Published in November 2004 issue of Tourist Attractions & Parks magazine

New Luxury: Rich Design Is No Longer Optional

by Randy White

© 2004 White Hutchinson Leisure & Learning Group

It's a summer morning, cool with a brisk breeze off the ocean. The sun and the crowds both begin to show their faces at the boardwalk. Moms and Dads search for coffee; kids attempt a logical argument for the funnel cake as breakfast food. The day has that magic that only happens on vacation - quarters in your pocket, rides that terrify in a deliciously tingly way, games you just might win and food with absolutely no redeeming nutritional value. And all of it happens outdoors in the sun with that brisk breeze off the ocean.

Then someone had a bright idea. What if we took all that - the rides, the games, the corn dogs and popcorn and sodas - and put it in a gigantic box? And what if we plopped that gigantic box down in the suburbs, so families could visit all the time, not just on holidays?

So they did. And families came... for awhile. Until they got this feeling that something was missing.

Problem was, the models used as the basis for community-based leisure (CBL) venues, like boardwalks, didn't translate well, particularly to indoor facilities. The similarities masked some incredibly important differences, the most critical of which was that CBLs depended on high repeat business from residents in the surrounding market, not a visit once a year on vacation. And, as consumers come to expect even more luxury from their surroundings, the model is increasingly ill-suited to profitable CBLs.

Neither carnivals nor theme parks shall ye plop in a box

When the indoor CBL market first started to take off about 15 years ago, the centers were designed in two extremes, both of which were based on earlier attractions like carnivals, boardwalks, and amusement and theme parks.

At one extreme, they were carnivals in a warehouse - just a bunch of games and rides in a warehouse space. Décor was minimal, just some paint and maybe a mural on the walls. If there was outdoor space, it was basically a concrete desert without landscaping and shade. At the other extreme, some entrepreneurs heavily themed their centers like many venues at Universal Studios or Disney parks.

But neither approach works with CBLs. Carnivals in a warehouse fail to satisfy middle- and higher income consumers, especially college-educated ones with more discriminating tastes. Heavily themed facilities quickly lose their repeat appeal due to theme burnout. ("Honestly, Martha, if that rodent sneaks up on me one more time...")

As if that's not a strong enough case for a new kind of CBL design, just check out a new trend that will have a huge impact on CBLs.

Affluence: Not just for the rich anymore

A trend has emerged over the past 15 years that has a significant impact on the design of CBLs. Put simply, guests' expectations have grown due to the rising standards at other consumer destinations, such as retail stores, restaurants, airports and cinemas. These destinations have responded to a desire by consumers to trade up. This phenomenon has a number of names. Yankelovich Inc, a leading consumer market research company, calls it the mainstreaming of affluence. University of Florida Advertising Professor James Twitchell calls it the democratization of luxury. BCG consultants Michael Silverstein and Neil Fiske characterize it as new luxury or luxury for the masses.

Silverstein defines new luxury as the phenomenon of middle-market consumers ($50,000+ incomes) trading up to higher-quality products and services that cost more than traditional ones. Examples of new luxury companies include P.F. Chang's China Bistro, Panera Bread, Restoration Hardware, Starbucks, Williams-Sonoma, Ben & Jerry's, The Cheesecake Factory and Callaway Golf.

New luxury is a distinct genre of products and services. Unlike old luxury items intended for the very wealthy, new luxury appeals and is accessible to a much broader demographic. Whereas conventional goods compete primarily on price, new luxury competes on value. New luxury commands a premium price (and profit margin) due to superior quality, performance and emotional appeal. New luxury is an important concept to understand, as companies with new luxury products and services are growing at a far faster rate than other non-new luxury companies in the same product and service categories.

Today's consumers have come to expect the very best, and that includes the environment wherever they go.

Quality-of-place brings new luxury to the guest

Ambiance, atmosphere, theming, lighting, color, comfort, colors, acoustics, wayfinding, architecture, shade, landscaping, views, anthropometrics, mood, texture, scale - these words can be used to describe different characteristics of CBLs. Our company has coined a term that encompasses all these design elements: quality-of-place. It's what indoor facilities must provide to make up for the lack of warm sunshine and a cool ocean breeze.

Quality-of-place is a critical factor to the success of CBLs, especially those targeting families and young adults. Unfortunately, conventional wisdom within many segments of the CBL industry is that quality-of-place doesn't matter. You can tell you're in one of these places because it's noisy, cavernous, and generally uninviting for the family market. (The teenage market is a different story. Teens like the opposite of what appeals to families, and especially moms, so the warehouses are just fine with them.)

Designing a profitable CBL requires specialized and unique knowledge and skills. It requires an understanding of the multi-dimensional aspects of not only the physical facility and its equipment, but also the business operations and economics. It requires an appropriate quality-of-place, mix, layout and adjacencies, and a facility that can be efficiently managed. Too often, CBL developers fail to understand how unique location-based leisure facilities are and turn to local architects for their design. Sometimes, they even try to be their own designers. This doesn't work. People who don't specialize in CBL design will make mistakes that create permanent barriers to success.

The job is even tougher now that consumers assume that everything should cater to their highest expectations. This attitude extends not just to products, but also to services - in other words, to the entire consumer experience. And CBLs basically sell experiences, which must be exceptional or risk being viewed by guests as an inferior value. Quality-of-place is a major component of an exceptional experience.

So what does a new luxury CBL look like? One example is Paradise Park in Lee's Summit, Missouri, which our company designed with a quality-of-place to appeal to the new luxury yearnings of its mid-upscale market.

Paradise Park, which opened earlier this year, sits on 14 acres and is a combination indoor-outdoor and family entertainment-children's edutainment center with a 38,000-square-foot building. The quality-of-place was designed to specifically target a specific socio-economic/lifestyle group of college-educated, executive and professional families, basically with the same socio-economic/lifestyles as consumers who seek out new luxury offerings.

Paradise Park has a themed design, but not like a jungle or other exotic theme that would quickly grow tiresome. Rather, its well-coordinated use of shapes, materials and colors creates a distinctive "personality" for the facility, which feels both slightly exotic and slightly familiar. It is a theme, better known as a "trade dress," that feels upscale and doesn't get old, but is not so upscale as to be a turnoff to middle-income guests.

The old carnival-in-a-box model didn't work for indoor CBLs five or ten years ago and they're even more disastrous as a means to draw today's consumer. It's time the community-based entertainment industry quit looking to the past for guidance and began to think seriously about new models, like Paradise Park and others, that provide what leaders in other industries have learned to provide - a new luxury experience that provides top-quality value for the guest. Either that, or figure out how to let in warm sunshine and a cool ocean breeze.


Randy White is the CEO of the White Hutchinson Leisure & Learning Group, a Kansas City, Missouri-based consulting and design firm the specializes in family and children's entertainment and leisure venues. Randy can be reached at +1.816.931-1040, via e-mail or the company's Web site