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AV’s the centre of our attractions

AV is creative engineering, telling stories and creating experiences with technology as a tool, say panellists in this extended online report on the AV Attractions and Entertainment Roundtable.

AV’s the centre of our attractions

“There’s a wide range of different types of attraction and entertainment but we’re all storytellers and magicians,” says Blair Parkin, principal and EMEA director of Teecom, a firm providing consulting, technology project management and engineering services to the sector.

The ‘attractions and entertainments’ label certainly embraces diverse entities, including cultural and heritage and theme parks – a mixture of privately and publicly owned, free and pay-to-enter – many of which were represented on the panel.

Despite their differences, they are linked by the expectations of their very technology-aware visitors, who expect an experience they can’t get at home – and for that the sector turns increasingly to technology.

Storytelling with technology

It’s all about the visitor experience, the panel agrees. “We tell stories and create memories,” explains Parkin and the technology is a key part of how that is achieved.

The sector is highly innovative, frequently using the very latest technologies to pull visitors through the doors and wow them when they get there. Indeed, it is not unusual for products still in beta to be used during the early months of a new project.

Theme parks often work with beta kit, agrees Paul Kent, a senior consultant for entertainment at international systems integrator, Electrosonic. Some clients just want to work not just at the cutting edge, but at the bleeding edge, says Parkin, requiring them to allow for interim installation.

Being at the bleeding edge is nothing new, however, according to the panel’s most experienced members, who have more than 30 years’ experience apiece, like Kevin Murphy, currently director of sales and marketing for AV systems integrator, Kraftwerk Living Technologies.

Murphy started his career in the 70s at The Natural History Museum. “We’ve always used the latest technology available at the time to answer the ever-present pressure to draw visitors through the doors and to keep the experience fresh and relevant,” he explains.

Another industry veteran panellist, Graham Wickman, now director at 767 Consultants, recalls creating an animated effect of a cow chewing the cud, back in the day, by rapidly changing slides using a 12-slide projector rig.

But where slide projectors were once used to throw large images on to screens or buildings, for instance, the latest laser projectors are now used as well as LED, interactive and touch technologies, Virtual Reality, Augmented Reality and Mixed Reality technologies as the quest to enrich, thrill and amaze continues.

There is certainly a rich palette of technologies on which to draw, but nevertheless, the emphasis should remain on the story, says Simon Casey, senior show services manager for Merlin Entertainments’ five London attractions – Madame Tussauds, Coca Cola London Eye, London Dungeon, Shrek’s Adventure! London and Sea Life: “We try to be innovative by telling stories rather than use technology for the sake of it.”

Innovation, adds Murphy, isn’t always about using a cutting-edge technology. It may also be a new twist or combination of ideas to tell the client’s story.

Dan Crompton, AV services manager for Tate London agrees. With his team of five staff and an army of freelancers, Crompton looks after hundreds of events and dozens of installations at Tate Britain and Tate Modern.  Innovation may also be a collaborative process he says: “Take what you’ve got, integrate it with consumer electronics, see how you can twist it and make it work in the gallery.”

Head of new media at London’s Science Museum, Dave Patten also advocates focusing on the storytelling not the technology: “Start with stories not AV, he explains. “Begin with an object list for an exhibition and then look at what to add to help visitors understand its story – add text, audio or video for example.”

Immersive experiences

Advanced AV technology is enabling a trend for theme parks to move away from iron rides towards immersive experiences, although some panellists expressed concern that, while UK theme parks want to innovate, they do not always know how.

“They’ve plodded on with thrill rides,” says Wickman, “but innovative approaches like the Warner Bros Tour, have opened their eyes. They have to catch up. It’s a great example of another key industry trend – the rise of the intellectual-property based attraction.”

This is a very different concept from Harry Potter themed rides at Universal Studios (like the new Hagrid’s Magical Creatures Motorbike Adventure, which combines media with iron-ride). The tour bridges the worlds of theme park and museum. The pre-booked tours show how the Harry Potter films were made, augmented with AV, and enabling visitors to experience the magic of the filmmaking at first hand.

Because the Harry Potter films were being made while the books were still being released, the production crew saved many of the sets, props and costumes in case they would be needed later in the series. When the last film wrapped, they had accumulated a treasure trove of thousands of artefacts, many of which wouldn’t have been saved on a typical production, which have been preserved and showcased in the tour.

Europe, says Kent, is streets ahead of the UK in terms of innovation. Kent notes a trend towards pre-booking in European attractions and says dynamic pricing is also on its way, now that ticketing systems with the necessary agility are becoming available.

Innovation is also underway in the off-site experience. Simon Casey says they’re looking at how to drive pre-booking by building anticipation.

Over in the US theme parks appear to find innovation easier than their UK counterparts. Greater competition makes it easier to find budget, says Wickman: “The US is such a massive market and they’re always trying to raise the bar.”

Funding mechanisms also vary by country. In the US for instance, there are tax incentives to fund the likes of libraries and museums, explains Parkin, who cites Morgan’s Wonderland in Texas, a Gordon Hartman Family Foundation initiative, as an example.

Technologists at the table

The drive to create ever better experiences that surprise and amaze can be very costly, although the sector often appears to lack understanding of the technologies and costs involved to deliver them, some of the panel suggests.

Many attractions turn to consultants and integrators for specialist knowledge. “We turn a brief into technology,” says Wickman.  “Whatever the scale of the operation, we have to work within budget,” says Parkin, “but it is still storytelling.” What the technologists are able to do is advise which technologies deliver the right effect.

“Technology can be overwhelming when you bombard visitors with interactivity and big images,” says Graeme Bunyan, director of technology for consultant and integrator, Sysco Productions. “It’s about getting the balance right.”

Systems integrators also bring their many years of experience of AV technology to a project. Sysco works predominantly in the museum and corporate showcase world rather than theme parks, but as Bunyon explains, while there are many differences, they share many of the same challenges and take similar highly proactive approaches.

The key to success is getting the AV technologists to the table early enough. Project success is often determined by a highly collaborative approach from the outset, the panel suggests, with architects, M&E (Monitoring & Evaluation), AV consultants, systems integrators and client teams, including operational and maintenance staff all involved. “We also need to educate the quantity surveyor,” adds Parkin.

“The best projects get everyone involved,” says Murphy. Chris Power, chairman of the AV Cultural Forum, a knowledge exchange for AV professionals in heritage, cultural and service owner organisations, agrees. “It’s all about communication.” A project can hit problems years down the line because “they needed to call AV in earlier.” The implications of light flooding through the giant skylight or a 40 metre window may have gone unconsidered for instance.

“Architects know the building, and clients know the artefacts and visitor experience,” adds Bunyan. “But you need another team including AV to join those two book-ends.”

The “arrogance of architects” as one panellist phrased it, is a familiar complaint of the AV industry and clearly, further education is required to ensure all architects appreciate the benefits of getting AV to the table early on in a project and the impact on cost of failing to do so.

Take POCs (Points of Connection) for example, for network, sound and power. “They cost just pennies if done during the build,” explains Parkin. If they’re moved later on, the costs shoot up and “soak up the budget”.

Wickman notes a trend for designers to load costs in the base build, meaning integrators are forced to guess what will be needed and where, or opt for a grid to provide a flexible space. If they are brought in late, choice may be limited by that point.

The cost of delivering the client’s concept often proves “beyond what they can afford,” remarks Wickman. Bunyon agrees: “We have to keep cutting down to fit the budget,” he explains, “because the client had no idea how much it would cost.”

Conversely, some clients will spend whatever it takes. “Even when we’ve spent a year on R&D for a client, some clients will double or even triple the budget if that’s what it takes to achieve what they’re after,” says Electrosonic’s Kent.

However big or small the budget, how it’s allocated varies. Wickman says 767 typically allocates one third to software, one third to hardware and the other to construction. Bunyan says they work on a 50:50 basis for media and networking at Sysco while Patten says it’s more like 70:30 even 80:20 at the Science Museum, depending on the amount of interactivity.

Using consultants can help secure budget, in Patten’s experience. The Tate AV team engaged a consultant to help convince all its internal stakeholders of the need to replace some equipment. “The consultants talked to all the stakeholders about how the space needed to work and spoke to fellow London museums before coming up with a comprehensive document that explained why we should replace the kit, gave gold, silver and bronze options and explained the performance we’d get from them. Best of all, the report provided the external view we wanted in the language of the trustees and high level executives – very succinct, accurate and unchallengeable.”

The external view of a consultant can also serve as a sense check, says Wickman, who cites the example of the Maritime Museum. “The Museum’s head of AV is perfectly capable of designing the system, but felt safer with external input to rubber stamp the design.”

Advice from the experts is invaluable particularly in planning for projects that may take five to seven years. “We’re trying to guess the future,” says Electrosonic’s Kent. The technology will continue to evolve over the life of the project. In the case of the Science Museum, explains Patten, the Gallery will have a 30-year life: “The story will change a lot as well as what’s going in there. “

Skill sets

One of the big takeaways from this first Attractions and Entertainment sector roundtable was the need to find the next generation of skilled people.

Wickman explains: “There simply aren’t people coming through – we need to think about where the new blood is going to come from.”

The sector requires people with a broad set of skills spanning creativity and technology. Roundtable panellist, Benji Fox explains their responsibilities: “Our small team at the Royal Academy of Arts does all the exhibitions – the design, lighting and the creative systems – and the public events programme. The team does all the audio, the podcasting and archiving – quite a breadth.”

“There is a big difference between AV in corporate and in attractions and entertainment,” adds Wickman. “They’re very different disciplines and there’s a lot more to get your head around. By comparison, meeting rooms are straight forward.”

Teecom’s Parkin agrees. “It’s very different from meeting rooms (the other side of Teecom’s business) which is a commodity-based design process by comparison with museums.” Bunyan shares the view that it’s “less formulaic” although other panellists suggest that even the design of a meeting room should consider the user story in the design phase, like Kraftwerk’s Murphy.

“We approach meeting rooms just as creatively,” he counters. “AV engineering is a creative process – you have to walk the story through in terms of how the room will be used.”

Either way, it’s not easy to find people with the right skills. There is certainly a lack of courses in Higher Education at present, meaning people come from other aligned disciplines. Some Wickman says migrate over from IT and there is also a pull through from the theatre.

Creating experiences increasingly demands a theatrical approach and there is synergy with theatre.

“Theatre has the built environment, audience, performance, technology and show,” says Parkin. “We need people that understand all these aspects.” Simon Casey couldn’t agree more. He studied at drama school specifically to prepare for a career in theme parks. It wasn’t about acting, he explains. It was about learning how to make props, deal with the sound and lights.

Integrator Sysco Productions also has its roots in theatre. In its early years – a pre-digital age – they were theatre and concert designers, and now describe themselves as ‘story engineers’.

Power says “scratch the surface of people in AV and you’ll find lots of musicians, film makers – creative people who are great problem solvers, practical and with the technical skills.”

One of the problems is there is a real lack of awareness amongst students so we need to raise the industry’s profile says Graeme Massey, managing director of AV recruitment firm, JacobsMassey.

Massey recently spoke to students at Middlesborough College: “They know about sound engineering but no-one realised what the AV industry is.

“They come out of university with a large debt and want to know they’ll be able to get a good job. I’m convinced this industry would have huge appeal to students – you can go anywhere in the world and be part of this creative engineering process – and universities would surely jump at the chance to have someone from the likes of the Science Museum or Merlin Entertainment talk to their students about AV careers.

“Recruitment for AV positions is a problem for us and for everyone in the industry. We need to get out there and tell them.”

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Posted: 24th June 2019

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