In a conversation with Park World editor, Becci Knowles, The Producers Group executive advisor and TEA Lifetime Achievement Award Winner, Frank Stanek, looks back on his life in the industry and addresses the current economic climate for planning and development of attractions and new entertainment real estate developments.
Frank grew up on the East Coast in Stamford, Connecticut, moving to Anaheim when he was 19 where he took a part time job at Disneyland for a food concession. The rest, as they say, is history but still, it’s one that’s worth looking at as Frank’s advice on how to get through the current crisis comes off the back of 50+ years of experience during which he has overcome many obstacles and what he has to say is worth hearing.
During his college years at California State University, Fullerton, Frank moved from various part time jobs with leaseholders to Disneyland’s operations group and began his business planning and development path, immersing himself in attendance projections, park utilisation studies, design modifications, and a whole host of related strategic planning activities.
During 1964 and 1965, the Disney Company designed, built and operated four major attractions at the New York World’s Fair: Carousel of Progress, It’s A Small World, Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln, and the Magic Skyway. Frank was dispatched to the Fair as controller of the ‘It’s A Small World’ pavilion sponsored by Pepsi-Cola and it was during his second summer there that Roy Disney asked him to return to California to take up a role at the newly restructured WED (Walter Elias Disney) Enterprises — today known as Walt Disney Imagineering.
Frank has always said that his early days at Disney provided him with the best possible foundation for his career. “Having a positive outlook is vital; Marty Sklar, who I was very close friends with and worked with from my very first day at Disney Imagineering, crafted the phrase: ‘Dream….Believe….Dare….Do’ based on something Walt Disney had said and it became a sort of internal motto”. Walt Disney is famously quoted as saying that the secret to success could be summarised in four C’s: curiosity, confidence, courage, and constancy. “The greatest of all,” said Walt, is confidence:
“When you believe in a thing, believe in it all the way, implicitly, and unquestionably.” Frank continues: “I had a sign of that made and put on the wall in my office. You always have to have faith and confidence in what you are proposing or promoting or doing: if you lose faith and confidence, everything else will fall away and you will fail, so that’s the attitude that I’ve always stuck with.”
Frank soon became responsible for Imagineering’s business planning function, encompassing all new Disney Projects, which, in 1965 included the Mineral King Ski Resort and Walt Disney World. Providing continuing input to the creative and design group, incorporating feasibility, project management, and business planning, he collaborated with Marty to integrate the Disney attractions from the World’s Fair
Before long he was heading up the Walt Disney World Project Control Office. He and his team provided the project management and scheduling for all design, construction and manufacturing activities of this whole new “vacation kingdom” concept. Frank ensured the thousands of components for the successful opening of Walt Disney World were in place on the opening day he had recommended: October 1, 1971. During this same period (1965 to 1971.) he was also involved in every aspect of the development and operation of the “Disney theme show.”
But it wasn’t all plain sailing. “Right after we opened Walt Disney World,” says Frank, “there was an energy crisis. Gasoline was in short supply and we had just opened a major project that relied on 80% of the visitors driving from the upper Midwest, New York and New England to Orlando. Prices went through the roof, there were shortages, it was a major problem and people were concerned, but it was short lived, and we survived it.”
Putting Disney on the map overseas
Following Walt Disney World’s successful launch, Frank continued to direct Imagineering’s research and planning. This encompassed a major capital expansion programme of “several hundred million dollars” to meet the overwhelming public demand in Florida, adding thirteen major new attractions, a new hotel, a campground, restaurants and more. He also continued work on the Mineral King Ski Resort and its successor, Independence Lake. He planned development for Golden Oak Ranch, conducted in-depth research for Epcot Center, and directed the business analysis for international theme park expansion in Japan and Europe. This resulted in Frank becoming the executive project manager for both Epcot Center and Tokyo Disneyland.
Eventually Frank volunteered to lead the overall developmental process for Tokyo Disneyland. As the project’s vice president, he led its creation along a complex and
challenging path, from feasibility to concept development to negotiations with Disney’s partner, the Oriental Land Company, to the Park’s design, construction and successful opening.
“The interesting thing is when we first went to Japan and presented the initial analysis that we had undertaken at Disney, the first question I got from the chairman of Mitsui Real Estate, the leader of the OLC consortium was, “how did the oil shock impact Walt Disney World”? So that just shows you how important that aspect was. I was able to explain to him that the problem was not so much the price of oil, or gas, the problem was the assurance that you could get it and I that once the fact that they could get the gasoline was filled – it took a little while for the price to be adjusted – the problem started to dissipate.”
Upon the opening of Tokyo Disneyland, Frank became the Walt Disney Company’s first corporate vice president of planning at the Burbank headquarters, helping to organise and coordinating the company’s future goals and objectives, resulting in the company’s first Annual Corporate Plan.
As part of this role, Frank was asked to recommend a location for a Disney theme park in Europe. Today we can hardly imagine Paris without it. “Disneyland Paris began with the Tokyo project and led to the internationalisation of the of the Disney theme park brand as well as a broader expansion of major theme parks overseas. That’s probably what I’m most proud of,” he says.
I ask Frank why he chose Paris over other European cities. “When we finished work in Japan my wife and I, who is from Southampton in the UK, decided we needed to take a vacation. She said, “let’s go to Europe”, so we took a tour package starting in London. When we got to Paris, I noticed all these tour buses around the Champs-Elysee and Notre Dame and I said to one of the drivers, “why are there all these tourists here” and he said, “Spring always comes early to Paris”, explaining that the tourist season always started earlier there than anywhere else. I thought that was an interesting fact and it remained with me throughout our search for the European Disneyland location.”
“There had been a lot of interest in the South of France and Spain as prospective locations, the perception was that they would work better because of the warmer weather, but what I found from visiting these places was, in winter they are all shuttered up. I stopped by Benidorm and noticed it was full of retired British, which was not the market we were going for.
“So, we looked at different locations across Europe and Paris was chosen because of its tourism flow. In Western Europe, in the warmer months, the flow of traffic was to the South as everyone headed for the Mediterranean – we had a captive market.
“The French government was all for a Disney park being built there; I was very impressed with their system. I asked them to move the subway and they did it, they even moved the TVG station there. From a tourist and theme park perspective it was way on the mark,” says Frank.
This project was not its without obstacles too; this time it was the media. “When it opened it got a lot of press – the papers reported it as being empty. So, I went to see for myself. I observed people on the train and in the park; and I worked out that it would have 50,000 visitors that day. Then I stood in line and spoke to people waiting to go on an attraction, including a group of eight people from the UK. I asked them how they were enjoying it and they said, “we’re having a whale of a time, it’s the first time we have been out of the UK”, which was exactly what we wanted.
“After that, I walked into the parking lot to take a look and the reporter was right. It looked half empty; but then I realised – it was filled with 500 tour buses, which meant that 25,000 people had come to the park on tour buses alone. The park was full. I also noticed that the buses were from every country in Western Europe, so I thought OK this park is doing what it’s supposed to do.”
A few years later, when I was working for Universal my wife and I were sitting in a café in Versailles and because I’m of Polish heritage, I noticed Slovakian writing across the side of a tour bus. It was from the Czech Republic; after the iron curtain came up there were 180 million people keen to find out what was going on across the rest of Europe and they flocked to Paris and the park.”
A new challenge
When Frank left Disney in 1987, he joined the one of the world’s largest advertising agencies, Dentsu, as an executive vice president based in Los Angeles, advising their Japanese clients with development and expansion ideas, including the City of Osaka and their Harbor Authority, where he advised in the business development, planning and design for the world-renowned Osaka Aquarium or “Kaiyukan” with its Ring of Fire theme.
During this time, Universal Studios approached Frank to become the head of development for the construction of the Universal Orlando Resort in Florida, a role he turned down. He was approached again 9 months later, this time as president of international business development and he took it.
During his 17-year tenure Frank identified, negotiated and planned Universal Studios Japan in Osaka, Universal’s first studio theme park outside of the United States. Frank also spearheaded the acquisition of Universal Mediterranea near Barcelona, Spain; managed Universal’s expansion into China with the Universal Studio Experience Beijing and directed the site selection and negotiations for Universal parks in Shanghai and Beijing. Frank also established plans for Universal projects in Paris, Singapore and Malaysia.
Frank continues to play a vital role worldwide through his strategic consultancy, Stanek Global Advisors LLC. “I’m an old guy but fortunately I’ve been blessed with good health”, he says. “I continue to consult on a piecemeal basis because it keeps me active, it keeps me in tune with the industry and it keeps me young.”
Dealing with the pandemic
Directly addressing the current health crisis and its impact on the global attractions industry, Frank is very clear that the industry should ‘keep calm and carry on’. “Now is not the time to regress or “pull-back” from moving forward with projects that are tourism, entertainment or visitor related,” he says. In fact, this is an ideal time to continue the development of well thought out projects, having attractive, market appealing concepts, sound business plans and execution strategy.” This opinion comes from his experience in the industry which has seen numerous disruptive occurrences that had an emotional, if not short term financial, impact on our industry from economic downturns, short term recessions, industrial job losses, the oil shocks and gasoline shortages mentioned earlier, as well as health related issues impacting the marketplace. “In every case these actions had an economic impact, in varying degrees, upon our industry and in every case the market returned to normal, and in most cases, higher growth within a short period of six to twenty-four months of time,” he says.
“During these disruptive occurrences, many projects were deferred, abandoned or just frozen in a mode of inaction as a result of fear, uncertainty, the unknown and lack of confidence,” he says. “However, some projects continued on the development path moving the project ahead to the opening date as had been initially determined when the project was initiated. Through this continuation of development activity, it became clear that there were certain positive advantages to keep “moving forward”, so to speak when all seemed to be collapsing around us.”
Frank continues: “This situation, I understand clearly is very different to a shortage of cash in the financial crisis, but the point is not to throw your hands up. If you believe it was the right project when you started it, it’s the right project now and you have to continue that momentum.”
Is it feasible to keep momentum during lockdown, I ask? “Granted, you might have to stop certain aspects of it but from a strategic point of view, you have to maintain a continuance at least of the planning process. If you are in the middle of construction, very few people are going to abandon an investment they have already started just because it’s stopped, they are just going to face a delay. There should be a core group of people left to think through scenarios of how you pick up the lost time – just quitting is not the answer. Concept design work should be able to go on as people can work remotely and are still able continue to exchange concept drawings, plans and ideas.”
Dealing with the fall-out
There is no doubt that there will be huge financial losses for parks and while some of the bigger operators may be able to weather the storm, I’m keen to understand how it might affect the smaller, regional parks and other location based-entertainment which is often family owned and run. “Some of the weaker companies may have leveraged too much, they may have a problem because they are not getting cash in. Bigger companies are going to survive because there will be a pent-up demand that’s going to be building and so when things return to normalcy, they will come roaring back, whether that’s fast enough for some of the smaller parks …… some may suffer and perhaps be bought out. I’m sure there may be some re-organisation and maybe some consolidation; I think it’s possible to say that at this point. I realise that getting from here to there is an unknown and that’s the problem.”
When times are tough, one of the first thing businesses cut is their marketing budget, but “now is not the time to stop marketing,” says Frank. “Marketing is the thing that investors from outside of this industry understand the least,” he says, adding that building a new park is much more complicated than your average real estate project. “You are not building a municipality you have to have an aggressive marketing programme out in front of everything you are building. We have a philosophy and that is that you have to start marketing a year prior to the opening of your park or attraction.”
Parks that are temporarily closed as a result of the pandemic should also look to keep guests engaged by talking about what’s coming up. “It’s important to do whatever you can to stay in contact with your client base, your customer base, your visitor base. Maybe you can bring them short videos of what the park has in store for them when this is all over, to show them that once this crisis ends, this is what’s going to be waiting for them – I think that’s very important.”
“Every project has it’s challenges,” says Frank, “when I was younger, I used to sail and when sailing toward an destination you used ‘triangulation’ to plot your course using not one point of reference but multiple points (usually three) to reach your destination. Thus, I applied the same process to business methodology and negotiations if one direction was not providing the answer, try a different point of approach. That’s always been my strategy.
“I think it’s very important to have a positive attitude even in the difficult circumstances. In conclusion, I repeat, that in these uncertain times those who move forward with their projects will gain the initiative over those who wait and be positioned to capture more than their market share when the cycle of uncertainty ends and tourism and visitor growth returns.”
Supplemental content provided by: Norm Elder,
Norman J.T. Elder and Associates
The “advantages” for moving forward are outlined below by Frank in an effort to show that now is the time to act with confidence.
The value of Entertainment:
• In times of stress the public needs a relief mechanism and entertainment activity has always been a leader in providing stress relief.
• Good entertainment concepts will often have a higher demand during periods uncertainty.
• In the case of financial turmoil, consumers may put off spending on high priced items such as a new automobile or a second home but will still seek out entertainment as a lower cost option during such times.
The positive realities of uncertain times:
• The social and economic activities of life run in cycles. The current health and financial uncertainty will run through its cycle and in most cases it will be of short duration but certainly the situation will improve, financial markets will return to positive growth, health issues will be managed and solutions found and tourism and attraction visitation will return to normal dynamics. Since the development cycle for a new project in itself is a longer term, two to ten years, stopping development in uncertain times creates an unforced delay in the project realization.
• By maintaining your efforts on well-founded projects, you will be utilising this period of slower activity to continue to bring the project to fruition which in most cases will be completed in time to capture the next wave of growth, both market and financial, to sustain your project after opening.
• In periods of uncertainty, strategic advantages can accrue to those who keep moving the project forward. Competitors less confident, will slow down or stop their projects giving you a chance to overtake and lead. Competition for resources may slow down allowing you to achieve better pricing on project needs for construction and equipment. Turmoil may cause disruption in the labour market which would allow you to recruit more experienced or high demand talent, executives and services as well as improve on time scheduled activities.
Frank is one of the executive advisors to The Producers Group working on strategic and business case consulting. “We have a network of advisors who we ‘cast’ in roles according to the needs of project – and I use the term cast because casting implies you choose the experience and perspective of the expert for the role – It’s a Disney term. What this essentially does is maximise the value for the client,” says CEO Bob Chambers.
Park World is teaming up with TPG to produce a webinar on strategic planning and development during the crisis. Bob and Frank will be joined on the panel by other TPG advisors, all high-level industry executives. Not to be missed, the date will be announced across our digital channels in the coming days. Visit www.parkworld-online to sign up for ourweekly newsletter and follow us on social media @ParkWorldMag.