The Elephant in the TEAroom


It is the eve of the annual TEA Summit and Thea Awards Weekend; arguably, the most Important annual event in the Themed Entertainment Industry. At this moment, hundreds of members of this community-slash-industry, The Themed Entertainment Association — Production and Creative Executives, Writers and Technical Experts, Inventors, Project Directors, Artists…— are aboard flights and headed 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.

(Almost…that movie was art-directed to within an inch of it’s life; was it NOT?)

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.

After all, it’s all about the business of The Business…and everyone wants to be a part of it.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

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 conversation on this business that this writer has been attempting to bring into the foreground for a couple of years, with little success.

It has to do with self-awareness, responsibility for the business & for business 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.
    • The other side of that is calling out those who do deliver poor quality work. Such work harms our industry and, not so subtly, affects those of us from the same country as s/he who delivers poorly.
  • 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 cliche 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 out-of-town; from across a state line to beyond national borders, across oceans and most especially across language barriers. What we’ve learned at IMHO, anecdotally, is that the response to any article posted or podcast presented on these subjects unwaveringly result in significant spikes in metrics and in online and offline response…especially from the Next Generation of professionals currently stepping into place.

Many in our industry are hungry to discuss and be positive influence in these and related areas.

This is heartening and encouraging and, imho, well worth heeding on the part of institutional leadership in any business or industry.

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. While we’d like to see Consciousness Conversations such as these taking place as part of the Official Agendas of both TEA and IAAPA; until then, we offer this…

An Open Agenda for Casual Business Conversation.

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

Perhaps you can chat about these…

Diplomacy 101: 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 your 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. IT DOES NOT MATTER WHAT “THEY” WILL DO WITH IT when the project has been handed off. There is nothing that 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” aren’t stupid. “They” are just as smart as the rest of us and, while there may be an absence of knowledge in our areas of 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 you is not just as sharp as yours. Maybe even smarter, as you are probably speaking your native tongue which may be the other person’s third, fourth or fifth language.

BTW: condescension crosses all language barriers; it is readily recognizable on an international scale. We’ve seen respected companies lose massive contracts due to the overt condescension expressed from the Home Office over too great a time. Just sayin’.

Integrity 204: These Ain’t Your Daddy’s Press Releases

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.

Research on past predictions would entail dusty back room and microfiche. No more.

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

As such, it follows that our Industry Press is bound to report the Actual as zealously as were the Predictions reported.

We, as an industry, ought to be policing ourselves on a casual, offline, “keep your act together, brother” and “here’s the best way to do it” basis. or…

It’s Your (Financial) Ass 233: Social Media Will Bust You

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 your gates or to your box offices.

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

Business and Management Skills 455: ExPat Agony

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

Do. Not. Say. This.

DON’T say it.

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. Just can it. One is making NO friends with this name-dropping and one is definitely making one’s own job significantly harder…probably more so with the other alums witinin earshot than with the rank-and-file who probably just think the speaker sounds arrogant and old.

Unless you are Joe Rohde. Then, you can say anything you want.

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.

Though, do notice the specific words used in that previous sentence…

They do not offer the ONLY way to do anything, nor always the ONLY BEST way. Do not lose sight of the fact that even these Big Boys have learned massive amounts from massive mistakes made and as a result have evolved their own processes and philosophies from Paris to Hong Kong to a virtually millennial evolution in the approach to Shanghai that is hurtling toward realization.

What one knows from experience in Anaheim, Orlando, Tokyo or wherever is a great beginning to learning the process of doing it “here.”

As Expatriate, Western “Experts”; we are brought in NOT because we already know the answers. No, we are brought in because we are assumed to have the ability to discover and CREATE the best answers…if we want to do the best jobs, that is.

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

The courses we take, the processes we apply, the way we build and create may look very similar to ways which he have learned work 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 the cultural rifts and gullies are; we are shortchanging ourselves, our clients and ultimately our audiences.


Graduate Level: The Burden of White Male Privilege

Last thing. If you are a Middle-aged White Guy (or Gal, but not so much I think); just don’t forget that you are truly burdened with exhaustive and sometimes exhausting Privilege. Such privilege will certainly get doors opened, elicit deference and favors… It is also a powerful barrier to hearing the Truth when the Truth needs to be spoken. You can be feared, as many believe they can lose their jobs by offending or even delivering bad news.

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

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.

Talk to everyone. Learn their names. Ask about their families and their work backgrounds. And LISTEN. Chances are you’ll be blown away by what and who you learn is on your team.

So. Talk amongst yourselves and perhaps, next year, we can get this conversation onto the dais.


IMHO – Creating Compelling Experience is a free download for iOS and OS X from iTunes and the iBook Store. Free. 

10 thoughts on “The Elephant in the TEAroom

  1. As always, spot on. There was a time when being “an ex-Disney guy” meant you could go anywhere in the world and get big jobs and be admired. I know, I did it. And so did a bunch of other folks, and diluted the brand until it was meaningless. There was just too much half-assed work, overpromised and underdelivered. And a huge amount of attitude to go with it, including distinctly ‘Great White Father’ stuff that was really embarrassing.

    We missed a golden opportunity to deliver brand-ambassador quality to new markets when the boom times were going. It’s not too late, but it’s a lot harder to put mistakes behind us than to make a great first impression.

    I’d like to see the TEA awards held in different countries at different kinds of themed venues — it would be educational for everyone.

  2. Not surprisingly, there is a good deal of sound advice in this piece applicable to anyone in any environment that happens to include … other people–even for us simple folk in Bumf**k, Oregon, where men cry and whales blubber.
    Another cogent & well-structured essay, masterfully executed, Kile, your perspicacity is only exceeded by your geographic distance from here.
    And the wheel inexorably turns.

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