Friday, October 20, 2006

Merchandising ... With Heart?

It is difficult for me to imagine that any amusement park could survive without the revenue generated from the retail venues provided through their properties. It would be extremely naive to think that the cleverly crafted facades and finishings of an elaborate gift shop are anything more then an attempt to compel you to spend money in addition to what you spent on the gate and on concessions, or even lodging. While purchasing a piece of your experience that you can take home with you is certainly a element of the fantasy that should be readily available, it is somewhat of a necessary evil for you to pull out all the stops in cajoling your guests into buying something, even if it as innocuous as a shot glass.

But, and this a big but, it's a safe bet a good number of your guests will see right through any attempt at catering to the lowest common denominator. Smaller theme parks often don't have choice in this matter. You'll notice at your local area amusement parks you'll find trinkets. Mostly useless junk that end up having no place in your home or office or even closet. Usually ending up fitting into no sense of décor or style you ever had or ever will. Of course, a smaller theme park would unlikely be making the kind of revenue it would need to offer the quality merchandise that someplace like Disney is (or rather, was) capable of offering.

But when larger theme parks begin scrimping on the quality products, one has to wonder how much more or less revenue they are generating as result of the cut backs. One also has to wonder if they realize that their consumers are not as dimwitted as they think we are. Do the analyses and research they put into making such a decision at any point contemplate the intelligent consumer who knows when he's being offered a cheap cigar? And if so, are the negatives so small, resulting in their decision to go cheap anyway?

As part of a personal irritant, I've never seen the logic in offering your customer as little as you possibly can. In as much as you need to pour every ounce of quality and passion into your rides and show pieces so as to compel people to spend hard earned dollars to enter that gate, you should also have some quality and passionately made product to once again compel them to spend money at yet another cash register. You can still have the plush. You can still sell the pins. And you can still sell the porcelain mugs. But hirer a skilled artisan or two to blow your customers a glass castle, sculpt them a elegant statue or paint them a picture that won't end up being stored in a moldy box in the basement. In short, sell them a little quality product.

A recent trip to Walt Disney World emphasized how important quality gift shop merchandise is to your guests. On a prior visit, I had purchased so much merchandise with my debit card, that I had inadvertently miscalculated and overdrawn the account. On the next visit, my wife and I had made a pact that we were NOT going to spend a single penny on merchandise unless it was something we REALLY felt we wanted. And even then, it could only be one or two things. Maybe a pin. Maybe a shot glass or coffee mug. But no $100 purchases this time around. I went to Disney steeled in my resolve. I felt I was seriously going to have to restrain myself and my wife, considering she had only been doing the "frugal thing" for a couple of years now, whereas I had grown up having little to spend on frivolous things. To both our surprise, (and dismay) no effort needed to be made.

I was underwhelemed by every shop I entered. Even my all time favorite World of Disney store offered nothing to my collectors sensibilities. And you have to understand. I've been a collector for a very long time. Only since I've been married have I been able to curb the desire to buy anything and everything my greedy little mind thought would make a nice "complete set". But here I was in the middle of one of my all time favorite themed environments, surrounded by Mickey memorabilia, and not a glimmer of flash could even catch my eye. Where were the PVC figures of any and every Disney character ever made? Where were the sculpted 3D magnets of various characters and attractions. Why did all the emblazoned art work look like it had been drawn by a 7 year old during a 5.0 on the Richter Scale? Where were the actual glass shot glasses? Not a t-shirt, not a pin, not a iota of collectable goodness caught my eye. The handful of items I saw that were worthy of a second glance, cost more for one item then I would have paid for a set, even on my greediest of days.

© DWills - Click to visit www.allearsnet.comThe notable exception to all of this was Epcot Center's Japanese Pavilion. And, ironically, happens to be the only place I spent a dime. (NOTE: We had purchased the "Magic Your Way" plan with lodging, food and gate costs included. So it's literally the only place I spent a dime while in Orlando.) World Showcase is one of the few areas of the classic Epcot Center that has remained essentially unchanged, (for better or for worse). Since we had saved World Showcase for our last day on this trip, and had spent at least one day in each park, this was finally the one place where thematics and quality reigned supreme in both showmanship and salesmanship. Finally, we had stumbled upon a place where I had to control my instinctive need to consume product had to be held at bay. (Though, in a true twist of irony, the only thing I purchased was a product commonly sold in the US. Two packs of Yu-Gi-Oh! Cards, from the Japanese Pavilion. At least they were packs I can't get in my local area.) Japan had a wonderful assortment of exotic décor, clothing, pop-cultural and traditional themed merchandise. I would have perhaps separated the items somewhat farther apart form each other, rather then jamming them all into one retail floor, but essentially, it appears the heart of the matter was in the right place.

In my estimation, it is possible for merchandising to have heart. Putting your best foot forward is not a mask or a façade of what a gift shop's or kiosk's genuine intention is, but rather an expansion of its intention. You can create something with the undeniable purpose of convincing your guests to spend even more money in your park, but at the same time, you can offer your guests something worthwhile, fulfilling, worth their hard earned cash. After all, of what benefit is it to siphon you guests for all their worth? Is this not the Big Business mentality that is biting chunks out of the Rainforests? Your guests are resources that should be cherished, not exploited. You can capitalize on a guest's experience, without pandering to or draining them.

I read this comment about Disney at The quote is from former Imagineer Bob Rogers at a '97 trade show, and the comment is what is one of the fundamental statements that has shaped my perception of merchandising in the Themed Park industry. "Before Disney, the stay time at an average amusement park was less than two hours. But Disney created an environment with an ambiance that was so refreshing and pleasant that the stay time went up to an unheard of seven hours. And because the stay time went up, the per capita's on food, retail, and ride tickets went up. And the place was an attraction in itself so he could charge people to get in, which wasn't done elsewhere. The result of all this theming, landscaping, and entertainment balance was a revolutionary new and different income profile not seen here, very clearly."

And that's really what it comes down to, entertainment balance. Much like a run down home or a high crime rate can bring down the property values of a nice neighborhood, so too can cheap trinkets and shoddy merchandise bring down the entertainment value of a theme park experience. You want to immerse your guests in this fantasy world. Not make them think of an outside corporation who can only shell out for decent facades and not merchandise. It must all come together. It must all be of the highest quality.

For what it's worth, I'm putting together a list of, not exactly items, but conceptual products and ideas that I've not only seen work effectively in the past, but that I think would work effectively in a future themed park. In this way, it is my hope to firmly grasp the meaning behind entertainment balance and to merchandise with a little feeling. ;-)

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Concepts in Imagineering: "The Sultan's Elephant"

"Concepts in Imagineering" (CII) is a special series of posts about entertainment and creative concepts from around the world. They posit that the tradition of Imagineers using innovative, creative and scientific concepts to enhance yesterday's theme parks is just as feasible for today's Imagineers. If they just look in the right places. Today's CII is:

The Sultan's Elephant
The little girl giant from "The Sultan's Elephant". Performed by the french street performers, Royal de Luxe

As near as my research can ascertain, "The Sultan's Elephant' is a Jules Verne or Jules Verne-esque storyline about a sultan being driven mad by the visions of a time traveling elephant and a giant wooden girl. Throw in an genuine time-traveling elephant and giant wooden girl and a mad scientist for good measure, and you have a fanciful tale of myth and wonder from which talented engineers can draw inspiration from.

You can find countless home video of this event taken by awe struck tourists at Google Video and YouTube, not to mention the official website, where you can find pictures and info on the talented street group, Royal de Luxe, themselves. But today's blog is less focused on the details of those events, but on the practicality and execution of the event in routine environment and its possible incorporation, or modification, into an attraction that could fit the unique mold of a daily theme park attraction.
Four newspapers were distributed during the Central London performance on May 2006, over the course of four days, which tell the tale of a Sultan being driven insane by the visions of a time-traveling pachyderm and a wooden giant doll. "The Jules VERNE" recounts that tale, but it's the live-action recreation of this tale that is the real spectacle.

"The Jules VERNE" was handed out each day throughout the course of May 4th - 7th to set the tone for the tale being vividly presented those same days
Words cannot truly do justice to this magnificent performance, which is one of the most wondrous combinations of technology, puppetry and artistry that I have ever seen. The massive time-traveling elephant is a beast to behold. Near the size of an ancient Mammoth, the beast roamed the streets of London for four days, resplendent with 19th century architectural finishings and Moroccan style belly dancers.
And yet, the most entrancing element of this show was not the great temporal traversing pachyderm, but the the relatively small by comparison, little girl giant. Her every move is that of a gentle little child. Her eyes never stop taking in her environment. Her gestures are slow and ginger. When she looks at you, her eyes lock with yours with a knowing acknowledgment that is just too real for something of such grand proportions. There are moments where this "little" girl, is simply frightening in her realism.
And yet, she and the elephant violate some of the elements that are commonly thought by those in the themed industry to be "bad show". The huge crane, the brightly dressed operators and their overt exertion at operating the girls massive walk. Exposed mechanization, operators hanging from trellises and and the occasional appearance of the brand name "HERTZ" should have all put a great mar on the performance based on preconceived notions of showmanship. If everything we know about entertaining the public is true, then these obvious appearances of "Bad Show" should have completely detracted from the elements that the entertainers and engineers wanted us to see. So why doesn't it?
Reasons abound. For one thing, this is a grand spectacle, the likes of which few people have ever seen or ever will see. As such, the spectacle of the event can override any "showing slips" that are part and parcel of such a unique performance. After all, what can we truly compare this too, to say that those elements could/should have been concealed?
Another reasoning, also supported by its uniqueness, is the possibility that it may have never been the designers intentions to conceal any of those elements. Perhaps, they wanted us to see the "man behind the curtain". That it was their intention, as part of their original design, to let us see the works and gizmos to create a sense of pageantry, or an added sense of surrealism. It would be interesting if this were true, because it calls into question our own sensibilities over what is and isn't "Bad Show". Considering that we often only think in terms of what can be executed without showing any of the workings, are we, perhaps, limiting our potential with this particular philosophy? Could we, whether you be an Imagineer or simply a dreamer such as I, be stymieing our concepts and ideas with a tenet that has clearly been proven to not be true in all cases?

I, for one, am calling my preconceived notions into question. As much as I respect and believe in the principles that Walt Disney and his Imagineers held fast to, I'm presented with the notion, that Walt is not all there is. Now don't get me wrong. Walt's business sense is second to none. But it may be that if want to move attraction design and concepts into the future that he so idealistically talked about, then we must be willing to reexamine some of those same principles in context with what we're trying to accomplish and with the times. In that way, we can conceive ideas that stretch beyond our comfort zone, and into ideas that, when completed, make people the world over gasp at it's wonder. I believe this is what Walt did, at its core.
I'm no engineer of course. But viewing the many vids and pictures of this performance has left me wondering what the practical applications of this are in a themed environment. Imagine the living doll ambling down the streets of the Magic Kingdom or even World Showcase. How perfectly she would fit in with one of those or a pre-existing storyline. The basic concept can certainly been expanded as time and technology advance. Even to the point where something clearly as complex and expensive as this could be executed on a daily basis. This wold be the parade to end all parades, if it could be incorporated into a themed park show. I think we've exhausted the performance of the cast member in the big headed cartoon suit, ad nauseum. Not to mention, our floats are impressive, but hardly jaw dropping. Entertaining? Yes. But they do not inspires the sharp inhalations of breath from it's audiences that they once did. It's time to take some bolder, and admittedly, more expensive steps in a new direction.

I wont bore you with the details of how I would personally work a Sultan's Elephant-type show into my them park visions, but I do believe that the option should be presented, if it has not already been seeded in the minds of those who have the power to do something about in the here and now. I don't care if I don't get to do it first. I only believe that it should be done.