment Association) event.  Electrosonic’s Alan Wilkinson, a skilled photographer, was on hand with his impressively long lens and we drank Chianti till late in the evening.  Later that night, Kristian Biggs (Pufferfish), Damian Andrews ( Visual Acuity) and I enjoyed what must one  of the world’s most glorious views from a bar, the city's Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiore (Duomo) just 100 yards from us.  Later still we encountered an ingenious policy in a nightclub, once in which it was free to enter but one had to pay heavily to leave.  Now there’s another idea…

*He also said, somewhat less charitably that,   “They examine passports on the Italian frontier for fear an honest man may slip in.”

Speaker images from the top: Robert Simpson, James M. Bradburne, Rick Ray, Dennis, Ivisovic, Lucy Von Weber, Ashleigh King, Leila Schrembi, Rhys Evans andTerry Stevens

Images: kind courtesy Alan Wilkinson

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