Thursday, September 21, 2023

PGAV Destinations: Designing destinations, cultivating leaders

PGAV Destinations’ new generation of leaders harness their passion and unique perspectives to respond to the changing landscape of the industry

by Gene Jeffers

Designers and master planners of extraordinary attractions, for 55 years PGAV Destinations has successfully helped operators and developers of theme parks, zoos, museums, aquariums, science centers and leisure destinations realize their visions and deliver great guest experiences. Among a long and distinguished list of global clientele, PGAV Destinations’ St. Louis design studio has helped The Smithsonian, Chimelong Group, National Geographic, SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment, PortAventura, Bass Pro Shops, Kennedy Space Center, the Georgia Aquarium and many others anticipate and respond to visitor demands.

To survive, grow and react to changing consumer demand over 55 years, a company must evolve and cultivate fresh perspectives and directions. To further expand its ability to serve the industry, PGAV Destinations recently opened a studio in Orlando. The expansion will enable the firm to realize new growth opportunities and enhance its ability to serve major theme park clients based in the area, with a group of innovative and dedicated leaders at the helm.

Leadership is a key component of remaining fresh and competitive. Ingrained in PGAV Destinations’ company culture is the practice of engaging new talent from diverse sources, and cultivating that talent to grow within the company, fostering a unique blend of passionate and engaged artists¸ architects, storytellers, business strategists, designers, interpreters, and planners.

We spoke to eight of PGAV Destinations’ emerging generation of leaders; each has a passion for the work, an ability to empathize with the clients and their guests, and a deft touch managing and motivating the teams they lead. They are on the front lines deploying new ideas, employing cutting-edge technologies, and navigating multicultural environments around the globe.

Finding the heart of the story

“I love getting a team together to generate ideas and bring our client’s vision to life,” says Amanda Yates, Director of Brand Experience. “It’s incredible when a project opens, and guests and clients can finally experience it in person.” Amanda has been with the company for 11 years and grasps the impact such projects can have.

“Experiences can change lives,” she says, citing Space Shuttle Atlantis at Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex as an example. “There’s this spaceship, this astounding human achievement. Right there. Right in front of you. The entire attraction encourages guests to imagine themselves in it, to imagine what it would be like to travel to space. Experiences like that inspire.”

Space Shuttle Atlantis, Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex, Merritt Island, FL

When it comes to branded experiences, distinguishing the brand’s story and creating ways to engage guests in its power is crucial to every project. “I love working with brand teams, exploring their messages, defining their objectives,” says Amanda. “We spend a lot of time mining their vision. We dig until we find what truly matters. We build experiences around those meaningful connections, so guests can see themselves in the brand and feel a deep connection to it.”

“I’m an architect by training, but I’m also a lifelong theme park fan,” says Josh Rodriguez, a Project Architect with PGAV Destinations for 19 years. Growing up, his family would travel every year from Puerto Rico to Walt Disney World. “With my work, I give guests a canvas on which to paint their own world, write their own story.”

Josh knows the value that research and data can provide in writing that story, and makes the most of formal data including that of PGAV Destinations’ own research, as well as online fan sites and message boards. “There is a wealth of information available about guests, and we make use of it all,” he explains.

“Learning what visitors like and don’t like is incredibly valuable. Spotting a trend or identifying a problem can help with the design of an attraction or offer ways to improve existing facilities. Traditional research plus comments straight from visitors is a powerful combination.”

Empowering the players

“Many things excite me working at PGAV Destinations,” says Jason Mills, Director of Visual Development. “Every day offers a unique challenge, and you never know what you are going to walk into, or what solutions you will have to develop.” With PGAV Destinations for 11 years, he has watched as solutions have grown increasingly reliant on new technologies. “I look at an attraction and think about how we can interact with it, have it surround us, and have it include us as part of the story.”

He appreciates working with colleagues who have decades of real-world attraction experience. “We need everyone’s unique expertise to guide us toward creative, intelligent designs. We lean on the past and leverage the present to create wonderful things in the future,” he elaborates. “That blend of talent ensures PGAV Destinations projects will draw people in, engage them in the story, and leave a meaningful impression.” As part of a generation that grew up with digital technology, he possesses a level of comfort that allows him to dream big when creating a compelling visitor experience.

Attraction Designer/Project Manager Justin Stichter embraces the idea of giving guests an active role, of creating a “story- living” environment. He and his teams look for ways to enable people to explore, create, discover and affect outcomes within the experience. And he knows the process starts early. “Equally important, we can now apply that story-living approach with our clients during the design process,” he says.

When designing the St. Louis Aquarium at Union Station, his team brought the clients to the H.I.V.E. (PGAV Destinations’ “Highly Interactive Virtual Environment”) – a large, cutting-edge immersive space. Clients and designers were enveloped in a life-size visual and audio model of the project’s exhibit halls as realistic details and swimming AI fish were added. Justin and his team immediately reacted to the client’s feedback, creating a more authentic and responsive end result for the visitor.

“In my 18 years with PGAV Destinations, I’ve had opportunity after opportunity to create amazing places,” says Stichter, who recognizes his actions touch others. “At the end of the day I am an architect. I’m interested in how my designs engage people. Using tools like the H.I.V.E. enables us to get a realistic sense of what a guest feels like while the project is still on the drawing board.”

Zoos and aquariums add additional demands on designers’ empathic skills. “This is a crazy time right now for the industry,” notes Project Architect Rosey Masek-Block. “Crowds are flocking to animal exhibits, and at the same time, public concern for animal welfare has never been higher. We need to put ourselves in the animals’ positions if we are to get a design right.” Facilities have to find solutions to meet attendance and welfare issues. “If you can’t deliver a quality experience for the animals, then you’ll fail,” she emphasizes. “The magic happens when the animals are happy – and their keepers are happy. Only then can you make the guests happy.”

Motivating the team

With PGAV Destinations for 14 years, Rosey extends that need for empathic understanding to her teammates. “Just as important as connecting with the animals and guests at an attraction, I strive to connect with my team and find out how they are. I want to know how they feel about their projects and workload. I’m always proud when teammates recognize that others have external stressors and step in to help. They know that their teammates will do the same for them. I build time to check in with my team and encourage mental refreshment breaks.”

Every project, whether zoo or theme park or museum, is highly specific to the client’s story, and PGAV Destinations assembles each design team with a fresh combination of talent. “I like to work with a new team, a new combination. It creates a lot of energy,” says Ashley Edelbrock, Project Lead, Planning and Creative. “That energy creates exciting places that have the power to engage people.” Twelve years with the firm, she values blending older and younger voices. “Our industry demands groundbreaking ideas every day. We are repeatedly asked to design the ‘experience of the future.’”

Smithsonian National Air & Space Museum, Washington, D.C.

That variety of viewpoints, all focused on solutions that resonate with visitors, is critical at PGAV Destinations. “Veteran leadership can teach us why attractions are designed the way they are,” says Ashley. “It is up to us to challenge those norms, but we need to have clear answers: does it improve the guest experience, will it be easier to operate, does it tell the story more effectively?” Ashley recently relocated to Orlando and is helping bring PGAV Destinations’ culture of inclusivity to that studio. “In this culture, everyone has a role to play, has ideas to share. We need to believe that if our contributions do not grow and improve the project over time, then we’ve failed. That’s where we need to focus our energy.”

Maintaining that energy and innovation over years-long projects can be a challenge, especially when working far from home, but a necessary challenge as the attractions industry expands into new territory. For the past two years, Project Architect Ellen Mosley has led a design team in Abu Dhabi during the construction of a large-scale themed entertainment project on-site. With over 6,000 people from around the world working on site every day towards a common goal, the project is truly an international collaboration. “PGAV’s work is continually growing into new regions around the world, and with each additional venture, a new adventure awaits.”

“One of the greatest challenges while working within an international environment is adapting to the unique conditions and practices while still delivering the project vision for the client,” she says. “You have to be creative and flexible to solve problems you never even imagined. You are in charge of steering the ship in unfamiliar waters, and you must keep the team energetic, confident, and focused.”

For Ellen, transforming the client’s dream from concept to construction is the ultimate achievement. After 13 years with the company, she says, “You can design all day on paper, but when it starts to become real, that’s the part I love. Something magical happens when the details start coming together and the scenes you’ve envisioned hundreds of times become a reality. Years of hard work and creativity have led to this one wonderful moment – when the doors finally open and guests begin to experience the world you’ve helped create.”

Building up, building better

Hui Chen, Director of Asian Projects, has focused on China for nearly a decade. For her, recognizing each team member’s skills, passions and capabilities is a leader’s responsibility. “Only then can you motivate and include them in the work,” she notes. Many of her assignments are based in rural areas in need of economic revitalization. “These projects can bring thousands of people back from the big cities to their hometowns. To motivate the team, I focus on the beneficial impact of our work and what we are building.”

Recognizing client needs is absolutely vital. Demands for improved quality standards have grown in her market. She is helping one client pursue accreditation from the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA), which will require stricter animal care standards than local regulations. Another client has asked for help implementing LEED standards. “It’s exciting to get to the heart of a client’s desire and help them raise the bar,” she says. “This helps every other attraction in the region.”

Chimelong Ocean Kingdom, Zhuhai, China

Hui also draws inspiration from PGAV Destinations’ multicultural team. “Diversity is an essential factor for success. We must design ways to engage visitors from different backgrounds worldwide. To achieve that, we must encourage staff from different cultural backgrounds to bring new ideas and perspectives to the table.” Key to her work is helping everyone raise their awareness of cultural issues. “I am always looking for cultural blind spots,” Hui emphasizes. “We cannot risk offending guests at our destinations by ignoring our own blind spots. That is one more way we care for clients and their stories.”

Doing what is best

This multidimensional emphasis on doing what is best by caring for guests, clients and staff while creating immersive destinations is intentional and permeates the firm. It is at the heart of a core principle: protecting every client’s story while engaging every guest.

“PGAV Destinations is organized around empowering the talents of more than 140 people, all aimed at designing, creating and delivering your message in an unforgettable way,” says Mike Konzen, Chairman of PGAV Destinations. “We’re incredibly proud of our entire PGAV Destinations team and their ability to share your story and build your dreams.”

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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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