Thursday, February 22, 2024

Bay Laurel Advisors: LBEs and branding

It’s a jungle out there, and you need a guide

By Gene Jeffers

NOTE: Images, with the exception of Robocop The Ride, are of BLA client projects.

Across the globe, people are emerging from lockdowns and isolation and turning to the out-of-home experiences that Location-Based Entertainment (LBE) facilities offer. Industry analysts predict 12%-34% annual growth for the LBE market sector over the next five years.* But simply jumping into this market is risky business. Consumers, more sophisticated than ever, are demanding higher quality and deeper meaning in their entertainment choices – and making this abundantly clear in where they go (and where they don’t) and how they spend their money. Branded LBE experiences, when done well, offer a competitive edge to consumer brands and physical venues that can empower them to stand up to in-home entertainment as well as the brick-and-mortar facility across the street.

What is the Brand’s story?

One of the most powerful tools when competing for consumer time and attention is story. “Engaging consumers within a brand’s story is where the magic can happen,” says George Wade, Founder of Bay Laurel Advisors (BLA), a full-service consulting firm that helps clients create successful branded installations. “Story captures us, connects us to each other. Immersing people in a brand’s story can create opportunities for memorable moments. That is the power of branded locations.”

George Wade

For more than a decade, Bay Laurel Advisors has been focused on building successful story-based branding partnerships. Wade’s path in this industry started early with studies at the UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television, followed by years at WED Enterprises (the forerunner of Walt Disney Imagineering) working on the development of EPCOT Center and Tokyo Disneyland, and then Landmark Entertainment on high-profile projects such as the Forum Shops at Caesars Palace and Universal Studios parks in Hollywood and Florida. He then joined Iwerks Entertainment, which was selling simulation theater systems. “There was too much emphasis on hardware, and not enough on selling the sizzle, the experience,” he recalls. Wade suggested uniting an action movie with a simulator experience. “Thirty years ago, that was a novel concept.” Robocop The Ride was the result, a then-revolutionary combination of simulator technology and feature film IP. It launched Iwerks on an entirely new trajectory and awakened an entire industry to the power of branded attractions.

Iwerks Entertainment’s “Robocop: the Ride” (1993). “Iwerks senior management recognized that our theme park clients desired attractions that would drive attendance. We believed that one key method to achieve this goal was to provide them with ridefilms in which the marketing was built-in. Robocop: The Ride was a very clean marketing message to the consumer!” – George Wade. Image: ISEA.

MGM Studios was Wade’s next stop, where, as Senior Vice President for Location Based Entertainment, he developed licensing agreements and ways to structure business deals utilizing the vast MGM Studios film library as well as the iconic MGM Studios logo. “Every stage of my career – from theater school to Disney to Iwerks to MGM – every step taught lessons and opened my eyes to what was possible by fusing brand, entertainment and environment.”

Branded facilities today operate as standalone attractions or function as magnets for developers, hospitality, or retail malls, helping to draw consumers to the primary business. The IP stories people consume at home are familiar and trusted, they feed preferences and direct shopping and activity habits. “By tapping into the emotional connections that consumers have with brands, powerful synergies can be harnessed,” says Wade. “But only when done with a strategic focus in mind. Attempting to get into this market without understanding the full range of issues, you will miss opportunities, you will handicap your chances for success.”

It’s a jungle out there…

While many major brands, including top theme park operators, have spent years developing brand licensing programs, brands new to the market – or with existing but unstructured programs – are struggling in this competitive and chaotic environment. In the worldwide rush to create more branded attractions, rules and processes are being invented on the fly as licensors and licensees struggle to work through unfamiliar territory. Numerous traps and pitfalls await both parties.

It’s a jungle and you do need a guide, emphasizes Wade – and his very experienced team. He explained that first steps include determining what a brand’s LBE program should focus on, what outcomes are sought, and whether those results are appropriate or even possible. “Bay Laurel Advisors approaches projects with a holistic view,” says Wade. “Our process is very practical, focusing on core business elements required for long term success.”

Bay Laurel Advisors was founded in 2009 as attraction developers/operators were beginning, on a large scale, to see the value of major entertainment brands. Brands, correspondingly, were beginning to recognize the value of and actively seek opportunities in LBE. Over its 13+ year history, Bay Laurel Advisors has worked with both entertainment brand licensors and project developers who desired to create rich guest experiences and leverage brands to build strong emotional connections with consumers. “Many attractions operators were interested in how they could utilize entertainment brands but did not understand the inherent creative and business challenges. BLA became the connective tissue between licensor and licensee to build these meaningful partnerships.”

Topgolf hitting bays are outfitted with technology to allow golfers to use their golf swing to play a game of Angry Birds. “While the Angry Birds brand has a wide global appeal, we’re always looking for ways to provide new experiences for our existing fans, as well as engage those who may not have interacted with our brand in the past.” – Rovio Chief Marketing Officer Ville Heijari. Image courtesy Topgolf and Rovio.

For entertainment clients, the company first focuses on the strategic goals of the brand, and how the brand is best suited to fit within the LBE world. BLA then builds marketing strategies and the tactical sales plan for the client. In some cases, BLA will take on the sales function; in others it remains in an advisory capacity. Another key facet is in the negotiation of license agreements. “Licensing into LBE requires very thoughtful and detailed agreements. In most cases agreements are for terms of anywhere from five to 10 years. It is important that the agreement address a wide range of issues that can arise during a long-term relationship. Part of our initiative is to help both licensor and licensee understand these issues and find equitable solutions,” says Wade.

A final, critical element is the execution process. BLA works in close coordination with the client to facilitate design and production to achieve a successful project.

Team approach

To better meet the growing demand and increasing complexity of the market, and to support the increasing number of entertainment brands who are interested in expansion in Location Based Entertainment, BLA built a team of advisors. “Throughout my career I have been fortunate to work with a wide variety of wonderfully talented design and project management professionals. As our business grew, it was important to assemble teams of experts who would assist our clients in creating memorable attractions. Every advisor has in-depth experience with creating amazing, story-based facilities,” says Wade. “Each brings a unique set of skills as well as vast industry connections to better meet the challenges facing our clients.”

Advisor John Lindsay emphasizes how important it is to address those challenges. “Creating successful branded attractions with firms new to this very dynamic industry requires a disciplined approach. Dialing in the details and specifics for each individual deal requires experience.” Several years ago Lindsay was awarded the distinction of TEA Master, recognizing his achievements over four decades in the discipline of Project Management. Lindsay’s experience includes theme parks, world expos, themed retail stores and entertainment centers, including numerous projects for the Walt Disney Company. He notes that today’s brand-based projects are more trend-oriented, faster moving and for shorter terms than the more mature projects being built with major theme park brands. “If you are new to this rapidly evolving world, then you need Bay Laurel Advisors to help guide you through the steps.”

The entire BLA team understands the need to introduce clients to the world of LBE and its unique characteristics. “We help clients new to the LBE market gain an understanding of all the factors at work,” says BLA advisor Chaz McEwan, who also has 40+ years’ experience in themed entertainment, theatrical, project and organizational development working with such companies as Walt Disney Imagineering, Universal Creative and others. “The learning curve for a licensor or licensee is incredibly steep. It is not easy to cut through the confusion and chaos, avoid mistakes and false starts, ensure that projects stay on time and budget. You need a guide, a guru. Bay Laurel Advisors is that guru.”

It is about relationships

Wade is expanding the firm on a foundation built through successful, long-term relationships with a number of popular brands: Hasbro, Microsoft’s Halo franchise, Cartoon Network, Angry Birds, Peanuts and Crayola, just to mention a few. All turned to Bay Laurel Advisors for guidance, direction, project management and more.

“While we can assist with singular projects, one of the company’s strengths is to nurture enduring relationships. That’s where a client can gain the most benefit working with our team. When we start to work with a client, we begin with outlining the market, kind of an LBE 101,” says BLA advisor Tina Skees, who brings to the table more than 30 years’ experience in creative production, brand management and project development with such major partners as Herschend Family Entertainment, Crayola, Nickelodeon, Paramount Pictures and others. “We explore the client’s needs and business objectives and then begin to focus on opportunities that would be right for them.”

Exterior feature – Crayola Experience in Orlando. “One of the things I do to stay in tune with the vision and the client culture is to review the ‘Crayola Inspire’ video, a sort of corporate manifesto that the company created several years ago in the process of an introspective analysis about who Crayola was in the marketplace. I have seen it about 200 times in the past four years and it always gives me inspiration.” – George Wade. Image courtesy Crayola.

Of late, Skees has been working intensely with the Hershey Licensing Company. “They are very particular and protective of their brands, something we respect and take into consideration when exploring potential partnerships,” she says. BLA’s assistance to this client has helped them consider possible options to expand beyond their edible foods and general merchandising efforts by licensing Hershey-branded attractions.

“George, Tina and the BLA team have tremendous experience within the brand attractions sphere,” says Ernie Savo, President of the Hershey Licensing Company. “They helped us develop a strategic approach to the market, then helped us make connections within the industry, introduced us to who is out there doing great work.”

What story is being told? And why?

Everything begins with developing that strategic approach, with identifying the proper value proposition for installations and licenses. “What are the licensor and licensee seeking? Foot traffic? Direct dollars? Marketing impact?” Lindsay asks. “What kind of place needs to be created that will attract people and reinforce the brand’s overall story? How does this one attraction fit with the brand’s other facilities?”

Matchmakers for the LBE industry, BLA focuses on the value proposition for both licensor and licensee. “Once a pairing is established, a key role for us is finding the middle ground between the parties, that sweet spot where each benefits according to their needs,” says Skees. Local, regional and national differences and expectations can all come into play, requiring a careful and diplomatic balancing of the negotiations leading to a final license agreement.

That intermediary role provides enormous benefit for the client. “Working with licensees, Tina continues to help us understand how to frame things for the various partners,” says Savo. “What are their needs, what is required to keep everything moving in a seamless fashion. When it works for both parties, that is when it succeeds.”

“A critical focus must always be ‘Value Creation,’ for the brand, for the developer and most importantly for the guest!” says Wade.

Bringing the story to life

Beyond the work of identifying the brand’s story and their goals, strategies and partners, beyond negotiating the license, the consultancy is adept at finding and engaging the talent and companies who understand how to tap into the deep feelings people have for a specific brand. BLA advisors are targeted conduits to these specialties. “One of the most valuable assets we offer is our pipeline to these critical creative industries,” says Lindsay. “With so many years of experience developing story-based attractions, our team is perfectly situated to make introductions to all the key players: influencers, operators, developers, design and production companies.”

Cartoon Network Hotel. When Erik Resnick, SVP – Business Development and Commercial Strategy for Cartoon Network, Boomerang and Adult Swim, began to research the Location Based Entertainment marketplace to identify where Cartoon Network could best bring value to potential partners, his first step was to bring in industry veteran George Wade of Bay Laurel Advisors to help him navigate this new space. Image courtesy Cartoon Network

From initial concept design right through opening day, BLA services also include project management. McEwan, for example, served as project director during creative development and other advisors oversaw the installation for all five Crayola Experiences. BLA often serves as the key connection between the licensees and the brand. “Project management is a collaborative art form,” he says. “You need to create a shared understanding of how to approach the build. You need to generate emotional buy-in to the project.”

Protecting the brand

But what about after opening day? How can brands, especially those with a large number of licensed facilities, ensure their IP is being cared for properly? “Licensors need a dedicated focus to ensure the continued quality of every installation if they are going to protect their brand,” says McEwan. “Is the licensee maintaining the venue? So much can change after the initial opening that might reflect badly on the brand. Bay Laurel has a solution to that challenge as well.”

One client is already relying on Bay Laurel’s new Quality Assurance program to monitor conditions in their many branded LBEs worldwide. The process began before opening day by building a complete photographic and detail inventory of each project. “A Bay Laurel advisor then periodically visits each project over the duration of the license and compares the initial images and inventory to current conditions,” says McEwan. “Does the paint look right? Are branded elements being well maintained? Does the project look as good, or hopefully even better, as it did on opening day? A single worn-out, tattered installation can do major damage to a brand’s image. Fans and parents can be put off, sometimes permanently.”

Monopoly Lifesized. “We surround ourselves with the right consultants, such as, in the LBE space….George Wade of Bay Laurel Advisors. We make sure we understand the nuances of what a developer partner needs.” – Matt Proulx, Vice President, Location Based Entertainment, Hasbro. Image courtesy Hasbro.

Once alerted to an issue, the client can quickly address the problem in collaboration with the licensee, a win-win proposition. Having spent years as a leader of Walt Disney Imagineering’s Show Quality Standards program, McEwan knew what was needed to design Bay Laurel’s own QA program. The fieldwork for the program is handled by BLA advisor Michael Sinks. “This work takes professional eyes that have dealt with themed and branded environments,” McEwan notes. “Michael has decades of experience with story-based installations and is perfectly suited for handling our QA inspections on behalf of our clients.”

A specific skillset

Bay Laurel Advisors boasts the people, the projects and a proven track record of helping brands successfully move into the LBE market. “Each of us has decades of experience in the school of hard knocks,” says Lindsay. “We are all geared to listening, to asking questions, to ferreting out issues that may be critical to realizing a successful project.”

The BLA process has been refined and honed, tested in the real world. The process matches licensor and licensee objectives. It requires careful thought, intense planning, and hours of listening coupled with extensive knowledge and expertise about the LBE market and its players. It is a complex process that requires highly specific experience and skillsets. “Every successful IP licensed attraction revolves around how well guests are immersed and integrated into the brand’s story, around how many memorable moments are made,” says Wade. “Bay Laurel Advisors are ready to help tell any brand’s story and to assist attraction developers who seek to tell compelling stories!”

For more information or to arrange a meeting, contact George Wade at [email protected].

George Wade will be speaking on March 8, 2023 (hosting the “Brand Experience” breakfast roundtable at 7 am and as a panelist during the session “Creating Brand Champions in Retail Spaces to Drive Traffic & Revenue” at 10 am) at the Entertainment Experience Evolution (EEE) conference in Los Angeles.

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Gene Jeffers
Gene Jeffers
Gene Jeffers, former (2001-2013) TEA Executive Director, is currently serving as a Board member for the Greater San Gabriel Pomona Valleys American Red Cross and serves on the Board of the Historical Novel Society. He continues to write in a variety of genres. Based in Pasadena, Gene and his wife Carol (also a writer) are looking forward to traveling again and spending more post-COVID time with their two daughters, son-in-law and three grandchildren.

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