This article was published in the September 1995 issue of Tourist Attractions & Parks.

Third World FECs: Lessons from Latin America

by Randy White,

Trying to develop a successful FEC in the United States is so complicated it can give your brain stretch marks. From the mix of attractions to the interior design to the food that's served, all must work together to pull in the target market. It's hard enough in the U.S., but when the FEC is in a Third World country, well, it's like going from 1+1 to advanced calculus. Customs, traditions, regulations, patterns of work that we take for granted here all must be re-examined in light of the local culture.

Our company began working in the FEC industry at the beginning of the boom five years ago. Since then, about every major North American city now has one or more indoor FECs, and we've had a hand in many of them. Starting in 1993, we expanded our scope to Latin America.

The first FEC we produced in Latin America was Wol-Ha, a 35,000-square-foot indoor FEC in Cancun, Mexico. Wol-Ha was designed for residents rather than tourists. It's a fully integrated, thematically-designed center that includes bowling, a McDonald's restaurant with a drive-through, a second cafe-style restaurant, a game room, and a children's pay-for-play center covering about half the project. Wol-Ha opened in December 1994 and won the 1994 Newsmaker Award for the Best Foreign FEC. Despite the decline of the Mexican peso and economic problems, its sales are meeting or exceeding projections; we are currently working with the owners to identify locations for addition FECs in Mexico.

Our most recent foreign project is in Caracas, Venezuela. This FEC will be a 40,000-square-foot indoor children's play palace. The storyline and thematic design centers on an intelligent civilization of dinosaurs that build magnificent play palaces for their dinosaur children. Development has begun and the opening is scheduled for this December.

Producing FECs in other cultures has been both rewarding and challenging. New cultures bring with them unique considerations that must be taken into account in order to produce a quality project, on time and on budget. Some of these considerations are pretty straightforward. For example, you need to work within the country's monetary units and economy. So the Caracas FEC will cost 600,000,000 Bs (Bolivares). And in its proforma, we had to adjust for the 30% annual inflation.

There are other considerations, ones that will sneak up on you from behind if you're not careful. These considerations relate to culture and tradition. Lessons we learned in Latin America can save you time and effort on your work outside the U.S., as well as provide new ways of thinking about how we design FECs here at home.

The important thing to keep in mind is that the American culture is different -- not better, and not worse, just different -- than other cultures. To Americans, American culture is invisible, like air to humans or water to fish. It is the way it is and we don't give it much thought. Step into another culture, though, and American values and styles of work stand out in high relief. It's easy, and extremely pointless, to start getting righteous about the way we do things vs. the way they do things. Bottom line is, differences exist. The important thing is to find productive ways to work within the local culture without sacrificing the integrity of the task you're there to accomplish.

And now, some of the most important differences and how we adapted to them. . . .

"Ma-ana, Ma-ana, I Love You, Ma-ana"

We Americans scurry around like hamsters in a Habitrail, constantly going, always on time because time, to us, is money. In a culture where nobody is on time, however, time and speed are worthless.

The pace of life is laid back in Latin America. Urgency is rare. If someone says he'll meet you at 3 p.m., don't count on it. The idea is more that he may show up sometime later that afternoon, if something more important doesn't come up. In a contest between work obligations and family obligations, punctuality is down for the count. This is not considered rude.

A common expression is "ma-ana," which means "tomorrow." The word is drawled, the vowels as languid as the afternoon heat, and the unspoken meaning is, "Ah, well, there's always tomorrow." This lethargy makes sense in a steaming hot climate, where rushing around can kill you. And, in a chronically ill economy, with little opportunity of advancement, the carrot of personal success doesn't motivate members of the working class to strive to get ahead.

While ma-ana is understandable, it can be extremely costly when the duration of the construction period of an FEC is measured against double-digit inflation and interest rates. Fortunately, our Latin American clients have been entrepreneurial and accustomed to moving quickly. The problem is greatest within the working class, specifically the construction trades, where ma-ana and a lack of motivation for advancement is still a standard attitude. This is not universal in Latin America, however. Our Mexican clients partially overcame the problem by using Mayan workers, who have an exceptional work ethic and worked 6-day, 60-hour weeks.

Fast Track Construction Can Compensate for Ma-ana

Fast track design/construction techniques are one solution to ma-ana. In the normal design and construction sequence, an FEC is fully designed, with all the construction and equipment drawings and specs completed before construction begins. But in fast track, design and construction time frames overlap and you start building the FEC before the design is fully fleshed out. We use critical path scheduling techniques, identifying the construction activities that will take the most time, and design those components first. We start their fabrication and construction while the other design elements are still on the drawing board.

In Cancun, for example, the entire shell of the building was under construction while the interior design was still being completed. In Caracas, with only one glass supplier in Venezuela, the first drawings to be issued were for the windows. Other critical manufacturing and construction items included the HVAC and the elevator, and required lead times for fabrication and installation are longer than in the U.S.

Fast track takes special design coordination. It requires identifying and finalizing critical interior design and layout issues that will be affected by the size, shape and structural components of the building envelope before all the interior design is complete. Once construction is underway, if you realize you need to make a layout or size change, you're pretty much out of luck.

Fast track also works with interior design, like furniture. In Caracas, rather than just place an order with a furniture supplier (there are only a few, with limited selection) all the furniture will be built on site by craftsmen who will move into and live in the project. Naturally, production is slow, with or without a few days off for ma-ana. With 600 chairs and 130 tables required, fast track mandated that furniture manufacture start immediately.

Adapting to Third World Building Materials and Techniques

Materials and techniques we can't imagine doing without are not available, or not desirable, in Latin America. Fail to recognize these differences, and account for them in design, and you create an unworkable environment.

Let's take noise levels for example. In building techniques, Third World structural technology has developed based on concrete rather than steel construction. Although steel is becoming more popular, concrete systems are still the most economical. Block often is the preferred material for interior walls. Therefore, interior walls are much thicker than U.S. stud-and-drywall construction, and concrete and block don't absorb sound the way stud walls do. The use of carpet in public spaces is not accepted practice; marble or other hard surface material is the norm. If you build your FEC to local norms, you have hard surface walls, flooring and often ceilings, which create a highly reflective echo chamber. The first good game of air hockey, the whole place is gonna blow. Acoustic design needs special attention. Our company has been successful in persuading our foreign clients to use carpet on the FEC's floors (although not in restaurant areas), but because the supply of carpet is so limited we usually ship it in from the U.S.

This creates another hazard -- finding people to work with unfamiliar building materials. Finding out whether skilled tradespersons are available can be more difficult than you'd think, and again for cultural reasons. Ask whether someone can handle the job and the usual response is, "no problem." That is our cue to worry. We have learned the hard way that in Latin American cultures, no problem really means, "No, we don't know how and we have no answer, but we believe we can figure it out ma-ana." People say "no problem" as a means to save face rather than admit that they do not know. A local tradesman can make a quick disaster of installing patterned carpet for the first time, so it's important to look out for times when some aspect of the FEC's construction will require scaling the learning curve. Better to be proactive and assure that the necessary skills and techniques are taught to the tradesman before thousands of dollars in materials are destroyed. In many situations, it's cheaper to fly in an experienced U.S. installer to supervise than to take a chance with no problem.

Working with the Right-brain Architect

In foreign countries, we've found definite advantages to our design team collaborating with a local architect. Local architects are familiar with local construction techniques and availability of materials. They also understand the complexities of obtaining required building permits, and they bring the perspective of the local culture to the design process.

Since our design team has the specialized expertise in the dynamics and nuances of FEC design, including space planning, thematic design, equipment and operations, we develop the architectural design to the schematic design stage in consultation with the local architect. The architect then is responsible for preparing the final construction documents and specifications; our design team is responsible for completing the final interior finish package and design of all rides, soft modular play, animatronics and other events.

We've found that Latin American architects approach their jobs much differently than their counterparts in the U.S. They approach design first from an artistic perspective, and only later from a technical, analytical view. In general, the order is switched in the U.S., where architects are much more left-brain in their approach. That is why, in the U.S., we always involve interior designers on our concurrent design team because they supply the emotional, psychological perspective that otherwise would be missing.

There are benefits to the Latin American approach, just as there are challenges. The two main challenges are that, to the Latin American architect, the practical logistic and the cost factors of FEC design take a back seat to the artistry. In the U.S., almost all design professions --architects, interior designers and specialized designers -- expect to design to budget, know the impact that development cost has on profitability, understand the application of value engineering to the design process and understand the importance of issues like traffic flow, way finding, and strategic adjacencies. U.S. designers are used to being practical and business-oriented.

Value engineering as a project development discipline is rather foreign to the Latin American cultures. The traditional approach is to design the project and build it without first thoroughly analyzing design options that would lower cost and raise quality. The art of the architect takes precedence over the profitability of the business, if the relationship between the two is even considered. Latin American architects deal poorly with cost issues when they affect the artistic vision they have created. It's hard on a designer who feels his or her role is to create something artistic when they have to compromise the art for practical concerns like cost. Rather than go head-to-head with architects who are being asked to work within another paradigm, we often ask our clients to intercede and request that the local architect follow our lead on value engineering.

Pleasing the Latin American Guest

Not only are the designers, workers, and architects from a foreign culture, but the reason for the whole project -- the guests -- must be considered. The entire design of the FEC must be culturalized to the tastes, needs, customs and expectations of the local population. Nothing can be taken for granted. Every aspect of design and operations must be examined in light of the culture.

Some changes are obvious. A token machine in Latin America should not have U.S. dollar acceptors, for example. Other changes are not so obvious. Let's take colors, for instance. U.S. designers are used to working with colors and color palettes available on U.S. goods. These colors, however, may not match the tastes of a Latin American audience. To create the right atmosphere, the FEC's color palettes need to be pleasing to the local culture.

Another issue that can be easily overlooked is that of territorial space and scale of space. Every culture -- and every region or major city of the U.S. or other countries -- has a preferred scale of space that is most comfortable to its residents. The wrong scale makes guests uncomfortable, probably without even knowing why. People in dense, compact cities usually become accustomed to tighter spaces and closer spacing for things like restaurant seating than residents of more spacious places. In Caracas, we were surprised to learn through our research how intimate the population prefers spaces. Restaurants, stores, even public museums have compact rooms and low ceilings. Spaces are far smaller in scale than even New York City. Part of this probably is due to Caracas' high density, and we believe the other reasons is that the culture places high value on personal relationships, which produces a desire to be close and intimate.

The impact of socio-economic groups or classes is another important design consideration. In most Third World countries, there are greater distinctions between classes than in the U.S., and class prejudice is much stronger. This means that all aspects of the FEC must be narrowly focused to appeal to the targeted class. If an FEC is designed for the upper classes, but the lower classes also come, the targeted upper-class guests will abandon the center.

Mix & Programming

Lesson #419: Don't build miniature golf in Latin America. The FEC's mix and programming must reflect the culture, and attractions that draw the American customer bewilder the Latin American guest. Miniature golf, for example, dates back to the 1920s in the U.S., and has become part of our recreational tradition, supported by the popularity of standard golf courses. The game lays a giant egg in Latin America, where there is no tradition and golf courses are an oddity.

Even entertainment events for young children need to be carefully researched. Something as simple as sand play may have no tradition; while children dive right into the sand pile, their parents may not find it culturally acceptable. An operational factor with younger children is supervision. Many pay-for-play concepts are based on the premise that parents accompany and supervise the child. In other cultures, however, children often have more freedom than in the U.S. Parents bring the children and stay, but often sit around socializing, oblivious to the children and their behavior.

This brings us to . . .

Research, Research, Research

An American learning to navigate a new culture is like a poodle learning to ride a tricycle. It can be done, but it takes work. The work for the FEC producer is research. Sometimes, it's even kind of fun.

As Tom Peters is fond of saying, "If you want to understand something, get in the middle of it." Before we even begin the design process, we spend time in the country, observing and analyzing and immersing ourselves in its culture and customs. We visit every type of entertainment that exists in the area, we visit restaurants that residents patronize, we hit the fast food joints and cultural attractions. We study architectural and design styles and materials. We go to daycare schools to see how children play. We talk to everyone, and we ask a lot of questions. We even crashed some birthday parties.

In the U.S., birthday parties and other celebrations pull in up to 30 percent of an FEC's revenue. They are equally, if not more important in Latin America. What's different are the customs and room design. If you install a U.S.-style private birthday party room with space for a dozen children, or large picnic-style areas, you've goofed big time. In Latin America, the party must include space for the breaking of a pi-ata. Parties also tend to be larger, with as many as 50 children plus adults in the extended family. Because of class prejudice and a culturally-based desire for privacy, large common party areas are unacceptable. Parties also last longer, and sometimes require that beer be available for the grown-ups.

The availability of space dictates how many parties the FEC can handle simultaneously. In Cancun, we designed a large dual-purpose room that can hold a birthday party or bowler banquets. The room can be divided into two or three rooms for smaller parties, and directly outside is a covered patio for breaking the pi-ata.

The digs will be even more impressive in Caracas, where the new FEC will set the city's standard for commercial birthday parties. We've designed six party catering rooms that will hold from 25 to 60 children plus adults. Each is self-contained, with a service bar, pi-ata-breaking area, restrooms and a quiet nook for grandparents. It also contains a very special innovation. When I attended a large birthday party in Caracas, I noticed that there were no men, only children and mothers. When I asked, I was told that the fathers were down in the game room, playing pool and cards. I checked. Sure enough, there they were, happy as clams. So the larger party rooms also have a fathers' room with a pool table and service bar, making it as easy as possible for wives to bring their husbands. All this has not been cheap. The six party suites take up 12,000 square feet, larger than some FECs. However, at $500 to $1,000 or more per party, it made good economic sense.

Because each party will be customized, and because the parties are such a big part of the Caracas operation, we designed a marketing office at the entrance of the FEC where parents can go to work out the party's details. Details include the ever-present pi-atas, which are always custom-designed and stuffed. The Caracas operation will compete with whole stores devoted to the sale of pi-atas, so we designed the office with plenty of space to display all the different selections of pi-ata designs and stuffings.

As Always, Talk to the Customer

Besides immersing ourselves in the local culture, we also practice participatory design. This means we get potential guests involved, giving input or critiquing preliminary design and programming. We try to test out all the ideas before they are finalized, and we do this with the complete cooperation of our clients. In fact, our clients have conducted some of this research for us, as they are concerned that the FEC not only delight guests when it opens, but also after it has additional competition. In Caracas, for example, the storyline, characters, their names and other aspects of the thematic design are being tested with young local children. Other elements of the design and programming will be tested with mothers.

Because our clients are usually men, we make doubly sure to talk with the women and children who are the FEC's primary guests. And if you think American and Latin American cultures are worlds apart, that's nothing compared to the differences between the male and female cultures. For example, at Wol-Ha in Cancun, we picked a color palette our clients (all men) said they hated. So we changed it to appeal to them. Then we tested the new colors with their wives, who were representative of our target market. They hated the colors their husbands picked, and gave the original palette rave reviews. Our clients (quite wisely) bowed to the wishes of the target market, and the original palette was used.

Remember These Lessons at Home, Too . . .

If you're not planning to build an FEC in Chile or Egypt or France, that doesn't mean you don't need to pay attention. The same lessons apply in the United States, which, although one country, is extremely diverse. Design styles, tastes, scale and spaciousness, construction techniques, mix and programming, socioeconomic differences and other factors can vary just as much within the U.S. as between the U.S. and another country.

We do a disservice to the unique cultures of regions within the U.S., and ethnic cultures, when we ignore the distinctions among them. An FEC designed for Miami, Florida, won't appeal to the audience in Seattle or Louisville or Portland, Maine. Each is a unique city with its own characters, populations and cultures. These differences should be scrutinized as carefully as if in a foreign city so the FEC will be truly culturalized and customerized for its intended market.