Episode 128 – Building Memories – Designing Destinations

Episode #128
Original Air Date: 05.03.2021

33 Minutes

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Our Guest This Episode: Emily Howard

Do you ever pause to consider the story your project will tell? Emily Howard does. Emily is the leader of Zoo & Aquarium design at PGAV Destinations, and she is passionate about designing destinations and creating marvelous animal habitats that tell lasting stories. We discover a new term “destinology” as Emily talks about the value in thinking outside the box for clients. Join us as we take a deep dive into the details of destination design as we talk about collaboration, predesign research, challenging sponsors, and determining the principle stakeholders.

Emily led the St. Louis Aquarium project which won an Award for Outstanding Achievement - Entrance Experience from the Themed Entertainment Association in 2021. She describes how the team repurposed this 125-year old train station into an aquarium. Hear how the project plan was designed to keep the original train-station theme alive in the new aquarium as Emily walks us through the constraints of building in a National Historic Landmark. We ask about tradeoffs to scope or schedule to stay within a limited budget. Listen in for Emily’s leadership tips and the biggest lessons learned that she discovered from this impressive and rewarding project.

Emily attended the Master of Architecture program at Washington University in St Louis. As part of this program, Emily studied abroad twice; in Barcelona, Spain and Durban, South Africa. Emily is the leader of Zoo & Aquarium design at PGAV Destinations. Over her 20+ years at PGAV, Emily’s portfolio includes projects such as Discovery Cove, Orlando, FL; Georgia Aquarium, Atlanta, GA; Brookfield Zoo, Chicago, IL; Space Shuttle Atlantis Museum, Kennedy Space Center, FL; St Louis Cardinals Hall of Fame and Museum, St Louis, MO; The St Louis Aquarium at Union Station, and many other award-winning projects.

Favorite Quotes from Our Talk:

"I almost need to tell the story of the St. Louis Aquarium first, which we were challenged with putting an aquarium into a building that was built over 125 years ago; ... So that was a challenge in itself. But what really came out of it was the story. And how do we tell the story of the building, but then bring that into an aquarium, as well... how do you mesh those two?"

- Emily Howard

"I’m always excited to bring new ideas to the table. And so I think it’s that passion and still keep pushing the envelope that people must respond to."

- Emily Howard

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The podcast by project managers for project managers. Hear about an award winning project to repurpose a 125-year old train station into an aquarium. A project that includes designing destinations and creating animal habitats that tell lasting stories.

Table of Contents

02:07 … Meet Emily
03:23 … PGAV, Destinology and Building Memories
05:23 … Emily’s Role at PGAV
07:35 … Researching a Project
10:00 … Who Comes First in Designing Destinations?
11:16 … A Persona, Goals, and a Storyline
13:21 … Managing Challenging Sponsors
14:57 … St Louis Aquarium
17:54 … National Historic Landmark Constraints
19:49 … Designing Destinations Process
21:00 … Budget Impact on Scope and Schedule
24:39 … Leadership Lessons
26:50 … Relationship with Construction Partners
28:24 … Overcoming Obstacles
29:37 … Lessons Learned
31:54 … Find Out More
32:51 … Closing

EMILY HOWARD: …And our latest of course is St. Louis Aquarium and the entry experience there.  How that came about is I almost need to tell the story of the St. Louis Aquarium first, which we were challenged with putting an  aquarium into a building that was built over 125 years ago; …  So that was a challenge in itself.  But what really came out of it was the story.  And how do we tell the story of the building, but then bring that into an aquarium, as well?  So how do you mesh those two?

WENDY GROUNDS:  Welcome to Manage This, the podcast by project managers for project managers.  We hope you’ll continue to tell us what you like and to offer your suggestions.  You can leave us a comment on Google, Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, whichever podcast listening app you use.

I am Wendy Grounds, and joining me on Skype is Bill Yates.  Welcome, Bill.

BILL YATES:  Hi, Wendy.  It’s great to be a part of this podcast today.  You know, I was thinking about the types of podcasts that we typically do.  I think they kind of fall into two categories.  There’s project management in theory, and project management in practice.  And with project management in theory, you know, we’ll have a guest, you’ll find some author or someone who has a different approach to risk management, for instance, and we’ll have that person talk to us about the tools, the techniques, the theory of project management.

And then we also really enjoy the second type, which is project management in practice, where we want to talk to project managers who are out there, you know, they’re just like me and you.  They’re trying to get things done through projects.  And sometimes they go amazingly, and other times they don’t go as well.  There’s always lessons to learn.  And you’ve been doing a phenomenal job of finding interesting projects, too.  So the project management in practice typically is a pretty darn interesting project.

WENDY GROUNDS:  I get very excited when we find someone who is working on an exciting project.  And they might not have the title Project Manager, but they are the project managers on that project.  They’re leading it.  They’re leading a team.  And they’re doing some incredible things.

Meet Emily

And that brings me to today’s guest.  We’re talking with Emily Howard.  And Emily has worked on an incredible project at the St. Louis Aquarium.  And she’s going to be telling us more about that today.  Emily attended the Master of Architecture program at Washington University.  In part of her program she studied in Barcelona, Spain and in Durban, South Africa.  And then she became part of the design team at PGAV Destinations in St. Louis.  She’s a leader of zoo and aquarium design at PGAV.  And she keeps busy traveling all over the world for her incredible projects.

Emily, welcome to Manage This.  Thank you for being our guest.

EMILY HOWARD:  Thank you so much for having me.

WENDY GROUNDS:  We are excited to hear about your projects.  I loved hearing your passion when I researched you.  I found just how passionate you are about your job, and I’m excited to share that with our audience.

EMILY HOWARD:  Well, me, too, yeah.  It’s easy to be passionate about designing destinations.  It’s a fun thing to do.


BILL YATES:  Those are great projects; aren’t they?


WENDY GROUNDS:  Before we start talking about your job, can you tell us about PGAV Destinations, the company that you work for?  And just explain what destinology is.  I had never come across that word before.

PGAV, Destinology and Building Memories

EMILY HOWARD:  Sure.  So PGAV started here in St. Louis back in 1965 as a very small firm.  And we have since grown to over 150 folks with two offices.  So we have one in St. Louis still, and then we also have one in Kansas City.  And the St. Louis office concentrates on destination design.  We design everything from museums and cultural destinations, zoos, aquariums, themed entertainment venues, hospitality, resorts, and brand destinations.

“Destinology” is actually a word that we coined, and it’s our platform for providing insights to the industry, things like we have now, for the sixth year in a row, we have published information called Voice of the Visitor.  And that actually researches the previous year and lets people know what we foresee as this next year.  What are some of the trends?  What are things that you’re going to see in your park or your zoo or your museum?  This year we also researched cognitive disabilities.  We talked about destination learning.  So it’s really taking from all of those industries and compiling information to distribute so that people can learn from each other.

BILL YATES:  That’s interesting.  Emily, the voice of the customer is something that project managers are constantly having to be reminded of, you know, such a key stakeholder.  And for you guys, you’re working with architects and design experts in all these different disciplines to create an amazing destination.  You have to put yourself in the shoes of the people that are going to be walking into that space; right?

EMILY HOWARD:  Of course.  Oh, yeah.

BILL YATES:  Think about the typical culture, the area that you’re in.  People are taking vacation many times, you know, to come here; or they’re taking time off work.  So they want this time to count.  So they’re there to build memories.  And you have to build the thing where they’re going to build memories.  These are really interesting projects.  I appreciate you talking through it with us.

EMILY HOWARD:  Yes, thank you.

Emily’s Role at PGAV BILL YATES:  So what’s been your role with PGAV?

EMILY HOWARD:  Actually, I am in my 23rd year, I can hardly believe it, at PGAV.  And currently I’m a vice president.  What that means is that I wear a lot of different hats.  So everything from leading a project and managing a project, to managing the client, to business development, to mentoring people within the office.  So it really is a broad role, which I love because I love the project side, but I also love the people side.  And so it’s a lot of fun.  It’s a good fit for me.

WENDY GROUNDS:  Can you describe some of the projects that you have worked on for PGAV?

EMILY HOWARD:  So my first project was Discovery Cove, which is  the dolphin interaction in Orlando.  And what a great project to come to PGAV and start with right out of school; right?  So that was a lot of fun.  I’ve also worked on – recently we opened Mississippi Aquarium down in Gulfport, Mississippi.  St. Louis Aquarium, of course, here in town.  I worked on Space Shuttle Atlantis, which opened in 2013 at Kennedy Space Center.  Clearwater Marine Aquarium, which just opened another dolphin attraction.

St. Louis Cardinals Hall of Fame and Museum, which was a lot of fun.  And, you know, I thought that would be a slam dunk for me as a Cardinal fan for my whole life; but, boy did I learn a lot of stuff with that.  It was so great to work on.  And then right now I’m working on a project at Oklahoma City Zoo, at Phoenix Zoo, and also San Antonio Zoo.  So, yeah, have a lot of things happening.

BILL YATES:  Our connection with Emily, in her past projects she worked on the Georgia Aquarium; is that correct?

EMILY HOWARD:  Yes, I didn’t mention that one, yes, the Georgia Aquarium.  I had moved to Atlanta to oversee construction with them.  And then of course was on the design end before that, as well.  So that still holds a special place in my heart.  That was a great project and continues to be.  They continue to be clients, so, yes.

BILL YATES:  It was the world’s largest for a while, until you guys had another project where you surpassed the ATL.  So we get that.

EMILY HOWARD:  Yes, yes.  We beat ourselves, yeah.  That’s right.

Researching a Project

BILL YATES:  It’s interesting to think about just doing an aquarium, for instance, or a zoo.  There’s so much research that you and your team must have to do in order to figure out, okay, what kind of wildlife, what kind of animals are going to be living in this space?  How can we make it so that people can interact with them and still keep them safe, treat them with respect.  There must just be a ton of research.  When you think about a project like an aquarium, before you break ground, even, how far in front of that are you guys doing your research and thinking about how you’re going to bring all these pieces together?

EMILY HOWARD:  Well, gosh, I mean, using Georgia Aquarium as an example – and it really runs the gamut, to be honest.  But for Georgia Aquarium, gosh, about three years ahead of time we were thinking about the guest experience, the species, talking with the owner and their aquarists, too, to understand what was their goal.  In that case they brought a lot to the table.  For instance, they knew that they wanted to make a habitat for whale sharks, so that was one thing that we had to have in mind.  But then there were other species, like other galleries, actually, that they said, well, we want to do some freshwater and some saltwater.  So we came to the table with here are ideas for the species that you could have in this gallery.

So it really does take a lot of research.  We have folks on staff who, including myself, who are so passionate about animals and love to learn about animals.  What’s the habitat that they thrive in?  What’s something that would be natural in their habitat that someone could see and learn from?  How do you express that to the guest?  All of those things kind of get wrapped up into the design.

And then there are other clients who have a very specific thing that they are looking for, and so they come to us with that.  For instance, Oklahoma City Zoo, who we’re working with currently, knew they wanted to do an Africa exhibit.  And they had giraffe.  They had zebra.  They had ostrich.  So there were things that they already had in their collection.  So we designed around them.

And it really becomes – we do a lot of research because we love it and we want to, you know, we want to think outside the box for our clients.  But we also talk so much with the client and really work with them closely to understand what they want from their animals, as well.  So it’s a total back-and-forth, which is a lot of fun.  We really are collaborative in the process.

Who Comes First in Designing Destinations?

WENDY GROUNDS:  Something I wanted to ask you, when you’re working with animals, you’re considering the habitat for the animals.  You’re also having to plan for the guests, the visitors who are going to come to this themed park, as well as the people who’re working there.  These are kind of stakeholders all invested in the project.  Who do you consider first?  Who comes first?

EMILY HOWARD:  Well, so it is, it’s the magic triumvirate, right, of the guests, the animal, and the staff.  In reality we design for the animal first because in our minds they are the most important.  They’re the ones that are giving the guests the learnings.  They’re the ones that need to be well cared for, et cetera.  And then the guests and the staff are the close seconds, I would say, because the staff certainly we have to consider because they need to be able to take care of the animals in a way that’s efficient.

And then the guests, of course, we need to make it a remarkable experience for them because we always want to think about creating empathy and creating educational moments and creating those moments where you connect with your family and create the memory, like you talked about, Bill.  So all of those things really go into it.  Animal does rise to the top.  But they are pretty close as far as those three things.  It’s a juggling act the whole time.

A Persona, Goals, and a Storyline

BILL YATES:  One of the techniques that we see especially like with Agile or adaptive methods is a persona, like using a persona to represent a particular group of stakeholders, like I could see personas for the animals, personas for those who care for them, personas for the guests, personas for the key stakeholders like the board or the sponsor, like a Bernie Marcus in the Georgia Aquarium.

EMILY HOWARD:  Sure.  Right.

BILL YATES:  Do you guys use techniques like that?  In other words, when your teams are working together, do you use personas or something else to kind of represent or go, oh, don’t forget, hey, there’s a picture on the wall of that particular stakeholder group that’s got to remind us, as we think about solutions for this problem, you know, are we considering the animals or the guests or whatever.  Do you guys have techniques like that that you’ve seen work effectively?

EMILY HOWARD:  I don’t know that I would put a name to it specifically.  But absolutely.  One of the first things we do with a client is talk about their goals for the project.  And we return to those goals over and over and over throughout the project.  So that kind of becomes the thing that we look at.  But there are so many pieces and parts that play into that because, yes, then maybe a donor gets involved and says, hey, I will give you X amount of dollars, but I really want a leopard exhibit.  Well, okay.  So let’s think about that; right?  So that comes into play.  And budget, of course, always comes into play.  The space that you have.

So all of those things come into play, and then we always look back to that goal.  Okay, what is the big goal?  And then to further broaden it is we think about storyline a lot.  So we always want to let the animals tell a story.  But the guest has to feel that story and understand it and learn from it, as well.  So how does the story then play into the goals and the animals and the people and all of those things.  It’s always fun and interesting.  And a lot of times people on the team will say, hey, don’t forget, we’ve got to do X, or we have to remember this.  And we’re good at reminding each other to not get too far astray and bring it back in.

Managing Challenging Sponsors

BILL YATES:  I would think like the sponsors obviously have a lot of sway in those specifications that they’re giving to your team and your designers, and just thinking through that design criteria because of just the length of your career and the different types of projects you’ve worked on.  You’ve probably got sponsors all across the gamut.  You have those who have a particular vision in mind, and they’re probably up in your business all the time. 

So then you have others that are just like, “Hey, you know, I’m not the expert you guys are.  Here’s the money.  Go create something amazing for my community.”  Give us advice on kind of that first one.  Project managers all have those sponsors that were just like, I wish they would just leave me and my team alone so we could do what we do well.  What advice do you have for managing those kinds of sponsors?

EMILY HOWARD:  Yes, we do have those kinds of folks, for sure.  And we see it as a particular challenge.  So what can we do to take their ideas, but then take it to the next level and just blow them out of the water with some idea that maybe they hadn’t thought of.  Some people might say, oh, boy, it really stinks to have them always telling me what they want and how to do it, et cetera.  But it’s the opposite.  You know, let’s challenge ourselves.  And, yeah, let’s listen, of course listen to what they want.  But let’s challenge ourselves to make it even better.

And sometimes we bring things to the table, and they say, “Oh, my gosh, no way.”  And other times they say, “That is fantastic.  I never would have thought of that.  This is great.  Yes, let’s do it.”  And those are the times that you relish; right?  You know, you love to do something that’s really cool and blows them away.

St. Louis Aquarium

WENDY GROUNDS:  I want to move on to talk about a particular project that you’ve worked on.  One of your projects won an award from the Themed Entertainment Awards of 2021.  And this was the entrance experience at the St. Louis Aquarium at Union Station.  I’ve had a look at pictures online of this project.  And it just blew me away.  Can you tell us a little bit about that project and how that came about?

EMILY HOWARD:  Sure.  I would be remiss not to mention that we have won many Thea awards over time.  And so we’re actually super proud of that.

WENDY GROUNDS:  Yeah, congratulations.

EMILY HOWARD:  It’s a big deal.  It’s a great organization.  So it’s a source of pride for us.  And our latest of course is St. Louis Aquarium and the entry experience there.  How that came about is I almost need to tell the story of the St. Louis Aquarium first, which we were challenged with putting an aquarium into a building that was built over 125 years ago; right?


EMILY HOWARD:  So that was a challenge in itself.  But what really came out of it was the story.  And how do we tell the story of the building, but then bring that into an aquarium, as well?  So how do you mesh those two?  And what we came up with was the sense of connection.  The St. Louis Union Station is obviously a train station that served half of the U.S., or actually more of the United States in its time, way back when.  It was the largest train station that connected the country.

So then we thought about aquariums and water.  And water is a huge connector for our entire earth.  Everything flows from the sky down to – falling on the ground to the river, streams, oceans, et cetera.  So there again we have this connector.  So we used that story to kind of take us forward.  And one of the things that we thought about was how do we get people immersed into this story of connection and the trains and the aquarium, right from the get-go of their experience.  So when people enter St. Louis Aquarium at Union Station, they are welcomed into this grand lobby which takes off a little bit of the lobby that’s upstairs in Union Station, which was actually voted one of the most beautiful train stations in the world because it is, it’s fantastic.  So we used that as inspiration.

But we actually tell the story on the ceiling, so on the beautiful grand lobby ceiling.  We tell the story of diving into the oceans and building anticipation for what you can expect from your visit to St. Louis Aquarium.  So it all started with that connection and trying to understand train stations and aquariums, which seemed disparate.  But they really can be connected.  So we generated the concept for that ceiling.  And then of course we handed off that concept to a producer, who then produced all the video and the hardware, all of those things that brought it to life.

National Historic Landmark Constraints

BILL YATES:  One of the things that’s always fun for me to think about with projects are constraints.  And that was one of the things that just fascinated me about this project was you had a huge constraint.  You’re going to build, I think this is St. Louis’s first aquarium?  Is that right?

EMILY HOWARD:  It is, yes.

BILL YATES:  So you’re building the city’s first aquarium, and you’re building it in a National Historic Landmark.

EMILY HOWARD:  Yeah.  Ready, go, yeah.

BILL YATES:  I’m like, okay, perfect.  Hey, here’s a big, you know, here’s acres and acres of land that has nothing on it.  Go build.  Great.  Okay, here’s the National Historic Landmark.  Build it right here.  I mean, that’s a huge constraint.  I don’t even know who’s in charge of National Historic Landmarks.  You know, how did your team know what you could do or what you could not do in terms of changing that landmark?

EMILY HOWARD:  Well, we did have to meet with the National Historic Register and ask them about, okay, what can we do here?  So Bob O’Loughlin is the owner of LHM, Lodging Hospitality Management, and he was our client for this job.  So they own Union Station.  And he came to us with the idea and said, “Now, I know, I know this is going to be a challenge.  But this is what we need to do.”  And so he arranged all the meetings with different people and of course gave us his vision, as well.  And we did our best to understand the constraints and make it as great as we could within those constraints.

BILL YATES:  Got you.

EMILY HOWARD:  So the other constraint, of course, as you alluded to, was the building, built in 1894, which back in the 1890s they didn’t do the same type of architectural drawings we do today.  So we weren’t sure what was underground.  We weren’t sure how big some of these things were; you know?  It was a beautiful building.  The craftsmanship is amazing.  But it wasn’t all detailed to the nth degree like we do today.  So there were some surprises, of course, that we then had to deal with.  But it all turned out great.  I’m proud of what it is, yeah.

Designing Destinations Process

WENDY GROUNDS:  Yeah.  Looking at a design theme, how did you keep the train theme alive in, you know, you’ve got trains, and you’ve got fish.  How do you kind of put the two together?

EMILY HOWARD:  Right.  So after the lobby that we talked about, guests actually take a virtual train ride.  So they get on a thematic train, and they see the history of St. Louis Union Station, and they dive into the Mississippi River.  And when they come out of the train ride, they’re confronted with a tank of all Mississippi fishes.  So literally the idea is to feel like you have gone into the Mississippi River, and out you come.  You’re below the water.  And then from there you travel the global fishes of the world and up to the shores and down to the oceans and everything.

But throughout, you’re also seeing thematic elements that have historic value and look like they may have been in Union Station at the time.  So all of the graphics have a look that is old.  It’s got rivets to it, and different pieces that make it look like it belongs in Union Station.  So it really is a theming overlay, over the top of that story.

Budget Impact on Scope and Schedule

BILL YATES:  One of the nerdy things that I want to ask Emily about, forgive me for doing this, but I want to talk budgets.  Let’s talk the triple constraint here.  Because our understanding is you guys had a limited budget as to what you could do with this construction on a National Historic Landmark, bringing fish and trains together.  It’s like, okay, this is enough of a challenge, but now here’s a limited budget, too.  If I have a constrained budget, then typically what slides is there’s scope pieces that I have to trade off.  I may not be able to get to everything in there that the sponsor wants.  Or I’ve got to push this out.  Now, I know you guys opened Christmas Day 2019; is that right?

EMILY HOWARD:  That’s right, yes.

BILL YATES:  Okay.  So was that a hard constraint?  So you have these three constraints.  You have the budget, which was limited.  So how did that impact scope and schedule?

EMILY HOWARD:  So yes, the idea was to open in 2019 because it was the 125th anniversary of St. Louis Union Station.  So that was the hard deadline.  And it kept scooting, scooting, scooting until we got to Christmas, which actually was great.  We still made it.  And it’s fantastic that that happened.  So that was a constraint.  And, you know, everybody has a budget; right?  So we’re used to dealing with that as a constraint.  But in this case, we provided a lot of options.  You know, hey, we want to do X.  But it costs this.  So let’s talk about options to bring that down into budget or, you know, what could we do now, but then plan for later.  That’s another option.

Gosh.  We went through all kinds of meetings with the owner to talk through those, all of the options.  And then they could pick and choose what they wanted to do now, and how they wanted it to look.  And quite frankly, they were very good to deal with because they also understood, we want to make this great.  We want people to be proud of it.  And so they actually came to the table with more money in a few instances to make something happen, which is a blessing because that doesn’t always happen. 

But right now we have continued to work with them, and we’re looking at the future and saying, okay, remember all those things we wanted to do?  Let’s revisit that, and let’s see what we can do, and how do we plan for those in the future?  So I’m really excited they’re looking at it that way.  And I think it’s important to do for any facility.

BILL YATES:  Emily, I can remember with the Georgia Aquarium project – again, Bernie Marcus, one of the founders of the Home Depot was the big sponsor for that.  And I recall kind of laughing because it was – I can’t remember if it was a dolphin exhibit or something.  There was a big project that got added on later that was significant.  It was many millions of dollars that he brought in.  And I kind of laughed thinking it’s got to be fun for a sponsor to think, okay, I’m finally agreed to this one big amount for this project.  And then six months or a year later they’re coming back, going, oh, but it would be so awesome if you’d just approve this one addition.

EMILY HOWARD:  Yeah, exactly.

BILL YATES:  So I think you’ve got some sales in you, Emily.  I’m not really sure how you’d translate that to the rest of us project managers.  But your upselling ability through all your years with the company, you’ve really sharpened that skill.

EMILY HOWARD:  You know, I’ve never thought at it that way, but  I guess you’re right.

BILL YATES:  You’re just passionate about it; right?

EMILY HOWARD:  I am.  And I’m always excited to bring new ideas to the table.  And so I think it’s that passion and still keep pushing the envelope that people must respond to.

BILL YATES:  Yeah.  So I think as project managers there are times we have to say, okay, don’t push this sponsor for a “yes” or “no.”  Let’s push him for a “yes” or a “maybe later.”

EMILY HOWARD:  That’s right.

Leadership Lessons

WENDY GROUNDS:  Emily, can you give us some ideas of how big your team was on this project?  And what are some leadership lessons that you’ve learned that have really been effective in leading your team?

EMILY HOWARD:  So our team in-house for St. Louis Aquarium, at its peak it was probably about 30 people.  But the core team I would say was about six or seven that worked on it from beginning to end.  So a lot of times people fluctuate, like graphic designers, interiors, site design, you know, they’ll kind of come in and out.  Then we also had a whole team of sub consultants.  So the mechanical engineer, the electrical engineer, the life support engineer.  And so in that group there was probably another dozen folks.

So it was a big team.  When we were in the middle of doing the final documents, we had a lot of people that were really burning to get it done.  And I think with the core team that we had, some of the learnings, we had one gentleman who at the time was a younger architect on the team.  And now he’s leading projects.  So I don’t know that I should take credit for all that.  But I like to think that I helped him understand what goes into a set and how to be proactive, which is one of the things that I think is most important as a manager to allow people to do is to be proactive. 

Because I don’t want to be the one, you know, micromanage every little thing you do and tell you exactly what to do next.  That isn’t good for me, and it’s not good for you.  So if you can be proactive, and you know what, sometimes you’re going to be wrong, but bring something to the table and let’s talk about it.  And then if we need to we’ll just reposition and move forward.

So this guy has really come a long way in that respect.  And I think that was a big learning was to let him lead, let him go out there, do what he needed to do.  And if there was something that we needed to go back and correct or revise, we just did it together, and we learned from it.  So I really enjoyed that aspect of the project, and I feel like I got closer to a few people on the team, for sure, some of that core team, which was great.

Relationship with Construction Partners

BILL YATES:  Emily, from a leader standpoint, did you feel like you were always the bad guy going to the construction partners that you guys had and saying, okay, guys, you know you’re a week behind, or you’re not hitting the quality that we need for this glass or for this particular feature.  How did you manage that relationship?  Because I would think at times with a project of this nature it’s just going to be contentious from time to time.  It’s just the way it goes.

EMILY HOWARD:  Yeah, I mean, it does get that way sometimes, and I think it’s mostly because we again are passionate about what we want that final product to be.  And so we expect a lot from ourselves and from the contractor.  So one of the things that I always say going into construction with the contractor is we have the same goal.


EMILY HOWARD:  We’re on the same team.  Let’s figure it out together.  And there’s going to be times when I ask you to do something that you don’t want to do, and you’re going to ask me to do stuff I don’t want to do.  But our goal is always the same, and that’s to make it great and to bring it in on budget and have our client be really proud of this.  So there were times when, yeah, we had to say, look, this just isn’t good enough, and you’ve got to go in and fix this. 

Or sometimes they would bring things to our attention, like gee whiz, this detail, it just really doesn’t make sense, or we just can’t get it that way.  What else can we do?  And so we would try to work with them and figure out the best way to do something so that it came out in a way that everybody was happy with, us and our client, probably mostly our client, make sure they’re the happiest, yeah.


Overcoming Obstacles

WENDY GROUNDS:  Were there any particular obstacles or challenges that you had to deal with?  And how did you overcome them?

EMILY HOWARD:  Usually it does have to do with what we just talked about, where your vision needs to match what is being built.  And sometimes you see things that, yeah, it matches the documents, and that’s what I drew.  But, boy, in person, that just doesn’t look like what I want.

BILL YATES:  Now that I see it, I don’t like it.

EMILY HOWARD:  Yeah, exactly.  I’m sure you’ve all been there.  So you have to figure out, okay, what can I do to make this look  better and to create my vision, but also not cost a bunch of money to my client because I can’t then say, oh, you know what, gee, I messed this up.  Can you just pay for this?  Because that doesn’t go far at all.  That doesn’t work.  So trying to stay ahead of any of that, if you can.  Sometimes you can’t.  But also coming to the table with solutions that can make sense.  Hey, we can save over here to change this, or update this to make it a little bit better, things like that, and really work in that system.  So the biggest obstacles are probably just translating from the drawings and vision to real life and what it winds up being.

Lessons Learned

BILL YATES:  You’ve had some very interesting projects, big, big budgets, pressure, deadlines, even in this case the National Historic Landmark.  What are some lessons learned that you could share with project managers?

EMILY HOWARD:  Yes.  So going back in time that is always one of the things I wish I could do.


EMILY HOWARD:  Turn back the page here.  But being forthcoming with a client, with the ideas.  How do you express them so that they’re clear.  Because a lot of times, and I think creative people struggle with this, what you are thinking is hard to describe to someone else who is not creative, who might be the money guy or might be the builder or whatever it is.  It’s hard to express your ideas sometimes.

And so we have found that there are different tools that we have to use to make sure that our ideas are crystal clear.  A lot of times it’s a point-of-view rendering so that you do a rendering to actually show this is what we’re talking about.  Or you might model it in 3D.  We use Revit.  So we’ll use a Revit program to model something so that you can fly around. 

We have in our office what we call the HIVE.  And that’s an acronym for Highly Immersive Virtual Environment.  And it’s a huge room with three walls that are kind of at angles to each other.  Each one has a projector on it.  And when we build a model, we can take the model, put it on a computer, and you go into that room, and we project the model, and it feels like you are in real life walking through the space.

BILL YATES:  That’s cool.

EMILY HOWARD:  Things are full size.  And a client can say, “Oh, look over there.  What is this?”  Or our client at St. Louis Zoo, they were very particular about how the animals moved from the holding to the exhibit.  Go into that building and show me how an animal moves, and we can do that.  So tools like that are indispensable, just so that everyone is clear, and we’re all on the same page.  It doesn’t mean that surprises don’t still come up because they do.  But at least we’ve talked about it, and at least we all think we’re in that same space and on the same page before we move forward.  So that’s one of the big things that we try to do, for sure.

Find Out More

WENDY GROUNDS:  How can our listeners hear more about your work?  If they want to reach out to you, what’s the best way?

EMILY HOWARD:  The best way is to go to our website, which is PGAVDestinations.com.  And you can scroll through there, see all of our projects.  And if you go all the way down to the bottom, you can actually go to Destinology and look at the different issues of Destinology and learn more about the industry.

BILL YATES:  It’s an amazing website because you guys have just done projects that are so cool.  My projects were typically financial, tax depreciation, and cases for utilities.  It’s like, ugh, you know, put a needle in my eye.  Yours are so visual.  And it’s so interesting, too, to hear the tools that you’ve used to bring those to life so that stakeholders can walk into it and be immersed in it and really give you great feedback.

Emily, thanks so much for sharing your passion and so much of your experience with us.  We really appreciate it.

EMILY HOWARD:  Yes, thank you.  This was fantastic.  Thank you both.


WENDY GROUNDS:  Listeners, you have just earned some Professional Development Units by listening to this podcast.  To claim your free PDUs, go to Velociteach.com, choose Manage This Podcast from the top of the page, click the button that says Claim PDUs, and click through the steps.

That’s it for us here on Manage This.  Until next time, keep calm and Manage This. 

2 responses to “Episode 128 – Building Memories – Designing Destinations”

  1. Avatar Laura Fries says:

    Loved this podcast. Wondering what the educational background is for Emily and her team?
    Biology majors, Business majors???

    • Avatar Wendy Grounds says:

      Thanks for your comment Laura. I checked with Emily about the educational background of her team and she sent this response: “I have undergraduate degrees in art and art history from Cornell College and a Master of Architecture from Washington University in St Louis.
      At PGAV, the folks who worked on the project range from architects to graphic designers to interior designers to interior architects to artists. So, we have a wide range. We also conceived of the concepts for the media interactives and shows as well.
      We then work with engineering consultants who provide the electrical, mechanical, plumbing, and life support engineering as well as lighting design.”

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