Experience the Brand: John Kasman, VP of PGAV Destinations
The use of branded destinations and experiential marketing is becoming a core strategy as brands look to make lasting connections with consumers. In this episode, we host John Kasman, VP of PGAV Destinations, a leading destination design firm working with some of the world’s biggest brands to bring life changing experiences to their customers. We discuss the elements of successful brand destinations, how brands begin to think about experiential marketing, and how to weave the brand into every aspect of a destination. If you like our podcast, please subscribe and leave us a rating!Podcast: Download Subscribe: iTunes | RSS
John Kasman: A lot of where we start is trying to understand what the core attributes of the brand are, and so a lot of things really. Quite often you can look at blue sky, but it really is about trying to understand the brand and trying to understand the mission and the message that they want to give the guests, and so it’s making sure that the connection is there.
Bill Gullan: Greetings one and all, this is Real-World Branding. I’m Bill Gullan, President of Finch Brands, a premier boutique branding agency. We’re grateful to have you with us this week. This week’s guest is John Kasman. John is Vice President at PGAV Destinations, which is a super cool St. Louis based firm that builds destinations and experiences – that designs things like zoos and aquariums, and themed entertainment parks, museums and culture, hospitality, resorts. The area of the business that we’re going to focus in on is brand destinations. They’ve done a fair amount with Anheuser-Busch and others, National Geographic, etc. It’s a really interesting set of topics that John takes us through. His career is fascinating, their work is fascinating.
When we think about what brand managers and operators of branded content have at their disposal in terms of how you grow and how you extend the power of what you’ve built into other ways of connection with consumers, other ways of generating revenue, and awareness, and loyalty, the destination and experiential space is exploding in terms of growth and prominence. On one hand that’s pop-up experiences that may be temporary and promotional. On the other hand it may be longer term, more durable, permanent restaurant concepts, or retail concepts or whatever it is. John’s going to take us through a lot of this, so enjoy John Kasman, PGAV Destinations.
Bill:Joining us on Real-World Branding from right, I believe, under the Arch in St. Louis, the gateway to the west, is John Kasman, Vice President at PGAV Destinations. John, thank you so much for joining us.
John: Yeah, you bet. I love talking about my work, so thank you for the opportunity.
Bill: Good, and I know our listeners will enjoy hearing about your work. PGAV Destinations does an incredible amount. It’s a fascinating industry and fascinating company across all different types of destinations, your zoos and aquariums. We’re going to focus, I think a lot on the branded destination piece of this, but before we dive in, could you give us a quick hopscotch through your own personal journey and career history?
John: Yeah, sure. My background, my professional background is in architecture, so I’m an architect. Even early on, my upbringing I think led me to that, I always wanted to be an architect. My mother, she had great artistic ability and my father was an engineer, so he loved research. I still remember, he would always tell me to look up stuff in the Encyclopedia Britannica back when we had those, and surprisingly enough, I never stopped asking questions. So I just read everything growing up. I think architecture came naturally to me. It’s kind of that combination of art and engineering, and left brain and right brain. I think I was born to do what I’m doing now, so I’m just fortunate I get to do it here at PGAV. It’s working on destinations every day. I mean, how fun is that? You know?
Bill: Yeah, it’s awesome.
John: Yeah, every day is guest experiences, and tourism, and leisure time, and that’s all we do here, so it’s great.
Bill: On the road a lot? On location with different projects?
John: Yeah, absolutely. Absolutely. With destinations you’ve got to go where the destinations are. It’s not necessarily a local kind of deal, so we are nationally and globally, it’s great work.
Bill: Right, and I know, I think you’re from Chicago originally, but have certainly been in St. Louis for large parts of your career. You went to architecture school? Did you know from very early on this was the thing?
John: I did. I did. I went to architecture school at the University of Notre Dame and I’m a Midwesterner through and through. Like you said, I started in Chicago and came to St. Louis. I knew architecture was always going to be for me, I just didn’t realize it was going to be such a great opportunity to work in such a great niche of destinations.
Bill: Right. Notre Dame. Do they have a football team? I think I heard …
John: Yeah. You may have heard of them, right?
Bill: I guess it depends, although we have a big fan in the office here, who always wears a Domer hat. So you were interested in architecture. It blends the left and right brain, the engineering, the design, all of these different pieces. Specifically in terms of what PGAV does as opposed to other more conventional forms of architecture, how did you get to this and fall in love with this slice of the field?
John: When you think about how we have folks here that work on destinations, I think everybody’s got a different path, right? Mine was through architecture. Other people in the office may go through graphic design or landscape, or media. The path is all different depending on whose journey it is, but falling in love I think was kind of another story. I think my fall was probably a pivotal moment or emotional impact, just seeing a lot of our work with my own two eyes, and a lot of my large influence on my career was a lot of on-site art direction, so it’s a great opportunity. It’s intense and demanding, but once you see the fruit of your labors at completion, wow. It’s just overpowering to be able to see it, you know?
Yeah, there was a pivotal moment, even. I remember falling in love with the work that I do. I tell this story all the time to people that I can still remember one project I was working on had a lot of on-site art direction and the project included an animal experience, and so the underwater viewing was a great place to observe guests and so I’d sit and I’d watch guests. It was almost my little bit of my own research.
I’d sit there and watch guests and I still remember that there was a family that came up with a little girl, who was kind of relying on her walking crutches to get around. They came up and they spent some time there, and this little girl was playing and laughing, and using her crutches to play through the acrylic with the animal on the other side and it went on for a good long while. Finally, I continued to watch people and I watched her mom. She was just behind her with her hand over her mouth and tears starting to come.
To me it was a pivotal moment, because it hit me, just thinking of the fact that it’s serving your clients well, and you’re always focusing on the project and the client, but by serving the clients well, we’re really serving the guests and the visitors and people like you and me. It’s powerful when those moments kind of hit you, and you think about it. The power when those moments are really associated to a brand on top of that, that’s the good stuff right there.
I was fortunate that I got to discover that in the field on my own. Somebody in the office didn’t have to teach it to me, or look at the fact that every project we do, there’s potential for life changing moments. Once you get hit by something that moves you, I’ve been hooked for a long time, so it’s a great piece.
Bill: Yeah. It’s powerful and you’re right. When we look across the portfolio of what PGAV does, your zoos and aquariums, your general themed entertainment, the work that you do on the museum and cultural experience side, obviously hospitality resorts, places that people go. You make those places wonderful. I think we’re going to focus, given our subject matter at Real-World Branding on the branded destinations piece, in terms of the story of the firm and of the industry, was that always there or did it come into favor later on, or can you trace us a little bit through the history of that part of the offering?
John: I think the brand destinations piece has always been there. When you think about the work that we do, we focus on guest experiences, and we don’t necessarily focus on the product at the end, but it’s really about what the visitor’s getting out of it, and so when you think about the journey of our company, it’s applying that to all kinds of different destinations, the brand destinations is a perfect fit, whether it’s a corporation or a consumer good, or an institution that has a mission that they want to be able to share with the guests, all of those are just a perfect fit, just as much as it is for any other destination that people go to for their leisure time.
Bill: Right, right. Within the portfolio of the types of branded destinations that you all have worked on, you have National Geographic on the publisher side of this, there’s obviously the consumer product world with Budweiser and Goose Island and other branded destinations associated with that. When a brand is thinking about expressing itself experientially, and in this way, to what degree is there a balance for you between some of the things that you may do in a white space, experience development process versus a brand that may have a pretty strong sense of self, that may have an existing category of focus, that may have a personality that’s already well developed? Any difference in projects like that, where you’re really executing a brand strategy experientially, versus something that may be a little bit more blue sky?
John: Well, I think a lot of where we start is trying to understand what the core attributes of the brand are. A lot of things, really, quite often you can look at blue sky, but it really is about trying to understand the brand and trying to understand the mission and the message that they want to give the guests. It’s making sure that the connection is there, but that ease of connection is changing every day. There’s huge opportunities for destinations to take their surrounding environments and treating the consumer as a guest, but using that environment as a content generator, really.
Bill: We’ll look at something for example like Goose Island Tap Room. It is very easy, maybe not easy, but it is simple if one desired, if a brand owner desired, to open a conventional tap room and slap their logo on the door, or whatever. That’s linear. Hire an operator, or license it out or whatever. What is the difference between a limp, one-dimensional approach like that versus true immersive brand experience? When you go into a project like that, how do you go about teasing out those uniqueness to make sure that this is a tap room that’s not just a different name on the door but it really is unmistakably representative of a brand?
John: Sure, and the Goose Island example is a great one because their team was passionate to make sure that the way that they would present it is to give every opportunity to be able to share their love for their beer with whoever came through the door. A lot of that is multi-sensory. It’s being able to plan and use every tool at your disposal as great ways to start conversations and share more things. It comes from not just what you do, but how you do it and the stories you get to tell.
So it got all the way down into the details of the live edge of the wood on the countertop that’s at the bar, and being able to have stories where you can plant little pieces of their brand and the passion that they have and to be able to create those conversations for whether it’s a bartender or server, or just a team member, to be able to continue those conversations with the guest. Really a lot of it is multi-sensory. A lot of it is thinking about the stories that you can share.
Bill: Absolutely. Then you get into something like National Geographic Visitors’ Center for example, the Grand Canyon and perhaps elsewhere. Your Goose Island consumer product brand has certain principles and extends obviously in a fairly direct way into the tap room experience. A brand like National Geographic that may be tight in its own way, but a little bit more diffused maybe than something that is as obviously consumer product driven, any differences in how you might undertake a project like that?
John: A lot of that example is finding the perfect fit. When you think about a visitors’ center and making sure that you can take full advantage of who’s the perfect fit. National Geographic is the perfect fit to be your guide to the national parks, and taking the passion of their media, but also the aspiration of a guest to be just as good at my own photography as I see in National Geographic. A lot of this is tapping into the aspirations and making sure that the content of what that destination is can be able to play back and forth with that.
Bill: Right, right. When you look at what a brand manager thinks about and what an owner of a brand thinks about, obviously they’re trying to maximize the financial opportunity they’re trying to expand and connect their brand more deeply into the lives of those that they seek to serve. There’s a lot of options at their disposal. Many brands obviously become very elastic in terms of product concepts. They license the brand out across adjacent product categories, etc. But when a brand owner or brand manager is thinking about how best to express its equity and potentially to move in the direction of more experiential marketing and brand expression, what are some of the good things for them to think about from the jump?
John: Sure. A lot of brands, they are experts at their product, and really a lot of folks are just very passionate about understanding the demographics of their consumers, and a lot of what we get into and suggest is that it’s not just about understanding your product. You need to understand your guests at a deeper level, not just the general demographics. I mean, doing the research to ask the questions, to go a little bit deeper to understand what is driving the guests. We bump into that a lot, and just recently we even partnered with, we did our own internal research. We partnered with H2R Market Research and published a study that was very specific to guests, to visitors that go to destinations, and to be able to fill the gaps for the data that’s not out there.
What are the core reasons for visiting and what matters most once you get there? Most importantly, what’s keeping them from returning? I think a good thing for brands to think about, and going back to your question, is driving hard on understanding the guests just as much as you understand the general demographics.
Even then, even with the study, I remember we went into the different brand destination types. When you think about, there’s a bunch of folks out there doing event-based opportunities and permanent destinations, but there’s also embedded, like experiences that are within stadiums and airports, and even the retail experiences that they all have different drivers. You have to understand the drivers and what’s relative to understanding that guest for each one of those different experiences as well.
Bill: Right. Who are your typical, I’m sure it varies every single time, but if you could try to generalize a little bit, who are the typical functional interfaces for you when it comes to brand projects like this? Are you dealing with the brand management organization? Does there tend to be a licensing intermediary? How does it typically work?
John: You’re right. They totally vary, even when you think about the different types that we were just talking about. For permanent destination, a lot of times projects are driven by marketing, but also it’s a great dance and a great puzzle to be able to figure out when you think about, they have some operational folks that are very in tune and very important in the process to make sure the guest is treated the right way, to take all the operational issues away so they can really enjoy the day.
Between the marketing agendas and the operational things to work out, overlay the top of food and retail opportunities that they want to be part of the core day, part of the experience, not just add-ons. Those people come into great play, whether it be temporary event based or be a permanent fixture. You can imagine all those different players. It is a dance to be able to make sure you can optimize the end result to get it the perfect fit.
Bill: Yeah, and at the juncture at which you all enter, does the client or brand partner tend to have a fairly mature experiential strategy, at least in terms of this type, this location, these locations, or are you often helping them think through all that?
John: Every brand, every company, and every institution is so different. Some are very mature and they know exactly what their goals are and you take those goals and you get to help them to come up with the right strategies to achieve it. But when you think about it, the brand destination is still a little bit new, and a little bit unique to some other folks that are just getting into whether it be experiential marketing or a destination type product. Those companies, you’re right, need some support, whether it’s with our experience and our knowledge or otherwise. But they really cover the gambit depending on where we are.
Bill: Yeah, that makes sense. I know, and I think our collective industry media has been very well adept at covering some of the major things. We’ve seen a lot of pop up stuff happening. We see a lot of activations that are more experiential, but are there a couple things that you may have noticed when you look at how this branded destination, experiential marketing space, where are we going? What are you seeing, trends that are driving these things forward?
John: Especially recently the market’s changed, right? The ease of connection that we all have. Whether you look at social or other things, the world’s getting smaller and the ease of connection is really changing everything. You look at what has happened with in-store retail, and they’re deeply looking at the joy of the guest experience, or storytelling has been a buzzword for a while now.
We’re all looking to share connections, and so first and foremost, when you look at what’s going on now and how things are changing, and I think there’s a great advantage of using the surrounding environment. It’s a huge opportunity, not just for permanent destinations but a lot of these destinations are becoming memory makers and content generators. It’s not just relying on a digital component, but it really is a physical one.
You think about it, you brought up the work that we’ve been doing with Anheuser-Busch and the way that they’ve repositioned the Budweiser beer experience is, at all their different breweries across the country, St. Louis is the best known because it’s the birthplace of Budweiser, but a lot of that work wasn’t necessarily focused on the brand. It was focused on making friends and celebrating the enjoyment of beer.
When you think about their products that they’ve added over the past couple of years, like a beer garden, that’s one example that was very much a content generator from an environmental standpoint. Visitation to the St. Louis brewery has now doubled. You get new brand advocates and you get repeat visitation, so it’s a great example of making sure that the environment has a key role in content generation.
Bill: Right. You certainly see more contemporary brand experiences popping up around, South by Southwest for example. I was having coffee with someone the other day from Philadelphia who had, in a tentative way, gone to just see what the opportunities were around such a high gloss type of experience for brand expression, with thinking of how to go big and bigger in the future. You see Comic-Con. You see many different things that seem to be happening in the marketplace that are bringing people together and brands want a way into this. What’s been your take on just the notion, and you talk about storytelling, what can brands do, small, medium, and large, to bring a little bit more experience into that portfolio of things that they’re doing?
John: That’s where the subject comes up, technology is a big driver and it seems to be one of the top things that people automatically jump to, but it’s not always the answer. When you think about it, you also asked where this space is going. Relative to that, I think new technologies will always continue to drive the way that we look at the world and the way that guests can interact with the environments.
You asked a small, medium, and large kind of way, I think that is a player, that you can go big. You can go small, but I see, in the future, I think technology is going to be used in ways to customize and personalize experiences, and you can balance that. I think a lot of folks focus on the new technologies coming out, but keeping in mind that you balance it with a non-digital way to engage the senses, and focus on the visitor experience from a personal standpoint. The balance of that really provides you with a little bit of flexibility of small or large.
Bill: Right. Absolutely. We talked earlier, and you’ve mentioned some of the projects, and all one has to do is take a look at the company’s website or other materials to see the range and extent of the types of projects that you work on. Any standout stories from the road that either bring a smile or an aha or whatever when you think about these last 25 years, or whatever it’s been?
John: Yeah, it’s funny. You were talking about our website and when destination is in the firm name, you know that you’re on the road a lot, right? It’s just the case, but our products have always provided a great variety for our travel. We have natural wonders and national parks, and space shuttles to animal interactions. There’s so much. There’s so many opportunities there, it’s just great. I often, when this subject comes up, I always stop and think about I wish my language skills would keep up with my international travel.
My language skills are not the best and it’s pretty surprising really, but I remember once, we did an extended trip for art direction during construction, and it wasn’t weeks, it was months. I mean, I got the opportunity to spend 6 to 9 months in Spain. It was just absolutely wonderful, but I didn’t know a lick of Spanish when we started out. My crash course, I remember I was to take a crash course to be able to make sure I could get started with all the needs. I still recall my first crash course in a foreign language were things like ‘concrete’ and ‘brick,’ and colors and textures. It really does put a filter on the way that our business works. It’s interesting. I knew all those words before I even knew how to say hello. Stories from the road, it’s a wonderful opportunity. I’ll just keep learning my language skills, right?
Bill: Yeah. Fair enough. Actually, since you bring up the international piece, one of the topics we’ve been dealing with a little bit recently on this podcast, a couple of weeks ago we spoke with a high ranking Jack Daniel’s brand management person, who was talking a little bit about her experience in global marketing at Brown-Forman, and then we meditated a bit on that last week. When you go to global markets, and you’re representing US-based brands. Any tricks of the trade, or things to remember to make sure to bridge the gap between local custom, lifestyle, and rhythm, and how you balance that with hard and fast brand equities in terms of the way they might be practiced in the US? Any differences in how the business works in global markets?
John: I’m not sure it’s how the business works, but it does come down to that there is always a lot of cultural research that we do when we start, whether or not it’s brand focused. When you think about a brand who may be established in an international market, a lot of it is brand and product based, but when you think about the work that we do and the interesting filter and the challenge that we have is translating that brand into a destination that people experience on a day to day basis and during their leisure time. There’s a lot of cultural understanding and a little bit of not only the demographics of the people, but also the culture, and so yeah, it’s a challenge.
It takes an additional layer of some deep thinking. It could be quite different when you think about the way the product or the brand is perceived. There might be some hidden opportunities because of some cultural things that you learned to be able to really leverage in a different way, an unexpected and unique, and emotional connection. It’s great.
Bill: I know that you mentioned the recent research study on brand destinations, and a lot of these things are accessible on the website . Another study that you did that was kind of interesting I think was Generation Z and how the young today are thinking about zoos, aquariums and other things. You told that very moving story from the front, about the impact watching that had. As the parent of a 3 and 5-year-old, and seeing how technology has changed their world and everything else, how distinctive is today’s kid, today’s family, versus what those attractions may have been like all the while that we were growing up? Is it just more and better, and using tech, or are there fundamental differences in how attractions like that are planned today versus yesteryear?
John: You mentioned your ‘more and better’ because of technology, I think it really does come down to when you think about content and appealing to multiple generations, I think when you’re focusing on the piece that we did for Generation Z, a lot of it is interesting from a learning style standpoint as well. It’s not necessarily always technology based because it’s the new thing that’s the buzzword of how the new generations are totally developing differently. But a lot of it, still, is going back to learning styles.
People interact with the world in a different way. At that age, at that young age, it’s great to think about sculpting your content but also your delivery methods relative to that. Every destination we do, it’s not only for certain type demographics, a lot of time they’re broad, so being able to balance it with that particular generation, think about the delivery styles but also make sure that you’re covering other generations as well is a great challenge.
Bill: Right. One I feel every Saturday morning when we try to go somewhere and hope that the kids love it. When you look at your own career path and I’m sure that there are folks listening who, those who are in brand management positions I think hopefully this discussion will give them a little bit of fodder in terms of thinking about how to extend brands into the experience realm. I think we also, a strong percentage of our listenership comes from those who are interested in this field and they may be either involved early in their career or still in school or whatever it is. What would you tell somebody who’s been inspired by your career path, and can hear the passion coming out of everything that you say? Words of wisdom, be they either functional or about life skills as you reflect back on where you’ve come?
John: Sure. It’s a great question, really. PGAV is continuing to grow, so I’ve had the pleasure of doing quite a few interviews recently, and I loved it, really. I love sitting down and talking with young designers, whatever their background might be. At the core, a few words keep on coming back whenever I talk with those folks and you just mentioned the word passionate – that’s one of them. Making sure you have passion for whatever you’re doing. It’s really apparent, you can almost tell in the eyes of somebody when they have passion for something versus when they’re just going through the motions.
Ownership is another word that comes around often, making sure, no matter what we work on, we’re owning the problem, we’re owning the challenge and the joy of executing it. Curiosity is probably another word that comes up a lot. It even came up as I was telling my initial story about how I grew up, having that passion to keep on questioning why and digging a little bit deeper in the research is a huge driver. The last one is empathy. We use that term quite often. It might be the most important one. To really deliver you have to put yourself in somebody else’s shoes. That’s a great piece.
Bill: No doubt, and it certainly speaks, as you’ve said, to the role of research in processes like this and as a similar or related question, but when you look across your peers and the folks who become really valuable and successful at PGAV and in your field, understanding that they may come at it from different places. As noted there’s designers, there’s architects, there’s presumably project managers. There’s all sorts of different folks functionally, but what are some common denominators, or have you listed them do you think, of what makes someone great at this?
John: Besides the few things that we listed already, I think we’re very fortunate here at PGAV to have broad talent. It’s not just we look at somebody’s background and they might come from an architectural background or a graphic design background and it’s great that they are passionate in many different ways, and so they can constantly learn from each other, and grow in very amorphous ways, rather than a strict view of the world. That’s something I always admired with the people that I work with, and I’m surrounded with. I always look around and look at the great talent that we have here and the drive to actually be as good as they are in all kinds of different ways. It’s not just one directional. It’s the broad talent that makes it impressive.
Bill: We mentioned a few of the research studies and I know that PGAV is a frequent publisher from Destinology, which I think comes out quarterly, to some of the other research that you do on an annual basis. There may be some exciting projects or destinations that are about to open. Some exciting things that may be coming down the path for all of you that we all should look out for?
John: Yeah, we’ve got lots of great projects in the works. We’re excited here in 2016. It’s great. We mentioned a little bit about Anheuser-Busch earlier, there’s the latest renovation that’s opening up in the summer here in St. Louis for the next round of the renovation, retail and entry experiences for them, and we’re very excited about that.
You mentioned our research and you’re right. We’re just as passionate about our industry research as we are our destination design, so we are very excited about our latest research. It’s an annual research publication for the attractions industry. It’s called Voice of the Visitor. We did that in working with our industry partners at H2R and Blue Loop, and it’s a great piece. It covers insights and really forecasting across multiple attraction types and it’s all based on input directly from the visitor, so it’s a great piece that we’re excited about.
Bill: Terrific. We will check it out. John Kasman, Vice President at PGAV Destinations, architect by trade, son of the Midwest, thank you for your perspective. I think for those who are thinking about resources and opportunities at their disposal, not only in their own careers, but brands they may manage, how to bring these brands to life ever more, ever closer, ever deeper, in seeking consumer ambassadorship and seeking revenue and financial opportunities, and seeking just monuments to the power of brand stories and authentic brands that could grow and brands that can influence. Really appreciate your insight.
John: Thank you. It’s been great talking with you.
Bill: Many thanks to John Kasman, Vice President at PGAV Destinations, for joining us. Definitely a guy who loves his work and his career, and his industry or company are all fascinating and they do have a rich perspective and they back that up with data. They are really strong contributors to the knowledge base of the industry as a whole. When we look at many, many more brands seeking the opportunity to express themselves beyond product, beyond merchandising and into experience, these guys are pretty good at what they do. John’s stories and his insight makes that very clear.
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