The Hettema Group keeps the creative spark alive

Interviews by David Paul Green

Much has been written about The Hettema Group (THG). Company founder Phil Hettema says the company’s mission is to, “Design innovative and immersive experiences worldwide.” THG’s people and projects have received numerous awards. Most recently came high honors from the Themed Entertainment Association: Phil received the Buzz Price Thea Award for a Lifetime of Distinguished Achievements, and Art Director Nina Rae Vaughn was named a TEA Master.

Founded by Phil in 2002, The Hettema Group has gone on to become one of the premier companies creating immersive stories for guests around the world. Clients include DreamWorks, Universal Creative, SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment, MGM, The National WWII Museum, Everland, Lotte World, AEG Live, Resorts World at Sentosa, and Legends Hospitality, LLC, among many others. The company is known for such projects as One World Observatory (New York City), High Roller Observation Wheel (Las Vegas), the USA Pavilion at Yeosu Expo 2012, Dragons Wild Shooting at Lotte World (Seoul), Beyond All Boundaries at the National World War II Museum (New Orleans), and much, much more.

With a staff of more than 70, in creative, media and architecture, The Hettema Group is in position to tackle projects of any size, anywhere in the world. The credentials of the executives interviewed for this story shows the tip of the iceberg of the company’s deep bench in design and execution.










Top row (L to R): Jodi Roberdes, Phil Hettema, Anthony Pruett. Bottom row (L to R): Scott Sinclair, Nina Vaughan, Susan Spence, Don Carson

For this article, Phil and six key team members respond to ten questions posed by InPark contributor David Green, in the style of a Proust Questionnaire – a 19th-century interview technique intended to provoke introspection, popularized in the U.S. by “Inside the Actors Studio” host James Lipton. The interviewees:

Phil Hettema, Creative Executive, leads The Hettema Group in the design of uniquely creative guest experiences. Phil established THG in 2002 after serving as Senior Vice President of Attraction Development for Universal Studios Theme Parks Worldwide for 14 years.

Anthony Pruett, Senior Vice President, oversees project production, business affairs and company planning at THG. He came to the company with more than 20 years managing the design and construction of tourism, hospitality and retail projects in Asia, the Middle East and North America.

Jodi Roberdes, Director of Facility Design Services, has played a lead role in the exterior and interior design of many THG projects, including One World Observatory and the High Roller observation wheel. Prior to joining THG she was Director of Design at Scenery West Design & Construction.

Susan Spence, Senior Writer, develops content and story treatments for THG’s attractions and exhibits. She has more than 20 years of experience as a writer and content developer for museums, visitor centers and theme parks around the world.

Scott Sinclair, Senior Creative Director, provides creative vision, designs and illustrations for many of THG’s major projects. He has played key roles on high-profile industry projects throughout his career, including Tokyo DisneySea and Tomorrowland at Magic Kingdom Park.

Nina Vaughn, Art Director and Illustrator, has been a key creative on THG projects for DreamWorks, Chimelong Ocean Kingdom and other major theme park clients. She worked as an Imagineer for 20+ years and contributed to the design of iconic attractions such as Indiana Jones Adventure and Pooh’s Hunny Hunt.

Don Carson, Senior Art Director, is a legend in the theme park world for his exceptional work as a concept illustrator and designer. Prior to joining THG, Don contributed to numerous projects for Disney such as Splash Mountain, Blizzard Beach and Mickey’s Toontown.

What drives you personally and/or creatively?

Phil: It all comes back to getting people’s attention. There is part of that little kid inside of me that just wants to be seen. This may be surprising, but in reality I’m really shy and never felt comfortable drawing attention to myself – so my way to get attention was always to do something that you have to look at.

Anthony: A quote by director Harold Ramis: “Find the smartest guy or gal in the room and go stand next to them.” We’re all here because we love this industry and love this work. Being humbly part of that group is awesome.

Jodi: There’s always lots of work to do. Just a passion for problem-solving. Being ahead of the game and trying to problem solve before it becomes an issue.

Susan: Learning. Discovering new things. I’ve always had a passion for learning about topics I don’t know about. I have the perfect job in that way.

Scott: I’ve always been a creative person. I can show you pictures my mom saved that I drew when I was four years old… When I was a teenager, I decided I didn’t want to do “let’s pretend” by myself. I found myself first in theater, then in theme parks.

Nina: I love what I do, creating; what could be cooler?

Don: In illustration school, I told the head of my department that I really didn’t like doing finished illustrations. What I really liked to do was rough sketches. Was there a job that allowed me to do roughs and get paid for it? She assured me that that did not exist. My entire career has been spent proving her wrong…

What life lessons do you bring to your work?

Phil: My first trip to Europe was absolutely life-changing for me. There was a whole world that had been outside my sphere of experience. That just opened so many doors. That ability as individuals to step out of who we are, and try and put ourselves in someone else’s shoes, and see what that feels like is really important in creative experiences.

Anthony: 1. Being ethical is important. 2. It goes superfast. One day, you’re graduating from college; the next thing, you’re neck-deep in deadlines. You start to focus more on relationships and people. The projects come and go; people matter. 3. Good work is the best marketing you can have.

Jodi: Dealing with a large team and colleagues in different types of disciplines, we all think very differently, whether left brain or right brain. It’s important, when you’re collaborating, to make sure that what you’re trying to get across gets across in a way that somebody can understand.

Susan: I’m always reminded of the importance of listening to people. Clients appreciate when they know they’ve been heard.

Scott: “It’s the people.” End of story.

Nina: The older and wiser you get, you realize it’s not about self, it’s about the project, the guests and the team.

Don: As you get more years of experience, you’ve stood on enough trolley tracks – and been hit by enough trolleys – that hopefully you know what not to stand on, more than when you were starting out. Something that makes that experience valuable – hopefully – is that we’ll call out when we see someone standing too close to the trolley on the trolley tracks and may not realize it.

What challenges are common to most or all projects?

Phil: There are always a million reasons not to do any project. If the vision for success is strong enough, it can carry the project through those moments and take you to success.

Anthony: Design coordination… Coordinating all the elements of the project… It’s a lot of data to keep up with. It may seem like Design Coordination 101, but execution matters.

Jodi: Budget, budget and budget. Schedule, schedule and schedule…

Susan: Phil is always pushing us to do something different that people haven’t seen before and experienced before. It makes the work exciting, but it’s also intimidating and challenging. It’s ultimately a really good thing, because that driving force takes projects to new and exciting places.

Scott: Trying to understand what the client wants. Trying to educate the client about what will deliver that.

Nina: The biggest challenge is, who do you answer to during the creative process? If it’s Phil, it’s easy. Answering to the client can be more challenging.

Don: Organizational structure and dynamics of the company or client you’re working for. Sometimes a client
has never done this sort of work: You’re doing a lot of convincing them that these choices are good ones, and will save you money.

What gives you joy?

Phil: Three things: 1) I just love to experience creativity myself. I love to go to theater and nothing makes me happier than when I see something that truly takes me out of whatever mindset I had brought into the theater. 2) Being able to work on a project and see that the audience has a reaction that corresponds to what our hopes and aspirations were. 3) The satisfaction of assembling a team of people who can work to a common purpose and achieve a goal together.

Anthony: Personally: my kids, for sure. Professionally: seeing the projects open to the public. You get a sense of satisfaction.

Jodi: Seeing a project all the way through from beginning to end. Being able to walk through that space and be proud of it. Seeing the owner being satisfied and happy with the final outcome of the project. Seeing the people who work for me achieve their goals and objectives, and learning. I like a good sunset as well! (laughs).

Susan: I like working on projects that feel like they really have the potential to have an impact or have meaning for people.

Scott: A lot of people have hobbies. My hobby is designing stuff.

Nina: I love problem solving.

Don: When I was young and eager, it was the idea that I was getting to work on something prestigious. Now, it is the joy of the process.

How do you get excited for the next project, when the last project drained you?

Phil: Finding the creative spark at the beginning of a project never gets old for me.

Anthony: I go on reading binges. Vacations. In my 20s and 30s, I didn’t do any of this stuff. It was like, “Give me five projects, and I’ll ram through them.” Now I read more, exercise more, eat better.

Jodi: I don’t think a project has yet drained me. I finish a project on a high, ready for a new challenge, a new puzzle to be solved. I just want to keep working on what I’m working on!

Susan: A lot of my job is research; no matter what, it’s always fun and interesting to start something new.

Scott: What drains me is NOT starting over!

Nina: Once there is a set of parameters for me personally — when it’s too nebulous it’s difficult — but once somebody says “OK. It’s gotta be this, this, and this: Go for it.” I really am a person that likes parameters.

Don: Nothing will drain you faster than being asked to design a project with no limits. Designing a product with limits is preferable by far!

Client communications: If you could meet with every client before they hired THG, and give them one piece of wisdom or advice, what would it be?

Phil: No matter who you hire, you need to make sure you’re going to get two things: One: a project that is different or unexpected in the way it achieves its ends. Two: Not just a concept, but a concept that can actually become reality. It’s those two things combined; without both, you’re not going to be successful.

Anthony: Listen to the people who have done it before. We know we can save our clients considerable time and money and hassle.

Jodi: Our design firm organization and structure, with creative, media, and architecture together, following a multidisciplinary approach and able to solve large, complex problems in real time, is a key difference we have over other companies.

Susan: I would just reassure them that at THG, they will be heard. It starts at the top, and Phil is a really good listener and respects our clients.

Scott: We happen to have a very strong team. If clients are able to internalize that, they can relax a little bit, in terms of trusting us to watch ourselves and double-check ourselves.

Nina: I think Phil is the person for that task, not me. (laughs).

Don: Trust us. We really do know.

Vendor relations: If you could meet with every vendor before THG hired them, and give them one piece of wisdom or advice, what would it be?

Phil: Just be an honest partner. We have good relationships with vendors. We have to be fair with them, and we expect them to be fair with us, and that includes saying, when necessary, “You’re asking for something that’s not possible.” The only time we have problems with vendors is when they over-promise or take on responsibilities that they’re not really equipped for.

Anthony: Tell the truth. If you don’t know, don’t fake it. You’re going to have bad days, as well as good days.

Jodi: It’s important to be thorough and transparent. Make sure we’re on the same page. Open communications. If there are any assumptions, make sure those are clear. Bid estimates – some come in high, some come in low. Explain the thought process instead of just looking at numbers.

Susan: THG looks for the same spirit of collaboration that we have internally. Take a chance. Don’t try to only give us exactly what we want. Show us what you can do that will make the project even more compelling.

Scott: If we do not bring you on early in the process, it’s not because we don’t want to. We would really like to! It’s far less expensive to solve problems on paper than to do it with a jackhammer.

Nina: Vendors need to be given the big picture. To understand where their role fits, where they fit, in this thing we’re going to do together.

Don: Ask them, “What do you need from us?” That’s a question that no one ever asks them. If I know in advance, I want to give it to them early. If there is anything in the process that is not going to work, I want to know it early.

Industry constants: In your time in the industry, what has NOT changed (good or bad)?

Phil: The way people respond to creative stimuli doesn’t change… a good creative idea is always a good creative idea, and people will still respond to it the same way — it goes back to the vision: The underlying principle of how we’re going to relate to the audience and create an experience for them is strong.

Anthony: Monty Lunde! (laughs) He looks the same! [Monty Lunde of Technifex founded the Themed Entertainment Association in 1991.]

Jodi: The formula of the thing. You need to have the big idea. You need to have the story. You need to make sure that all the practicalities are aligned: Programming, capacity, all the technical aspects of that, balanced.

Susan: Storytelling has always been important, although the way we tell stories has changed and the “language” we use to tell a story is changing.

Scott: The challenges haven’t changed. The challenges are always going to be there, and the solutions are always going to be: shared vision, listen to your client, understand your client, working together, and listening to sometimes dissenting voices.

Nina: You still have to have good skills to interact with people. The older you get, you really start to respect other people for what they do. Your respect for peers grows.

Don: The principles of good design or good storytelling still work.

Industry shifts: In your time in the industry, what HAS changed significantly?

Phil: By far, the scope and the playground that we get to play in. Experience is something that’s really wanted in almost every sector. From retail to food, to museums, to entertainment, branding, commercial communications, even medical.

Anthony: Growth. Services our industry provide continue to cross over into other fields. It’s always been there, but it provides more opportunity; city planning, urban planning, social engineering issues.

Jodi: When I got involved, I had no idea that entertainment design/architecture was an industry. I fell into it. Now, everything has that experiential element to it.

Susan: Technology is changing, so rapidly. I think it’s exciting, but it makes it challenging to design projects that won’t open for a few years.

Scott: The things that change are the things that don’t matter. Technology is not the show. It’s the way to tell the show.

Nina: The technology has changed. It’s made everything immediate. The good thing is, it forces people to make decisions; the bad thing is, there is not a lot of time for design details.

Don: The process, and the ability to produce art and models and stuff have accelerated to light-speed.

What one word best describes what you love about this industry?

Phil: Creativity. I’m thinking about words ranging from curiosity, discovery, joy, engagement, immersion, but ultimately it all comes from that creative spark.

Anthony: Interdisciplinary: The creative and the technical. Theatrical, with traditional building trades.

Jodi: Change. Every project that we work on is different. We never have the same project. What I love about this industry is change: It doesn’t get boring to me. It’s always exciting and fun.

Susan: Awe.

Scott: Challenge. You say to yourself, “That’s going to be really hard. I’ll do it!”

Nina: Evolving. It’s something different every day. The process is the same, but the task is different.

Don: Collaboration. • • •