29 October 2010

You Gotta Believe: Transitioning from corporate to independent in the themed entertainment business

by Jumana Brodersen, The Jco, LL
This article has been published in the 2010 TEA Annual & Directory as well as on Blooloop.com.

Jumana Brodersen is president of the J Co, LLC, a design consulting firm that specializes in planning and design of venues that entertain and immerse guests. With a background in architecture, she has designed and managed projects as a consultant since 1982. Since 1998, she has worked on the owner side, planning and developing new attractions. She specializes in balancing vision and logistics. Prior to founding the Jco, she was corporate director of creative development with Busch Entertainment Corp. for 10 years. Website: http://thejco.com

Before launching my own business, I could count on one hand (actually, on one of Mickey Mouse's hands) the number of positions I'd had to actually interview for - when I joined a small firm in Dallas Texas fresh out of architecture school in 1981, when I joined RTKL in 1986, when I moved to St Louis and joined PGAV in 1988, and when I hired on at Busch Entertainment Corp. in 1998. (I have held numerous other positions but they all came to me through recommendations.) I stayed on at Busch as Director of Creative Development until, in 2008, the company announced it was relocating to Orlando. Rather than resettle myself and my two girls, I decided it was time to take the plunge, and I started The Jco, LLC.

That minimalist record of job interviews is something I was very proud of. But it's in the past. Now, virtually every day there's some kind of interview. It's called selling yourself, and it's something I thought I'd never have to do again after joining Busch, but I've embraced it. It is a necessary step to getting work, and it must be repeated many times per project. That's right – per project. Before you land that contract, chances are you will have to sell yourself and your skills to four or five different people in the organization, so they can all feel they are on board with the new consultant.

The world is a different place when you're on your own. Although I left Busch voluntarily, I'm facing many of the same issues as those who were laid off or downsized in this economy.

The good news is that no matter how bad the economy is, there is work available. But you do have to dig hard to find it. And just as there's no one person to interview with on a project, there's no one way to find a job. One of my current projects, the renovation and expansion of  a children’s play area for Tivoli Gardens, came about through my participating in a trade seminar (the TEA Summit). The client liked my presentation on the work I had done as Creative Director on Jungala for Busch Gardens Africa, and contacted me later.

When the client pre-selects you, that's as good as it gets. Also pretty good is when a third party recommends you to the client and they invite you to come out and sell yourself.  You sometimes have to pay your own way, but you don't have throngs of other candidates to compete with. The more challenging, common and confidence busting scenario, of course, is the RFP. As you write your proposal, you know that everyone else (including your former corporate colleagues) is writing theirs.

I have submitted about 10 proposals in response to RFPs and been shortlisted for two, and of those two I landed one, with the St Louis Zoo, where I am currently working on two animal attractions, and the renovation of the North Entrance “The Living World.” There were seven Zoo board members to sell myself to, but it was a gang interview, so I only had to clean and wear the suit once. Being shortlisted is exhilarating but it also leads to some of the hardest work you'll ever do, trying to sell yourself for the last leg of the journey. (And then, they may pick someone else. You're allowed to say “Bummer!” once, forcefully, when this happens. Then, talk to the person who did get the job. Find out how they positioned themselves, and learn from it.)

Cultivating visibility is extremely important, and your next opportunity could depend on it. Wouldn't it be marvelous if the client already had a pretty good idea of who you are, what you can do and if they want to work with you? That's fantasy. Once you are outside the corporate cocoon, you will find that people (a) very often don't know who you are or what you did, (b) treat you very differently now that you are no longer a potential route to employment. Of course, you need your own website and business card, you need to become active on social networks and in trade associations, be visible in the media, attend industry events and so forth. These all take time and money. And they take a lot of hard thought, because you have to figure out and communicate, in meaningful terms, who you are, what you have that clients value, what you can do and also what you want to do. Think hard about your skill set, and about who will be reading your information. (Also, think about how busy they are. Don't make it complicated for them – spell it out.)

Don't be vague. There are a dozen – or a hundred - other people who worked on the same projects you're laying claim to, and are waving around the same photos. (I know, because their brochures used to come across my desk.) What, exactly, did you do (and what exactly can you do for your prospective new client)? The more precise you are, the easier it will be for a client to visualize where you fit on their team. Depending on the role(s) you have played, there may be challenges in substantiating your work. My thing is front-end concept design. That's a key role in the early stages, but by the time the project opens and the greatest attention is focused on it, I'm no longer front and center. For example, on Jungala I had an internal design team working with me to flesh out the concept from my vision. Then, I parceled out the contract work to different companies. I'm not the architect of record and I didn't produce the end product. Recommendations from past clients and colleagues who can testify to my role and value on this and other projects have been very important to me in building an independent image and creating greater awareness of my contributions to the field.

Don't be over-selective – times are hard and it's good to broaden your horizons – but at the same time it is important to stay within the boundaries of what you are really good at. Because when the recovery hits, you don't want to be on the wrong path. Don't have your nose in the air, but before pursuing an opportunity, ask yourself, “Is this really my forte? Suppose I get this job – how will it position me for the future? Is this a branch of my path, or is it another path altogether?” Follow your bliss, even in bad times. The work you do now will be the best proof of what you can do next.

Over-selectivity will definitely work against you in the networking arena. Keep all your connections strong and keep making new ones – you can't know which of them may lead to your next job, or who you will find yourself working alongside, or under, next time around. It's a small world: don't burn bridges.

Finally, there's a kind of acceptance or even fatalism that I've cultivated in this new phase of doing business. I recognize that I don't have ultimate control. I may have drive, confidence, and skill but I'm not going to win every time. As they say at SeaWorld, you gotta “Believe.”

28 October 2010

Political background on US participation in world expos

by Alfred Heller with commentary from Judith Rubin and Gordon Linden

The USA Pavilion at the upcoming Shanghai Expo 2010 marks a significant turnaround (hopefully for the long term) in the US administration's attitude toward participation in world's fairs. Since around 1990, US presence at world expos has been very uneven and Federal support had fallen off dramatically. This 1992 editorial by Alfred Heller, editor of the former World's Fair magazine, provides some excellent background on the state of affairs at the United States Information Agency (USIA), which headed up US participation in expos abroad. The USIA was founded in 1955 as an independent foreign affairs agency within the executive branch, to explain and support American foreign policy and promote US national interests through a variety of overseas information programs. In 1999, the USIA was integrated into the US Department of State. – Judith Rubin

The US Eliminates Its Expo Office in Spite of Post-Cold-War Opportunities
by Alfred Heller

If you thought the worldwide criticism of the half-hearted, almost distracted US presence at Seville Expo 92 would somehow inspire the revitalization of the responsible federal agency, think again. The BIE (International Bureau of Expositions) office of the exhibits service of the United States Information Agency (USIA), never a robust unit, has not only not been revived, it no longer exists. John Coppola, former chief of the office, took a job at the Smithsonian Institution in 1991 and was not replaced. Kathleen Kalb, a career civil servant with plentiful world's fair experience, was removed as project manager of the US pavilion at Genoa's Colombo 92, after fundamental disagreements with representatives of the Amway Corporation, who had been allowed to take over the administration of the exhibit. Anita Grinvalds, an exhibits administrator in the office, was dismissed.

With so many expos coming up – Taejon next year, Budapest 1996, Lisbon 1998, Hanover 2000 – the exhibits service ought to be hard-pressed without expo staff. It isn't. The US is not exhibiting in Taejon, Budapest or Lisbon. That's official, that's policy, says John Carroll, chief of the operations division of the service. Instead, the USIA may designate the state of Alaska, possibly in combination with the Amway Corporation, never far from the expo scene these days, as the US representative in Taejon.

William K. Jones, director of the exhibits service, took Coppola's seat as US representative to the general assembly of the BIE, and has since become vice-chairman of the BIE executive committee, even as the expo office in his own agency has disappeared. Under the USIA's just-say-no policy, he abstained from the vote that selected Lisbon over Toronto for the 1998 expo, an undoubted cause of frustration for the losing bidder (and the US's good neighbor).

US policy toward expos has been under scrutiny by the Advisory Commission on Public Diplomacy. With staff director Bruce Gregory, members of this presidentially appointed group visited the Seville expo to see the beleaguered US pavilion for themselves and talk with expo officials from Spain, Japan, Australia, France and the BIE. They must have gotten an earful, but all Gregory will say is that the commission has always believed, “if the US government is to become concerned in these events, we [should] do it well.” The conclusions of the current review won't be available until next year.

In its last annual report, the commission said world's fairs occur too often and “have outstripped the nation's willingness to fund them,” an opinion that has little or no factual basis. Congress does not jump to attention when asked for funding for US pavilions, in part because the second-rate exhibits the nation has been producing would give anyone pause. Nor are there too many world's fairs as the USIA, along with the advisory commission, believes. Some countries might not be able to justify spending a whole lot for expos; however, the US, Japan, Canada, Germany, the UK and others are always seeking new markets for their products and hoping to attract foreign visitors. They can probably derive, from each and every expo, benefits that far exceed the costs of participating. But I doubt the US government has ever conducted a broad-ranging cost-benefit analysis on the subject. In the meantime, no federal money is to be spent in any fashion on the three remaining expos of the '90s. Per order of Henry Catto, Jr., director, United States Information Agency.

With the sudden end of the Communist threat, budget-makers have been taking aim at the USIA, traditionally the propaganda arm of the government. What, after all, is left for the agency to do in a de-demonized world? In this atmosphere, the annual appropriation for Will Jones's exhibits service has been reduced from $1 million to $600,000. The money goes for such items as modest, portable shows of posters at US stations abroad. But to survive, the USIA still has to define a compelling new role for itself. The Advisory Commission on Public Diplomacy should consider whether consistent, artful, expanded participation by the United States in world's fairs would be effective in helping the nation win the peace following decades of cold war: win the essential economic and cultural competitions, secure global environmental quality, and inspire those struggling for democratic rule. In my view, an exhibits service should be a growth industry in the USIA or some other, more receptive agency, and I would so advise the White House and the next president.

Reprinted with permission of World's Fair Inc. www.worldsfairs.com.

Editor's updates: John Coppola retired from the Smithsonian in 2005 and became a museum consultant. James Ogul, US project manager at Seville and atprevious expos, retired in 2011 from the Department of State. He played a role in vetting Nick Winslow's team for the USA Pavilion at Shanghai 2010... The Budapest 1996 expo was canceled... Bruce Gregory is currently an adjunct assistant professor at George Washington University's School of Media and Public Affairs. Henry Catto is currently vice president of the Aspen Institute... US membership in the BIE lapsed in 2002... In 1992, George HW Bush was ending his presidency, and William Clinton was elected to follow him. The US did ultimately have a presence at Taejon Expo 93, a small exhibit paid for by Amway Corp. and other private entities, designed by Stuart Silver in association with Rathe Prodns.

Present-day US government players whose actions have been instrumental in raising funds and garnering support for the USAP at Shanghai 2010 include Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, US Ambassador Elizabeth Frawley Bagley and the Office of Public-Private Partnerships, Kris Balderston (Clinton's former chief of staff during her Senate years) and Commerce Secretary Gary Locke. Jose Villareal is Commissioner General, named by Clinton. The team producing the pavilion is headed by Nick Winslow and Ellen Eliasoph. – J.R.

Postscript: The US Presence at Seville Expo 92
Gordon Linden

Gordon Linden, who played a consulting role on the US Pavilion at Seville Expo 92, contributed the following postscript. It further illustrates how a lack of Federal support undermined the project. Linden is currently consulting for the city of Edmonton, Canada in its bid to host the 2017 world expo. He is author of The Expo Book, www.theexpobook.com.

Plans for the U.S. presence at Seville’s Expo 92 initially coalesced with the US announcing the team of Barton Meyers Associates, BHA Design (Barry Howard) and Sussman/Prezja as the winner of an architectural competition to design the pavilion and exhibits. The project began to go forward but without firm financial commitments despite the efforts of commissioner general Fred Bush (no relation to the presidential family). When the costs started adding up and government oversight began in earnest, the project was halted and a hasty re-design ordered. Only a few design elements from the winning concept were retained. To save money, two used geodesic dome structures which the US Government owned were brought to the Seville site to provide interior exhibition spaces. Major League Baseball, attempting to promote the sport in Spain and Europe during the run-up to the 1992 Olympic Games which were held in Barcelona, had an outdoor exhibition in which Spanish-speaking players from the Major Leagues demonstrated their skills. General Motors had a display, as did Seville’s sister city, Kansas City. Bowing to pressure from outspoken Senators who sought to further control cost, project management of the pavilion was assigned to the US Navy submarine base in nearby Rota. Inexperienced in this type of undertaking, the Rota team became embroiled in several disputes and internal difficulties; these were eventually were sorted out and the pavilion was finished in time for opening day. The conceptual cost estimate, provided by the original architectural team, for the pavilion structure was $7 million. Yet, even with the redesign and use of prefabricated structures, it actually cost twice that - $14 million; the total US participation costs, including the pavilion, were about $35 million. In spite of the trials and tribulations the US team faced in mounting the exhibit, over 3.1 million visits were recorded which put the pavilion in the top quarter of the participating nations in terms of popularity.