Theming: Essential to Quality-of-Place

Theming, at least as it is commonly understood in the location-based entertainment (LBE) industry, is one of the industry's many myths. Typically, theming is recognized as a unified design approach of applying a theme, such as futuristic space travel or a geographic place archetypical appearance, such as the jungle, a tropical island or Paris, to the overall design of a project. Most casinos in Las Vegas are examples of this type of theming -- New York, New York; Paris; Treasure Island, etc.

This approach to theming is totally appropriate if an entertainment facility predominately caters to tourists at a vacation or tourist destination where guests visit only once or so a year. However, for community-based entertainment facilities, including location-based leisure facilities (LBEs) and family entertainment center type projects (FECs), which are dependent on high repeat business from local residents, this approach to theming is inappropriate. In fact, it will work against the business' success.

The first problem is theme burnout. Guests quickly tire of the theme, and it becomes a worn out fad. The initial wow quickly becomes boring and no longer seems relevant. This is exactly the reason many nightclubs have to totally remake themselves about every 18 months to stay successful. The second problem is cost. Community-based entertainment economics do not support the high costs of applied heavy theming, such as found at Disney attractions.

Joe Pine and Jim Gilmore, authors of The Experience Economy, point out three common errors with theming:

  • "Mistaking the themed environment for the experience, rather than merely the set within which experiences occur;
  • Thinking a great theme permits one's underlying goods and services to be of lower quality
  • Making the theme over-the-top and too in your face."

What is more appropriate for community-based facilities is another type of theming -- better termed a unified décor or motif -- known legally as 'trade dress', much more akin to the design of many restaurants. The facility has a distinctive look or personality that is integral to its brand identity, but it is not a heavy-handed, generic type theme. With a well-executed theme, no one will call you themed. Dave & Busters is an excellent example. D&B's facilities all have the same look that is instantly recognized as uniquely D&B, but it is not a theme in the conventional sense. Rainforest Café is just the opposite. It is a heavy-handed theme, which probably contributed to its financial decline. Theming like D&B's is repeatable. It is a pleasant, appealing environment to be in and return to. Nothing in its design is overly exotic or unfamiliar. It also does a good job of targeting its target demographic and socio-economic, another trait of good theming that is often ignored with FECs, yet is so critical to success.

Unlike D&B, which targets young adults, LBEs that target families and children, including FECs and children's edutainment centers, need a storyline-based design. Often, the storyline is more a back-story than a literary story for guests. A back-story becomes the mythology used to focus the designers' creativity and to unify the design. As the first stage of design, the storyline guides the conceptualization of the project and becomes the filter for all subsequent design decisions. It keeps the themed guest experience highly focused and cohesive and gives the facility believability and authenticity. The storyline also creates the relevance for the costume character(s) as well as other aspects of the LBE, including the name and logo.

With community-based LBEs, the challenge is to develop a distinctive branded look that incorporates what is familiar to the local community in the sense of design styles, colors and materials, but to present it in a unique way that seems slightly exotic and distinctive. Guests need to feel comfortable -- which is where familiarity comes in -- while at the same time feeling the place is special and different. One of the most successful ways to brand a center is to use the community itself and its culture as integral components of the theme.

For FECs that cater to the family market (children accompanied by their parents), it is often just as important to target the design to mothers as to their children. Mothers are the dominant decision makers, or at a minimum, the gatekeepers, so their comfort is critical to generating their repeat business.