Notice to all event designers: The bar has been raised on executive briefing centers.
The United Technologies Innovation Center, located in Washington, DC, activates a full mix of hip technologies—interspersed with cool old-school scale models—to drive home the message that United Technologies is a company that makes truly innovative products and has its hands in everything from HVAC systems to jet engines.
The 2,200-square-foot space is thoughtfully laid out and interspersed with fun technologies that make it just a little bit Disneyland. And like Disneyland or a good movie, the content is delivered in a way that energizes visitors and generates excitement about United Technologies.
It’s very exciting, and frankly, it’s one of the most innovative executive briefing centers this industry has created.
But what makes the project even more interesting is the process that was used to create it all: An interactive technology studio, Los Angeles-based Inhance Digital, took the lead role—and the exhibit company, architect and other specialist suppliers played support to Inhance’s content plan and technology. For this project, the adage is 100-percent dead-on. Content IS king.
Shortly after Marty Hauser, director of government communications at United Technologies, was hired, Gregg Ward, the senior vp of global government relations spoke to him about a project: create an innovation center in which United Technologies could tell its story—the story of a single company whose five business units were at the forefront of their respective industries. United Technologies business unit Carrier is the world leader in HVAC systems, Otis builds the elevators we ride in every day and Pratt & Whitney is an innovator in jet engine design and manufacturing—yet many people are unaware that these leaders are United Technologies companies.
“We needed to tell the One United Technologies story. Most people don’t know the breadth of what the United Technologies companies do,” says Penn Arthur, Inhance Digital’s ceo.
As Hauser pondered his assignment, his vision grew as he studied customers, prospects, congressmen—even school groups. He needed the option of toggling between telling the whole company story or the story of an individual business unit at the touch of a button. An environment sophisticated enough to reflect the advanced technology developed by United Technologies subsidiaries like Sikorsky, the world leader in helicopter technology.
But even as the wish list grew, content remained at the top of the list. “Every dollar I spend on something else is a dollar I’m not spending on content,” says Hauser.
In December of 2010 United Technologies moved into its new space in Washington D.C. and began planning the center. By mid-September, Hauser began interviewing potential partners. Hauser’s search ended with Inhance Digital, which had the benefit of having worked with several United Technologies business units previously. “Each of our business units is a separate company with its own culture. Success meant working with each of them on their own terms,” says Hauser.
Inhance started by developing the overall corporate story. “We like to go backwards. We started with what we wanted the visitor to walk away with and developed scripts and storyboards from there,” says Arthur.
The Right Technology
In order to reinforce that United Technologies creates cutting edge technology, it was important that Inhance select the right mechanisms to deliver the various components of the story. “We used innovation to show innovation,” says Arthur.
Inhance says several emerging technologies were passed over in favor of cool applications of the tried and true. “Technology isn’t the point; it’s a tool to tell story,” says Arthur. Newer isn’t always better because if visitors aren’t familiar or comfortable with a specific interface, an experience module may be underutilized.
Dozens of technologies were considered, but ultimately, Inhance opted for the ones it was most comfortable with. “We went with things we knew would work and would stand up to the constant use,” says Arthur.
One item of note: Even though Inhance is an interactive company, not every display within the Center employs technology—there are scale models of a jet engine and a helicopter—as well as a NASA space suit created by United Technologies’ Hamilton Sundstrand business unit. “You need to have a balance of both. People still want to see things and touch them up close,” Arthur says.
The big ideas within the space—a surround theater and a floating touchscreen—came about as Inhance bounced ideas around with Hauser.
“When you first enter, it’s a big moment of introduction, so we thought a surround theater was a good way to do that,” says Arthur. The floating screen evolved from someone’s offhand comment that it would be great to see something sitting in mid-air.
One of United Technologies’ requirements was that the content be completely flexible and updatable so that even as the hardware remains constant, United Technologies can update and customize its story as required. Inhance’s solution was to integrate multiple options for content upload—that facilitated the addition of new content both onsite and from remote locations. “We ask for content and then the next day, it will be there,” says Hauser.
Go With the Flow
Once content development was underway, Access TCA was brought in to work with architect firm Smith Group to develop floor plans and layouts—and to help choreograph the flow within the space and to address challenges such as the low ceilings and two giant columns in the middle of the space.
Access TCA kept architecture to a minimum—using organic shapes to give visitors navigational instructions that led them from one experience to the next without any signage.
Neutral finishes lightened the space and all background graphics, colors, materials and lighting were driven by the images that comprise the media. “Our intent was to have the architecture support the content so the space would fall into the background. Architecture and finishes enhance the space but they aren’t the point of it,” says Mich Gunderman, vp of creative at Access TCA.
Another requirement was that United Technologies’ products be integrated into the space’s infrastructure. This included HVAC, power and fire suppression systems—each of which came with its own installation team. And then there were other specialists—such as Tekamaki, which handled projection and a/v, and JLL Construction which built the infrastructure that houses the space. There were also restrictions related to working in an office building with other tenants.
Much of the work had to be done at night or over the weekend and cleaned up before the other tenants arrived in the morning.
Technical details abounded, such as the intricacies of synchronizing the seven projectors that work together to create the images in the surround theater. “We pushed around the numbers until we made it work,” says Bob Loney, managing partner at a/v specialist firm Tekamaki.
“There were many interdependencies and we had to synchronize them all,” echoes Hauser.
Five Business Units as One
Inhance and Hauser worked hard to keep the business units engaged in the project. This required multiple meetings and constant communication on the evolution of the project.
“We really wanted to keep the uniqueness of each company,” says Hauser. To facilitate this, all constituents were asked to voice their wants and needs. Both Hauser and Arthur tried to get the business units to think quasi-permanently—to think bigger and to take a macro approach. “What helped was showing the business units how the other units’ content was evolving. They needed to see how they fit in with the others,” says Hauser.
The look and the feel of the overall experience was communicated via renderings and 3D fly-throughs which were passed back and forth between United Technologies, Inhance and Access TCA. “We had three pivotal evolutions and half a dozen minor updates,” says Gunderman. At one point, Hauser used one of the renderings to present to the board.
Attention to detail and vetting of information all the way up the chain ensured that everyone was onboard and even the technical information was correct for every product. “We are sticklers when it comes to our products,” says Hauser. Balance was also a key factor—everyone was given equal space and constant effort was invested in making sure that every business unit developed its stories to the same level of sophistication.
Fifteen-hundred people have visited since the space opened in September for uses as varied as executive conferences, association receptions, lobbying events, ceo events, school groups, congressman visits, and military personnel tours. Educators have visited—as well as Washington D.C. museum professionals who are looking for new ways to improve their institutions’ exhibits.
Plans are in place to create a system where business development will cross-reference visitors against sales, but until that is in place, United Technologies is gauging its success on visitor reaction. “We get a lot of ‘Wow’—and ‘I didn’t know that,’” says Hauser. “And that’s exactly what we’re looking for.”