Building relationships and teams on Asian projects by Judith Rubin
“The sand between the rocks”
Since Bob Chambers and Edward Marks officially formed The Producers Group LLC (TPG) 3 years ago and began announcing their services, one of their biggest challenges has been clarifying their role to the industry. Self-described as “International Attraction Development & Production Specialists” and even using the tagline “Everything but the Creative,” TPG has worked hard to get the message out that the company is calibrated to play a critical role in supporting creative design – not supplanting it. TPG’s versatile, “sand between the rocks” (as Marks calls it) support to creatives seems to be a particularly good fit for working in the booming Asian market, where major new players are emerging with very different outlooks, backgrounds and development strategies from traditional Western operators. Design companies with which TPG has collaborated, or currently collaborates, include Renaissance Entertainment LLC, RHETROACTIVE, RGH, Rethink and Nextep.
The collaborative team model
Effective teambuilding is key to being a successful owner and buyer of themed entertainment services today, according to TPG co-CEO Bob Chambers. “Understand and make the best of the team approach to these kinds of projects, so you can put together the right team in the right way,” he says. “The members of the team need to have complementary skills and specialties so that all bases are covered, and a good working relationship so that they can solve problems and meet challenges together. This is the best way to build a unique project that has never been built before and yet will operate robustly, 24/7, year round.” “It’s a well-known model in the movie industry to form project-based groups, to staff up and down from one job to another,” comments Jon Binkowski, CEO/Creative Director of Renaissance Entertainment, which recently called on TPG to help serve their client, Guangdong Chimelong Group, under the leadership of Mr. Su Zhigang, creating four attractions for the new Chimelong Ocean Kingdom.
Lisa Tsang, Former Deputy General Manager, Themepark Entertainment of the Chimelong Group
“I worked closely with The Producers Group in the various phases leading to the opening of the Chimelong Ocean Kingdom. Chimelong has the vision to develop parks within China along international standards and we believe this project will be recognized as having set a new bar. During the pre-production of the Chimelong Ocean Kingdom project, TPG was involved in determining the technical configuration of our various theaters, from the initial concept design to pre-production, choice of brand/models, down to actual production including Testing & Commissioning. TPG was depended upon to provide their expert opinion and share their specialized talent to help realize our goals. Inevitably, from the design phase to actual realization of the concepts, there are gaps to be filled. TPG engaged with our team to troubleshoot and get to the bottom of all queries, understanding the limitations and opportunities and coming up with solutions that were a happy medium for all. In the field, despite differences in both languages and processes,TPG worked closely, tirelessly and diligently with the field techs to reach the goals set forth. It is no easy task, as far more obstacles arise in the field than one can imagine. However, with determination and uncompromising effort for excellence, the TPG team was able to deliver what was promised.”
“In the 1990s there were numerous one-stop-shop type companies in themed entertainment. Firms had 25, 50 or even 100 people on staff,” explains Binkowski. “Even ours did. Tough economic times make it hard to support a big company, and that’s one reason the model has evolved, but in fact it’s simply an efficient, enjoyable and effective way to work and I think that’s why it is a defining approach to projects in our industry. We rely on good partners such as The Producers Group to fill in certain gaps. They complement us extremely well. We have seen over the past several years that this is a very effective way for us to operate – we are often called on to perform as extensions of teams for large operators, working with their in-house teams.”
A happy organization
“Surround yourself with people you trust and genuinely like to see every day, and you will have a happy organization,” says Lisa Smith, President, Renaissance Entertainment. “We can bring in the best and brightest people available as needed, while keeping our core company small. It allows us to be very picky about the projects that we work on and to be personally involved in each project and to uphold our standards. We have very high standards. The Producers Group comes in as this calm, qualified presence – and greatly extends what we can do as part of the key team managing the project.” Chimelong Ocean Kingdom grand-opened in March on Hengqin Island in Guangzhou, China. Renaissance provided concept design and art direction, and subcontracted TPG for technical design, project management and special effects on three marine mammal shows – Tropical Heat (spotlighting dolphins), Sea Lions vs Pirates, and Under the Polar Moon (spotlighting beluga whales) – and for the multimedia spectacular around the lake with a simulated volcano, fireballs, stunts, water and theatrical lighting.
“We had subcontracted a lot of different vendors for various disciplines,” says Binkowski. “TPG has a broad understanding of all those trades and could look over our shoulder to help coordinate things. They are very tech-minded but can think with both sides of the brain. They have respect for the creative aspect. Ed’s background as a lighting designer is particularly helpful in that regard.”
“We did project management and a little tech management prior to field work,” says TPG co-CEO Edward Marks. “Renaissance on their own didn’t have enough people to go into the field to support the technical documentation required. They usually outsource that – so we became that ‘staff.’ Our focus is on budget, process, schedule, management, the org chart – basically, the project structure and how to get it done. We get into the minutiae.”
Steve Trowbridge, Principal RHETROACTIVE
“My partner Tim Rheault and I have a long relationship with The Producers Group, dating back to the 1990s when we crossed paths on a variety of projects and at several companies including Six Flags and Landmark Entertainment. Recently, we have collaborated on a couple of RFP opportunities that have come our way. In a word, we need these guys to make us stronger. What TPG does is entirely complementary to what we do. And we expect it to make us very strong as we bid for work, especially in tandem with the joint venture RHETROACTIVE recently entered into with the Hong Kong-based architecture firm, LWK & Partners.
The project creation process is very complex and technical, and that’s why you bring in people like Ed and Bob, the same way you bring in architects of record, feasibility specialists, structural engineers and MEP consultants. As a creative designer, I will have a vision of how we can stimulate all 5 senses, but we have to figure out in a practical sense how to realize the vision, and how to do it without breaking the fourth wall. That’s what tech designers and tech management consultants can do for us: help realize those creative dreams that are within reach but not immediately solvable. That’s how new things are invented, how cool stuff happens, how we create magic in our industry. Working with artisans like TPG, we know we can come up with something to pitch that is cool and is also practical, buildable and on brand. If you are talking to a developer who is serious about a project at the right place and time, and you can have a practical conversation based on resources you have available, it can be incredibly useful. Don’t let it dictate design, but make a case for your client, reassuring them, showing them you are on solid ground.
Having confidence in the practicality of an idea can also occasionally justify how a client could spend more than they originally thought. Budgets and information can be incredibly liberating. If you have the data, knowledge is power, and now we can bring a competitive toolset and team to a wide variety of visitor experiences. It’s a fact that developers in China are looking for entertainment teams, because planning for an entertainment component is a requirement of being able to move forward in a land deal. But there are ways to effectively integrate theming and entertainment to strengthen the overall placemaking and make it distinctive. That could take the form of a separate, gated park on the property, or it could be something else. Either way, we’re ready.”
As Asia comes into its own as an entertainment giant, there is a continuous exchange of information and professional work culture between East and West. “In China, a lot of projects are starting from the ground up and integrating all these new technologies,” says Smith. “There’s a lot of learning going on. You have to understand how construction is done there so you can work with it, but you also have to be in a teaching role. The Producers Group helped facilitate some very productive dialog.”
Binkowski shares an example of that dynamic coming into play. “Doing some research in China on behalf of a client, TPG went with us to see a particular fountain system. It had an enormous control system in the bowels of the complex. Bob and Ed are able to look at these things and decode them. They opened a friendly conversation with the techs there and pretty soon we were all down there learning how the fountain worked, and Bob and Ed were giving them tips about how to improve maintenance. Their attention to detail never wavers. While on the job, working through a translator, they’ll go over tedious points as often as needed, and throw in a joke every once in a while. They are inspiring, have genuine enthusiasm and all the skills to go with it.”
Working on the nighttime spectacular at Chimelong, Marks and Chambers wanted a first-hand, bird’s-eye perspective of what the entire lagoon looked like. “Tech companies tend to be kind of button-down, but these guys are kind of nuts – you know, in a good way,” says Binkowski. “They came up with the idea of climbing to the top of the giant whale shark icon. It’s 63 meters high – it felt like we were climbing the Statue of Liberty. So we all [Binkowski, Smith, Chambers, Marks, Judd Nissen of TPG and Lisa Tsang formerly of Chimelong Group] put on harnesses and found our way up this giant thing. It was worth it. Once we were up there, we saw they were right – this was a good way to gain a strong sense of the whole site that helped us appreciate what we were trying to do. It was better than just looking at a plan.”
“We really liked the Chinese, and our experience with Chimelong,” remarks Smith. “Like us, they want action and excitement and things to blow up. They’re not afraid to use color. Their theming is equal to anything that is out there. They tend to work more in concrete and steel, but their rock work and their finishes are fantastic. And they have exacting standards. Consulting on the whale shark was an interesting case in point. They commissioned upwards of 150 concepts, some of which we provided. We found out some interesting cultural things in the process. One design was with the head on the bottom and the tail on the top. On the basis of wind load structural capacity, it was very functional. But from a feng shui perspective, it was a no-no…. Mr. Su is a visionary. He really wants to have new, original creations for his company, and takes great pride in it. For a creative company like ours, it’s a dream relationship.”
“TPG supports our bond with the client, and their solid track record in Asia has been very helpful,” adds Binkowski. “Whether crawling around under fountains or climbing up whale sculptures, wearing hard hats and problem-solving in the field, or wearing suits and conducting business in the boardroom, they’re valuable and versatile. Lisa and I, and Bob and Ed all have experience working for some of the biggest operators in the business, in addition to being service providers. Having similar histories and philosophies makes for a very comfortable working relationship. They were motivated to make us look good, and we were both motivated to make the client look good.” • • •