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Vikings gather for TEA’s SATE Europe conference at Europa-Park

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Delegates from across Europe and the US gathered from 3-5 May 2023 for the Themed Entertainment Association’s SATE conference at Europa-Park in Rust, Germany.

The theme for this year’s conference was Revolution, and a range of speakers gave talks on topics ranging from AI and accessibility in attractions to burnout and rewilding.

Experiencing Eatrenalin

On the first evening, Europa-Park invited delegates to experience its Eatrenalin experience. Launched in November 2022, the eight course, 90 minute-long, multi-sensory fine dining experience sees visitors transported on floating dark ride seats and tables designed by Mack Rides, while virtual media by Mack Animation and MackNeXT and an original score from Berlin production studio T-Rex Classics build drama at this original and highly immersive experience.

At the request of delegates, Europa-Park executive partner Thomas Mack gave a talk about the Eatrenalin experience, explaining that the genesis of the idea was the question of why good Italian wine tastes better drunk in the sunshine in its country of origin than in rainy Germany. “It’s all about the atmosphere,” Mack said. The biggest challenges of the project included designing the floating chairs, and getting the choreography right – with just 25 minutes between each sitting, it is essential that everything is timed perfectly.

The restaurant welcomes up to 10 groups of guests per evening – with new booking slots opened as previous ones are filled – and prices range from E195 for the basic Eatrenalin dinner up to E645 for the Eatrenalin Sommelier Dinner. The experience has been sold out since its launch.

The family aims to take the concept worldwide, and are currently in talks with a number of operators, said Mack.

AI – the pros and consThe conference kicked off the following day with a high energy session entitled The Revolution of Scale, with Geoff Thatcher, chief creative officer and Zoe Thatcher, designer and illustrator at Creative Principals, and Yael Coifman, senior partner/owner at Leisure Development Partners discussing the pros and cons of using AI to design attractions.

“The new era is different and fraught with possibilities, and also danger,” said Zoe Thatcher, concluding that if designers: “Don’t use AI tools to help us work faster as professionals, others will, and we’ll get left behind.”

Next Blue Telescope founder Trent Oliver looked at how designers can build revolution into their creative process in a number of different ways, using the company’s recent work with the Sloan Museum of Discovery in Michigan to illustrate his examples. Oliver posed the question: “How does reaching outside of our industry lead to creative inspiration, by bringing underrepresented voices to the table?”

Before lunch, Compagnie des Alps’ Fabien Manuel revisited the topic of AI in a talk entitled The New Age of Creation, sharing his experience of using AI tools to brainstorm ideas for a new dark ride. “I was initially resistant to the idea of using AI, but I changed my mind,” he said, concluding that, “This could be a new age of creation – AI could serve our creative process.”

Rewilding, immersion and green pirates

Katapult CEO Dawn Foote and Down to Earth founder Jamie Quince-Starkey gave a talk entitled Let’s all Be Green Pirates, outlining their plans to rewild Derby and challenging theme park designers and operators to include more biodiversity in their parks.

“What if your food was grown on site with community involvement, the ugliest part of your attractions were turned into beautiful, rewilded spaces, and your whole estate was one habitat?” they asked.

Wim Strijbosch, researcher and lecturer at Breda University for Applied Sciences, took a deep dive into the science and psychology of immersion, giving tips on different ways to immerse guests into the visitor attractions worlds they are visiting.

Michael Mack on being part of a unique familyNext, Europa-Park CEO Michael Mack was interviewed by Creative Studios Berlin’s Chris Lange about his experiences growing up as part of the Mack family.

“The work and the company is our life. Living and growing up in the park – the rides become your aunties and uncles, and of course you want to be part of that,” he said

In a frank interview, Mack spoke about launching Mack Media in 2002, and how it was at times difficult to persuade the family to innovate with rides and technology and a new style of communication with guests. “I always saw the necessity of doing something more than just rollercoasters,” he said, admitting that at times his ideas caused “healthy friction and debate” among the family.

“Always try to evolve your business,” he advised. “Don’t have a fear of experimenting and putting new things in.”

He also discussed other innovations, including the introduction of the park’s first VR coaster and the launch of the Voletarium flying theatre in 2017.

Improving accessibility

After lunch, BRC Imagination chief creative officer Christian Lachel and Arielle Spencer, graduate researcher in planning, design and the built environment at Clemson University spoke about the untapped impact of universal design, with access and inclusion director at Euan’s Guide Paul Ralph adding powerful arguments via video footage.

Ralph – who is a wheelchair user – outlined the business case for providing more welcoming environments for visitors with invisible and visible disabilities, explaining that the spending power of the UK disabled market is £274bn, and that disabled visitors spend more money and time in attractions, and bring more people with them.

“There are 1.85 billion disabled people in the world. That is 1 in 4 people, a market larger than China,” said Lachel.

Celebrating industry iconsEach year, SATE celebrates industry leaders. This year, TEA president Melissa Ruminot sat down with Kraftwerk senior VP Kevin Murphy, winner of the Peter Chernack Distinguished Service Award for his many years of service and support of the TEA. Murphy talked about his early days, his passion for electronics and his route into the industry via a job at London’s Natural History Museum.

Asked about his advice for young people hoping to enter the attractions industry, Murphy said: “Analyse your motives – ask why you want to get into the industry. And then get out there – meet people, learn, network and talk.”

George Lawton Lighting Design founder George Lawton then interviewed DJ Willrich founder David Willrich about his career, his early work at the National Motor Museum at Beaulieu – which included driving a veteran bus around the park, and helping to develop a dark ride to celebrate the centenary of the motor vehicle – and the challenges of setting up his own business.

When asked what advice he would give his younger self, Willrich said, “Have the conviction to believe in yourself. If you’ve got that dream, just go for it.”

Vikings and acrobats

At the end of the first full day, delegates dressed up as pirates, and were treated to a spectacular theatre show at the Europa-Park Teatro, before being addressed by recent TEA’s Buzz Price Award-winner winner Roland Mack, who thanked delegates for coming to his park and spoke about his career and the success of Europa-Park.

After a buffet dinner, guests had the opportunity to experience Mack Animations’ new Fly over Kazakhstan film at the Voletarium flying theatre ride.

Straight into itDay two of the conference began with a lively session by Adirondack Studios president Michael Blau and P&P projects intern Bunyarit Hoff, involving an interactive quiz in which delegates had to try to solve the challenges of designing an imaginary attraction.

Next, The Room Laboratories’ CEO Chris Lattner talked through how his company creates award-winning highly themed escape rooms, sharing what he has learned about world-building and total immersion. “Take reality, bend it a bit, then people will believe you,” he said, adding that, “Storytelling is about the details.”

Staffing revolution

Next consultant and director at Clear Associates Margreet Papamichael implored delegates to be the revolution in the face of a staffing crisis brought about by an ageing population, waves of resignations following the COVID-19 pandemic and a younger population that stays in education for longer.

“We can’t take the wage per hour down, and while we can focus on ideas for how to retain staff and keep costs down, none of that tackles the underlying demographics and the squeeze on labour availability,” she said.

“Innovation is needed,” Papamichael concluded, making a plea for designs that require less staff input for the “boring tasks,” freeing them up for more enjoyable work.

Magnetic Moon Coaching’s Emma Newell spoke next about burnout and its impact on individuals and the industry, and gave some tips on how to increase our window of tolerance, in a talk that struck a chord with many watching.

Building RulanticaFinally, Europa-Park senior consultant Chip Cleary, Lukas Metzger, head of park operations, Matthias Lange, head of design and development at MackSolutions and Rulantica’s operations manager Kevin Kruschwitz spoke about designing and building the E180m waterpark, which opened in November 2019. Challenges included finding a theme, designing for such a wet, humid atmosphere, and educating the German market on what waterparks offer – at that point they tended to be publicly owned, with a focus on saunas and wellness.

After the talk, delegates got changed into their swimming costumes, and got to experience Rulantica for themselves, ahead of a day at the park on the Saturday.

The final day offered a chance for attendees to view the results of the NextGen Showcase, a new 10-month free programme which gives participants the chance to create a new attractions concept while being mentored by influential figures in the industry.

Next year’s TEA SATE Europe will take place at Gardaland in Italy.

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