Sunday, June 23, 2024

Content and Context

VOA takes storytelling expertise to Asia

by Jonathan F. Douglas, AIA, Principal-in-Charge, VOA Associates Inc.

[dropcap color=”#888″ type=”square”]T[/dropcap]o create compelling stories that will attract visitors to cultural tourism sites within China, VOA’s approach is to combine interpretation, placemaking, and design. By focusing on sustainable tourism, we consciously preserve the natural and cultural resources of each project’s location. We look for opportunities for local residents to benefit economically through active participation, added value to the region, and ancillary activities. Our work increasingly addresses the idea that what may have been considered appropriate only for a museum is in fact being re-invented into themed entertainment or vice versa. Combining the experience of learning and being entertained aligns with shifting visitor expectations about how they are willing to invest their time.

VOA is currently designing a new gateway destination at Chadao, a village located close to the Badaling section of the Great Wall of China. Chadao was once a fortified defense built prior to the Great Wall and in the surrounding area there are remnants of other earlier walls still visible along the hillsides. The intent of the project is to combine education and entertainment with seamless transportation to the Great Wall, making this the first choice for any visitor to begin their trip. As a historically significant section of the Great Wall, an expected 8-10 million visitors are expected to visit the new gateway destination annually.

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We knew from previous experience that simply educating visitors about the Great Wall would not be enough, and that our interpretive focus needed to be on how Chadao Village fits into the geography, history, and environment of the area. This section of the Great Wall bridges an important valley, which was the ancient trade route from the north to the south. We recognized that in this location, one could understand how a series of fortified defenses evolved over time and ultimately culminated in the construction of the Great Wall of China. We felt that visitors would be interested in not only the why, but how the lives of soldiers and villagers intertwined and evolved over time in both peace and war.

Traditional Chinese villages are dense and organized along narrow streets and alleys. The traditional home looks inward and is organized around a central courtyard. Designing a new destination with an authentic look and feel of life within a Village during the 13th century Ming dynasty is challenging because traditional village planning does not have nearly the capacity to accommodate the expected number of visitors. The design preserves historically significant buildings and removes others to develop new open space for entertainment and visitor circulation. The facades are grouped around these with ancient Ming Dynasty themed facades. In essence, we invite visitors to our house, a village experience, offering the opportunity to enjoy local hospitality.

As the design progresses, we continue to refine the interpretive stories into brand elements to help make them stand apart. The selection of a character driven approach supports the visitors understanding of life within a fortified defense, exposing the visitor with increasingly deeper levels of content ranging from the character of General Qi to an understanding of how Chadao Village fit within a larger context of Chinese politics and history.


We typically facilitate workshops as a process to effectively start a project and provide a structured exchange of ideas about the desired visitor experience. Through our work session approach, we create a framework to help establish the best decision based on their vision and mission. We found that by helping our clients create a stronger vision for their business, we were better able to understand what would make each of their projects successful. For instance, a key brand element for a client is that every guest is greeted. We were able to define this as both gateway and a service level, which we developed further into planning and operational aspects of the project.

We continue to explore ways to improve the visitor experience by combining interpretive education with entertainment. Focusing on stories helps us connect visitors who seek to explore and learn more about culture, history, and the natural environment with each destination. We use interpretation as a means to educate the visitor about the value of these resources and the significant importance of preserving these resources for future generations to experience and enjoy. By combining these elements in an authentic and entertaining experience, we are able to deliver on the brand promise established by the vision and mission of our clients.

VOA Associates Inc. is an international planning, architecture, interiors, and landscape architecture services company focusing on creating value for our clients through our commitment to sustainable design, extraordinary client experiences, and focusing on outstanding guest experiences through their connection to the natural environment. This spirit is integral to our mission, our culture, and our clients that we work with and has been proven successful on projects throughout the world. For more information, visit

Joe Kleiman
Joe Kleiman
Raised in San Diego on theme parks, zoos, and IMAX films, InPark's Senior Correspondent Joe Kleiman would expand his childhood loves into two decades as a projectionist and theater director within the giant screen industry. In addition to his work in commercial and museum operations, Joe has volunteered his time to animal husbandry at leading facilities in California and Texas and has played a leading management role for a number of performing arts companies. Joe previously served as News Editor and has remained a contributing author to InPark Magazine since 2011. HIs writing has also appeared in Sound & Communications, LF Examiner, Jim Hill Media, The Planetarian, Behind the Thrills, and MiceChat His blog, takes an unconventional look at the attractions industry. Follow on twitter @ThemesRenewed Joe lives in Sacramento, California with his wife, dog, and a ghost.
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