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Bricks, Mortar And Fantasy

Two years ago, architect Pete Karamitsanis thought he saw an untapped market in "entertainment architecture" - theme parks, urban entertainment centers, destination resorts, museums, aquariums and themed retail stores. "The premise was that the entertainment market, not including stadiums, is a $25-billion-a-year market," explains Karamitsanis, who headed the Florida office of Hellmuth, Obata + Kassabaum (HOK), one of the largest architectural firms in the world. "I didn't see a lot of substantial competition."

The Greek-born architect, trained at the University of Michigan, set out to convince HOK to set up a Florida-based operation focusing on entertainment-related design. Karamitsanis had both vision and precedent on his side. In 1983, HOK formed a division, HOK Sports, that has become a leader in stadium architecture: It designed Oriole Park at Camden Yards and Jacobs Field in Cleveland, along with the new stadium being built for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers NFL team and the original ThunderDome in St. Petersburg, now called Tropicana Field.

Karamitsanis convinced HOK's top management in St. Louis to form the niche venture, called HOK Studio E, and base it in Orlando. In just two years, Studio E has snagged some of the highest profile entertainment projects in the world, including Legoland, a $120 million theme park in Carlsbad, Calif.; Hyatt Ocean Point, a $300 million resort and casino complex in Cape Town, South Africa, and Universal Studios' CityWalk Florida, an entertainment center in Orlando with a 20-screen cinema, broadcast studio, restaurants and nightclubs.

In 1996, its first full year, the venture posted net revenues of $3 million; Karamitsanis expects net revenues to grow to $5.5 million this year - not particularly impressive when measured against the size of Studio E's projects, but healthy for a start-up architectural firm.

To bolster Studio E's profile with potential clients early on, Karamitsanis recruited Chris Miles, a pioneer in entertainment and theme park design, to join the venture as design director. Miles, a British-born, Oxford-educated architect, has worked on more than 100 theme, entertainment, retail, marine, water and zoological park projects over 30 years.

Sandy-haired and bespectacled with a lingering English accent, Miles says his responsibility is "for the vision of the group." He brought a small cadre of architects and designers to the firm and, perhaps most important, a worldwide roster of business and industry contacts. "I would say 50% of our business arrives through networking," he acknowledges.

Miles says Studio E's clients fall into three categories: entertainment giants like Universal and Disney; medium-size firms such as Harrah's, Nike and Bass Pro Shops; and entrepreneurs and local businesses such as Gatorland and Tampa's Muvico Theaters. What do these varied clients have in common? Says Miles: "Our clients don't have specifications, they have a dream.''

Gatorland, for example, hired Studio E this year to come up with ideas to enliven the 48-year-old Orlando attraction for visitors. One idea is to focus on the mystery and intrigue of the jungle with regular night tours led by guides with flashlights. "They are a very creative group," says Mark McHugh, CEO of Gatorland.

At any one time, Studio E has 10 to 15 projects underway, according to Miles, and they vary in scale from an exhibit with a construction cost of $3 million to $4 million to a large resort or theme park costing several hundred million. Fifty percent of their work is overseas. Studio E employs more than 50 architects, graphic artists, storytellers, 3-D animation specialists and model makers, who work out of Tampa and Los Angeles in addition to Orlando.

While clients are looking for captivating designs, they're also concerned with economics. Every project begins with a business plan and a pledge to produce on time and on budget. "The challenge we have is to create a flair and uniqueness and a story within the budget," says Miles.

Still, only 15% to 20% of projects designed are actually built, often due to the changing economic prospects of the project. Miles quips, "You never fall in love with anything you do. It's just a note in a symphony."

Studio E's economic and design philosophy is that a stand-alone product, such as a retail store or entertainment attraction, will keep people interested for only a few minutes. Create a unique visitor experience and people will stay longer and spend more money. "The way we go about projects today is we trap people in the project and keep their interest," says Miles.

Bass Pro Shops, for example, is working with Studio E to create a half dozen Outdoor World sporting goods stores with a difference. In spaces that range up to 290,000 square feet, including two in Florida, customers will find such things as a four-story waterfall, a stream running through the hunting department and a log cabin complete with water wheel and a trout pond. This in addition to racks and racks of fishing, hunting, camping and other sports gear.

Studio E also designs logos and graphics for hats, bags and t-shirts. Much of that work falls to Jim Bockstall, who left a post as senior graphic designer at Disney to join Studio E as graphic design director.

Merchandising is particularly important for Studio E's corporate clients, who increasingly want to cash in on their brand name recognition with stores, attractions and consumer goods. Just as Anheuser Busch has used Busch Gardens for years to promote its beer, other consumer product companies are looking for ways to cash in on their brand name recognition.

Even farm equipment manufacturer John Deere is jumping headfirst into the brand name game. In the Mississippi River town of Moline, Ill., Studio E is designing the John Deere Pavilion, an interactive center that will tell the story of farming and John Deere equipment. An attached store will sell Deere caps, shirts and mugs to 400,000 pavilion visitors each year. "Anyone who has a brand with consumer recognition can find a lot of ways to derive revenues from the brand and increase customer loyalty," says Karamitsanis.