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Quarterly Publications

Renovating Innovation

Reimagining the Destination Design Practice

Home Renovations

Andy Warhol once espoused, “They always say time changes things, but you actually have to change them yourself.” After more than 30 years in our downtown St. Louis studio, time had changed many things: the make-up of our staff, how we collaborated on projects, architectural and design standards and innovations, and even the city around us. We were growing at 10% year-over-year for over four years, and we were bursting at the seams. Much like you may have experienced in your own office, there were patches, quick fixes, band-aids, and temporary reorganizations at every turn.

It was time for us to change things ourselves.

We then endeavored on a one year, $3.2m renovation and expansion of our St. Louis design studio, collaborating with our Kansas City office, PGAV Architects. The project would nearly double our space, creating a new and dynamic two-floor environment. We would diligently and excitedly challenge our established philosophies on how we worked, how we collaborated, and the importance of health and fitness.

A critical initial component was listening to our staff with rapt attention. Through surveys and focus groups, we invited everyone to contribute their ideas and suggestions into what should be included in the renovation. As experts in placemaking with creativity as currency, their input was incredible with surfacing great ideas. Secondly, it generated sincere staff buy-in to the endeavor – employees knew they had real say in what we would collaboratively develop. While we were able to incorporate most of the suggestions, we’re still checking the building codes for the feasibility of the waterslide that would lead to the ground floor.

Empathy is a key component of attraction design: empathy for guests, empathy for clients, empathy for animals. In this issue of Destinology, we explore the lessons learned throughout the renovation of our most familiar attraction, our design studio, and how we kept the creative engines running while the walls came down.

Designing a Habitat for Designers to Thrive

The attractions that spread across America are certainly diverse among peers: an aquarium differs from a theme park, as a children’s museum differs from a historic mansion. Within each of those attractions, guests find a wide variety of spaces serving critical needs, from work spaces, to back-of house, to rides, exhibits, bathrooms, sidewalks, and more. Renovating our own studio mandated all the same considerations.

Our renovated Café lives at the heart of our studio and is our “town square.” A warm and inviting space, our Café is where we come together for lunch, celebrate birthdays and Happy Hour, refuel on healthy treats and refreshments, spontaneously intersect for brainstorms and new ideas, and marvel at where in the world our designers have traveled with PGAV GO!

The many phases of a design project certainly have different needs, from timelines and budgets, to team composition. PGAV needed more flexibility – more adaptability – in the spaces where we worked. New thematically-named conference rooms were welcomed, along with a wide variety of casual break-out spaces, dynamic opportunities to collaborate with team members. Our new H.I.V.E. – Highly Interactive Virtual Environment – introduces cutting-edge technology to help our designers and clients immerse themselves in a space while it’s being designed. Our sacred personal desk space received a renewal as well, with desks that easily raise and lower, thumbtack-ready dividers, and clear glass panels at the top for views across the office.

Just as you carefully consider your guests or the animals within your care, it was essential for us to recognize that there was no “one size fits all” for how our individual team members work, collaborate, and play together. Our industry often thrives on opportunities for “mass customization,” and the same concept applies for our own creative enterprise.

Building the Plane While Taking off

“The best laid plans…” a wise prognosticator once said, and then someone told her to alter course. Just as with any client we have, change can be both exciting and uncomfortable – especially if you need to keep the doors open and business as (un)usual as possible. Throughout our year of hammering, drilling, dust, lights out (and on… and out again), temperature swings, more dust, and furniture Tetris, we needed to keep more than 100 full time staff healthily functioning, and the quality of our work excellent.

We built the plane on take-off, and safely landed one year later.

After a survey of the floor above PGAV – which we would be significantly expanding into – a carefully orchestrated three-phase workplan, which overnight became two-phased, was crafted. The intricate program choreographed a ballet of staff clusters from temporary to full time spaces, while incorporating the wiring, piping, A/V, and furniture that would come in and out to support these teams as they smoothly rotated about the two floors.

The temporary working space required an extensive and carefully thought out temporary infrastructure; and for efficient resource allocation, we sought supplies that we could continue to use through and beyond the renovation. Collaboration is an essential component of our DNA, and conference rooms became a rare and valuable commodity. Staff carefully coordinated the sharing of these spaces, while succeeding in maintaining absolute confidentiality of their projects. Visiting clients were graciously tolerant of our temporary systems, eager to see the results (and likely enjoying the schadenfreude of PGAV experiencing a taste of our own medicine).

Designing for designers can be an intimidating prospect, and our own renovation mirrored the anticipated challenges of similar work at any attraction: budget and schedule limitations, managing expectations, and transparent (but not overwhelming) communication. Clearly communicating plans institution-wide, but being prepared to smartly evolve those plans, is essential in keeping the plane in the air.

The Artistic Touch of Storytelling

At the heart of every great attraction is a great story. As storytellers by craft, PGAV has always been flush with tales and yarns. Prior to the renovation, these manifested themselves in beautifully crafted scale models of hallmark PGAV projects and in Bryan Haynes’ floor to ceiling murals, Aqua and Terra. In our new space, we wanted to feel our legacy in every space we inhabited. We wanted to showcase our work, our process, and have some fun with it. We pulled countless boxes from our warehouse, unrolled tubes upon tubes of drawings, finding our favorite sketches, drawings, and plans.

Some of that artwork went straight on the wall. Some became oversized murals for our new conference rooms, which were named for pivotal projects and stories. A meeting in “The Whale” might prompt a story from a coworker about swimming with whale sharks at Georgia Aquarium, or a tale of designing the world’s largest aquarium window. Painted live at the 2018 PGAV IAAPA Breakfast Bash, an immense painting of our staff mascot – Spot the Zebra – now adorns the wall. And for the first time in our company’s history, our logo now adorns the outside of our 200 N. Broadway studio.

To highlight the artistry in our work, PGAV commissioned local sign painter and artist Phil Jarvis to free-hand paint our cornerstone catch phrases and designs throughout the office. He related PGAV to many of his tattoo parlor clients, both being full of creative artists that give him ample freedom and a live audience, which he enjoys. PGAV provided Phil several renderings and lettering but gave him the leeway to bring a rough and authentic distressing to many of the images. As a result, PGAV’s roller coasters, aquatic life, finishes, and even Spot the Zebra have found a new life in the renovated space. A lover of Highlights Magazine growing up, Phil’s hallmark is to hide his face within most of his work, and then always sign it, “hand painted by…” Do your best to find these hidden attributions and Spot the Zebra on your next visit to our studio.

A renovation is certainly full of millions of critical moments that need to be carefully managed, but there are certain elements of a renovation that should be given leeway and freedom to allow for authentic and beautiful discoveries to grow. The moments of discovery in our renovation were driven by a desire to tell the PGAV story, provide storytelling moments for experienced staff to share with younger staff, and to allow our team and guests to be inspired by PGAV’s legacy projects.

Welcome to PGAV

With hospitality as a central component to our renovation, we wanted to ensure everyone felt “Welcome” throughout our new studio space: staff, clients, partners, and everyone in between.

The newly renovated space was primed for opportunities in hospitality, with quiet and stylish areas for rest and relaxation, showers for fitness aficionados, private rooms for new mothers, places to take personal phone calls, vegetable and herb gardens on our outdoor patios, and even separate serving counters and refrigerators for our day-long collaborative client engagements. Every hospitality program thrives most on its people.

Whitney Jones and Lauren Anderson create the backbone of PGAV’s evolved Hospitality Program.

Seated beneath sweeping attraction art and behind a new rich, wooden desk, Whitney and Lauren joyfully greet every guest and employee who enters our office. At their fingertips is their database that tracks everyone’s food and drink preferences and allergies.

The team began by looking outward: listening to our attraction designers as they returned from the field, sharing stories of incredible moments of service and hospitality at the existing destinations they were researching. Having adapted the best lessons to our own space, it wasn’t long before clients’ hospitality teams began calling us to ask for suggestions, or that our hospitality offerings even helped secure new work.

Anderson notes, “Oftentimes when you go into a new environment, you don’t feel comfortable making requests. But asking people their preferences means a great deal to them; we’re focusing on not just making people feel like they want to be here, but that they are welcome here.”

The constantly-evolving, feedback-fed program focuses on countless “little things” to make a big impact, from coffee and snacks, parties to party bussing, to regional service research for guests and staff, to ordering groceries. “It’s a key component of who we are that we provide quality service in everything we do,” says Marie Shellenberg, PGAV’s Manager of Optimizing MOJO. “We need to reflect that promise – and it starts here in our home.” As the late Jim Wible once said, “the best ideas don’t have to be yours,” and it takes an empathetic ear to continually gather feedback, and a creative mind to act upon it.

Looking to the Future

A great master plan looks at least ten years into the future, and an exceptional one forecasts twenty. When it came to PGAV’s office renovation, we didn’t redesign the studio to fit our needs today; we designed it to fit our needs tomorrow.

Essential to the project was a long-term vision for growth. Today, half of our newly-occupied 11th floor sits bright, open, with Phil Jarvis-painted walls, but nary a desk to be found. This space, when

PGAV’s team is once again bursting at the seams, will be move-in ready for the newest generation of attraction designers. Today, with the renovation complete, the creative and energetic staff are already dreaming up ways to use it. One lunch per week, the floor rumbles with a cardio dance class. Competitive power lifters and fitness fanatics drop to the deck and heave weights. Our photographer will set up dramatic, temporary sets to interview our designers to craft miniature documentaries. Even suppliers will come and set up their latest technology to demo the future of attractions.

When it comes to creating the future of our studio, our team is already underway in envisioning the possibilities. “I hope we’re never finished with this renovation – I hope we’re always thinking of new ways to collaborate and to do our work better,” said Emily Howard, our office’s lead on the project. PGAV’s Visualization Team is already challenging the possibilities of the HIVE, working to innovate with that tool.

The Hospitality team boasts that they are testing new ideas every day. They’re excited about pitching personalized slippers, Spot the Zebra onesies, a refreshment center located near the HIVE, and continuing to improve upon and invent new social gatherings for our staff and guests.

When the next round of renovations is ready, we’ve learned countless lessons on how to improve the process: ways to efficiently integrate power, upgrade lighting, where we’ll place acoustic treatments, and how we’ll evolve our internal communications process and increase transparency. Our own introspection and renovation have strengthened us as designers, with key lessons on how to make our next clients’ renovation even better.

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