Theme parks are essentially the business of experience, but with increasingly connected consumers, the very definition of 'experience' is changing. Nancy Hutson, Corporate Vice President of Events & Entertainment at SeaWorld, spoke to Trend Hunter about navigating this change in consumer experience through innovation.
TH: Tell us about yourself and your role at SeaWorld.
NH: I am the Corporate Vice President of Events & Entertainment for all the SeaWorld parks. I’ve been with SeaWorld for 29 years, in all facets of the company. I started in the parks as a front line team member, worked at all levels of our organization and am so proud to now to be part of the Deep Blue Creative Studio.
All of our spokes of the wheel are part of Deep Blue Creative Studios, which is the creative heartbeat for SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment. Deep Blue has several different components: the events and entertainment team, the resorts team, a domestic design and engineering group, a global design and engineering group, and a team called Expedition X that's looking at trends and new innovations that we can be working on and learning about now to drive the business in five to ten years.
How do you and your team generate great ideas? Do you have certain rituals to make creativity happen?
We love brainstorming. We have so many creative people in our company at all levels, so we bring in people — particularly front line ambassadors because they’re right there with our guests every day — and look for the best and most creative ideas.
We do a ton of benchmarking too. Not only within the theme park industry, but looking outside as well. If we’re working on Christmas events, we might decide to research lighting innovations or other décor events to inspire us from all directions.
What are some barriers to innovation?
Time and resources. We’ve got a lot of great ideas, but sometimes that are not within our resources for one reason or another. But that impediment does spur good ideas, which can often lead you down a different path. Not having resources sometimes makes you more creative, more innovative.
Particularly in the theme park industry, you have to be very nimble. When a trend changes you have to fill in the gap, and sometimes you have to check the boxes faster than the time it takes to have those brainstorms. We love to bring in creative innovators to come up with new things that are out of the box. That’s a big area that my team’s been working on, which is to get ourselves ahead. Better planning on this side will enable us to be more creative on that side.
How do you get around those barriers?
People who are very successful innovators at our company are also quick decision-makers. We’ve always been very proud of the quality we’re able to provide in our parks. So having good, quick decision-makers who can look at several choices and send the teams down the paths that are most realistic without sacrificing quality and creativity can make all the difference. We also have committed and caring ambassadors at all levels of our company, that really love what they do and are excited about what’s next for our future. They love to take new ideas and innovations and run with them.
How do you identify trends? What resources do you and your team use to spot trends and insights?
We have some true industry experts throughout the studios; one of the team members I work with is expert lighting designer, Chris Lau. He’s involved in everything there is to do with lights from events to shows to attractions. People want his opinion and to learn from his creative energy. Creative experts like that are so valuable for us.
Do you intentionally mix ideas from one project into another?
Absolutely. And it takes a certain type of person to work in that environment. A lot creative people can only be creative when they want to be. In a theme park environment you don’t have that option; you have to be creative when you’re needed to be. You have to love to share and never get discouraged.
Has there ever been an instance where another industry has influenced an innovation at your company?
In general, different forms of media and how people use them are transforming the way people experience theme parks. We’re going through a stage now where we still want real experiences, things you can touch and see and taste, but people are also constantly connected through their electronic platforms. So we have to figure out ways to blend those things together.
For example, we’re working on a VR roller coaster. People will have the ability to experience roller coasters in different ways every time. They want to choose their experience: how loud it is, what happens in the line, etc. So definitely the electronic media revolution has been a huge driver in how we plan attractions going forward.
What are some examples of things you can do to create a culture of innovation?
Many years ago, when I started working on creative projects, there was always an ethos of "no wrong answers." You can redirect and help things get onto a path, but the strongest leaders in our company are those who are open to all suggestions. They may not end up doing everything, but they’re able to listen to innovations and react to them in a positive way. That can put a great idea back on track without deterring creativity or being fearful of being wrong..
Describe the future… For example, what do you think your industry will look like in 10 years?
Experiences where you control what’s happening (rather than things simply happening to you) will be huge moving forward. That’s a lot of what Deep Blue Creative is working on. There’s no better company than SeaWorld for creating unique experiences and emotional connections. We want to find ways to create experiences that matter in addition to that awesome adrenaline rush!