Last week I had the opportunity to attend the Themed Entertainment Association’s (TEA) Storytelling, Architecture, Technology and Experience (SATE’13) conference in Savannah, GA, which was hosted by the Savannah College of Art and Design, my alma mater. The conference is run a bit like a two-day TED event with a half-day dedicated to each discipline.
Coming from marketing and advertising — not themed entertainment — the real eye opener to me was the scale of the conference. Nearly all the projects discussed were enormous in size, budget and timeline. I’ve been a part of big project and campaigns but nothing remotely close to these projects. Cars Land at Disney took seven years from inception to opening day in Anaheim, Ca. Another featured projected spent 18 months just planning and producing , only to cancelled before the construction even began.
In our world, campaigns seldom last 18 months. Websites feel dated within a year or two. The themed entertainment industry exists in a world where projects typically take five plus years to create and have an expected lifetime of decades. In the case of Disney it’s part of the strategy. It’s almost a given that Cars Land will drive legions of families to the park but the real payoff for projects at this scale, the Disney team mentioned this specifically, is to delight and inspire that seven-year-old child to the point where that child would become a loyal Disney fan decades after his first experience.
The overall SATE experience was great and inspiring. While all four disciplines received equal billing in the conference title and time, the reality was that the event was stilted toward storytelling more than anything else. And that’s not a bad thing. Storytelling is central to communication in all walks of life and industries, not just themed entertainment.
One final note about Savannah; the city has made incredible progress since I was a student. When I was there in the early 90s, the revitalization of the historic district was far from complete with pockets of safety surrounded by oceans of blight and in some case very dangerous blocks. The general rule in those days was, don’t walk alone especially at night and avoid some areas entirely. Two decades later the historic district feels transformed with people out and about, day and night, nearly all the abandoned buildings have been revitalized and most tellingly sign of change was that the old heavy duty security window bars (nearly ubiquitous in my day) have disappeared. I’m sure there are still dangerous areas, like any city, but it’s clearly a much better place. Thankfully, Savannah hasn’t lost it’s beauty, charm and very curious personality.