Meet the Team: Grace Ficke

February 27, 2013

Grace Ficke

Grace Ficke

And now it's time for another Five Questions segment, this time with graphics co-op Grace Ficke!

Best advice anyone ever gave me…
An old man working the concession stand at Target once replaced the terrible slushie I was drinking with a free one and told me “Life's too short to drink bad slushies.”

My favorite part of the design process is…
The end! There's something about printing something out, or seeing your hard work hanging up, or finally having a project polished and complete that's really exciting for me. That deep breath at the end of a project (or semester) is one of the best feelings.

What's your favorite food?
I don't think I've ever met a macaroni and cheese I didn't like.

What sport do you enjoy watching/playing?
There's nothing like watching a baseball game in the summertime.

My favorite exhibit/attraction is…
Surrounded by Sharks at the Newport Aquarium.

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The 5 Keys to Creating Successful Brand Lands: Respecting Tradition, Infusing Innovation

February 21, 2013

Thanks for reading, and welcome back to Part 2 of our how-to of creating successful brand attractions and experiences. In today’s post, Shawn McCoy takes us on a journey to JRA’s newest brand lands, from the UAE to the US of A.

In 2010, JRA celebrated the opening of its largest brand experience, which just also happens to be the world’s largest indoor theme park. Ferrari World Abu Dhabi offers rides, attractions, shows and restaurants all themed to the car manufacturer and is perfectly situated adjacent to one of the most popular tracks in the Formula 1 universe. While the theme park is located in Abu Dhabi, JRA brought authentic Italy to the guests however it could. The park features several 5-star chefs from Italy who create authentic Italian dishes. It also offers opportunities for guests to experience Ferrari’s Italian roots, such as “Viaggio in Italia,” where visitors can fly over the Italian landscape, or Bell’Italia, where they can drive through miniature recreations of famous Italian landscapes.

The park’s signature “only here” attraction however, ties to the automaker’s tradition for speed. Formula Rossa is the fastest rollercoaster in the world – hurtling to speeds of 150 miles per hour in 4.9 seconds, simulating the acceleration of a Ferrari racecar. Its reverence to its roots, coupled with its need for speed, makes Ferrari World Abu Dhabi a destination brand experience for tourists to the Middle East.

Back in the USA, we move from fast cars to tasty libations, from the deserts of Abu Dhabi to the green hills of Kentucky. Last October, the Bourbon Trail welcomed the new Jim Beam American Stillhouse and Distillery Tour in Clermont, the birthplace of the bourbon known as “liquid gold.” The down-home, rural personality of the brand is evident in the attraction’s authentic buildings and lush landscape.

The tour begins in the stillhouse, a new building designed by JRA. Its architecture and aesthetic were developed to match the agricultural and industrial roots of the brand (while also embracing its quirkiness), and features the “stillevator,” an elevator made out of a bourbon still. The brand’s motto is “come as a friend, leave as family,” so the stillhouse was designed to be homey and welcoming. Jim Beam is first and foremost a family company, with seven generations of Master Distillers, and JRA represented this tradition with a floor-to-ceiling graphic. Fred Noe, current Master Distiller and descendant of Jacob “Jim” Beam, is featured at bottom.

After visiting the Stillhouse, guests have the option of taking the Distillery Tour, which allows them to see the real mass production and bottling processes of the brand’s key products – from running their hands through the mash of the small batch line to feeling the heat of the of the 10,000-gallon large batch fermentation vats. Since these production facilities are spread out over several buildings, JRA included a miniature production line, where the company’s Knob Creek Brand is created. The experiences the entire process, all the way down to barrel dumping, bottling and decanting. Throughout the tour, guests meet the real stars of the show – the Jim Beam staff who create the bourbon. JRA knew that Jim Beam’s greatest strength was its people and looked for ways to leverage this asset throughout the design process.

After the tour, thirsty visitors can make their way to the state-of-the-art Jim Beam American Outpost tasting room for an innovative “only here” experience. In contrast to traditional bourbon tastings, JRA created a cocktail party atmosphere with the introduction of the Enomatic – a wine-serving system adapted for bourbon for the first time. Guests are given a tasting card and are briefly introduced to the different brands. They then have the power to choose which two samples they would like to drink.

The American Stillhouse, Distillery Tour and American Outpost tasting room offer the guest an authentic, interactive encounter that has already earned Jim Beam accolades. A full month before its completion, CNN Travel ranked the new Jim Beam American Stillhouse and Distillery Tour as one of the “World’s Best” – sight unseen and solely based on its vision and proposed enhancements. Jim Beam aims to increase visitor numbers from 80,000 to 250,000 with the new attraction, catapulting it from the lowest rated tour on the Trail to the highest.

By infusing authenticity, intimacy and interactivity with a healthy dash of personality and innovation, some of the world’s biggest companies are creating brand lands that deepen human connections with their products while offering entertaining attractions for fans and families alike.


Tags: Blog N Learn , JRA Journeys , Outside the Studio , Project Spotlight , shawn

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The 5 Keys to Creating Successful Brand Lands: Part 1 - Unlocking the Authentic

February 20, 2013

Following Keith James’ recent presentation on brand experiences at the Trends in Leisure and Entertainment (TiLE) Conference in Hyderabad, India, Shawn McCoy writes on the keys to success for branded attractions.


For over 25 years, JRA has created attractions for some of the world’s top brands, from theme parks to museums to visitor centers. Through this experience, JRA has learned that the more successful brand lands are those that incorporate some, if not all, of the following keys to success:

  • • AUTHENTICITY – an authentic location (e.g., a corporate headquarters or production facility), real stories, real people and real processes
  • • ACCESS – providing visitors with access to things (collections, artifacts, and memorabilia), processes and people
  • • ONLY HERE EXPERIENCES – providing guests with the opportunity to see and experience things that can only be found at the attraction
  • • PERSONALITY OF THE BRAND – letting the personality of the brand shine through the architecture, aesthetic, exhibits, media experiences and people
  • • HUMAN INTERACTION – putting a human face on the brand by allowing guests to interact with employees and brand ambassadors.

JRA’s first branded theme parks were LEGOLAND Windsor in 1996 and its Carlsbad, California counterpart in 1999. Contrary to the examples we will discuss later, these parks were built in places other than where their brand originated (though the first LEGOLAND park was constructed in its home country of Denmark). But even though these parks are hundreds to thousands of miles away from the brand’s home, they both make a clear visual statement about their inspiration – LEGO bricks. Each of the parks’ activity areas relate to a different LEGO play theme and offer rides, shows, interactives and a Miniland – a series of recreated towns built meticulously from millions of these bricks. Through its design process, JRA learned that the child needed to be the hero in each activity, whether riding and jousting on a horse or working together with a family to put out a fire, just as they are the heroes when they complete their LEGO creation at home. This feeling of heroism is the hallmark personality of the LEGO brand.

A year after the opening of LEGOLAND California, JRA completed its next branded attraction over 5,600 miles away in Wolfsburg, Germany. Volkwagen Autostadt is an authentic tribute to the car brand and offers a glimpse into the tradition and design that have made the brand a success. The ZeitHaus (auto museum) features one of the largest car collections in the world, telling the story of the development of the automobile. Its authenticity derives from the fact that the first car displayed is the Mercedes, the world’s first automobile. In the history gallery, exhibits showcase the personality of the company, as it evolved from its “People’s Cars” roots in World War II to its Love Bug reputation of the 1970s to its current reputation as an innovative and sustainable company. Autostadt offers a series of “only here” experiences, where you can take a ride inside of a gyroscope to learn about safety or walk through an automobile testing facility.

But the real “only here” experience can be found within the site’s towers, which are filled with cars recently produced at the adjacent factory, the largest automobile manufacturing facility in the world. These cars are ordered by customers, which are placed into the tower via an elevator. The sense of anticipation reaches its peak when customers see their appointed time come up on an electronic board, and they can go pick up their car. Its reverence to automobile tradition, its tongue-in-cheek look at Volkwagen’s history and personality and its abundance of “only here” experiences are the reasons why Autostadt has welcomed over 25 million visitors since 2000 and spurred the economy of this small German town.

Moving back across the pond but further forward in time, we arrive in Lynchburg, Tennessee at the Jack Daniels Distillery Experience, which JRA completed in 2007. This attraction, located in the heart of whiskey country, creates another authentic atmosphere, where you can see the production process and bottling line and witness the Jack Daniels coopers making and charring the barrels. Guests can also have the unique experience of visiting the natural spring water source at the heart of every bottle of Jack Daniels and learn why the distillery is located where it is.

The most expensive “only here” experience is the By the Barrel program, where guests can hand-select and buy a barrel of single malt (if they can afford it). Each barrel costs about $10,000, but it provides you with about 240 bottles of Jack Daniels. The distillery notifies you when your barrel is ready to be picked up and hosts a ceremony when you arrive. You also get your name on a custom plaque in the visitor’s center. These authentic, “only here” experiences have garnered the Distillery rave reviews. The attraction has a five-star rating on TripAdvisor, and one guest lauded, “I loved it! This has been one of my favorite tours…from the moment you step into the room, you can smell the whiskey.”

Our final tour stop today is another beverage brand attraction – The World of Coca-Cola in Atlanta, Georgia, which also opened in 2007. Atlanta is The Coca-Cola Company’s birthplace, so its very location screams authenticity and enables guests with access to the very heart of the brand, especially its people. Guests can see images of the real people who produce and bottle the product around the world and hear the real stories of consumers’ love of the brand. The attraction even features a real miniature bottling line to showcase the authentic process of how to make a Coke. At the end of the tour, you get to take a bottle off the line to take home.

The World of Coca-Cola provides access to the largest collection of Coca-Cola artifacts and memorabilia in the world, including the “Advertising Theater,” which showcases all of the great Coca-Cola commercials. More than just a display of authentic Coca-Cola products, the attraction also incorporates authentic human (and bear) interactions. You begin your visit with an overview of the company, provided by a live host. You also encounter 1950s soda jerks, who can answer your questions and serve you your favorite drink. Exciting to the littler Coke fans is the opportunity to have a picture taken with a walk-around Polar Bear character, created by Jim Henson Productions. But the main one-of-a-kind attraction is the tasting area – the only place in the world where you can taste all the drinks that Coca-Cola produces around the world.

By creating authentic, only here experiences that showcase a brand’s personality, people and tradition, these attractions are enjoying big numbers in both their attendees and their bottom line. Tomorrow, we’ll visit two of JRA’s newest brand attraction projects, and we promise it will be distilled into a red hot post that inspires a need for speed.

Tags: Blog N Learn , JRA Journeys , Outside the Studio , Project Spotlight , shawn

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From Wizarding Worlds to iPhones: The Value of Experiential Design

February 13, 2013

Today our own VP of Marketing, Shawn McCoy, gave a presentation on the Value of Experiential Design (if this sounds familiar, we posted a blog series of the same name – check it out here). His thirty audience members were alumni of C-Change, the Cincinnati USA Regional Chamber’s year-long leadership development program for emerging talent in the region.

Shawn began his presentation by defining the term “experiential design” using the analogy of a birthday party. You begin with the cake. When constructing a cake, the eggs, flour, etc. are products. Put those products into a ready-made mix, and you have a commodity. Order that cake from your local bakery, and now you are taking about a service. But take all of those products, commodities, and services, combine them with costumed characters, balloons, guests, music and a themed setting, and now you have an experientially designed event.

While Shawn shared some of the more obvious industry-related giants of experiential design, The Walt Disney Company and Universal’s Wizarding World of Harry Potter, he also elaborated on its more practical manifestations. The warm chocolate chip cookie that awaits you when you check in at the Doubletree. The sign that points you to the most convenient exit at Mike’s Car Wash. The library that, thanks to an experientially-designed facelift, has been lauded by teens as “cooler than the mall.” The musicians who play to ailing children at the Mayo Clinic to help aid in their healing. All of these examples show how experiential design can manifest itself in the little real world things, not just the big fantasyland spectacles.

To close his presentation, Shawn offered the following lessons learned:

  • • No amount of theming can compensate for a bad underlying product.
  • • Think of your guests or customers as the audience, your environment as your stage, your employees as your actors, your product or service as the story, your delivery of service as your script, and your support operations as your backstage.
  • • Maniacally focus on the guest experience. Create layers of memorable touch points with your brand to connect with your audience on an emotional level.
  • • Experiential design is all about innovation. Don’t be afraid to push the envelope.
  • • Companies who truly value experiential design will not only provide memorable experiences for their guests and customers, they will also provide the basis for their own success.

When asked by an audience member about the future of experiential design, Shawn predicted an intersection of technology and personalization. “We will definitely see more RFID. For example, you’ll be able to program where you’re from, your language, your preferences, etc. into an RFID interface, and your museum or theme park environment will react to that information. Yes it’s high-tech, but what’s more important is that it’s personal to you, it’s that human touch.”

“Shawn gave me a real insight into how experiential design can help me improve the customer experience through my job at Society of St. Vincent de Paul,” said Matt Flege, President of the C-Change Alumni Association. “Creating a memorable, impactful experience goes beyond just an amusement park or museum, but can add value to virtually any business. Shawn was very engaging and entertaining, and left me with several good ideas to take back to work!”

Next week, we’ll recap the recent Indian Association Of Amusement Parks & Industries (IAAPI) Conference and Keith James’ remarks on the essence of brands.

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

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The "Cool Stuff" Tour: Attractions with a View

February 06, 2013

Building upon our trends blogs from November and December, we’ve decided to debut a “cool stuff” series, surveying the world for all things unique and different, while offering a little historical background along the way. We begin our series with a look at a variety of “up in the air” experiences.

Observation Tower – for over a century, these two words have sparked promises of panoramic vistas of natural wonders or urban rooftops. But nowadays, what used to consist of a large window, a platform and a telescope has become much more, and these towers have manifested themselves into full-scale attractions with gift shops, restaurants, theatres and mini-museums.

The observation tower’s original function was that of keeping watch. Made from stone, iron and wood, the towers first appeared in Germany at the close of the 18th century. After the advent of the passenger elevator in the mid-19th century, the popularity of the observation tower grew, as did the range of its uses. One of the most famous early observation towers, the Eiffel Tower of Paris’ 1889 World’s Fair, revealed the tower’s function as not just, well, functional (in the Eiffel Tower’s case, for radio communication), but also as a piece of art and tourist draw.

Across the pond, the 1930s brought a bevy of observation decks to the United States. The most popular (featured in such movies as An Affair to Remember and Sleepless in Seattle) is located on the 102nd floor of the Empire State Building. Other notable observation decks and towers of the period include the “Top of the Rock” deck on the 70th floor of the GE Building, Coit Tower in San Francisco and Carew Tower located in JRA’s hometown of Cincinnati. All offered views in all directions, but at least initially, not much else.

Carew Tower - Photo credit: Wikipedia

Seattle’s Space Needle, built for the 1962 World’s Fair, broke the tower mold with its Space Age design and rotating restaurant. It was also an engineering marvel, capable of withstanding winds of 200 miles per hour and a 9.1 magnitude earthquake. The Space Needle’s success spawned a “tower boom” across the border in Canada over the next ten years, with structures cropping up in Ontario, Vancouver and Alberta before culminating with the CN Tower in Toronto. It also encouraged a shift in tower design from the standard skyscraper model to the sleek, needle-like structures we see so often today.

CN Tower - Photo credit: Wikipedia

The CN Tower, which opened in 1976, was the world’s tallest tower at the time and is still the tallest tower in the Western Hemisphere. Not only does the tower offer the usual lookout experience, it also hosts a restaurant, a glass floor area, a 3D theater and a motion theater ride. The most daring (and vertigo-free) guests can enjoy EdgeWalk, in which visitors, tethered to an overhead safety rail, can experience a open air, hands-free walk around the ledge of the Tower’s main pod, 116 stories above the ground.

EdgeWalk at CN Tower - Photo credit:

In the last couple of years, Asia and the Middle East have served as the centers of sky-high development. In Dubai, where the goal of every construction project is that it ends in “-est,” the Burj Khalifa, which opened in 2010, rises 2,722 feet into the air, making it the largest man-made structure in the world. The journey up to the Burj’s appropriately named observation deck, “At the Top”, begins in the tower’s lobby with an introductory media presentation. A second multimedia experience greets visitors in a 65-meter-long “travelator” and chronicles the history of Dubai from its foundation to the present. Once guests have completed their journey up the high-speed elevators, they are greeted with glass walls offering a panoramic view of the city. Augmented reality telescopes provide versions of the outdoor scenes across time (both past and future), in various weather conditions and at different times of day.

Burj Khalifa - Photo credit: Architecture

Moving, east, we arrive at China’s Canton Tower, with its unique, twisted design. From its outdoor rooftop observatory, the largest and highest outdoor observation deck in the world, guests take one of sixteen transparent, four-person passenger cars on a 20-40 minute journey circumnavigating the tower’s rooftop, as if a Ferris Wheel had been turned on its side. Canton Tower also features a 4D special effects cinema, four restaurants (one appropriately named “Twist”), a teahouse, a wine bar and a spider walk – a 1,028-step spiral staircase offering a commanding view of Guangzhou and several daring glass floor landings. A Science Exhibition Hall on the 109th and 110th floors explains how the tower holds up to wind and seismic events and showcases its other engineering features. The tower even boasts the highest post office in China and sells special stamps to commemorate the guests’ ascent. But the crown on the Canton Tower is the Mega Drop – the tallest drop ride in the world. Attached to the Tower’s mast 500 meters above the ground, guests are dropped 50 meters, the city views flying up as they free fall. With attractions for thrill seekers and casual observers alike, Canton Tower differentiates itself from its more conventional forebears.

Canton Tower - Photo credit:

Moving further east, we arrive at the gleaming Tokyo Skytree. Clad in what it calls “Skytree White,” it is actually colored the lightest shade of Japanese traditional indigo blue and is illuminated with alternating patterns of sky blue and purple LED lights at night. The tower is an anchor for the surrounding Tokyo Skytree Town, which features a train station, shops, restaurants, Sumida Aquarium, a planetarium and offices. Once inside the Skytree, guests can enjoy views from one of two observation decks. The three level, 350-meter-high Tembo Deck houses a café, restaurant and gift shop, and the 450-meter-high Tembo Gallery offers a more traditional observation deck experience. Connecting the two decks is a dizzying spiral ramp encased in a steel and glass tube, which allows for spectacular views over Japan’s Kanto Region. The May 2012 opening of the Skytree attracted over 1.6 million visitors in one week, and trips up the structure were completely booked for most of the following summer.

Tokyo Skytree - Photo credit: The Telegraph

But Asia is not the only recent player in the tower game. For the latest arrivals on the scene, we head back west to London. The Arcelormittal Orbit was constructed for the 2012 London Olympics and features a daring design that is far more aesthetic than functional. The spiraling, 377-foot-tall tower-sculpture, which cost £19.1 million to construct, was built to serve as a lasting legacy of the Games. One of the designers, Anish Kapoor, was influenced by the mythic nature of the Tower of Babel and strove to “build the impossible.” According to The Independent, Kapoor says he ended up with an “awkward” structure: “It has its elbows sticking out…it refuses to be an emblem.” London Mayor Boris Johnson, who called the Orbit the “Hubble Bubble” because it resembled a hookah pipe, heralded the structure as something that “would have boggled the minds of the Romans. It would have boggled Gustave Eiffel.” Inside the Orbit are two observation floors and a restaurant. Guests are encouraged to take the lifts up to the top floor and descend via the 455-step spiral staircase to better appreciate Kapoor’s artistic inclinations as well as the surrounding views.

The Orbit - Photo credit: Wikipedia

On the tower’s website, guests are encouraged to share their Orbit experience via words, photos and video. The stories and images then appear on the website’s “My Journey Notice board,” giving guests the opportunity to see their experiences in the context of other visits by people from around the world. Drawing on the principles and influence of Gustave Eiffel’s tower 123 years earlier, the Arcelormittal Orbit is a 21st century example of how engineering, architecture, art, nature and technology intersect to create a iconic structure.

Also in London, the Shard is the newborn babe of towers, opening to the public only a mere four days ago. Designed by famous Pompidou Center architects Renzo Piano, the 1,017-foot-high Shard, clad in 11,000 panes of glass, is the tallest building in the European Union and sports the UK’s highest observation open-air observation deck. The tower got its name from a criticism by English Heritage, who said at the project’s outset that it would be like a “shard of glass through the heart of historic London.” Despite its controversy, construction continued, and the five-story public viewing gallery is now expected to draw one million visitors per year, with Southwark councilmembers deeming it an economic development catalyst. Even Prince Andrew, Duke of York, showed his support of the building (and his charities) by abseiling from the tower’s 87th floor. In addition to the gallery, the building houses office space, a Shangri-La hotel, residences, restaurants and a spa.

The Shard - Photo credit:

From 4D theaters to transparent trams, five-star restaurants to augmented reality, today’s observation decks and towers are pushing the boundaries of how we see the world from on high. If icons like the Shard are any indication, one can only imagine what the towers of the next 100 years will bring to those guests who wish to play in the clouds.

Now we’d like to hear from you – what is your favorite observation tower experience? What makes it so special?


Tags: JRA Journeys , Outside the Studio

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Bonus Blog: WhiskeyCast HD Visits the Jim Beam New American Stillhouse

February 01, 2013

We recently stumbled upon this great video from WiskeyCast HD that brings the recently opened Jim Beam New American Stillhouse and Distillery Tour to life.  On a 9-degree Farenheit day like it is in Cincinnati today, this "liquid" gold looks like it would hit the spot.  Enjoy!

Tags: JRA Journeys , Outside the Studio , Project Spotlight

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