Founded by Phil Hettema in 2002, The Hettema Group is a creator of award-winning experiential attractions and shows, including the One World Observatory in New York at the One World Trade Center; the High Roller Observation Wheel at The LINQ, Las Vegas; and Beyond All Boundaries at the National World War II Museum, New Orleans.
The group is currently working on several new projects, including the Aon Center observatory in Chicago, a “game-changing” new gallery for the Arizona Science Center, a new theatre for the National World War II Museum and a major casino resort in Macau.
An industry stalwart with a raft of awards to his name – including TEA’s Buzz Price Thea Award for a lifetime of distinguished achievements – Phil Hettema caught the attractions bug early. “I grew up in southern California and was born the year Disneyland opened,” he says, speaking from his home in California. “You could say I was a bit of a Disney nerd.” Hettema paid his way through college with a part time job at Disney, then later worked in a range of managerial roles for the company, before joining Universal, where he was senior vice president, attraction development for Universal Studios Theme Parks Worldwide for 14 years. In 2002, he launched his own company, The Hettema Group, which has gone on to become one of the leading companies creating immersive stories for theme parks, museums, resorts and more.
Here he talks to Attractions Management about his upcoming projects, the impact of COVID-19 on the industry and why creating amazing experiences is all about emotion.
Can you sum up what The Hettema Group does?
We’re an experiential design and production studio with about 35 people on our staff. I’ve spent 45 years in this industry and I’m from the theme park industry originally so I understand that business pretty well. We now take what we learned there and apply it to the museum sector, to the standalone attraction sector, what we call iconic experiences – the One World Observatory at the World Trade Center in New York, for example – as well as large resorts.
We’re also looking at additional industries outside of that circle, including the medical sector, and looking at how the guest experience works. Whichever area we’re working in, it’s all about having a storytelling goal – making sure that guests leave having been changed somehow by their experience, whether that’s because they’ve learned something or been emotionally touched or just entertained.
How was 2020 for you?
Like for everybody in the industry, it was an incredibly challenging year. Everything was turned on its head.
The workflow of projects has been radically altered – everything in the theme park business has slowed down tremendously, if not stopped completely. And virtually every other sector had to make decisions about how to move forward. There I would say we’ve been more fortunate than most in that several of our major projects have made the decision to continue and take advantage of this time to get ahead of the curve in order to have projects that were in the pipeline completed by the time audiences come back.
It’s so painful right now, but I do think that in the long-term, we’re going to learn some very important lessons that will ultimately be of benefit to everybody.
What are your predictions for the attractions industry over the next couple of years?
I regrettably feel like we’re probably in a very constrained situation for the next year at least and then we’ll start to gradually come out of it.
When we emerge from this tunnel we’re in, I think there will be tremendous pent-up demand for ways to connect. There’s a real physiological, emotional and human need to connect with each other in physical space.
When things begin to open up, I think the people in our business will see a huge hunger in demand for places where people can meet that need and quench that thirst.
How will this pandemic change the design of attractions going forward?
Of course, almost every theme park and venue with ride experiences will look very different, because nobody’s going to be willing to invest in things that will force large groups of people to be in the same space. Instead we’ll have to think about how smaller groups of people can move sequentially through the same environment in a way that allows them to communicate and connect, while remaining separate. Museums are already looking at how to open their galleries to groups of people in more immersive and facilitated ways.
You’re the designers of the Aon Observatory in Chicago. What can you tell us about that project?
It’s located right at the end of Millennium Park, in the ideal location to give the most spectacular views of Chicago. The top floors of the building were previously used for mechanical equipment, so there are fantastic big volume spaces that we’re converting into a spectacular observatory. An external elevator system is being added – it will feature one of the world’s longest glass elevators on the outside of a building.
As you start the experience, we’ll give you context into Chicago, so whether you’re a native or a first time visitor, you’ll have a common appreciation of the history and vibrancy of the city.
When you get to the observatory itself, the views will be spectacular, and there will be several different ways to experience them. For those who want a really thrilling experience, there will be an experience ride at the very top, which will take visitors over the edge of the building’s roof and right over Millennium Park.
You’re currently working on the creation of new galleries for the Arizona Science Center. Can you tell us more?
The Arizona Science Center is a fantastic institution; very scrappy but really great at telling stories. They have ambitious plans for a major new Arizona-focused gallery. They really want to turn up the experiential volume and put people in the middle of the experience. It’s a chance to do something really not typical for a museum that I think could be game changing for them and for the museum world.
You’re also working with the National WWII Museum in New Orleans on a new project. What can you tell us about that?
Ten years ago, we were tasked by the National WWII Museum in New Orleans to create a theatre experience that would tell the story of World War II in a fresh new way.
We put together a multimedia documentary narrated by Tom Hanks – who was also the executive producer – in which we tried to bring together the events that took place right across the world during World War II with a lot of emotion and connection to everybody in that conflict.
We’re working on a new theatre for the same museum right now which takes a much broader view and asks what that fight for freedom meant. It’s a physically engaging show that’s both intellectually and theatrically challenging. We’re about a year and a half away from that opening.
Which projects are you most proud of?
The One World Observatory at the World Trade Center in New York was a really important and challenging project for us.
The client wanted an observatory experience in the tallest building in the western hemisphere, and they wanted it to be forward-looking, with a focus on rebirth and rebuilding. It was challenging, because we understood that no-one would walk into that project without having in their mind the fact that the building sits on the same site as the Twin Towers sat before, so we had to put that into context while creating an experience that was very positive and optimistic.
The way we did that was by not just looking at 9/11 to today, but by broadening that time spectrum out and asking what the site looked like 200 years ago. The Elevator Experience is a virtual elevator; as you ascend the building, it’s as though you’re travelling in time. So as you begin your journey, you’re looking at a Manhattan that was mostly underwater; as you make your ascent, you see how Manhattan developed over the decades. The only place that 9/11 and the Twin Towers are mentioned is you see when they’re built, literally next to the elevator and then they disappear on 9/11. When you step off that elevator and get that first spectacular reveal experience at the top, you’re really looking towards the future.
Who do you respect in the industry?
I’m a huge fan of the Disney organisation – they’re the 500lb gorilla, but they’ve done that by focusing on innovation and quality on every level. I admire what Universal has done. I personally admire Bob Rogers, his company, BRC and the way they tell stories, which is very different from us (see our profile of Bob Rogers on page 48).
You’ve been in the attractions business 45 years – where are we now in terms of the highs and lows you’ve seen?
The pandemic is certainly the most significant event in my lifetime. I don’t think anybody could have imagined something this cataclysmic – I still have a hard time wrapping my head around the thought that Disney shuttered its theme parks for so long.
We’ve always been a cyclical business, but the curve for our industry has tended to be contrary to that of the larger world. When the world slides into recession or depression, entertainment and attractions often go up. I choose to believe that in the long-term, that will be the effect here. The question is, who will still be around? Who can gut it out long enough to reconstitute themselves again when we begin to pull out of this?
There’s some creative destruction going on that means that when the industry rebuilds itself, it will rebuild in stronger and more vibrant and exciting ways.