Elephants in the TEAroom 2017

Extensively updated from Original Publishing – March 2015

[NOTE: Have we in our industry let down our Dubai and Emirati colleagues? Are we letting down our peers in other parts of the world…at home? Might the disasters of IMG Worlds of Adventure and Motiongate (and prior to that, the lessons offered by the Ferrari World experience) have been avoidable were we to have spoken more strongly at, and to, the highest levels of the importance of seamless experience, of unbroken and immersive storytelling pathways; would a difference have been made and the now-passed precipice of eliminating key elements over which these projects have fallen perhaps have been avoided? 

Might there have been some way for the problems we all saw coming that have now materialized been more emphatically and effectively communicated to those whose hands we shook in the years leading up to these projects’ opening? 

Might we have communicated more compellingly the importance of the intangible, unquantifiable, unspreadsheetable value of the more ephemeral components of storytelling experience? Might we find ways to communicate these things, cross-culturally, to the benefit of future projects?

Is it too late to impress these lessons on EXPO2020

Do we not have an obligation to support the ultimate success of all projects in order to continue to build and evolve the industry? Is it possible; would such advice be or have been heeded were it to have been given, supportively and early on, without coming across as paternal?

What are the realistic possibilities?]

It is again the virtual eve of the annual TEA Summit Conference  and Thea Awards Weekend; arguably, the most Important annual event in the Themed Entertainment Industry, just a few weeks away. Soon, hundreds of members of this community-slash-industry, The Themed Entertainment Association — Production and Creative Executives, Writers and Technical Experts, Inventors, Project Directors, Artists — will board flights and head to Disneyland for two days of seminars, iconic speakers and intensive networking: all to wrap up on Saturday night with an Awards Night of Glamour that almost rival’s Cinderella’s Ball.

The Best of the Year’s Work is acknowledged, awarded and celebrated over this three-day show-and-tell at the highest of levels. And while the stages are filled with What Has Been Built This Year, the conversation on the floor is about Who is Building What, Next Year.

As hands are shaken and awards are given, amidst the congratulations and the laughter and as “would you believe it…” anecdotes are shared; there exists, on the periphery, a vibrant and growing conversation on responsibility, honor and integrity.

It has to do with self-awareness, responsibility for the business, the future of the business, the sharing and spreading by example of best practices…

…and the obligations inherent in leadership.

To be more direct:

  • We, as leaders, are responsible for how we and our peers represent when working in other countries.
  • We are responsible for delivering the best possible product irrespective of context or client.
  • There is no excuse for delivering substandard work; we can and are morally obligated to encourage our colleagues and peers — and competitors — to maintain the highest standards.
  • We can be Ambassadors of Best Practices.
  • This includes how to treat laborers well and the financial value of that philosophy.
  • This includes the concept of Green-ness and awareness of resource consumption.
  • This includes plenty of other stuff…
  • We pay the price for conduct unbecoming; whether such conduct is intentional or inadvertent.
  • That being said, we can be responsible for maintaining, within our industry, awareness of negative trends that can (and have) become virtually cliché and we should support methods of eradication and enlightenment to said trends and actions.

These are areas of paramount importance to any industry doing business, offshore or local; from across a state line to beyond national borders, across oceans and most especially across language barriers.

Many in our industry aspire to become positive influence. Conversations on these subjects are taking place everywhere; kitchens and patios at parties, over cocktails, over dessert at dinner, over lunch on job sites, at picnics. Consciousness Conversations such as these are becoming part of the casual agendas of multiple trade and professional organizations; in that light, we offer this…

An Open Agenda for Casual Business Conversation.

After having asked, “how’s the family…?”

Perhaps an informal chat about these…

Condescension Communicates

To paraphrase Jeff Foxworthy, You might be a racist if… you’ve ever said the words, “Those people…” and followed with some generalization applied to what a given population or demographic will or won’t do with regard to maintenance or upkeep to original design or production.

  1. That is a racist comment, full stop. It could be sexist, too, depending on who says it and when. Whether or not some of one’s best friends and colleagues are also members of that group, and whether or not one is at all comfortable with the fact that one may be just a little bit racist does not alter reality. Not even with a magic wand. Be aware of it, guard against it, nip it in the bud and freaking acknowledge it when one sees it in oneself. We’re only human; most of us aren’t perfect.
  2. What the client may or may not do with a project or property, after handoff, is irrelevant in the context of quality of work delivered. Nothing excuses “designing-down” to a population or client. Our job is to do the absolute best work possible, to prepare the receiving client to manage and maintain in the most efficient, best possible way, and hand it off. Period.
  3. Nothing mitigates that obligation.

“Those people” are just as smart as any of us and, while there may be an absence of knowledge in certain areas of experience and expertise, while there may be a virtually crippling lack of experience or failure to grasp certain concepts with which we Westerners may be almost inherently (or culturally) familiar; this does not mean the mind across the table or desk from us is not just as sharp as (if not sharper than) our own. Maybe even smarter, as we are likely speaking our native tongue which may be the other person’s third, fourth or fifth language.


Publicity, Press Releases and Reality

Used to be, development companies could issue a press release and make promises and predictions about a project. Those releases would be picked up by industry or mainstream press and repeated. People would read them and consider them to be truthful, make assessments (and, in our case, plans to visit or participate) and do so. Showtime would come and people would travel from far and near to see this thing and, having been told nothing different, would embrace what they experienced as exactly what they’d read it would be…trusting that this is the best, possible experience without even thinking about it.

Now, It’s all google-able. If we say, today, that our park will be the utmost in immersive guest experience; those words will remain in audience consciousness to fuel expectation for Opening Day…and today’s Opening Day Expectations are far more sophisticated, more aware and certainly more critical of failure than those of generations past.

This raises the question of how to report on ongoing, developing and soon-to-open projects.

In the name of supporting the industry, our industry press is skittish about reporting negatively and candidly on projects coming down the pike. This makes sense in terms of the revenue stream that supports these publications, as well as in the context of not wanting to undermine potential successes.

That being said, is there an approach, avenue or forum where projects known to be at risk can be rescued before it’s too late? How can we help? In recent forums, industry audiences have been adamant that they want to know the truth about projects in development as these projects go from concept to reality. Might candid, clear-eyed reporting offer opportunity for the appropriate Rescuing Colleague to step up and offer White Knight services?

We, as an industry, could embrace a moral obligation to be policing ourselves, mentoring and encouraging one another. How to do that in a positive way? Can we effectively offer advice, mentorship, responsibly sharing cautionary tales to contemporaries in other parts of the world or industry?

Social Media Will Bust Us

Day One: “Opening Day:” 4- and 8- and 10-hour flights land, the doors open and thousands of Tweeters and Instagrammers and FaceBookers and YouTubers and Snapchatters eagerly flood through the gates or to the box offices.

And if, on said Day One, the experience delivered falls short of what was promised; Social Media will Cut <name of project> down before the day is out. The reality will be everywhere, the reviews will be legion, the worldwide message will be “don’t come!”

Business and Management Skills: ExPat Agony

“Well, back at Disney…” or “When I was at Universal…”

Seriously, Just don’t say it.

This talk even bugs the other alums in the room. Pretty much everyone has worked for one or the other or both the Big Boys by now. One makes no friends with name-dropping and, frankly, one is definitely making one’s own job significantly harder…probably more so as millennials fill the workspace. Such talk tends more to imbue the speaker with an aura of arrogant irrelevance.

Experience is respected most when it is presented in the context of the problem before us.

As an Expert Expat, one has been brought in because of one’s experience. There is no question that Disney and Universal generally do it best, have some of the best processes and procedures and offer great models for approaching a given project.

These Big Boys do not offer the only way to do anything, nor always the only best way. We must not lose sight of the fact that even these iconic creative fonts have learned massive amounts from mistakes made and as a result have evolved their own processes and philosophies from Paris to Hong Kong to a quantum evolution in the approach to Shanghai.

As Expatriate, Western “Experts”; we are brought in not because we already know the answers. Rather, we are best and most effectively brought in under the assumption that we have the ability to discover and create the best answers.

And how do we create these answers? By applying our bodies of knowledge and experience to what we learn before we act in a new context; using our judgement with that experience to craft original approaches to the cross-cultural work.

The methodologies and processes we apply, the way we build and create may look very similar to ways which we may have learned have worked well in other contexts. But, if we parachute in and begin to apply without first truly investigating and learning the lay of the land, where to avoid the cultural rifts and gullies; we are shortchanging ourselves, our clients and ultimately our audiences.


The Ever-Present Burden of White Male Privilege

As a Middle-aged White Guy (or Gal, but not so much I think); perhaps keep in mind that we are often and actually burdened with exhaustive and sometimes exhausting Privilege. Such privilege does open doors, elicit deference and favors…

…and it can also get in the way.

That privilege, more often perceived by the viewer, can become a significant barrier to being told, presented with or hearing a valuable Truth when such a Truth needs to be spoken. There is often an inherent and ubiquitous fear or reticence to bear bad news upward, especially with staff and colleagues predominantly of other races and nationalities, when we are working in the often caste-like environments of other cultures.

The message may not even be articulated when we most need to hear it, for retribution can be feared (and in many cases, appreciably so), as many believe they risk their own jobs by offending or even delivering bad news to higher ups.

This can threaten the quality of an entire project. Important information can be missed or hidden.

Aggressive Listening.

Such Privilege obligates outreach and mitigation by those privileged. It is the responsibility of the privileged to alleviate the fear of candor and to invite initiative. It’s a big job; and many a powerful executive from the west has failed without comprehending why.

Talking to everyone. Learning names, asking after families and work backgrounds.


Chances are, with aggressive listening, that valuable relationships, nuanced understanding and enlightened appreciation of the the possibilities inherent in the blending of cultural approaches will result in a team that produces results far greater than the sum of parts.


 “IMHO – Creating Compelling Experience”  , read and studied in both Milky Way and Andromeda galaxies, is a free download from iTunes and the iBook Store. Free.

Link to the Themed Entertainment Association site.

2 thoughts on “Elephants in the TEAroom 2017

  1. Pingback: Design Ethics Across Cultures – Academic & Practical Collaboration | imho

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