Highlights from 2017 TEA SATE conference

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Last month, the 2017 TEA SATE conference was hosted at Cal Arts campus in Valencia, CA. With the theme of “The Future of Immersive Realities,” conference attendees were able to listen to and engage with speakers about the future of the location-based entertainment industry. Thinkwell was excited to take part in the conference with Thinkwellians both attending and presenting. Cynthia Sharpe, Principal, Cultural Attractions & Research at Thinkwell, spoke at the conference on the importance of diversity and inclusion. Jason McManus, Art Director, spoke on how millennials tell stories and gave an in-depth look at the evolving audience for themed entertainment.
As we head into IAAPA this week, we wanted to look back at some of the important topics that were addressed and how we can keep these subjects and discussions top of mind moving forward.
We asked Cynthia to share some of her thoughts and key takeaways from the conference, and here’s what she had to say:

  • At one extreme, we had Amy Blackman, from Contend, talking about how “data hacked creative” using AI data-mining to understand what will resonate with potential users/guests. It was fascinating–and to some a little scary (what, a computer can do my job?!)—but as a scientist-by-training, I found it fascinating. I come from a world where the ability to crunch reams of data to find patterns is how discoveries are made and connections unearthed – this is a new application of that.


  • At the other, we had Janet T. Planet and her Spy Adventure. A labor of love, a bespoke, boutique experience for a group of people every several years that draws them from all corners of the globe to romp and roleplay as spies—and she does it for free and in her oh-so-copious free time from her real world day job.


  • And somewhere in between we had the Westworld panel, which genuinely and authentically wrestled with the “how close are we to this moment?” question, cleverly breaking it down into all the innovations that would have to happen to get us there.


  • Woven throughout many of the talks was this sometimes subtle, sometimes blunt call to arms of “doing better.”  We started with a talk that was super honest about the role of theme parks in making a hard reality of a not-picture-perfect childhood better (Danny Byerley) and the value and seriousness of making joy. This notion of how transformative our spaces and experiences can be was touched on time and time again, along with admonitions to not stereotype user groups but instead really understand them (Jason McManus, for example).


  • Ultimately, it was great to see so many talks that really tackled the meat of what we do—the joy of it, the love of it, the power of it—and not shy away from the responsibility that comes with that.

Arielle Rassel, Design Manager at Thinkwell, also attended the conference and sent in her thoughts. Her key takeaway was that we can do better. Here are some of the highlights from her:

  • Danny Byerley’s discussion of how we should take our work more seriously. Do we think about it as seriously as film or painting? We should. We’re often seen as a redheaded stepchild of more “intellectual” art forms, but what we do is so detailed and combines so many artistic disciplines. He also focused on the transformative power of stories, a quote I noted was “we have the ability to change the national conversation about joy,” and his overall idea of “lean into joy.” The key takeaway from this discussion was to “do better”, create more joy, and to remember what we do is art—embrace it.


  • Cynthia’s discussion of how we, as an industry, are often found wanting in our inclusion of populations across socioeconomic, gender, and racial lines. We should not be an industry only for the privileged. We need to reach people where they are, and even as an industry we need to be more inclusive and diverse. The key takeaway from this discussion was also to “do better” and that we need more diversity, more inclusion, and “fewer walled gardens” (great term, Cynthia!).


  • Amy Blackman—how can we use data hacking and machine learning to know our audiences better? Intelligence-driven data will lead to “intelligent solutions.” This will inherently change the design process to be more data-backed.  As the key takeaway from this discussion was to “do better” as well, we were also reminded to stop guessing and make informed decisions. Risks don’t seem as risky when they’re backed by data.


  • Janet Planet—Spy Day. Her creation is an amazing overview of how immersion and creating roles for people creates an incredible level of commitment and investment from participants. The main point from this discussion was how important personalization is in immersive experiences


  • Jason McManus on millennials and storytelling. We can lean into the constant negative characteristics or we can lean into what makes millennials unique—how much they crave story, connection, and experiences over things. How we tell stories needs to shift to account for what they want. The key takeaway from this discussion was to “do better” [and] stop griping about what you think is wrong with your audience. Lean into what makes them unique and they’ll love your content that much more.

We will update the post with SATE video links once available and are excited for the upcoming speaking engagements at IAAPA. Cynthia will take part in two discussions during the conference. On Monday, 11/13, she will present “2017 in Review: Emerging Trends in Immersive Design” with Shawn McCoy of Jack Rouse Associates, reviewing the latest trends, projects and stand-out experiences of 2017. Cynthia will also be leading a session on Wednesday, 11/15, titled “HR Creates: Techniques to Address Gender Issues in the Workplace” to discuss what role gender plays in the attractions industry. The session will also include Nikky Rossini, Riding Chaos, LLC; Trent Oliver, Blue Telescope; Sarah Cole, Adler Planetarium;  Melody Austin, Austin Creative; and Traci Klainer, Luce Group.
We are looking forward to the upcoming conference sessions at IAAPA—see you in Orlando!