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13 May 2011

Hello Kitty: Phil Hettema talks to InPark Magazine about designing Sanrio’s new theme park in China

Artist's rendering of Hello Kitty Park entry, courtesy The Hettema Group
Judith Rubin, InPark contributing editor

During a visit to New Orleans, Phil Hettema of The Hettema Group graciously took some time to speak to IPM contributing editor Judith Rubin about his company’s new project – developing the master plan and concept design for Sanrio’s new Hello Kitty theme park. The park is scheduled to open in Anji, China, near Shanghai, in 2014. It will be Japan-based Sanrio’s first theme park in China.

Hettema was in New Orleans for the annual gathering of the American Institute of Architects, to lead a private group showing of Beyond All Boundaries, the award winning 4D experience his company produced for the National World War II Museum. He praised the Museum for doing an excellent job of maintaining the popular show, which depends on a precise coordination of media with theatrical props and effects to tell the story of US involvement in the war.

It might seem incongruous for a company coming off an American historical attraction to next announce designing an entire family theme park in China, but as Hettema points out in the following interview, storytelling is storytelling. And he’s no stranger to large-scale undertakings: prior to establishing The Hettema Group about 9 years ago, Hettema oversaw the creation of Universal Islands of Adventure in the role of senior vice president for Universal Creative.

Judith Rubin: How’d you land the job?
Phil Hettema: The Hettema Group has an established relationship of trust with Sanrio – we’ve been working with them for some time, looking at number of projects. We’ve been developing the Hello Kitty theme park concept for more than a year.

JR: What kind of project site are you working with?
PH: It isn’t your typical flat site; elevation will be a unique factor. The location is one of the greenest parts of China and is really lovely. It is part of the fundamental concept to incorporate a Nature theme and a sense of landscape into the experience of the whole park. We’re working to create a landscape palette to help tell the story.

JR: What are some other unique design challenges of this project?
PH: It’s very exciting to work with Sanrio and bring the Hello Kitty family of characters to life. We have the chance to take a fresh look at how those characters get interpreted into a theme park, and to build fans for Sanrio in China as well.

Sanrio has hundreds of characters, each with a unique personality. They have been an integral part of culture in Japan for decades. It’s our job to capture them authentically and incorporate them into the fabric of this park.

This will be a contemporary spin. The existing Sanrio parks were done quite a long time ago, and there are new ways to use media now to bring these characters to life and give people the chance to interact with them. That plus the backbone story about the importance of caring for the planet equals a great story to tell. It’s a fun, creative challenge that we welcome to develop the characters, craft the story, and make it all fit.

JR: Are Sanrio’s Hello Kitty characters well-known in China?
PH: Hello Kitty has a pretty strong presence in China, but we will go beyond her immediate circle to have about 35-40 characters appear in the park. I think part of the reason Sanrio is doing this is to open their demographic amid the developing market in China. The first goal is to make it a great place for families to come: as the middle class in China grows, there’s a corresponding need for family entertainment and family activities.

JR: How will you assemble your team?
PH: The core team and creative direction will be in-house at The Hettema Group. And we will partner - as we always do, and as everyone does in this industry whether they admit to it or not - with other talented groups for certain technical resources, project management and some other services.

JR: How big will the team be?
PH: In the first phase of this project, about 30-40 people. As it moves toward completion, that number will grow. It doesn’t take a village to do a theme park - it will be an entire city by the time we’re done.

JR: With the team in place, how will the process unfold?
PH: We have become adept at working with all the latest conferencing technology - like everyone else now is in this industry. But ultimately, the work gets done across the table. We’ll have our core team and regular status meetings.  People get brought in and plugged into the plan, and everything will be coordinated with regular updates and sharing of information.

The secret of building a really great theme park is that all the elements combine: food and merchandise, landscaping, area development, the technology in the rides and so forth. It’s all interrelated - so the biggest job on a project like this is communication. There is so much happening so fast. Once concept and design are complete, it becomes a real project management challenge to bring all the entities together and maintain the quality of design throughout.

Nowadays, these kinds of projects are built on business alliances with a combination of government involvement and private interests bringing talent together to make it happen. Theme parks are not simple projects, and they don’t follow a typical process. Usually, a lot of education has to go on with local authorities and construction firms. The challenge is always in making sure that the bases get covered as the project gets executed.

JR: The park is projected to open about 3 years from now. Is that a fast timeline?
PH: For a complete theme park, it is not leisurely. We will be moving very quickly and I will be traveling to China frequently.

JR: The Hettema Group is 9 years old now. How long after you started the company did it take to establish the Hettema “brand” within the industry?
PH: It’s the same as establishing any business: it takes about 5 years to get your legs under you. I like to think we’ve always delivered great creative products, but it takes a while to get a company to run, and we creative people are not always the best at running companies. It has been an education. I’m proud that today the company runs pretty well, and has a great staff.

JR: Your company’s projects occupy the spectrum from entertainment to education. Does that pose a challenge in terms of presenting yourself and your abilities to a client?
PH: One thing that distinguishes us is that we try not to have a house style: We solve the problem that’s in front of us. I think of it all as storytelling - who is the audience and what is the story we’re trying to tell.

One of our strengths is that we blend architectural discipline (we have architects on staff) with everything from master planning to media to show production. Media and architecture are becoming inextricably blended together. As we undertake projects, we’re thinking about the environment we are creating - bricks and mortar and also media. Neither comes up without the other. They play together to create the full guest experience.

Read the official press release from The Hettema Group.