The Los Angeles-based company is inventing new types of leisure destinations that are more progressive, profitable, high quality and achievable on a realistic budget.
IDEATTACK specializes in the design of large-scale, mixed-use tourism destinations, but the magic happens at the human scale. The cultural values of the location drive the design process, and the IDEATTACK flair for originality, boldness and innovation is what creates an unforgettable experience/attraction.
IDEATTACK was founded in 2004 by Natasha Varnica and Dan Thomas. Bringing together their expertise in architecture and entertainment design, they saw the need for planners of a new type of mixed-use project that requires expertise in both disciplines.
“These mixed-use projects need both areas of knowledge,” says Varnica. “There are traditional architecture practices and specialised firms for entertainment design, but none of them fill the needs of mixed-use leisure tourism projects. We realised that a combination of experience from both worlds would give the best results.”
Varnica and Thomas are now running a company of 50 staff, with projects across the world. The hands-on founders manage every one of IDEATTACK’s projects from conception through to opening day, offering a holistic service that’s entirely tailored to each individual site and market.
Varnica and Thomas reveal IDEATTACK’s approach to design, planning and client relationships, and why it’s time the industry embraced new ways of thinking.
What are your roles at IDEATTACK?
Dan Thomas: Natasha and I are the founders, owners and partners of IDEATTACK. In general, I’m in charge of the creative and architectural design side and Natasha is in charge of organisation and execution, but our involvement is always mixed. The type of projects IDEATTACK does require a mixing of thinking.
Natasha Varnica: Since one of my backgrounds is in humanities, I’m also very involved in the cultural side of projects. It would be very hard to clearly separate our roles in the brainstorming phase.
What type of projects do you take on?
Dan Thomas: We focus on delivering the highest quality. Therefore, we don’t take every project on. We choose projects where the developer has decided to take on the project in full so we can completely dedicate ourselves to it.
Natasha Varnica: Our policy is that a project we’re involved in must be conceived by us. We don’t provide services at random stages during project development. We work only on a project from the beginning, and wouldn’t take over someone else’s concept. You have to understand what the thought process was from the very beginning so it’s very important for us to be on a project from the ideation and concept design stage and continue working on the project at consequent stages to the end.
What is the process you go through with a new client?
Dan Thomas: For the big projects, we meet the clients to discuss the project and visit the site. Then, we do the contract and proceed with the design. This is part of making sure we have the opportunity to choose projects that will be realised. We need to be clear who the client is, who the developer is, how experienced they are, and whether they have a similar understanding of what we all want to achieve.
It’s really important for us to meet the clients because we do expect to be involved from the top to bottom of the project. We hesitate to work with disconnected groups that are, for example, part of a bigger conglomerate and not truly in charge of the project and as such don’t have deep interest in the project’s future.
Natasha Varnica: In almost all the cases when a client invites us, they expect us to give them direction. They often don’t have a clear idea of what they want to do, and they like to listen to what we suggest. That’s one of our services. We examine the location and we suggest the best approach and type of project for that location, taking into consideration our broad global knowledge of the industry and understanding of the world’s dynamics.
You design and implement one-of-a-kind projects. Why is important for you to be bold and original?
Dan Thomas: There’s a huge interest in leisure tourism projects across the entire planet, and we have to look for new options.
We have to look at solutions that are maybe new types of developments. Sometimes our approach is completely new, and sometimes the client is not ready for it or doesn’t want to push the envelope – but that’s what is going on now, creating new types of projects. We’re breaking the mould.
Natasha Varnica: In some ways I feel we don’t even have a name for this industry that we think we’re a part of and a name for these groundbreaking new types of projects. It’s not purely entertainment design, it’s not typical architecture. It’s time for a new term for the industry as a whole and the type of projects we’re doing.
How do you see the industry landscape changing?
Dan Thomas: We’re trying to open up the industry. People say the US is a saturated market; Japan is saturated, South Korea is about to be saturated. In fact, the US has 300 million inhabitants and maybe two major tourism destinations with quality theme parks. In the UK, for example, there are a couple of parks but they’re leaning towards amusement parks – mostly rides.
So, so-called saturated markets actually have vast opportunities, especially today when most cities are not built at the human scale. In new markets, like China or Korea, the newly built cities are unappealing and most of the living space is not inspiring at all – most of these places are missing the human touch.
Natasha Varnica: At the weekend, people don’t actually have many places to spend their leisure time. They used to go to shopping malls – which are dying now – and in many places in the world there’s not anything to do that’s special.
I think “theme park” is a term that usually describes traditional amusement parks, but for us, a theme park is much more. It’s a rich, elaborate, human scale, soft, immersive environment with intangible values. These types of values are applicable in all kinds of tourism environments, from commercial developments with mostly retail, F&B content, to historical heritage sites, national parks, destination resorts, entertainment centres and other types of tourism developments.
How important is it to draw inspiration from the culture and heritage of the site location?
Dan Thomas: Cultural values are very important. If you look at successful parks like Disneyland, they are based on culture, a Euro-American culture. The only problem is, it’s the same thing repeated over and over again. New markets have cultures completely untouched in that way. In China, there’s an extremely rich culture that’s practically untapped – or when it’s been attempted it’s not been very successful.
Every country has unique cultural elements and we have a very deep interest in using these new cultural environments to develop attractions of world-class quality.
If you travel abroad these days, there’s a good chance it’ll be hard to tell where you are because every place is starting to look the same – that’s the impact of globalisation. For us that’s also the challenge. We want to use these different cultural values to make unique projects. People appreciate that, not just those who live there, but those who travel there.
What’s your design philosophy with these tourism projects?
Natasha Varnica: We value encyclopedic knowledge, open-mindedness, imagination and innovation as key factors in the creation of original projects. We try to use cultures, historical and geographical settings in our design approach in a realistic, feasible way that fits unique environments of our projects.
Tourism projects are created in a comprehensive way so they have layers of gradual immersion into the theme or story of the project. They form a coherent world of rich, enhanced experience.
Our projects are about the environment. When it’s mixed-use, it’s not only about the attractions and rides but it’s about what’s outside and surrounding you – that’s where people spend most of their time. In the creation of these soft spaces, it’s that intangible value that we create that should connect all the elements in a way that makes sense.
Every project is an authorship project – you’re the creator of a special world that’s different from the one outside.
Is it difficult to balance the business needs of a project with the artistic vision?
Dan Thomas: We advise the client to balance the process in a way that business needs don’t over-dominate the creative vision of the project, but we also understand that the business will bring income to the destination and keep it alive – it’s a fine line. The two sides complement each other because if the environment is attractive, people will come and boost the business.
Natasha Varnica: The timing of when the project is commissioned is also important. We prefer to come to markets when they are in need of something special.
What challenges is the industry facing?
Dan Thomas: One of the main challenges in the industry is how to complete all potential projects in a quality way. In our industry this is so important because the quality is the value of the project. Without it, it loses the point. You can do residential blocks badly and people will still live there, but these projects are different.
You have to make them appealing so people can make the choice to visit them. Tourism destinations have to be special in order to attract people. The “specialness” of a tourism destination is a determining criterion for its success in comparison to other destination choices that people have.
Another concern is some of these projects tend to be extremely expensive to realise and can only be sustained in a few locations in the world at the time. They can exist in these certain locations, but what about the rest of the world?
We want to make the cost more realistic. We believe you can develop world-class projects with quality design and vision on a much more realistic budget, and then they can serve a lot more cities and countries.
What would you like to see happen?
Natasha Varnica: Our industry has a responsibility to educate itself about the cultures and countries where it is working. Without doing that, we’re not able to interpret their stories, their cultural values.
We need to be more serious about what we do for the reputation of our industry. We’re concerned that if the industry doesn’t make good progress, the developers will give up – and that may happen.
What’s IDEATTACK’s greatest success?
Dan Thomas: We’re constantly making steps forward and we’ve had many achievements. At the moment, several of our projects in China are under construction and we believe they will stand out in terms of quality of experience.
We’re working on a special and different theme park located in Changping, between Beijing and the Great Wall of China.
It strikes the balance of budget and quality and we believe it will be an eye-opener to developers – hopefully, they’ll realise you don’t need billions of dollars to create high-quality projects.