Thursday, September 21, 2023

Beyond confetti: Industry recovery is palpable at IAAPA Expo

The air filled with a glittering profusion as IAAPA Expo 2022, the largest annual trade show for the global attractions industry, concluded its opening ceremony and attendees, each provided with a confetti cannon, celebrated the moment. It felt symbolic of the bottled-up enthusiasm and optimism of a rebounding industry.

The ceremony also marked notable leadership transitions for the association. Ripley Entertainment’s Jim Pattison, Jr. stepped into the role of IAAPA Chair of the Board, with Ken Whiting assuming the Immediate Past Chair spot. IAAPA CEO and President Hal McEvoy introduced Jakob Wahl, IAAPA Senior Vice President and COO, who will take over for McEvoy on April 1, 2023.

Positive numbers

By the numbers, IAAPA Expo 2022, which ran Nov. 15-18 in Orlando, signaled a continued recovery of the attractions industry internationally and a readiness to resume business. The 36,882 registered attendees mark a significant improvement from 2021’s number (28,229). It even came close to pre-pandemic 2019 numbers (42,600). The trade show covered 518,000 square feet of exhibit space, up by more than one-third from the previous year. This growth was matched by a healthy collection of major industry announcements, including coaster unveilings for multiple SeaWorld parks, Dollywood, Cedar Point and others.

The trade show floor was filled with conversation, happy reunions and the occasional happy hour mixer. On Nov. 15, people packed the booth of the Themed Entertainment Association (TEA) for the annual announcement of the new slate of Thea Awards recipients, announced by TEA International Board President Chuck Fawcett (Medici XD). Highlights included Universal Studios Beijing’s three awards and Europa-Park’s Roland Mack as the recipient of the Buzz Price Thea Award celebrating lifetime achievement. This year was Fawcett’s final one as TEA President; Melissa Ruminot (Nassal) stepped into the role during the TEA annual member meeting two days later.

Beyond boundaries

IAAPA Expo 2022 also included adjacent experiences. In addition to evening events like Stantec’s party at Topgolf, THG’s soiree at The Hyatt’s Orchid Room, TEA’s mixer at Discovery Cove and IAAPA Celebrates at Universal’s Islands of Adventure, product demos and events took place in a variety of locations around Orlando.

This year, the Attractions Technology Lab (ATL) — with founding collaborators Alcorn McBride, Christie, Oceaneering, Weigl and Garner Holt Productions — demonstrated dark ride experiences, hosted at the Oceaneering warehouse. Designed to showcase their combined capabilities, the ATL also offered free tech trainings and workshops for industry professionals.

The Themed Experience & Attractions Academic Society (TEAAS) hosted its fifth annual symposium, based on emerging ideas in narrative, interactivity and location-based entertainment. This year’s crowd marked the largest ever for the annual TEAAS event with the program including two keynotes, 10 oral presentations and eight poster presentations. Those in attendance included faculty, students and industry professionals.

Len Testa served as the morning keynote speaker for TEAAS. Testa, a computer scientist, transformed his graduate thesis into, which optimizes visits to popular theme parks through historical and real-time data. His talk underscored the positive synergies between the industry and academia. The symposium continues to widen its conversation across a variety of disciplines and contribute to productive conversations encompassing hospitality, ride engineering and beyond.

Lessons learned

The IAAPA Expo experience also extends to a full conference program. A series of panels, educational programming and EDUSessions provided expert-led conversations on the future of guest experiences and how more quality and detailed attractions can capture guests’ attention.

In “Immersive Theater in Location-Based Entertainment: The Creative Whys and the Operational Hows,” designers and producers Adam Bezark and Lacy Campbell of The Bezark Company, Eric Hoff from Thinkwell Group, Elysia Segal of the Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum and Ameenah Kaplan of Star Wars: Galactic Starcruiser (a newly announced TEA Thea Award recipient) discussed successful methods of immersive storytelling and how producers can continue forward. As digital interfaces become popular and more complex, the panel acknowledged that human interactions still comprise the most easily reprogrammable and diverse method of interaction and engagement. While labor is a central element of the form, the scalability of experiences and methods means that leaner enterprises, such as non-profit centers, can implement the same storytelling methods in a different way.

At “The Future of Entertainment & Leisure in the Middle East, UAE and Abu Dhabi,” Miral Group CEO Mohamed Abdalla Al Zaabi began by discussing the current and future states of leisure entertainment in the United Arab Emirates, specifically Abu Dhabi. Following this introduction, a panel including Julien Kauffmann (CEO, Miral Experiences), Jess Priore (VP, Warner Bros. Discovery Themed Entertainment), and John Linn (VP Global Theme Park Development, SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment) shared their experiences working with Miral in bringing world-famous brands to the region. Interlaced throughout the conversation was an excitement for the increasing quality and scale in which themed entertainment experiences are being embraced by both operators and visitors.

Accessibility improvements were also highlighted. Dr. Kathryn Woodcock’s EDUTalk “What’s Your IDEA? Inclusion, Diversity, Equity & Accessibility Planning,” stressed that the creation of more diverse and equitable workplaces and experiences does not simply entail the recruitment of “tokenized” persons. She shared that businesses would be better off by adopting insights from a more diverse workforce, clientele who see themselves in their workforce, and providing a more flexible working atmosphere that allows all to succeed and flourish.

IAAPA Expo returns to the Orange County Convention Center in Orlando November 13-17, 2023. IAAPA Expo Asia takes place in Singapore June 13-16, 2023. IAAPA Expo Europe heads to Vienna September 25-28, 2023.

Jordan Zauha
Jordan Zauha
Jordan Zauha is a freelance writer and narrative designer in the themed entertainment industry. As a member of the inaugural cohort of the Theatre MFA - Themed Experience program at the University of Central Florida, Jordan is a part of a new generation of themed experience creators fortunate enough to receive formal education in this art form that has delighted guests from around the world for the past 70 years. Jordan is a member of the Themed Entertainment Association (TEA) through their NextGen program. He is also a student member of the Themed Experience & Attractions Academic Society (TEAAS) which bridges the attractions industry with the academic community to build upon the knowledge of both fields.

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