Crafting experiences: Joe Zenas of Thinkwell

The location-based entertainment specialist explains his plans for the firm in the Middle East and the future of the industry

The path that led to Joe Zenas becoming one of the most sought-after location-based entertainment specialists was not straight. His first exposure to theme parks and entertainment solutions began back in 1990, when he joined Disneyland in the US as a musician. Zenas soon worked his way up the ranks to the role of producer, producing live shows and large-scale events.

It’s safe to say that from there, his career has been a rollercoaster ride. Zenas has worked in Japan, and even had the opportunity to wow audiences with shows for the Super Bowl half-time show in the US and the Opening and Closing Ceremonies for the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta. Eventually, that road led him to the Universal Studios creative team, where he met his future business partners, who then founded Thinkwell in 2001.

Middle East Consultant caught up with Zenas to learn more about the road ahead for Thinkwell in the Middle East, and his take on where location-based entertainment projects are heading here.

“When we began Thinkwell, the plan was to be a small boutique design company. We started out saying that we wouldn’t have more than 10 employees and that we’d just hand pick the projects we would work on.

“However, that changed when we started getting bigger projects and began working on not only the design of them, but also the production and the overseeing of building them. Currently in the US, we have about 160 employees in our Los Angeles office. In Beijing, we’ve got around 40 people, and in the UAE, we have a dozen staff at the moment.”

Talking about how they operate as a firm, Zenas says that they are content master planners, as opposed to regular master planners. In order for their projects to be truly effective, they must be brought in at the initial stage when the client is in the process of figuring out how to engage a guest within a space or an intellectual property.

“At Thinkwell, we work side by side with the architects who are actually doing the physical masterplan. We programme all the experiential components on top of that.”

Elaborating the point and explaining how they plan an entertainment solution for a given location, Zenas says they start by making sure to work with a client to define parameters. Without these, he says a project won’t be able to achieve any economic goals, which is its key purpose.

“What we like to do first is sit with our client and understand the parameters of the box. We identify things like how much capital they want to spend, what their operational assumptions are, and even the kind of guest expectations they have from a project as well. Once we define some of these goals, we turn it over to our team, who then come up with a lot of creative ideas for it.

“Interestingly, our clients come from three different backgrounds. Some of them are developers who have land and money, and want to build a business. The second kind are clients who have intellectual properties such as a movie studio or a video game, and want to manifest it in the physical realm. The third type are clients who are operators with an ongoing operational property such as a theme park, museum, resort or hotel, but need to introduce some kind of new activity in it.”

In addition to working with these groups, Zenas says Thinkwell also brings a lot of front-end strategy to the table. This is where they take their own intellectual property to a developer looking to enter the region, and then help them strategise that new offering for a project.

So what kind of projects work best in the Middle East?

Zenas says the most interesting thing about developing a project for the Middle East is the importance that has to be given to family and multi-generational engagement.

“In this region, family units come out together to experience an entertainment product. We also have to consider things like property activation during different parts of the day and week. For example, the way you operate a property on a Wednesday morning is different from the way you would run it on a Friday night.

“The users in each case would be different, and so would the age groups as well. Since various activities need to be in there, we focus on having layered content and adaptive environments. Basically things that can change on those parts of the day, and this is an important element in this region.”

In terms of the design of the project itself, Zenas says various cultural aspects need to be considered in a Gulf country. To start with, you can’t be reliant on language to clearly communicate a story or engage a person. Entertainment products need to be visual and kinetic, and the space and experience needs to be special without language.

Technology is another element that plays a key role in engaging users on a project. In fact, Zenas says that while most expert discussions revolve around how to get people off their devices, Thinkwell believes in using them to add to the user experience and to interact with them.

“We don’t ignore the fact that our guests walk in with their phones and other devices. While we wouldn’t want them to be dependent on it, we’d like to think of ways to engage them with it. At the end of the day, what we’re creating are emotional souvenirs, so the idea of engaging and activating social media is an incredibly important part of every contextual thing we do.

“Earlier, the digital experience was treated separately from the physical experience, but now it’s one thing. We’ve actually started a digital studio that works hand in hand with our experiential physical design team, because we think that marrying both these realms is an important part of the entire user experience.”

Considering the distinctiveness of these entertainment projects and the vast expertise and skill sets required to deliver them, Zenas says their approach to staffing can be addressed from both a corporate and a project standpoint.

“Corporately, we have people from an incredibly wide range of disciplines working in our office. We have employees with architectural degrees, master planners, writers, technical designers, 3D-modellers, illustrators and story tellers. We also have a very large digital interactive group of programmers.

“The thing that is common in all of them is that most people have an interest in doing multiple things. In fact, it’s quite common to find someone working on a museum, a theme park and on a presidential library, all in a typical work day.

“When we staff our projects, we have a very theatrical approach. It’s more like how you’d create Broadway or a movie, where we have a producer who is in charge of people, time and money, paired with a creative director who is in charge of story and content. Then we have art directors and technical designers working with them to create that vision. These are the people who we try to keep in place as the leadership team throughout a project.”

Speaking about past and current developments, Zenas says Ski Dubai in Mall of the Emirates was their first assignment in the Middle East, after which other opportunities in Dubai and in Abu Dhabi followed.

In terms of current projects, Thinkwell is involved in a range of developments including Expo 2020, where they are part of the content development team, and are working on an entertainment masterplan which will provide engaging solutions.

In Dubai, they have also worked on the Jumeirah Hills project and on Dubai Pearl, while in neighbouring Abu Dhabi, they’re currently working on a project on Reem Island.

Besides the UAE, Saudi Arabia is another upcoming market where they are working on projects surrounding its 2030 vision. They are also seeing a fair amount of activity in Oman, Egypt and Saudi Arabia, where they are working with Majid Al Futtaim on snow experiences.

In terms of the challenges they encounter, Zenas says the execution of complex developments like theme parks faces a lot of issues. This is because project delivery, specialty vendors, methods of building, and safety and operational requirements are all very different from that of a regular development.

“These kinds of project really require the delivery team to get involved early on. It doesn’t just follow the same clean design and hand-off to procurement. There is a lot of intricate handholding and shaping that is required from the start through to the end, and that’s the challenge here. But the region is getting more comfortable with delivering these kind of projects as compared to before.”

Speaking about the impact of the current economic climate on location-based entertainment projects, Zenas says Thinkwell isn’t seeing any negative effects yet. In fact, he believes they can be seen as bellwethers in the industry for forecasting where things are headed, because they are at the front end of most developments.

“We see the economic trends before they happen, because people will stop designing audacious projects if the economy was that bad. On the contrary, we’re actually seeing more work these days, so I believe that there is a strong leadership and vision in place that is ensuring that the country is not reliant on a particular revenue stream to determine whether a project is worth investing in or not. Also, by doing this they’re guaranteeing that there is a deeper economic stream and activity base five years from now.”

Sharing his final outlook on Thinkwell’s way forward, Zenas says they are looking to expand their capabilities regionally, as this would help them to deliver more projects. Beside this, he feels that they’ve been very fortunate in that the growth Thinkwell has seen is based on the increasing number of opportunities coming their way.

“We’re not speculative with what we do. We grow by the demand that is present, but if things continue the way they are in 2016, I truly believe that our footprint in the Middle East will only turn stronger.”

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