The long game: visitor attraction roundtable

We assembled a group of integrators/consultants working in visitor attractions to see what was happening in this sector. Paul Milligan reports on the event.

The visitor attractions sector is one of the most appealing to integrators  and  consultants because it offers them medium-to-large budgets, a desire from the client for the technology to wow people, and an element of creativity not seen in your average boardroom install. Right now business in the visitor attraction sector is generally in good health. Visitor numbers are up around Europe, and the Middle East and Far East is spending vast amounts on new projects, to meet the growing numbers of middle classes with money to spend.

Some of those we gathered for our roundtable worked exclusively in the visitor attractions sector, and others performed a mix of projects, so did they see a difference in clients from this sector to others? Certainly, with the biggest difference being the time it takes to get visitor attraction projects off the ground. “Three years is still pretty fast track in this sector, sometimes its five or ten years,” said Paul Kent, senior consultant, entertainment, Electrosonic. All the others around the table agreed; “The visitor attraction pipeline can be incredibly long, there are a lot of factors that go into it – the nature of the customer, the scale of the project etc. A year is short for a visitor attraction project in my experience,” said Kevin Murphy, VP of sales, Attraktion.

When a project runs for five years this creates a number of issues, primarily with the technology originally specified at the time of tender. “The issue with long lead times is that equipment goes end of life far quicker. Trying to keep ahead of that is really challenging,” said Nevil Bounds, key account director, Feltech. “It can be worse than that,” said Murphy. “I was working on a project we designed five to six years ago in Saudi Arabia which is being installed now. Because the procurement period was so long, we weren’t contractually allowed to update the equipment.” With lead time being so long sometimes there is an element of ‘crystal ball’ about it says Kent; “You are designing around what you think manufacturers will be offering in three to five years time, and what you think the standards will be then. Projection has jumped so much in the last two years. In some projects we have started to specify a job with no idea of what projector will finally be there.”

Whenever visitor attractions are discussed, inevitably there is a mention somewhere down the line of the site or a new ride/exhibit having the ‘wow factor’. But just how difficult is it to deliver that, and make sure expectations are matched with the budget? “The internet has helped and hindered this sector in many ways,” said Murphy. “If the client has a particular requirement on a project you can show clients pictures and videos of previous projects very quickly. If you know your market, you’ll know what the budgets per square meter for that project were, so you can say to the client ‘yes we can achieve that’. The negative of the internet is to do with the tender process. It’s all too easy to shove a projector model number into the internet and get a price, and that’s a real problem in terms of client expectations. They still believe integrators are ripping them off and don’t realise the added value that goes into a system.”

“As a technologist you have to learn to speak fluent designer.”
Another issue was that expectations were being ramped up by the early renderings shown to clients by the designers. “Artistic renderings are the things that kill us all, because a lot of clients get excited when they see them but the end result is nothing like it,” said Kent. Kevin Murphy agreed, saying quite often it came down to the fact that some designers understood technology and some don’t. “There are times when we had to let artistic renderings go, even though I knew damn well we wouldn’t be able to achieve what was in the picture, technically.” Even if you did disagree, consultants and integrators could often be trapped in an unwinnable situation when it came to project prototype designs. “You are caught between selling the idea and being realistic, because sometimes when we do the renderings we are selling the project, because we haven’t go the job yet, you have to win it in a tender, but you have to do it because you know everyone else (bidding for the job) is going to do it,” said Murphy. Blair Parkin, principal consultant at Teecom, was another caught in this conundrum; “One challenge I have with designers is being realistic, often the designer isn’t in a great place to drive decisions because the client is often very excited and doesn’t want to hear anything that will curb that excitement. You need to find the balance between reliable design and process and execution. As a technologist you have to learn to speak fluent designer.”

Is it then difficult to marry the story the client wants to tell at the venue but at the same time deliver on that all-important wow factor? “There’s normally a story first and you back technology into that story. It’s very rare the technology leads anything in the leisure market. You have to immerse people in a world far away, and then you have to find the technology, if it even exists, to get you back to that point,” said Kent. One way to get the wow factor is to install the latest technology available, but as an integrator/ consultant that isn’t always the best option, as Josh Miller, director from DJ Willrich points out; “We get asked all the time, ‘what’s new?’. We don’t really want to be installing anything out of left field, we want to install something that has evolved, and we know it will still be working in five years time.”

One of the biggest issues integrators/consultants have in this sector is getting support from manufacturers, as they are often pushing the products to the limit of what they can achieve. “We are forever asking projector manufacturers to catch up with where clients want to be. The relationship with manufacturers is key, because the process in visitor attractions is so long. You need to know where everyone is heading. Now has gone, even what has been launched at InfoComm this year has gone. We are looking at 2017, 2018 and 2019,” said Kent.

The projector has long been a mainstay of visitor attraction projects, but with the product facing competition from low pixel pitch LED tiles in other sectors, will that happen here? Not so much it seems. “There will always be a $1,000 projector, a $10,000 projector, and a $100,000 projector. But what they will do will change. It’s a canvas for storytelling in technology. In a boardroom you have a limited space, in a visitor attraction you are using it to create an effect. Projection will always have a place, and there is a really interesting convergence between lighting and projection right now,” said Murphy.

One boost for integrators who want to invest in new technology has been the falling costs of media production in recent years, as highlighted by Nevil Bounds. “There has been a big shift is media production costs, before we would have to rent an edit suite in central London, for many hundreds of pounds per hour for weeks on end, now those producers and editors, can do it on a MacBook on their kitchen table whilst having a beer. Before, we used to get squeezed on hardware and integration costs, because media production was so expensive. Now the balance has shifted towards us a little and we can take part in using newer technology.”

Our participants all agreed the biggest difference between from this market to others is that if you take a corporate boardroom for example, the main purpose is communication, so an integrator will focus in on the technology and the functions. If you take the leisure economy the focus is on the design and the story and the technology has to fit into that. The technology has to do its job, and do it very well, and there is great skill in designing and installing it, but a visitor attraction is not about technology or as Paul Kent put it “Nobody walks out of Disneyland humming the video projector, if you notice the technology it’s been done wrong.”

In attendance:

Kevin Murphy, Attraktion

Josh Miller, DJ Willrich

Paul Kent, Electrosonic

Charlotte Hone, Epson

Nevil Bounds, Feltech

Blair Parkin, Tandemonium

Chris Hawes, Visual Acuity