After 24 years as a Disney cast member, Jeffrey Van Buren is head of Entertainment Development for TDIC, the Tourism Development and Investment Company of Abu Dhabi. He manages their Entertainment portfolio focusing on attaining the Abu Dhabi expansion vision for 2030 and setting the direction for entertainment projects for the Emirate. He is currently working on projects that include a theme park, water park, a zoo and aquarium. Blooloop's Chad Emerson spoke with him.
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Chad Emerson: Share with us how you got started in the amusement industry and some of the most interesting positions you've held.
Jeff Van Buren: I started in the industry as an on-line cast member for the Walt Disney World Resort in Florida. I graduated college with honors and found myself working at a theater attraction making $ 3.75 an hour. It was an interesting time for me as I often wondered how and why I ended up doing this job as a fresh college graduate. I learned quickly though that success was achievable through positive guest and fellow cast member interaction. I moved up in the organization and have held many diverse roles. One of the refreshing components of this business is one can wear many hats; ride operator, story teller, merchant, and transportation host just to name a few. I was always interested in the creation of the art and my first "development" role was as a test and adjust cast member for the Living Seas in Epcot. It was great fun and eventually led me to be involved in many new park developments from Disney's Animal Kingdom to Hong Kong Disneyland. I'm now helping the UAE develop tourism products as a member of TDIC – Tourism Development and Investment Company of Abu Dhabi.
Emerson: Since you first started in the industry, what are some of the ways that it's changed the most?
Van Buren: I believe that two evolutions have helped keep the industry a thriving business and great outlet for people to enjoy. The first is technology. From visual to physical improvements the industry has become much more interactive. It is as much a pull experience as it is a push. The second is customer satisfaction. Our craft is so dependent on creating a guest experience that resonates with the public, this is especially true with person to person guest contact. Positive memories are critical to getting repeat visitation and the employee is the most important ingredient in making that recipe work.
Emerson: You've worked in the U.S., Asia, and now the Middle East. How is the amusement and leisure industry unique in each of those settings?
Van Buren: The US domestic market is a very mature and established "tradition". This actually makes it easier for owner/operators to anticipate guest behavior and preferences. The Asian market is rapidly maturing and my experience tells me that this segment will be even more demanding on high tech experiences that can be delivered on a more personal media such as mobile phones and electronic devices. The mental "game" is very important in this environment. As for the Middle East, it is clearly the emerging market and the challenge will be to establish a culture of "the rules of the game", especially when dealing with the behavior of visitors. It is a very young and exciting market to be a part of and I see some truly unique experiences being developed for this part of the world.
Emerson: Looking back, what have been the most rewarding and most challenging experiences in your industry career?
Van Buren: I would have to say, as corny as this may sound, the rewards I receive from being in this business are the positive impacts that it makes to society. We deliver fun, memories, excitement and the chance for all families, nuclear or extended to have a bonding opportunity through our offering. I have always tried to take advantage of showing people the brighter and fun side of life. This is why our industry actually receives a boost during economically challenging times.
The challenge for all of us in the Entertainment and Amusement business is to ensure we deliver to each guest the idea that they are the only one we are here for and to keep in mind that their visit is unique and fresh no matter how many times we as pliers of our trade have gone through the daily "grind".
Emerson: Share with us what your perfect theme park day would involve.
Van Buren: For me that one is easy; Smiles on every guests face and excitement and enthusiasm from every employee that comes into contact with that guest. This is a simple formula, and sometimes difficult to achieve but is my goal every day.