How amusement features in mixed-use projects are driving the 'experience economy'

Mixed-use developers, retailers and even public agencies are fighting for people to show up at their events, resorts and shopping centers, spending a lot of time and money in the process.

However, today's target market isn't the mall generation of yesterday. There is a new wave of shoppers, tourists and adventurers looking for something more, as they desire a fun and memorable experience — such as amusement and game-style attractions that offer more than just a place to buy a souvenir.

Experiences over possessions

"I think you're seeing a transition in entertainment and retail," said Dan Zaharoni, chief development officer for Urban Commons, the company that leases and manages the Queen Mary attraction in Long Beach, CA. 

In March, Urban Commons announced plans to add a $250 million development called Queen Mary Island around the historic city-owned ship, a Gensler-designed complex that would include a 2,400-foot-long boardwalk, a small-boat marina, a hotel, an amphitheater, dining and entertainment venues and 700,000 square feet of retail space.

Queen Mary Island rendering
A rendering of the proposed Queen Mary Island

Urban Commons hopes the new 65-acre development will create a revenue stream necessary to complete a reported $289 million, five-year upgrade and repair program for the Queen Mary. But it's not all about modernizing the luxury liner.

"Certainly revenue generated for Queen Mary Island will help maintain the ship, but that's not the reason for the development," Zaharoni said, as Urban Commons is trying to adapt the Queen Mary attraction to make it a destination for people of all ages. "This isn't your grandfather's Queen Mary anymore," he said.

At the heart of the development that Zaharoni said will "fundamentally change the character of Long Beach" is a 150,000-square-foot Urban Adventure that will include an indoor ice climbing wall, surfing, canyoning, skydiving, zip-lining, a trampoline park and more under one roof.

The Urban Adventure concept is the brainchild of Urban Legacies co-founders Justin Beavis and Kevin Bacon, who said the company is riding the wave of the new "experience economy."

"Over the last 10 years," Beavis said, "the active leisure sector has experienced growth, and what we're seeing today are millennials — and people around the world — wanting an experience rather than possessions." In addition, he said, having all of these exciting, interactive forms of entertainment in one place is particularly attractive to those with limits on their leisure time.

Bacon said there are also barriers to entry into some of these Urban Adventure sports — like indoor wall climbing — namely geographic distance to a safe, well-managed facility, as well as the intimidation factor if the place is filled with experts who don't leave much room for beginners. Bacon said the Urban Adventures locations "appeal to a complete range of age groups and abilities … to accommodate hobbyists and enthusiasts and still appeal to advanced users."

Social media has also increased people's desire to participate in fun activities rather than build a day around shopping, according to Zaharoni. "They want to show their friends they're at the newest, hippest and coolest place," he said, "and that's what we intend with Queen Mary Island."

Drawing in families

Water-based attractions are another big draw for a slightly different part of the new target group — families, according to Virginie Guilbeault, vice president of business development in Europe and the Middle East for Vortex Aquatic Structures International in Montreal.

Westgate resort Florida photo
A waterpark in the Westgate Town Center Resort in Kissimmee, FL

Vortex creations are found in shopping malls and public parks as well as in hotels and campgrounds, where owners want to gain a competitive edge, raise rates and extend the length of their guests' stays. Even Wynn Resorts is trying to tap into the family sector by creating a lagoon-based theme resort next to its casino on Las Vegas.

Shopping malls and retail centers, Guilbeault said, are trying to lure customers who are content to shop online at home. These owners are "having challenges" because of that preference and are using water-based attractions to make their venues a destination.

As a testament to that trend, both new American Dream malls — one under construction in New Jersey and the other in the planning stages in Florida — feature water parks.

New tourist attractions

Sometimes regional economic initiatives are built on the power of play as well. Rich Marin, president and CEO of the New York Wheel currently under construction on Staten Island, NY, said the wheel might not be the driver of the $1.6 billion in new development planned for the region, but the potential tourist boom that many expect the Wheel will ignite doesn't hurt.

New York Wheel
A rendering of the under-construction New York Wheel

"When you step back," he said, "it's fair to say we are the centerpiece of the North Shore development." It would be hard not to be given the dimensions of the project. When complete in 2018, the observation wheel will be the tallest in the world at 630 feet, beating the current titleholder, the Las Vegas High Roller, by 80 feet.

With each capsule weighing 30,000 pounds and able to accommodate 40 people, developers expect the wheel to give an estimated 3.5 million annual tourists and local residents a thrill, albeit a 10-inch-per-minute one. Marin said the Wheel will put on a light show every night, drawing boats from surrounding boroughs and New Jersey. 

Regardless of whether it's a city or private developer, Zaharoni said there's no going back to the old way of doing business, as the future success for anyone hoping to draw a large number of visitors lies in the "extras" that are quickly becoming the norm.

"Newer generations are looking for a more experiential place," he said, "where they make memories instead of just making a purchase."

Follow on Twitter

Filed Under: Commercial Building Design Economy
Top image credit: Urban Legacies