The Essence of Leadership: "Listen Lavishly"

December 19, 2012

Tom Mehrmann, IAAPA Museum Day

Tom Mehrmann, IAAPA Museum Day

We’ll say goodbye to 2012 (and perhaps the universe as we know it if Friday’s Mayan predictions prevail) with some words of wisdom from Ocean Park Hong Kong CEO and long-time JRA friend, Tom Mehrmann. As Lunch & Learn speaker for IAAPA’s Museum Day, Mehrmann offered some of the leadership traits that have helped him create successful projects and strong project teams.

Mehrmann began his theme park career as a part-time sweeper at Knott’s Berry Farm during high school. While a student at Cal State Fullerton, he continued to work his way up the ladder at Knott’s, eventually becoming Vice President of Park Operations and Entertainment in 1996. After twenty-one years there, Mehrmann moved on to Six Flags Marine World in 1998. He then moved to Madrid in 2000 to become Vice President and General Manager at Warner Bros. Movie World.

In 2004, Mehrmann was recruited to Ocean Park as CEO to define what would eventually become the park’s 6-year, HK$5.55 billion dollar Master Redevelopment Plan (MRP). According to a park press release, the mission of the MRP was to position the park “into a leading world-class family travel destination.” The MRP created a variety of new themed lands, including a dedicated thrill ride area and a 3-story aquarium, but also more than doubled the number of attractions, all with no suspension or interruption of daily park operations. As a result of these innovations, Ocean Park attracted a record high 7.1 million guests in the fiscal year ending 30 June 2012, up from just 3 million when Mehrmann started. The final themed area of the plan, Polar Adventure, opened this past July and features immersive presentations of North and South Pole species, a family coaster ride and Tuxedos, a themed restaurant that offers a panoramic view of the penguin pool area.

“Managers do things right,” Mehrmann began. “Leaders do the right thing.” Not only was it important to keep the product fresh through the MRP, it was necessary to re-think customer service and human resource management in light of the physical park changes. Mehrmann (much to the chagrin of the executive assistant scheduling his time) writes personal thank you letters to every employee that receives a compliment card. This year, he wrote 1,200 letters (in 2004 he wrote 25). Positive recognition is key to encouraging great customer service, Mehrmann said. “Catch [your employees] doing things right. As leaders, too often we catch people doing things wrong.” Employees are empowered to respond to guest complaints right away, without approval of supervisors, and are given gift cards to present to disgruntled guests when all else fails. Surprisingly, the employees have handled the cards extremely judiciously, only using them in a “kobayashi maru” scenario. Whether dealing with customers or employees, Mehrmann said, it is imperative to “listen lavishly and respond with focus.”

Throughout his presentation, Mehrmann offered several keys to success. “Be hungry for change,” he said. Change is the enemy of the mundane, the monotonous and the outdated. It encourages repeat visitation and creates an excitement that breeds customer interest, and over time, loyalty. “Be innovative beyond your customer’s imagination,” he added. “Make the competition irrelevant.” In other words: what do we do best? How can we do it so much better than anybody else, that when our customer craves entertainment, we are the first person they think of?

“Be disruptive by nature,” Mehrmann offered. “Take a look at the status quo and ask, ‘why do we do that?’” To see how Ocean Park has heeded this counsel, one need look no further than the park’s recent Halloween Bash, which welcomed 726,000 visitors this past October. To market the bash, Ocean Park employees, (including Mehrmann himself) participated in a lavish flash mob and viral video to Psy’s smash K-pop hit, “Gangnam Style.”

On tap for the winter holidays is an all-new Santa Cosplay, featuring uniquely dressed Santas, mobile app games and giveaways, themed displays, shows and a variety of “sparkling surprises.” Events like these keep content fresh, visitors returning and bottom lines growing.

For his final nugget of knowledge, Mehrmann advised, “be genuine, not just generous.” Live your values. For Ocean Park, that means dedicating itself to education, conservation and entertainment every minute of every day. The nine attractions in Polar Adventure not only amuse and delight guests, they educate visitors about the impact of global climate change.

Mehrmann concluded by listing what he believed were the ten innate qualities of leaders:

  1. Curiosity
  2. Sense of Responsibility
  3. Sense of Humor
  4. Passion
  5. Courage of Conviction
  6. Initiative
  7. Creativity/Innovation
  8. Sense of Urgency
  9. Persistence
  10. Confidence

His most important advice? “Have fun.”

Speaking of having fun, everyone at JRA wishes you and yours a happy holiday season and a successful and enjoyable new year. Thanks for reading, and we look forward to seeing you in 2013!

Tags: Blog N Learn , JRA Journeys , Outside the Studio

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Inspiring and incisive thoughts from a great guy. It's a superb operation he runs. Happy holidays to all of you at JRA!
charlie read 10:54AM 12/19/12

The Mysterious World of "Other" - Part 2: Embracing the Tribe

December 13, 2012

Three days after Museum Day kicked off the 2012 IAAPA Expo, the Themed Entertainment Association (TEA) hosted TEA Presents: Future Legends 2012: Engaging the Senses. Panelists included Dave Cobb of Thinkwell and Susan Bonds of 42 Entertainment, and the discussion was moderated by Christian Lachel of BRC Imagination Arts. Much like the Museum Day presentation, Cobb and Bonds offered up some of their favorite interactive experiences and how they speak to the future of the industry.

What happens when the senses are not cared for? If they are no longer cherished and protected? What happens when the human spirit is no longer stimulated? When the essence of that sense that we so desperately need to remind us of who and what we are is taken for granted? What do we do? We go in search of hope.
        - Terry O’Quinn, The Human Preservation Project



One of Bond’s more dynamic examples was The Human Preservation Project, a scan-able portal that took guests into a pervasive world game. It was also an elaborately conceived marketing campaign around Wrigley’s 5 gum. The mantra for The Human Preservation Project was simple: “stimulate your senses, or risk losing what makes us human.” This wasn’t about you choosing the right chewing gum – the fate of the world was in your hands (or mouth, as it were).


After signing up, each gamer received a padded envelope in the mail containing a clue, a pack of gum, and a secret service-esque badge displaying the “test subject’s“ name and photo. Inside the pack was a QR code that took the gamer to a video starring LOST alum Terry O’Quinn, which cautioned them not to literally “lose their senses.” He also directed them to, where they were to put in the code number from their gum package to unlock a “key.” And so the Survival Code Game began, and via more mailings, texts, gum, keys and online challenges, the participant could “unlock the story and save the world.” Wrigley’s launched the campaign by dropping mysterious packets around the floor and grounds of the Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3) for curious gamers to find, and subsequently, obsess over. Bond explained that “taste is an emotional memory, the next frontier” and that when creating such a multidimensional campaign, “it’s all about mystery and surprise.”

Bond also discussed Flynn Lives, a multiplatform, alternate reality game leading up to TRON: Legacy whose aim was to find the lost hero of the original 1982 Disney film. Check out the video below to learn how this ARG not only achieved its mission of re-energizing the original TRON fan base, but also inspired a whole new global audience of tech-savvy twentysomethings.

Flynn Lives gave gamers a place in the story, a sense that they, too, could become heroes of the new film. This audience immersion was key to the campaign’s success.


But interactive experiences don’t always have to be high tech journeys through virtual worlds. Dave Cobb reminded the audience of Caine’s Arcade, in which a 9-year-old boy created a game room (and a subsequent YouTube phenomenon) from cardboard boxes, calculators and other everyday objects. On the heels of that video, Chicago Children’s Museum hosted the temporary exhibit “Unboxed: Adventures in Cardboard,” which basically consisted of a room full of cardboard boxes, tubes, and sheets that a child could transform into a sword, a hat, or a hiding place. Yet even with this lo-tech format, Cobb's lesson is the same: allow your audience to become a co-creator.

Photo: The Telegraph

As in the Museum Day presentation earlier in the week, the discussion came around to the recently opened Warner Bros. Harry Potter Studio Tour in London. Cobb shared the story of a group of students at Dr. Phillipps High School, located adjacent to the studio, who immerse themselves in the studio’s wizarding world three times per week, annual passes and butterbeers in hand, to do their homework at Hogwarts – in full Hogwarts robes (as Cobb marveled, "they were cosplaying their homework!"). “Places become their own reasons for being,” he added, “and the audience will use your place for their own purposes.”

The Comic-Crowd

Cobb and Bonds closed by saying that those in the room were “a maker culture… we are at a cliff looking at the next big thing.” They also reinforced some of the themes from earlier in the week: immersive engagement is key, and it is imperative to meet the audience where they are. Cobb and Bonds cautioned those in attendance not to consider the Trekkies and Ringers of Comic-Con and Dragon*Con “nerds” – they will do so at their own peril, alienating a large portion of their audience. Museums, theme parks and the like must instead “embrace the tribe,” because the gaming culture is not going away. As Lachel added in conclusion, it’s not about the technology, it’s about creating story worlds on multiple platforms that people want to be a part of. It’s about letting the audience shape the experience, contributing their own shovels to the attraction industry’s “creative sandbox.”

For our final blog of 2012, we’ll wrap up our wrap-up by reflecting on the concept of leadership as outlined by Tom Mehrmann, CEO of Ocean Park Hong Kong.

Tags: Blog N Learn , Outside the Studio

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The Mysterious World of "Other" - Part 1: London Calling

December 12, 2012

For our final blog in our trends series, we’re ticking the “none of the above” box, examining some of 2012’s best installations, manifestations and hip happenings. And, much like Peter Jackson’s much anticipated The Hobbit, we can’t contain it all in one package (though we are limiting ourselves to two installments).

To round out IAAPA’s Museum Day opener, Cynthia Sharpe of Thinkwell, a self-professed “nerd girl,” presented what she called “The Cool Stuff that Doesn’t Fit in Any Other Category.” She began by reminding the audience that, “you too can find cool stuff anywhere and everywhere,” recommending such sites as, and for offbeat inspiration. Sharpe proclaimed that “cool stuff ran the gamut this year,” and she offered some compelling examples from the island across the pond.

“Why not set Stonehenge on fire?” That’s the question Sharpe posed to describe The Fire Garden, which its organizers called “a glowing fairytale environment” with “mysterious fiery engines, flaming fire pots and cascades of candles.” The installation, presented by French artists Compagnie Carbosse for the Salisbury Arts Festival, filled the World Heritage site with more than 500 flaming fire pots, 40 torches and several mechanical puppets over three nights in July. Festival organizers called it an "atmospheric feast for the senses” guaranteed to get visitors from the London area and beyond excited about the upcoming Olympics.

Coca-Cola also contributed to the excitement of the 2012 London Games with its Beatbox installation. Designed by now-famous architects Pernilla & Asif, this Coke-red pavilion was played like an instrument, where guests created their own beat, while making music together, by re-assembling sounds that were embedded into the walls. The tones were created by Grammy award-winning producer Mark Ronson, who traveled the world recording the sounds of athletes. The Beatbox was covered in 230 five-meter-long bolsters made of a plastic polymer that acted as a giant drum skin, and all of the materials were re-used or recycled at the close of the Games.

But perhaps the coolest London attraction that Sharpe shared was Secret Cinema. Founded in London in 2007 by Fabien Riggall, Secret Cinema is a “growing community of all that love cinema, and experiencing the unknown. Secret audience. Secret film. Secret locations. Secret worlds.” Here’s the premise: a few days before the film, you receive an email that talks to you as if you were a member of that film and that instructs you to appear at the designated venue in themed clothing. Once you arrive, you are immersed in the world of the selected film, complete with sets, costumed performers, drinks and food. Only when the dramatic tension has reached its full pitch are you made aware of what film it is you are about to watch.

Let’s offer an example. For Ghostbusters (a personal favorite of this blogger), visitors (asked to dress in ‘80s garb) were directed to an Art Deco building emblazoned with a neon sign reading “Sedgewick Hotel” above the entrance. Actors outside the hotel raised signs proclaiming the coming apocalypse, and mock reporters asked questions of the crowd in an atmosphere of chaos. All of the sudden, a Citroen Estate with a blazing red light arrived, and four gentlemen in tan aviator suits with black jet packs got out, as Ray Parker Jr.’s anthem blared and a crazed Louis Tully (Rick Moranis’ character) ran around wildly.  Here's a look: 

In an interview with The Times, Riggall explained, “we want people to feel like they are stepping into the film.” This formula creates a shared experience in an era in which people are increasingly inclined to watch movies in their homes due to the cost and impersonality of movie multiplexes. Since their first screening, Gus Van Sant’s Paranoid Park under London Bridge, Secret Cinema has created happenings around 18 other films, including Blade Runner, Alien, and, most recently, Prometheus. Secret Cinema 020 will take place in April-May 2013 in an undisclosed location in London and for the first time in Athens and New York. While we don’t know the film, if the past is any indication (and based on the fact that the London screening is already sold out), the event will be another cinematic sensation.

Sharpe concluded by saying that “2012 was the year of making the ineffable accessible, the unknowable or untouchable visceral, or in the words of my gamer friend, the virtual into meatspace.”

Tomorrow, we’ll cap off our tour of trends by re-visiting the Themed Entertainment Associations’ “Future Legends” panel at the recent IAAPA Expo, where we’ll investigate epic interactive experiences and viral online sensations developed around movies, gum and cardboard boxes.

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Theme Park Trends (and What Museums Can Learn from Them)

December 02, 2012

Thank you for joining us last week as we investigated what’s trending in the world of museums, science centers, zoos and aquaria. This week, we’ll turn our focus to what’s new in attractions and theme parks, before wrapping up our trends travelogue with the all-important category of “other” next week.

As part of IAAPA’s Museum and Science Center Day Kickoff, JRA’s VP of Marketing and Business Development, Shawn McCoy, took the audience on a whirlwind tour (83 slides in 12 minutes) of the theme park attractions that opened this past year and offered some lessons on how these attractions can inspire the museum community. First, he showed how the theme park industry has fully embraced the winged coaster craze, the lesson being that there is always room for innovation. He then used Universal Studios’ Despicable Me Minion Mayhem (which replaced Jimmy Neutron) to show how an existing asset (in this case, simulator equipment used for two previous attractions) can be used for new purposes. For a museum, this may consist of an old theater or an underused gallery space.

For his next lesson, Shawn offered another Universal Studios example, Transformers The Ride 3D, which opened in Singapore and Los Angeles this past year, and to Turtle Trek at Sea World. Both feature 3D immersive media experiences that help visitors feel like they are in a part of the story. The lesson here? Museums can use a variety of techniques, such as media, live exhibits and hands-on interactives, to engage and educate their audience.

Shawn then took the room on a journey to Fantasyland at Disney’s Magic Kingdom. The renovation of this iconic themed area marks the biggest expansion in the park’s 41-year history. Set to officially open on December 6th, Fantasyland will be comprised of two main zones, Enchanted Forest and Storybook Circus, housing a number of new and renovated attractions. Buena Vista Street, at Disney California Adventure Park in Anaheim, also opened this year. This themed area re-creates California as it looked to Walt Disney when he first arrived in 1923. These two examples demonstrate how Disney consistently uses architecture and environments as storytelling devices, a technique definitely applicable to the museum world.


Interactivity and competition create an engaged guest. Shawn illustrated this concept through two attractions: Cars Land, at Disney’s California Adventure, and Justice League Alien Invasion 3D, at Warner Brothers Movie World in Gold Coast, Australia. The star attraction of Cars Land, a 12-acre recreation of the 2006 movie’s Radiator Springs, is Radiator Springs Racers, a slot-car racing adventure through a series of re-created environments straight from the film. Since it’s a race, every scenario is different, offering the guest a reason to return. Justice League Alien Invasion 3D in Australia continues the trend of interactive rides made popular by such attractions as Men In Black and Toy Story Midway Mania. Opened this past September, guests board the ride and enter a series of rooms featuring both scenic environments and 3D media, as they help the Super Heroes from DC comics defend the world from an alien attack with their laser guns. Both of these attractions teach that a surefire way to engage your guests is to combine interactivity with competition.

Two attraction brands extended their geographic reach this year, when they opened up new attractions. First is LEGOLAND, which opened its latest theme park in Kuala Lumpur. The 76-acre park is the first LEGOLAND theme park in Asia and features many of the same attractions found in other LEGO parks, along with one-of-a-kind building models. If the swarms of people at its opening are any indication, it will be wildly successful.

Another popular concept expanded this year, as three new Kidzanias opened: one also in Kuala Lumpur, one in Chile and a second one in Mexico City, which is now its largest Kidzania in the world. Kidzania is a recreated miniature city, where children can learn through role-playing in adult professions. The new Mexico City location features a number of environmentally focused role-play opportunities and also caters to special needs guests, even featuring an area where children can train guide dogs. Shawn’s lessons learned from these expansions are simple: if your audience can’t come to you, go to them. For museums, this could range from creating new outreach programs or affiliate museums to even founding a new branch such as the Louvre in Abu Dhabi.

Shawn’s final three examples consisted of some of his favorite new projects, the first being the amazing new botanical garden in Singapore, Gardens by the Bay. Opened this past July, Gardens by the Bay is $1 billion SGD, 250-acre site that features a number of botanical attractions, including outdoor gardens, two domes and the real stars, the Super Trees. These “trees,” which are vertical gardens 80-160-feet tall, not only look cool, they are also multi-functional, as they provide energy via their embedded solar panels, collect rainwater, and provide air intake and exhaust for the domes (not to mention the amazing lights they host at night).

Live Park 4D in Korea is another game-changing concept. This 100,000 square-foot facility features over 65 interactive experiences, where the digital and physical world are seamlessly integrated. When guests check in, they create an avatar, which will follow them through their journey, either via an RFID bracelet, on their smart phone, or on any of the giant screens, where they can interact with other guests and avatars. Live Park represents a growing trend in both entertainment and cultural institutions: guests want personalized experiences where they are in control.

The final projects in Shawn’s whirlwind tour were the new Angry Birds theme parks, both in Finland and in the UK. Based on the #1 selling app of all time, the first licensed Angry Birds Park opened this past May in the game creators’ home country of Finland and features a variety of themed rides, playground structures and outdoor screens where you can play the addictive game. The most recent Angry Birds Park opened in the UK in late summer, with the next park scheduled to open in Shanghai next year.

Now Shawn has an Angry Bird’s obsessed fan in his house, his three-year-old son Finley. When Shawn began preparing for his presentation, he made the mistake of telling him about the park in Finland (as in, the land of Finleys). Finley now asks his dad every morning and every night to take him on an airplane to Finland so that he can go to the park. This brought Shawn to his final lesson learned:

Don’t tell your Angry Birds-obsessed three-year-old son Finley about an Angry Birds theme park in Finland, unless you have every intention of taking him very soon.

That wraps up our look at this year’s theme park trends and their implication (and inspirations) for the museum industry. In our last post of this trends series, we’ll cover everything from multi-media installations at Stonehenge to Tron “happenings” in California to an entire interactive universe inspired by a single stick of gum.

Tags: Blog N Learn , JRA Journeys

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