When Bob Rogers set up experience design and production company BRC Imagination Arts 40 years ago, he was, in his own words: “Just a young guy with no credits and no reason anyone should trust me.” What he did have was bags of enthusiasm and a unique approach to storytelling.
The young Rogers started his career in attractions with the Walt Disney Company as a magician in the Magic Shop at Disneyland, California, before going to film school, and these experiences firmly shaped his approach to creating experiences. “You can tell a lot about a company from the origins of the founder,” he tells me. “Bringing a filmmaker’s sense of story together with a magician’s sense of magic and wonder has always been kind of a formula for us at BRC.”
It’s a formula that has led to a range of award-winning projects for clients such as the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum in Springfield, Illinois, US; Jameson Distillery Bow St in Dublin, Ireland; the Guinness Storehouse in Dublin, Ireland; the Museum of Liverpool in the UK; and the NASA Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex in Florida, US. Rogers has earned two Oscar nominations – for the short films Ballet Robotique and Rainbow War – has been inducted into the IAAPA Hall of Fame, and in 2007, received the THEA Lifetime Achievement Award for his breakthrough work in the themed entertainment and experience design industry worldwide.
Today, BRC employs between 50 and 75 people (staff numbers are constantly adjusted to meet the needs of each project), with the core team including “creative directors, artists, economists, designers, composers, accountants, film makers, technical wizards, producers, planners, magicians, graphic artists, project managers, storytellers, IT experts, musicians, researchers, special effects masters, systems engineers and a dancer or two.
“I’m so inspired by the people that I work with,” says Rogers. “We’ve done a great job of finding great people, and great people have chosen to come to us. I’m very proud of the team.”
As the company celebrates its 40th anniversary, Rogers is more interested in looking forwards than looking back. “I can’t wait to see what the team does next,” he says. New projects for 2021 include a “technically astonishing” stadium tour for the Las Vegas Raiders, the creation of a distillery experience for Horse Soldier Bourbon with architects Rogers Stirk Harbour & Partners in Kentucky, US and the opening of Johnnie Walker Princes Street – Diageo’s flagship whisky experience in the heart of Edinburgh, Scotland.
THE SECRET OF THEIR SUCCESS
So what’s BRC’s secret? According to Rogers, it’s both simple, and rare. “The thing that set us on the path to success was an idea about story that is not shared by everyone in the industry,” he tells me. “For us, it always starts with the heart. It’s not about features and benefits, or filling visitors heads with facts, it’s about connecting the heart of the audience with the heart of the subject or brand in a way that is enduring and that benefits both.”
This is not an abstract concept, explains Rogers; it’s being serious when it comes to understanding what’s needed.
“A lot of designers sit down with the client, ask them what they want, and after an hour or two, they think they have their list and can start work,” he says. “But you have to look deep, deep within your audience and your client or brand before embarking on a journey together; you have to ask fundamental questions to try and find out what they feel, what they want and what their values are. What you’re looking for is something in common with both. You can’t create it, you’ve got to find it, and when you do, that’s your link. That’s how you cause a permanent, positive connection between the two.”
By way of an example, Rogers cites the BRC-designed Ghosts of the Library show at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum – a museum that BRC helped create, together with Illinois State and that has won a Thea Award for Outstanding Achievement from the Themed Entertainment Association.
“A curator storyteller is explaining the role of a presidential archive in preserving and cataloguing presidential papers and other artefacts,” says Rogers. “Suddenly he says, ‘But some people ask, why save all this stuff? Isn’t history just a lot of dumb, useless names and dates you have to memorise to get through school?’ At this, you can feel all the kids in the audience thinking, “Yeah, that’s what I think, but I never expected you to admit it. By raising the taboo question, you now have their complete attention. And by eventually answering that question in a positive and compelling way, you win their teachers over as well. You’ve achieved a personal connection.”
As BRC works internationally, it’s important they tap into local cultures and sensitivities rather than just imposing their own ideas, continues Rogers.
“We work all over the world, so we need to be very sensitive culturally to what each new audience wants,” he says. “It’s important to have local cultural advisors, and you need to do some deep listening, culturally. It also helps to have a diverse design team – even if they don’t represent the exact culture you’re trying to serve, the fact they have various points of view sensitises you to different needs.”
The other thing that brings BRC’s attractions alive, says Rogers, is the sheer amount of research undertaken to create them.
“Because we go so deeply into our subjects, each new project is like taking a Master’s degree,” he says. “When we did our project about the Apollo Programme we weren’t sitting across the table from the people who wrote the books about it, we were sitting across the table from Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and John Young. When we created Mystery Lodge at Knott’s Berry Farm we didn’t research it by reading about the Cranmer family of the Namgis First Nation of the Kwakwaka’wakw people of Alert Bay, British Columbia, we worked directly with the senior members of the family, including the tribal dance master, the hereditary chief and the tribal anthropologist. That’s magic.”
WEATHERING THE STORM
I ask Rogers how 2020 was for him, expecting the usual answer about what a challenging year it was. Instead he admits, “We feel a little guilty that things are going so well for us when others are hurting, but it was actually a pretty good year. We did very well.
We’re in our 40th year and for 38 of those years we’ve been working internationally, so we’re used to working remotely. We get calls every week for viable projects.
“It really pains us to see some of our colleagues suffering right now,” he adds. “I do think that there’s a pent up demand that’s going to surge in our industry in 2021. When the pandemic eases, people who have money will come out and start spending like crazy and that will lift everyone – we’re looking forward to that good fortune, not just for us but for everyone else.”
This year, a typically varied selection of projects are due to open, from a stadium tour to a flagship whisky experience in Edinburgh.
Following the completion of the Las Vegas Raiders’ new $1.8bn Allegiant Stadium last summer, the NFL team were keen to offer a technologically sophisticated stadium tour to connect visitors with the team and its history.
“Together with the Raiders, BRC has created a tour that lets hosts control sound and media throughout the stadium via a small device on their wrist, with immersive shows starring some of the Raiders’ most important icons in behind-the-scenes spaces guests would normally never see,” says Rogers. “Without giving away any secrets, it’s the only stadium tour that we know of that often ends with fans crying as they step out onto the field. It’s emotional, it’s theatrical, and the Raiders believe that it’s going to be a “must do” on any visit to Vegas.”
Another major project for the company is its work with Diageo in Scotland. The Glenkinchie Distillery – the Lowland Home of Johnnie Walker, which opened in October 2020, is the first of four distillery experiences around Scotland being designed by BRC for the drinks brand as part of an £185m investment by Diageo in Scotch whisky tourism.
The Glenkinchie Distillery – which has won a Green Tourism Award – has been designed as a full sensory experience, taking visitors on a journey through the history of Glenkinchie and Johnnie Walker whisky with specialist tours, tasting rooms and a contemporary bar. Centred around a landscaped garden, the immersive experience takes place in the distillery’s Victorian red brick warehouses.
Two more BRC-designed distillery experiences are due to open in the next six months, with Diageo’s flagship venue – Johnnie Walker Princes Street in Edinburgh’s West End – set to open this summer, COVID-19 restrictions allowing.
The company have also designed a new exhibition for long term client The Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation just outside Detroit. Titled ‘Fueled by Passion – Driven to Win’, it’s a “very emotional, very sensory ride along experience,” which promises to bring to life the story of American auto racing.
As we go to press, BRC has also just been selected to design and produce the World Food Center Experience in Ede, the Netherlands – an attraction that will explore the impact of the world’s food choices and the importance of sustainable and healthy food production.
Other projects include the creation of an indoor music experience centre for Ravinia Festival, the US’s oldest outdoor music festival. “It’s an indoor spectacular with a ton of heart that tells the life story of the conductor and composer Leonard Bernstein,” says Rogers.
So, the next year is looking busy, but what about further ahead? What’s the plan for the next 40 years?
“For the last 10 or 15 years we’ve been setting the company up for succession,” says Rogers. “I try to do less and less – I make a suggestion here and there. The BRC team are ready to lead and have been leading for some time. I am so proud of them.
“I think the company’s best work is ahead and I can’t wait to see what they come up with next.”