Welcome to Kansas City!

Welcome, TEA, to my stomping grounds. Yeah, I’m a Chicagoan at heart, but I’ve called Kansas City home for 21 years now. I’m delighted SATE is here, and I hope everyone attending comes to appreciate how amazing my city is. And perhaps, I want to incur a little FOMO in everyone else, with my ‘welcome to KC’ list.

Kansas City’s history is complex and fraught. We’re the crossroads of wagon trails and built on land both ceded under duress and outright stolen from Native Americans. We have one of the youngest Black mayors of a major city but we’re also the home of the developer who brought HOAs and restrictive, racist, and anti-semitic covenants into national prominence. We straddle two states and four counties and confuse everyone with the fact that State Line Road is an actual thing and the middle of it really is the state line. But we have a beautiful vibe, a friendly demeanor, and a can-do spirit that’s hard to beat. So buckle up for tons of ideas for while you’re here; I’ve tried to focus on things easily accessible in the core of the city, whether that’s via public transit or a short rideshare trip.

Kansas City has an amazing food scene. Whether you’re enjoying Colby and Megan Garrelts’ (he’s a James Beard Winner) elevated Midwestern comfort food at Rye, Amante Domingo’s Japanese farmhouse spin at Noka, or Leslie and Nick Goellner’s globe-trotting inspired small plates at the Antler Room, you are in for a treat. Colby’s not the only Beard winner here – Celina Tio’s bourbon, burger, and biscuit joint The Belfry is also a great hangout. Katie Liu-Sung has brought Taiwanese food – and community-building stray kat dinners- to KC at Chewology. Baba’s Pantry is a hop skip and a jump from Heirloom Bakery and Hearth. Fox and Pearl, Vaughn Good’s place, is a carnivore’s delight. Or, make sure you have cash and go enjoy the absolute lack of ambiance but the best pork tenderloin sandwich you will ever have at Kitty’s Cafe

Speaking of carnivores, KC is (rightly) known for its barbecue, especially burnt ends and ribs. Joe’s KC (get the Z-man sandwich or the ribs) is legendary, as are Gates, LC’s, and Arthur Bryant’s (which is, I’ll note, a stone’s throw from the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum). Q39 is BBQ through the lens of fine dining, Jack Stack’s has actual cloth napkins (get the cheesy corn and the crown ribs of beef), and Night Goat is the aforementioned Vaughn Good’s weekend ode to the smoker. And Chef J, well… he proclaims he does Texas-style in KC. We’ll allow it. (Get there early and be ready to stand in line- it’s a lunch thing. Unless you’re at the Chiefs game, in which case, you’re in luck: his stall’s in section 107).

We’re not all about food in this town. From Fritz’s and Lost Trail sodas to the sublime array of cocktails and mocktails at The Monarch Bar, the cheeky hidden depths of Swordfish Tom’s (yes, Google Maps is not lying, it is down an alleyway. And they’re cash-only), and our wild array of amazing distillers, this town has plenty of libations – both alcoholic and non – to wash down all that great food. And the coffee! Cafe Cà Phê, Oddly Correct, Cafe Corazòn (Latino and Indigenous-owned), PH (too bad you likely won’t be here for Amuck! Amuck! Amuck!, their pop-up Halloween cocktail bar), Black Dog Coffeehouse + Ibis Bakery – you can’t go wrong. 

If you want education and a drink, hit up the J. Rieger Distillery exhibit and tour, and then you can enjoy some nibbles in their array of dining areas including the new Electric Park, in homage to one of the original KC amusement parks. Or, enjoy the cheeky riff on a brewing tour at Boulevard. Both of these venues are great examples of experiential tours and sites, building community and connection around shared tables and third spaces. And, of course, we have some amazing cultural attractions. In addition to the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum, there’s the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art, a delightful little jewel box of a museum, across the street from the Nelson Atkins Museum of Art. The KC Zoo just opened a new Aquarium – reserve your time slot in advance so you can say hi to the sea otters and experience free-roaming kangaroos and wallabies. The Arabia Steamboat Museum, farther afield the Harry S Truman Presidential Museum and Library (the one place on this list that’s pretty far afield- in Independence, MO), The National Museum of Toys/Miniatures – there’s something here for every interest area. We even have a reputation for some of the best haunts in America.

Ultimately, though, Kansas City is a big small town. We’re about community – building it, growing it, celebrating it.

Cafe Cà Phê isn’t just great Vietnamese coffee – Jackie Nguyen has created a space that celebrates and supports the KC AAPI and LGBTQIA+ communities. Yarn Social (bring a face mask) isn’t just my favorite yarn store, it’s an intentional and welcoming place for people to come together – and while you’re there, walk 7 minutes to May Day Paper and Post to get some beautiful and fun stationery to help you build community when you go home. You’ll see Hammerpress’ incredible design work all over the place – beer and BBQ labels, concert posters, and more – and you can take some of it home for yourself. You could even pick up frozen tortillas from our newest Beard winner, Yoli Tortilleria (also available at many local grocery stores). Grab a snarky t-shirt from Raygun, while you’re at it, and flaunt your newfound love of Patrick Mahomes or sudden interest in Travis Kelce’s dating life while supporting local community organizations. If you’re here on the weekend, check out one of the craft and artisanal maker fairs run by The Strawberry Swing.

But if you have time for only one quick duck into a store, the flagship Made in KC outpost on the Plaza has a huge range of the best of KC area artisans, crafters, designers, and producers, including delicious Christopher Elbow chocolates – it’s pretty much a one-stop shop for your hyper-local souvenir needs, supporting our local talent.

Have I sold you yet? I haven’t even waxed rhapsodic about the symphony in the Flint Hills, day trips to Lawrence, the Tom’s Town and Hotel KC pop-up winter holiday cocktail events, our love of amazing haunts in the West Bottoms, or the nerdy joy of stargazing on the roof of the astro building at UMKC via their public telescope events. We don’t lack for stuff to do, delicious things to eat, and tasty libations to wash it all down with.

I’m so excited for the TEA to be here in Kansas City, in the heart of our country, a place so dear to Walt Disney and so core to so much of what our industry has grown to be. Bring a voracious appetite, comfy shoes, and maaaaaybe an expandable suitcase.

 

Thinkwell Congratulates The U.S. Marshals Museum on a Successful Opening

New National Museum Designed and Produced by Thinkwell Is Dedicated to Telling the Story of the Nation’s Oldest Law Enforcement Agency

 

FORT SMITH, Ark., July 06, 2023 — Thinkwell Group (A TAIT Company), a leading design and production agency creating immersive, content-driven experiences for brands and companies around the world, celebrates the opening of The U.S. Marshals Museum (USMM) in Fort Smith, Arkansas, a highly interactive and engaging museum experience that tells the story of the Marshals.The museum is located on the historic banks of the Arkansas River where legendary deputy Marshals such as Bass Reeves and the Three Guardsmen once crossed from the Federal court in Fort Smith into the western territories, bringing law and justice to the frontier.

“The story of the U.S. Marshals is the story of America–of struggling to live up to the ‘glorious promise’ of the Constitution,” says Cynthia Sharpe, Senior Principal at Thinkwell and Executive Creative Director on the project. “We had to create a space in which guests could engage with some really challenging moments in the nation’s history, but also balance it with the fun and larger-than-life stories of the U.S. Marshals Service.”

Six immersive exhibit zones populate the 53,000 square foot (4926 sq./m) star-shaped building, which is inspired by the shape of the U.S. Marshals badge. These six zones showcase the Marshals’ vital work in upholding the rule of law, driven by justice, integrity and service. The central hub of the museum features a flickering campfire scene where four Marshals from different eras retell key milestones of the U.S. Marshals’ history.

Other exhibit highlights include a recreation of an old west frontier town featuring a historically accurate U.S. Marshal’s office and saloon where guests learn the story of the first U.S. Marshals appointed by President Washington as they turn the pages of “The First Lawmen” interactive book. Inside the saloon, guests have the opportunity to play the interactive “Icons of the Old West” card game as well as engage with the friendly bartender. When learning about the work and training of the agency today, guests participate in the “To Carry a Badge” interactive fugitive chase simulation, which is inspired by real training technologies used by the Marshals and other U.S. law enforcement agencies.

“It’s the attention to detail that sets The U.S. Marshals Museum apart,” said Chuck Roberts, senior art director at Thinkwell. “It paints a vivid, living picture of the oft-unknown history of the Marshals. To bring a story like this to life with the latest design thinking and an innovative approach to the media and digital interactives has been a special achievement for our global teams, and we are thrilled to now share this work with the public.”

The USMM officially opened to the public on Saturday, July 1, 2023. For more information, please visit usmmuseum.org.

Celebrating Milestone Promotions & Expansion with TAIT

Milestone promotions of industry veterans Cynthia Sharpe, Tina Blakeney, Anne-Laurence Dubois, and Claudine Hubert highlight growth and positive change across Thinkwell’s global teams.

 

Los Angeles, CA: Thinkwell recently announced milestone promotions for Cynthia Sharpe, Tina Blakeney, Anne-Laurence Dubois, and Claudine Hubert as the company continues to expand its global portfolio and creative services under TAIT. With these promotions, leadership teams at Thinkwell and TAIT are celebrating the strong team guidance, client partnership, and years of dedication that these individuals have brought to the company.

Cynthia Sharpe
Claudine Hubert
Anne-Laurence Dubois
Tina Blakeney

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Cynthia Sharpe, previously a Principal at Thinkwell Group with a focus on Cultural Attractions, steps into the new role of Senior Principal. Tina Blakeney, previously Director of Production for Thinkwell in Montréal, is newly appointed to Principal with a focus on Global Project Development, and Anne-Laurence Dubois moves from Producer into the role of Executive Producer, also out of Montréal.

Another key promotion out of Thinkwell’s Montréal studio will see Claudine Hubert step into the role of Director, People, North America for TAIT beginning May 1, providing leadership and support to better serve the global TAIT organization and Thinkwell’s creative studio teams. 

All of these promotions reflect Thinkwell’s growth following its acquisition by TAIT in early 2022, with global team size up 30% compared to one year ago. The acquisition paved the way for expanded offerings and increased collaboration between geographically dispersed teams across Thinkwell and TAIT Group global locations, which will continue to accelerate moving into 2024.

For Sharpe, reflecting on nearly two decades of work at Thinkwell, the shift represents deeply rewarding, hard-earned change and growth that the company has worked together to realize. “Part of what I’ve loved about working at Thinkwell is that I’ve had the opportunity to create incredible guest experiences worldwide and help the company grow and evolve. I’m so excited to continue that work across TAIT’s global footprint, helping to build a more inclusive, healthy future for our industry and people, all while making incredibly awe-inspiring experiences.”

“Anne-Laurence, Tina, and Claudine are strong examples of the skill and leadership that we pride ourselves on, and they have been invaluable to our team’s development and growth,” says Hugues Sweeney, President of Thinkwell’s Montréal studio.

Adds Sweeney: “We’re all looking forward to how much the entire TAIT organization will benefit from their vision and expertise.” 

Joe Zenas, CEO of Thinkwell, echoes this enthusiasm, adding that the new role of Senior Principal will be critical to Thinkwell as it deepens its integration with TAIT. “Cynthia continues to be an amazing asset to the organization, providing focused leadership and guidance to Principals while also serving as a strategic partner to our Production Studio teams, leadership teams, and clients,” Zenas explains. “We’re thrilled to celebrate these promotions and look forward to what each of these leaders will add to our long-term strategic thinking and growth.” 

 

​​About TAIT

TAIT sets the standard for world-class live experiences, bringing extraordinary ideas to life, collaborating on visionary concepts, and delivering precision engineering, technical innovation, manufacturing, and production. With industry leading show control and automation technology, a global team of more than 1500 employees in 20 offices oversee the creation of complex movement for artists, brands, performing arts spaces, and venues in over 30 countries, all seven continents, and even outer space. The award-winning company’s clients include Taylor Swift, Cirque Du Soleil, The Metropolitan Opera House, NASA, National Geographic, Beyoncé, and The Olympics. In addition to the core custom project business, the TAIT Group consists of like-minded companies operating as one cohesive team in the live experience space including productionglue, Kinesys, ITEC Entertainment, and Thinkwell Group. For more information, please visit: www.taittowers.com

Becoming Dementia Friendly

In the world of museums and cultural spaces, conversations surrounding inclusive design, creative aging, and sensory awareness position us to consider an ever-growing audience segment – those with dementia and their caregivers.

Dementia Friendly is a term used by organizations educating and promoting awareness of people living with dementia. Dementia friendly communities are places “where more people understand dementia, there is less fear and avoidance, and people living with dementia are included and supported to live independently for longer.” As part of their communities, cultural and entertainment venues can actively support this goal. 

At Thinkwell Group, we recognize that thoughtful experience design can significantly impact health and well-being for a population segment that is frequently underserved, misunderstood, marginalized, and ever-growing. By ensuring that our Thinkwell community is Dementia Friendly by providing free training for all staff, we empower them to carry the work forward into their jobs, communities, and personal lives. 

“Dementia” is not a disease. It is a set of symptoms. The root cause may be a disease, including Lewy Body and Alzheimer’s, as well as temporary conditions such as medication imbalance, vascular issues, and even stress.

Dementia impacts one in nine (11%) people over the age of 65; and one-third (33%) of those over 85. 5.8 million people in the US currently live with some form of dementia.

This number is projected to double by 2045. It is estimated that 80% of those with dementia live in the community, as opposed to an assisted living facility. Up to 40% of those in the community live alone. Alzheimer’s Disease is the leading cause of dementia and is currently the 6th leading cause of death in the US.

With this growing need, the work to make a community dementia friendly is needed and achievable. Local and regional Aging and Disability Resource Centers (ADRCs) may provide training through partners such as Dementia Friends or Purple Angel. These classes support those in the community who encounter dementia patients daily, such as bank tellers, retail clerks, health care workers, and library and museum staff. The goal is to empower people across all facets of a community to support daily life for those with dementia in a safe and kind way.  

The training defines dementia and explores how it can present. There is a focus on empathic practice for individuals with dementia and caregivers, not diagnosis. Content also covers interactions, language use, and communication styles. A frequent expression of dementia is the loss or delay of language, in the same way that a person on the Autism spectrum might experience “losing their words.”

One aspect of the training that often surprises participants is the impact dementia can have on the senses. A loss of peripheral vision, depth perception, and ability to discern color contrast can all be part of dementia. Understanding the holistic experience of dementia enhances empathy and provides opportunities to design safer, kinder, and more meaningful experiences for all audiences. 

As we move forward with this Dementia Friendly Initiative, we strengthen our commitment to live our values of intentionality, respect, and learning. This work allows us to bring Dementia Friendly perspectives to clients and partners, ensuring our audiences and their experiences are central to everything we do.

TAIT x Thinkwell: What’s Next

Leveling Up Experiences & Live Events


 

In March 2022, we announced Thinkwell’s acquisition by the TAIT Group, the world leader in live events and entertainment production. TAIT is a global team of planners, creative engineers, fabricators, technologists, and producers with over 1500 employees in 20 office locations. TAIT teams have worked in over 30 countries, all seven continents, and even outer space, with clients including Taylor Swift, Cirque Du Soleil, The Metropolitan Opera House, NASA, National Geographic, Beyoncé, and The Olympics. 

The TAIT Group includes like-minded companies operating as one cohesive team in the live experience space, from producing to technology and everything in between. Thinkwell’s teams have been integrating into TAIT over the last twelve months, also working closely with TAIT Group brands ITEC Entertainment, productionglue, and Kinesys, as well as global TAIT locations and teams around the world.

Pictured: Joe Zenas, Thinkwell, Kevin Ford, TAIT Orlando, and the JUMP founders at IAAPA Orlando 2022.

“We wanted to broaden our expertise in the project lifecycle,” says Adam Davis, CEO of The TAIT Group. “Thinkwell is the best in the business in the location-based, corporate branded, and cultural attraction sectors. TAIT can realize what Thinkwell conceives, and together we bring real synergies to one another. As a group, we are now the largest independent guest experience and entertainment project delivery organization in the world.”

 

LEVELING UP EXPERIENCES

The acquisition of Thinkwell has created the only vertically integrated organization that combines live event expertise with guest experience creation in-house. TAIT’s proprietary control systems & technologies–most recently on display at the Super Bowl LVII Apple Music Halftime Show featuring Rihanna–along with their engineering leadership and project delivery systems are combining with Thinkwell’s award-winning experiential design and production capabilities to create an unparalleled organization and team. Thinkwell’s expertise is a further complement to the experiential marketing, event, and brand activation skillset within productionglue.

“Thinkwell does storytelling, strategy, and production supervision. TAIT makes it happen,” adds Thinkwell CEO Joe Zenas. “Our greatest assets are our teams. That experience and know-how is what sets us apart. And now, with over 20 offices and studios around the world with TAIT, we can work to make projects a reality 24 hours a day, seven days a week.”

Adam Davis, TAIT CEO, adds: “From concept creation, character development, and the throughline of guest experience to the ability to deploy teams around the world more efficiently and quicker than ever, this new experience and entertainment delivery team is literally achieving the impossible every day.”

By combining forces, Thinkwell and TAIT’s new project delivery structure means greater success in achieving bespoke, world-class, never-before-seen experiential solutions on a grand scale. It also achieves a massive risk reduction in delivery. The combination of TAIT and Thinkwell means greater worldwide project delivery acumen. 

“Clients want something new all the time, and they are looking for solutions that literally haven’t existed in the world before,” says Craig Hanna, Chief Creative Officer, Thinkwell. “So we do just that and then clients say, ‘well, this looks risky–no one’s ever done this before’. It’s a constant conundrum. With TAIT, we now have the engineering, fabrication, manufacturing, and automation backing of the largest staging and production company in the world to help us realize our innovative experiential solutions. It’s really exciting to think how our limitless ideas can now be made real, and the risk reduction clients can expect from that unique synthesis of teams and experience.”

 

CELEBRATING SUCCESSES 

Over the past eleven months, our global teams have begun to further integrate and identify new opportunities for the wider TAIT Group across various markets and client segments with Thinkwell. This includes leadership integration and rapid expansion in the KSA and MENA regions, as well as One TAIT Group brand and team presence at industry events.

The future is bright for live events and experiences, and we are thrilled to be a part of the TAIT family heading into 2023 and beyond. 

Pictured: TAIT, ITEC, and Thinkwell teams at IAAPA 2022.

Repeatability: Once More, With Meaning

The question of what makes an experience “repeatable” offers a paradox. Humans are stimuli-seeking creatures who crave novel experiences, so usually “repeatability” is couched in terms of how to make an experience different each time. Yet we’re also the same species that invented the auto-loop feature for playing the same song on repeat. When addressing the question of how to design a repeatable experience for our guests with words like “variability” and “interactivity,” I sometimes wonder if we’re over-complicating the answer while still missing an essential ingredient.

For me, the question crystallized last fall after I had been waiting nearly an hour for The Weeknd: After Hours Nightmare at Universal’s Halloween Horror Nights. “Blinding Lights” started playing, again—one of about three hit songs of The Weeknd’s in heavy rotation. I was tired, everyone was tired. But as soon as the familiar beat started for the umpteenth time, half the queue started gently moving to the rhythm, some mouthing along to the lyrics. It didn’t matter that we had all heard it many times before, both in the past hour or over the past years. The repetition was part of the appeal. It was familiar, which made it meaningful.

It was a minor moment, and perhaps unsurprising. Yet it struck me as both a perfect example of what repeatability is, while also being the exact opposite of what we usually mean when we talk about the topic. In our line of work repeatability is quite literally a million-dollar question, as attractions look to extend length of stay and convert one-time visitors into return guests and annual passholders. Often, the question is answered by one of two things: Variability or Interactivity. Allow me to indulge myself as I once again over-complicate the answer.

Scooby-Doo Museum Mysteries Photo Op

Variability aims to sustain the novelty factor across repeat experiences by making the experience different each time. Sometimes this is done with branching storylines. For Scooby-Doo: The Museum of Mysteries at Warner Bros. World Abu Dhabi (pictured), we designed three separate ride paths that would each encounter different characters and gags. Other times an element of randomness is introduced. Next door, Tom & Jerry: Swiss Cheese Spin was designed as an indoor roller coaster with free spinning vehicles to ensure no two rides are ever the same. (I should know; I took it for a spin close to a hundred times during testing and programming in 2018!) Sometimes the randomness is introduced via programming, such as on the ever-popular Star Tours at the Disney parks, with dozens of possible scenes across four segments randomly assembled into literally hundreds of potential story combinations. 

But a word of warning: “random” does not necessarily mean “different every time.” If an attraction has the possibility of playing one of five different songs during the experience, and guests ride it precisely five times, the probability of hearing a different song each time stands at less than 4%.

Interactivity is a related concept, except it puts the agency of determining variability into the hands of the guests themselves. For The Twilight Saga: Midnight Ride at Lionsgate Entertainment World (pictured), we once again created multiple ride paths, which guests could experience during each of their midnight motorbike rides through the virtual reality world. But instead of leaving the paths to chance, here guests were in full control of where they wanted to go.

Interactivity has several powerful advantages over simple random variability when it comes to the question of repeatability. For one, it allows guests to choose exactly how they want their experience to be different from last time… or the same. With gamified interactivity that tracks a score, there’s also an element of mastery and self-improvement—powerful drivers of repeatability because now each subsequent experience is imbued with more personal meaning for the guest.

But there are also pitfalls to interactivity. Learning curves for gamified interactives can negatively impact the first experience in order that the third or fourth might be better… assuming guests will want to repeat it even a second time. In some cases, interactive elements are added as an afterthought and lack meaning. I’ve gone on interactive dark rides where the entire experience is focused on finding and shooting little red blinking lights, completely ignoring the placemaking and storytelling around it.

Neither interactivity nor variability by themselves are a panacea for repeatability. An interactive mechanic of endless repetitive grinding is unlikely to be fulfilling for all but the hardest-core gamers. Random variability can easily turn into indistinguishable static noise if care isn’t taken to create contrast between the differences and give each outcome meaning. That is the key to repeatability: creating experiences that mean something to the guest.

Experiences based on novelty, discovery, and surprise can be deeply meaningful. If there are ways to sustain or even increase those qualities on repeat after the initial surprise or discovery was already revealed, even better. But for many guests, the experiences they most want to repeat over and over (and maybe buy an annual pass for, and eventually bring their children and grandchildren to experience together…) are rarely the ones that simply include randomness for variability’s sake, or grinding gameplay for interactivity’s sake. Repeatability can benefit from variability and interactivity, but sometimes the warm sense of familiarity or the anticipation for a beloved beat can be even more effective at getting people to hit the replay button. A story well-told; a song well-played; an attraction well-crafted—that is what makes an experience meaningful such that guests will ask to hear it again, and again.

SATE 2022: From Zero to Hero

I’m delighted to be leading a session at this year’s SATE conference, focused on how to embed inclusion, diversity, equity, and access (IDEA) into the project pipeline beyond recruitment or creative work. This session itself is an act of co-creation, arising out of a conversation between myself and Nicola Rossini. We, and others, have spoken and written extensively about IDEA in our industry, but there’s still work to be done. What if, we wondered, we put on a show instead of once again trotting out a panel? What if we actually had fun with what’s usually an incredibly serious topic that people are scared to ‘get wrong’?

 

SATE 2022 will be the tongue-in-cheek world premiere staged reading of “From Zero to Hero”, a darkly comedic one-act play about how themed experience can better embed IDEA in the project pipeline, and how some simple but radical changes in approach can pay huge financial, emotional, and experiential dividends. In support of that, we’re sharing this post in advance of the session, complete with a link to download a PDF of our ‘working script’, so that anyone who would benefit from advance access has it.  Creating this has been an intense process of ‘yes-and’, of finding connections between our respective disciplines. We began by asking our co-conspirators what their biggest “I wish everyone understood X about my discipline” was.

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The headshot of a white man with red hair and beard, who is wearing a light red button up shirt and looking directly into the camera with a black backdrop behind him.

 Jesse Cannady (he/him) (Thinkwell, a TAIT company) plays the role of Project Development. His take: “IDEA design starts in the Blue Sky phase. Doing IDEA work well in projects means it’s both a cap-ex and ops expense, it can’t be a check box in the RFP, and often it’s the first thing people want to VE out of a proposal or project budget and it should be the last.”

 

The headshot of a light skinned white female with an inviting smile. She stands strongly with her arms crossed. Her long and wavy dark brown hair cascades over her shoulders and grey blazer.

 

Wendy Heimann-Nunes (she/her) (Nolan Heimann LLP) plays everyone’s favorite role: the lawyer. She brings to the table the perspective that, “The contract is the outcome of building a relationship of trust and shared values, it’s not the starting point for a good relationship. So often we think about the short-term, but the reality is developing a project framework that embeds IDEA has a huge ROI past opening day.”

 

The headshot of a light-skinned Persian man with a toothy grin. He has a full beard, thick wavy dark brown hair and his right eye is closed. He wears a charcoal grey sports coat over a light blue button-down shirt. Sina Bahram (he/him; left/above) and Corey Timpson (he/him; right/below) (Prime Access Consulting) represent accessibility and inclusion subject matter experts, and have a number of resources available on their site. “Themed experience already has the pieces in place. It thrives on multi-modality, using what guests see, hear, feel, and do simultaneously to create immersion. It’s not a big step to also use those channels to increase and improve accessibility.” Sina notes.

The headshot of a light-skinned white man with black framed glasses. He smiles directly at us with a slight dimple, thinning hair, and a short goatee. He is dressed in a black v-neck t-shirt under a black sport coat.

Corey adds,“It’s important to understand that employing an inclusive design methodology yields far more outcomes than just accessibility – immersion, deeper and prolonged engagement, comfort, relevance, and people spending less time and energy trying to navigate an experience and more on actually doing the experience.”

 

 

The headshot of a light-skinned woman with green-framed glasses. They smile slightly at us with their head tilted to our right. Rose gold dyed bangs cover their forehead, complementing their dusty pink vest over a light tan blouse.

Erica McCay (she/they) (Valtech Themed Entertainment Studio) agrees strongly with a third point that Sina and Corey raise: people’s needs change and experiences must meet those changing needs. Her focus on interactives and playtesting leads to a snappy and memorable trio of guidelines. “When it comes to playtesting, do it early, do it often, and do it with as many people as possible.” Embedding increasing levels of complexity of playtesting into the entire span of the design process helps avoid going too far down a path that won’t work and informs the highly iterative process.

 

Photograph of a light-skinned white woman with blue cateye framed glasses. She half smiles directly at us with a slight dimple, short wavy hair, and large gold hoop earrings. She is dressed in a white button-down under a maroon vest, with jade beads and a headset on her shoulder. In the background, a large window shows outer space with a starfield, planets, and nebulae visible in the distance with a bank of six built-in monitors directly underneath the view.

Nicola Rossini (she/they) (Riding Chaos) represents the production and project management piece of the puzzle. Specifically thinking about access, “We need to shift to budgeting/scheduling to the needs of the project not just the ideals of the investors – and that must include resource & scheduling to include multiple options for fabrication, installation, & operationalization that also recognizes real humans with real needs are working on these things. What it costs to run a good, accessible, humane project cannot be a nice-to-have that is at risk of being value engineered.” Nicola strongly recommends Cary Gillett and Jay Sheehan’s book “The Production Manager’s Toolkit”. The second edition will be released in March of next year.

 

The headshot of a light-skinned, middle-aged woman with brown and grey curly hair and round, dark-blue glasses. She balances a stack of fake logs in one hand, to our right, and smiles and looks warily up at them. She is dressed in a pale ivory blazer over a dark grey shell blouse and wears a wood and silver acorn pendant necklace.

As for me, Cynthia Sharpe (she/her) (Thinkwell, a TAIT Company), I’m the hard-charging Project Executive who while incredibly successful in their career comes from a more traditional project approach background and has oh so much to learn from our esteemed panelists. And hopefully, in the process, I’ll make it feel less scary for others who see themselves in these projects and conversations to be more vulnerable and open to learning. I’ve found Art Equity’s “Finding the Keys” training to be incredibly helpful in reshaping recruitment, hiring, and retention – something we’re not explicitly hitting on in the session.

 

Our team is grateful to Dan Picard (he/him) (MDSX Creative) who initially was part of our team but cannot participate in the conference. Conversations with him deeply informed our approach. His absence helps us underscore a few points. Often, Creative is expected to do the lift of IDEA work, without it manifesting in other disciplines. But this work takes a team, and when one person cannot participate, it’s up to others to step up. And last, too often this work is expected of people from traditionally marginalized and oppressed groups, and we did not want to reinforce that or treat Dan like he’s hot-swappable. He’s not. People aren’t. And so his absence is an important element of our story. We are also thankful to Sam Lieberstein and Nicole Geletka for their assistance in herding us cats to the finish line. 

 

Once the TEA posts the video to their YouTube channel, we will add that link here as well.

Chuck Roberts: You Know, He’s Pretty Good

Chuck Roberts is a Senior Art Director with Thinkwell Group and was named one of Blooloop’s Top 50 Museum Influencers in 2021 for his multi-award-winning career that spans almost 40 years and includes work for theme parks, brand centers, museums, Presidential Libraries, World Expos, and much more. Chuck brings an extensive breadth of knowledge, experience, and understanding to his work in location-based entertainment, but he also reveals a disarming and sincere humility. He is quick to deflect praise and credit his colleagues and collaborators for their critical contributions to each and every project. His signature projects include Kennedy Space Center’s Shuttle Launch Experience, The Lincoln and Nixon Presidential Libraries, and the highly acclaimed USA Pavilion at this year’s Dubai Expo.

Chuck on site at the US Marshals Museum, with teammate Shengyu Zhang.

Chuck’s career path has been, like many in this industry, a long and often windy road, but each chapter along his journey brought new disciplines and skills that built upon the others to make his destination seem inevitable in hindsight. As a young child growing up in the Pacific Northwest, Chuck’s Grandma Wilma would take him to the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry (OMSI). They visited so often in fact, that he regarded it as an extension of his home. Each visit would bring “tingles” of awe and revelation, a sensation that continues to drive his work and has become for him a key objective for every guest experience.

As a youth, Chuck was intensely shy and admittedly a bit wild. During his middle and high school years, he attended a private school (“Because public schools likely couldn’t handle me,” Chuck remarks without a hint of irony). Chuck always loved to draw, and at the Overlake School in Redmond, Washington, he would draw wherever and whenever he could, often transforming his school desk into a canvas, leaving behind drawings that his schoolmates would eagerly seek out. “They weren’t good,” he insists in typical Chuck fashion, “And they would all be washed away at the end of the day…” but they were good enough to gain the approval of his peers and the attention of the faculty. This positive reinforcement fed Chuck’s spirit and boosted his confidence.

He volunteered to build sets for the school’s production of Our Town, and gained a foundational understanding of construction techniques and materials, and a personal revelation. “Our Town is a very minimalist show, ” said Roberts, “but with really simple parts we were able to shape a space. We suggested walls, doors, windows… a whole world for the cast, and I found that very powerful.” Drama teacher Myra Goetz was impressed by Chuck’s skills and went out of her way to introduce him to the show’s set designer, Craig Martin, who invited Chuck to develop his drafting skills. Martin was so impressed by Chuck that he recommended him to work at Beverly Travis Electrical Engineering after graduation.

Drafting taught Chuck how to communicate through drawing. He gained an appreciation for precision, an understanding of electrical systems, and a growing confidence in his abilities. “You know, I was pretty good,” Chuck notes, quickly adding, “I didn’t like the work, but they sure taught me a lot.” His job also earned him enough income to help pay for tuition at Cornish School of the Arts, and later ArtCenter in Los Angeles, where he explored the aesthetics of design. Throughout his professional career, he tackled real world challenges like intrusive support columns, ventilation ductwork, guest accessibility, egress paths, catwalks, and many others. He learned not to fight or ignore these necessary evils, but to gain an understanding and appreciation for them. “If you don’t deal with them eventually, someone else will,” he insists, “It’s important not to leave them in the hands of others. Take control of them early on and use them to the benefit of your design.”

Over the course of his career, he has seen enormous changes, of course. Advances in computing, digital art, the internet, and smartphones have helped streamline workflow and improve design capabilities and communication, but this, he cautions, is a double edged sword. “Constant email, text messages, and meetings can create the illusion of progress,” he warns, “but you still need time to unplug, dive in, and do the work.” He loves the work, and so prefers to focus on what’s ahead than to rest on his past successes. “There’s always a little disappointment when a project is finished. I miss getting my head down and solving problems, so I’m always looking forward to the next thing.”

Chuck starts new projects by asking lots of questions. “We are going to tell a story in this space,” he says, “so what do we know? Is there a topic? A key element? An IP? What is the box? Do we know? What is the budget? And then, what is the thing we can do in this space that is really special, magical, and amazing, and how can we achieve that?”

The tingle that sparked his imagination as a boy continues to be the driving force behind his work today. He passionately wears his guest’s shoes as he seeks out new ways to surprise, awe, and engage audiences. With ravenous curiosity, a collaborative spirit, and a wealth of design experience gained over a lifetime, he has transformed ordinary spaces into extraordinary experiences. Through Chuck’s magic, Presidential libraries come alive with intimate profiles of these all too human beings, guests are transported to a raging Civil War Battlefield or high into space inside a Space Shuttle cargo bay. Visitors from all over the world are inspired by America’s spirit of freedom and opportunity to explore their own role in shaping the future. In every experience, Chuck strives to touch the hearts and minds of visitors of all ages, backgrounds, and interests, driven by a desire to give them the same gee-whiz excitement he felt with Grandma Wilma back at OMSI. Whether you are a guest or a close collaborator, his work always brings a tingle.

2022 Updates From Our Diversity & Inclusion Council

We’ve written about our Diversity & Inclusion (D&I) Council here before, and we have shared with you a fraction of the work the Council and the LA Studio as a whole have engaged in as part of “Thinkwell 3.0”. Now, a few months into 2022, it’s time to take a closer look at our progress to date and plans for the future.

Thinkwell’s D&I Council is empowered to engage in three important types of work: 1) assessment, 2) identification, and 3) program development and implementation. 

The first round of assessment and identification led the Council to group issues into four categories where we could really begin our work:

  1. Recruitment and hiring
  2. Internal culture and professional development
  3. How we work and what we make 
  4. Industry pipelines

From this list, the Council was able to research best practices and begin programming for Thinkwell’s teams.

Now, with the benefit of hindsight, the amount of work the Council has achieved and the way we’ve set the stage for even more impactful efforts in the future is impressive. We want to highlight some of the Council’s initiatives across the four categories above…. And these are just a few of the efforts they’ve championed:

Recruitment and Hiring

  • Training for key Thinkwellians in anti-racist recruitment, hiring, and retention practices.
  • Shifting our recruiting practice to focus on relationship building with a broader pool of schools and professional organizations that are diverse along a number of metrics.
  • Reducing or eliminating education requirements and increased options for related experience in job postings to reduce barriers.
  • Developed and deployed new tools and processes in our portfolio review system to reduce bias .

Internal Culture

  • Revised the Vision, Mission, and Values, heavily shaped by workshops with the council.
  • Launching a new segment in the Weekly All-Staff, to help engage and inform.
  • Rolling out a Salon series soon, with subject matter experts leading discussion on a variety of IDEA (Inclusion, Diversity, Equity, Access) topics and their specific relevance to our industry.
  • Implemented feedback training for all LA employees as part of Thinkwell 3.0.

How We Work

  • Revising the employee handbook, with all policies being reviewed for bias and inequity.
  • Developed and deployed resources on culturally sensitive and inclusive art.
  • Increased and streamlined employee surveying and transparently reporting out results.
  • Overhauling our job descriptions.

The Industry at Large

  • Expanded our relationship with LA High School of the Arts with internships and scholarship opportunities.
  • Partnered with Ruh Global and Billion Strong, groups focused on disability inclusion across industries, to leverage our expertise to amplify their message and expand impact
  • Shared our findings and our efforts with other companies in the industry as they launched their own D&I Councils and initiatives.

It has taken the better part of a year and a half of intensive research, listening, and ideation to identify these, and many more, efforts. Now the hard work truly begins. Thinkwellians – not just D&I Council members – will help advance these and other efforts. This year will see not only the Salon and scholarship program launches, but also D&I field trips, improved processes for content review, new curriculum partnerships with universities, and continued assessment. Inclusion, diversity, equity, and access is philosophy and practice. We’re dedicated to the ongoing work.