17 Jul 2019 World leisure: news, training & property
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Attractions Management
2015 issue 4

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Leisure Management - SATE 2015

Show Report

SATE 2015

The rules are changing. Be disruptive. Explode the experience. Those are the messages from this year’s SATE conference, which was headlined by Star Wars legend Anthony Daniels. Christine Kerr files this report

Christine Kerr, BaAM Productions
Anthony Daniels, who plays C-3PO in Star Wars, was SATE’s headline act Photos: For TEA, by Martin Palicki
Speakers at the SATE 2015 conference at Carnegie Mellon University in Scott Trowbridge with (C-3PO) Anthony Daniels Photos: For TEA, by Martin Palicki
Speakers at the SATE 2015 conference at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh included Jesse Schell Photos: For TEA, by Martin Palicki
Speakers at the SATE 2015 conference at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh included Jacob Wah Photos: For TEA, by Martin Palicki
Speakers at the SATE 2015 conference at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh included Shirley Saldamarco and Loren Barrows Photos: For TEA, by Martin Palicki
Speakers at the SATE 2015 conference at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh included Joshua Jeffery Photos: For TEA, by Martin Palicki
Speakers at the SATE 2015 conference at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh included Adam Bezark Photos: For TEA, by Martin Palicki
A child dresses up as Secret Cinema presents Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back in London Photo: Camilla Greenwell
Europa-Park directors take the first ever VR rollercoaster ride in Rust, Germany, in September
Feel the Force: With the latest film and the recent confirmation of Disney’s Star Wars Land, the Conversation with Anthony Daniels was a timely feature of SATE 2015 Photos: DISNEY
Feel the Force: With the latest film and the recent confirmation of Disney’s Star Wars Land, the Conversation with Anthony Daniels was a timely feature of SATE 2015 Photos: DISNEY
Feel the Force: With the latest film and the recent confirmation of Disney’s Star Wars Land, the Conversation with Anthony Daniels was a timely feature of SATE 2015 Photos: For TEA, by Martin Palicki

This year’s SATE (Story + Architecture + Technology = Experience) conference featured many highlights, not least that the attendees were privileged to share an up-close-and-personal conversation with Anthony Daniels, famous for his role as C-3PO in the Star Wars films.

The Themed Entertainment Association’s (TEA) annual storytelling conference was hosted by Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. This top-ranked university is home to the Entertainment Technology Center (ETC) and Disney Research Labs among many other prestigious programmes and partnerships.

Conference attendees were welcomed to a showcase of student projects at the ETC, were active participants in demonstrations of projects in development at the Disney Research Labs, treated to drone flying demonstrations and gained insights into how the Pittsburgh Penguins NHL hockey team is integrating technology into its arena and fan experience.

The theme of SATE this year revolved around the idea of extending experiences beyond a defined time and place. Words like explode, disrupt and expand guided the thinking of co-chairs Shirley Saldamarco (president of Interactive Media Productions and an ETC faculty member) and Loren Barrows (director of business development at Alcorn McBride). Speakers explored the trend and identified examples, demonstrating that the nature of experience design is changing.

We’re seeing this trend rapidly expanding in the world of experiential marketing. Marketers are creating brand activations that include destinations – built environments – as one pillar of a total campaign. The in-person experience is seamlessly supported by other promotional and media elements that serve to build anticipation in advance, promote sharing during the event and provide opportunities for follow-up after the event.

In the world of themed entertainment and built environments, what is happening that parallels or echoes this marketing evolution? How are themed entertainment experiences expanding their traditional boundaries? Are there categories of work that used to be the responsibility of the marketing department that are now falling to the experience designer? What other industries offer examples that help us meet the expectations of audiences?

Matthew DuPlessie from 5 Wits opened the conference by challenging the group to create more experiences that depend on the guest being there – that are interactive because participation, thinking, cooperation and teamwork are required. In order to do this, he challenged experience creators to consider smaller attractions. Instead of one $50m (£33m, €45m) ride, what about 10 smaller experiences that each cost $5m (£3.3m, €4.5m)?

Matt Earnest of Entertainment + Culture Advisors explored the success of London’s Secret Cinema and their Star Wars events – a great example of tying community and immersive participation by combining a film screening with a role-playing event. These events allow audiences to “live the film” by combining live actors and role playing. Attendees are assigned an identity (a character and a costume) and join a community when they purchase a ticket – before the event even starts. Secret Cinema creates further opportunities for attendees to interact at social events, where they must still wear their costumes. It becomes a season-long community event that creates value with immersion.

Adam Bezark is always a thought-provoking and popular speaker. He engaged the audience immediately by wondering if we are artists, if the experiences we create are ones that will stand the test of time, asking if people will study them in 500 years?

He shared what he believes makes great art great: technique, medium, concept, newness and emotion. He further suggested that places and experiences – such as Cirque du Soleil’s shows, Sleep No More (a theatrical experience from British production company, Punchdrunk) and Universal Studios’ Diagon Alley – are all art.

Even the Disneyland Castle – because it was parodied in graffiti artist Banksy’s Dismaland (a temporary art installation in Weston-super-Mare in the UK this summer – see our feature on page 42), is now elevated to the level of art

Of course the people who created these shows and designed and fabricated the structures are all artists, Bezark said. Then he challenged delegates with this question: can we do a better job of what we do if we treat our work as art? Given that many of us have training in some kind of visual art, design or theatre, we certainly were reminded of our roots and inspired to think about our work differently.

Bezark shared some advice on how we can return to those roots or find our inner artist. His advice included: awaken the poet by challenging ourselves; fight for the new by challenging our clients; fight for the weird; and stick to the story so you do not disrupt or interrupt the immersion.

Deanna Francl, the brand design practice area leader at Gensler, asked the question: “What are you doing to dramatically change the way people experience your brand?”

She challenged the group to become instigators, like that childhood friend who always dared you to do things. She also said the “wow” factor is no longer the priority – “cool” is more important.

Francl shared the trends she sees emerging, which include a new focus on spirituality and creating havens, contrasted by unexpected and provocative pop-ups that are immersive brand experiences. She also suggested that community is more important than ever and that this extends to experiences that are customised to incorporate local connections.

She also said the trend towards collaborative consumption has led to a shift in consumer values – a shift in priorities from ownership to access, and from me-to-we through crowdpower and mobile collaboration. Francl talked about how the world we are living in motivates us to redefine the nature of experience and of service – she suggests our work will no longer be judged by how good or great it is – success will come from being different.

Jesse Schell, CEO of Schell Games, has been passionate about VR since the early 1990s, so he is very excited that, in 2016, VR will explode into popular culture. He reminded the group that, like all technologies, the development curve takes time, like the evolution of the TV, which has taken 45 years to get to where we are today. New VR is different and will be successful because it brings a feeling of presence that is powerful, he said.

The challenges of the past are solved; there’s no motion sickness because content is delivered at a higher frame rate, with a faster refresh rate, so there’s no virtual motion. The user moves – not things in the world – so there’s no nausea: the body and brain forget it’s not real.

The products already available or coming to market are also affordable at up to $500 (£320, €440) for the high-end that includes Oculus Rift, HTC Vive and Sony’s Project Morpheus/PlayStation VR. Products like Google Cardboard and Samsung Gear are much more affordable but sacrifice tracking capability (according to Schell), priced at below $200 (£129, €176).

Schell is one very excited and knowledgeable guy – he’s seeing something he’s been passionate about for more than 20 years finally becoming a reality. When asked about augmented reality, he said it’s at least five years away.

In a feat of serendipitous timing, Jakob Wahl from Europa Park spoke about Mack Rides’ newly introduced VR for a rollercoaster, which had launched that very day (see page 18). Wahl admitted there are capacity challenges, so the initial implementation will be rolled out to select groups such as season pass holders, hotel guests and those willing to pay a premium.

Wahl agreed VR is a great way to update a ride. He was pragmatic about the downsides – they are using the Samsung Gear but accept there are technology challenges with a new and quickly evolving product. He also admitted it won’t work on all rides and can be isolating – although based on other speakers at the conference, this could be interpreted as personalisation. Mack Rides believes VR is a tool for advancing and enhancing the experience, but it’s not the future of the roller coaster.

Joshua Jeffery, experience design lead on Google’s Experience Centres Team, has had an interesting career path, graduating from the ETC at Carnegie Mellon, interning at Thinkwell and then leading interactive technologies for the Warhol Museum for five years before joining the tech giant.

Jeffery talked about Google’s focus on creating seamlessly woven experiences. Our attention spans are shorter than ever and our tolerance for information, the speed we process it and our ability to focus have all changed, he says.

Our devices are poking the outside world in and the inside world out. They provide social, meaningful interactions – so what should we do? Block them? Collect them? No, says Jeffery, because they have value in an experience. They represent convenience (on-demand) because they separate the fun from the functional – use devices to allow you to focus on the fun by getting the practical details out of the way.

They offer personalisation – like Trunk Club and Netflix. Your device knows you and can provides concierge-level service and customise experiences for each guest. And perhaps most importantly, devices offer opportunities for experience layering, including gamification: your phone is like a heads-up device, acting as scorekeeper, image keeper and storyteller during an experience. After the experience, it allows you to connect experiences to create your own story out of the experience you had. Ultimately, Jeffery said, we can take advantage of that digital literacy to focus on the personalisation opportunities.

SATE 2015 was pleased to present a Conversation with Anthony Daniels, the second presentation of this new format of open, direct dialogue. Daniels has enjoyed a career spanning four decades, portraying the beloved C-3PO in the Star Wars films and having the privilege of broadening his involvement to many extensions of the franchise as the character and hosting various symphonic events, especially Star Wars in Concert in its US and European tours. He is also a visiting scholar at the ETC at Carnegie Mellon University.

The upcoming release of Star Wars: The Force Awakens and recent announcements from Disney about an expanded Star Wars presence in the parks made the conversation with Daniels a timely feature of SATE 2015. And who better to lead the conversation than Scott Trowbridge, the creative executive from Walt Disney Imagineering responsible for the strategic concept development and integration of the Star Wars franchise across all Walt Disney Parks and Resorts?

This was the ultimate discussion about extending the experience. The conversation circled around the various ways the Star Wars franchise has been leveraged and expanded to invite people to step into the stories. After a dramatic entrance by Daniels – in a gold sequinned jacket, of course – both gentlemen were generous with their stories and witty banter.

Among the highlights of the conversation was how the C-3PO costume has changed – evolving from a metal construction made from a full-body casting that required two hours to put on and was so heavy, Daniels considered not participating beyond the first film. The current costume is 3D printed and easily worn and modified.

Daniels also told the story of how George Lucas auditioned many actors to be the voice of C-3PO after filming was complete on the original Star Wars movie. Eventually he decided nothing fitted the original like the original, and asked Daniels to record his own voice.

The anecdotes and insights shared were many – ranging from a disguised Daniels visiting Secret Cinema’s Star Wars event in London, to the challenges of translating the onscreen character into the requirements (and restrictions) of the Star Tours attractions.

Trowbridge was asked many questions about Disney’s plans for the Star Wars franchise across the parks and resorts. Avoiding specifics, he nevertheless built excitement among the attendees. He and his team have an unenviable challenge of determining how to bring the films to life in the theme parks for generations of fans whose level of knowledge is unparalleled.

The conversation was full of banter and dramatic action. Daniels had a hard time sitting still and often jumped up to act out a point. Trowbridge took delight in playing R2-D2 to Daniels’ C-3PO, much to the amusement of the audience.

TEA’s SATE 2015 took delegates on a journey that challenged their thinking and inspired – even provoked – them to approach their projects in new ways. Themes of creating experiences that encouraged community, teamwork and shared human experiences were repeated by almost every speaker. This was contrasted by ongoing discussions of how to use guests’ personal devices in the right way, rather than just asking them to be turned off – to incite social action, deliver personalised content and extend the guest experience by creating and sharing stories.

The presentations and conversations reminded us that we all create the art of the 21st century; perhaps we are defining the meaning of art for future generations.

Originally published in Attractions Management 2015 issue 4

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