As the Themed Entertainment Association (TEA) celebrates its 20th anniversary, Owen Ralph catches up with founder Monty Lunde and current president Rick Rothschild.
Representing the creators of compelling places and experiences, the TEA is an international, not-for-profit trade association that provides multiple education and networking opportunities, including the legendary TEA Mixers, SATE conference and Thea Awards. From theme parks and waterparks, to zoos, museums, casinos, restaurants and retail, the TEA’s almost 700 members work with them all. Although many of those members are theming companies, a wide range of skills and disciplines are represented including masterplanners, conceptual designers, audiovisual suppliers, special effects companies and major in-house creative departments like Walt Disney Imagineering and Universal Creative. Founding member Monty Lunde is principal of special effects supplier Technifex, while ex-Disney Imagineer and current TEA president Rick Rothschild represents Far Out! Creative Direction.
How did the association begin?
Monty Lunde (ML) – Prior to IAAPA in 1991, I wrote a letter to the owners of 30 or 40 companies in our industry, mainly in California because that’s where I knew; we were based in the Burbank area. I said I thought it would be wise to get together and form some sort of an association that represented the supplier side of the industry, kind of a counterpoint to IAAPA, which at the time represented the owners and operators. We had no representation, and many of us who were trying to run our own companies experienced the stress of trying to deal with the major corporations through very small companies. We arranged a meeting at Burbank airport, I think we had 30 companies attending, and we agreed to meet again after IAAPA to formalise things.
How much does the TEA owe to Disney?
ML – I think the real genesis of the association came from Disney. After they’d done EPCOT and after they’d finished Tokyo Disneyland, they pretty much let everyone go …except for Rick! The rest of us were thanked and politely shown the door, so there was this massive talent pool that really had no place to go.
Rick Rothschild (RR) – In fairness, before EPCOT and Tokyo, Disney Imagineering had a staff under 500, but it blew up to do these big projects. Without EPCOT, I think these fresh out of school, interested people would not even have ended up in the industry.
Was it difficult at first to convince smaller parks to use your services?
ML – Yeah, I would say the smaller parks were very self sufficient, they would kind of design things on their own, and the price of getting us in was generally higher than they were willing to pay. For speciality items maybe they would use us, but they were generally used to buying a rollercoaster off the shelf and knew what the ROI was on that.
How has the association expanded outside of California, and now internationally?
ML – Pretty quickly we picked up members on the East Coast in Orlando, people like ITEC. Disney did the exact same thing in Florida, said thank you very much and goodbye, so there were already people based out in Orlando.
RR – We now have a very strong membership in Europe, and will stage our next SATE conference there in 2012. A couple of years ago the Middle East was a hotbed of projects, but it cooled rather quickly! In Asia we have staged a number of initiatives in the last few years, and have probably been more successful in drawing new members from there than the Middle East.
How easy has it been to persuade rival firms to work together?
ML – I did the seating chart for the initial meeting back in ‘91 and I sat all of the competitors next to one another. That was very interesting for the first five minutes, but I made a point: we are all in this together. Get to know the person sitting to your left and right because they could be the one watching your back in future; they may compete with you in one area but complement you in another. The bottom line with the TEA is to get to know other people in the industry that you never would have gotten to know otherwise.
The collaborative approach to working fostered by the TEA is now commonplace across the industry, would you agree?
ML – We have a very unusual industry, and people looking from the outside in don’t get it. In most industries there is a hierarchy between contractors and suppliers. In our industry I might do a project and hire Rick to do work for us, then hire another company, but in that same week he could get an order and bring us, so the pecking order changes.
RR – We are a product rather than process-orientated industry. What does it take to do this specific job? If a job needs three or four particular skill sets, then we will put them together. And the way the world is going, you can assemble it anywhere.
As a result of this approach, most TEA member companies are quite small?
ML – Out of 682 companies, over 500 of our members are companies with five or less employees. Our industry is unique in that it doesn’t really foster massive growth among suppliers, there is an equilibrium that we all reach, and the companies that become stratospheric in size, they are usually gone within a year or two.
How much do other kinds of attractions integrate theme park techniques?
ML – They are all working with a common talent pool, which is TEA members. That was not always the case. Fifteen years ago museums were not really keen on the theme park industry, there were about science information and the delivery of information and the really poo poo-ed that attitude of entertaining. Now they have completely done a 180 and put in really great exhibits, and attendance clearly goes up. The other contingent we really had to break through was the architects, who saw themselves as the pinnacle of the food chain, but they too have embraced our talent pool and methodologies and many of them are actively looking to partner with creative companies and TEA members.
Are we still seeing the same old themes being exported from West to East?
RR – In Japan, certainly if we look at Disney, the Japanese came to the West and wanted the West. The Chinese and other parts of Asia want our creativity and expertise, but they don’t simply want the same design. It’s a different desire, and a different market. However, depending on its location and relevance to its audience, I do not think there is any theme that cannot be repeated.
What role do social media, ‘apps’ and other personal technology have to play in attractions?
RR – I would say there is a move towards using personal technology to encourage collective experiences. I think people both enjoy it, and it frees them away from just having themselves in the environment and actually engaging in an experience and enjoying that with friends and family. That to me is where the industry is using technology and providing experiences and venues that people can’t get at home.
ML – You can use current technology to effect what people are experiencing. For example, at Technifex we are using apps with our Water Maze. Someone can sit on their iPhone and manipulate the maze as their kids are playing in there. So if you can give people more control over the environment and the experience they are getting that makes it more interesting for them.
Is there a danger of over reliance on interactivity in attractions?
RR – Look at the old Disney A, B, C, D and E tickets; there were fewer E attractions and more As. This wasn’t just to make the operational aspects easier, it was to spread people around and encourage them to see the entire park. A meal that just gorges on just one food is a much less fulfilling than a meal that is an extraordinary mixture of flavours and textures, and it’s the same with attractions. So the answer to your question is that interactivity has become one more dot on the designer’s palette. It is not the panacea.
Which of the latest Thea Award winners have most impressed you?
ML – The Crane Dance at Resorts World Sentosa in Singapore is pretty amazing, and a lot of that is just sheer scale of it – industrial cranes that have been styled like birds, and they have this whole love affair. It’s just a very creative way of using hardware!
RR – I have to pick Disney Cruise Lines’ Animation Magic. A kid draws a character on a place mat and hands that mat to the waiter at the beginning of dinner. Then, before dinner, everyone’s drawings have been animated and become art in the show. That’s just interactivity at a level you are not going to see in many other places.
How do you nurture the next generation of attraction designers?
ML – Mentoring is the cornerstone of the TEA 20th anniversary. We really want to engage the next generation to come into our industry because we have all quietly aged. If you look the owners of most major companies, we have all done 25, 30-plus years in the industry, and we have all got pretty good at what we do. That means the bar to entry is pretty high, so you are not getting a lot of what I would call garage operations coming in. We really want to engage students and young professionals not just to be good at their craft, but hopefully to be in entrepreneurial mode and start their own companies like we did.
Pictured below: Rick Rothschild (left) and Monty Lunde