Face to face: Matthew Priddy, Cumming Corp

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by Fatima De La Cerna on Feb 17, 2018

Matthew Priddy is not a fan of the word “amusement”. He has nothing against the word itself, he says. He’s just not comfortable when people use it to refer to the themed entertainment sector or, more specifically, when they conflate amusement parks with theme parks.

Joking that he doesn’t want to come off as a “theme park snob”, the recently appointed vice president of themed entertainment project management at Cumming Corporation clarifies that while he believes amusement parks and theme parks are two different concepts, he doesn’t see one as necessarily being better than the other.

“A theme park is just that – it is supported by a theme that is [evident] in the architecture or the featured attractions,” he tells Construction Week. “Amusement parks, on the other hand, can be anything from county fairs to facilities with rides and games, which don’t offer the kind of immersive experience that a theme park does.

“To me, you go to an amusement park to have fun. And some of those parks are awesome, but they are not a place where you can suspend disbelief, which is what a theme park really needs to do.”

Rephrasing an oft-quoted line from the 1939 film The Wizard of Oz to drive home his point, he continues: “When you walk through the front gate [of a theme park], you should [be transported] to a place that will make you think, ‘This isn’t Kansas anymore’.”

Most people would not readily recognise the difference between an amusement park and a theme park, says Priddy, suggesting that to truly understand what themed entertainment is about, one just needs to look into the history of Disneyland, and how Walt Disney succeeded in achieving his dream of developing a park that would not only appeal to the whole family but also give people access to the characters he had created.

The Disney reference comes as no surprise; after all, he spent 20 years with Walt Disney Imagineering, part of which as senior vice president of worldwide production. In his two-decade tenure with the company, Priddy was responsible for more than $4bn (AED14.7bn) in theme park, resort, and technical developments, including Tokyo Disneyland, Phase 1 and 2 of Disneyland Paris, and the Epcot theme park at Walt Disney World Resort in Florida.

Epcot is particularly memorable for him, since it was the first project he worked on when he became an “imagineer”.

Priddy, who majored in theatre technology in the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), was introduced to the company by a college roommate, who went to work for WED Enterprises, now known as Walt Disney Imagineering, after graduation.

The introduction, he recalls, led to Disney contacting him while he was a staff instructor at UCLA, asking him to develop theme park scenery for the Epcot project: “That’s how I started. I showed up, and we went out, leased a 200,000-square-foot (18,581m2) building, hired a bunch of guys, got a bunch of tools, and went for it.”

He and his team produced 278,709m2 of themed scenery in 18 months for Epcot, while also working on Tokyo Disneyland.

“We ended up sort of inventing how to build prefabricated theme park scenery,” he says, explaining that scenery work for Epcot and Tokyo Disneyland was completed in North Hollywood in California before being shipped off to Florida and Japan.

From building scenery, Priddy says that his scope of responsibility grew to eventually include controls, project management, and effects design, among others. He deadpans: “I kept expecting to get laid off, but I got promoted instead.”

Promotions notwithstanding, Priddy eventually left his imagineering days behind him and joined Hill International as vice president and project director before moving to DXB Entertainments as its chief technology officer.

In January this year, he accepted the vice president position at Cumming. “I’ve been in the business a long time, and I thought that it was time for me to put myself in a place that would give me the opportunity to take advantage of all that experience, and venture to where there’s room for growth and room to expand,” he says. “I believe Cumming is poised for that type of growth.”

A construction project management and cost consulting firm, Cumming offers services spanning different industries, such as healthcare, retail, hospitality, residential, and education. Within the themed entertainment sector, the company’s project portfolio includes Dubai’s Hub Zero and The Dome Box Theatre, and China’s Shanghai Disney Resort.

The firm, Priddy reveals, is looking to further expand into Saudi Arabia and other Asian markets, including China, Japan, South Korea, and Southeast Asia.

Describing Saudi Arabia as “a huge potential market”, he notes that though the country used to present “cultural issues”, the announcement of projects like the $500bn (SAR133.3bn) Neom development, a city that will be built on the Red Sea coast, and the planned entertainment city in Al Qidiya, which will include a Six Flags theme park, shows that things are changing.

Despite his optimism about the Saudi market, however, Priddy says that the UAE has “a leg up” over the other countries in the region, since it not only already boasts a number of themed entertainment destinations, both operational and under development, but also has Expo 2020 Dubai to look forward to.

“Expo 2020 crosses the borders of tourism, entertainment, and education,” he explains. “And because it is a global event and has that international flair to it, it will help to broaden the perspectives of guests and tourists about Dubai, the UAE, and the rest of the Middle East.”

Elaborating on the relationship between themed entertainment and sectors like retail, hospitality, and tourism, he says that the challenge to the industry is making sure that theme parks and other themed developments can drive repeat and incremental visitation.

“You want your park to be compelling enough to make your target demographic want to go there,” he says. “In fact, it needs to be so compelling that people would want to go back, because repeat visitation is very important for business. And what you want to happen is for them to bring their friends and families when they return”.

When a destination starts taking off, he continues, owners can then look into strengthening the peripheral elements, such as retail and dining facilities, and transforming the park into an integrated development that features live evening shows and hotels.

“Hotels can boost length of stay, which directly translates to per capita spending,” says Priddy, explaining that peripheral elements are necessary because stand-alone theme parks come with high operation and maintenance costs, and slim margins.

He clarifies, however, that having those elements does not guarantee success, since there are already a large number of themed destination scattered all over the world.

“Tourism is all about differentiation,” he says, and reveals that he and the company aim to advise clients on how they can develop projects that would showcase Western attractions while maintaining a strong Middle-Eastern identity, thereby appealing to local and international tourists alike.

“There’s a great deal of cultural pride here, so what we need to do now is develop our own intellectual property in themed entertainment,” he says, adding: “As they say, it’s a fun job, but somebody has to do it.”

2018-02-20T16:08:21+00:00 February 17th, 2018|International, News|