But what if you want to enjoy all of the above in one location? Excellent question! You can do that too, thanks in part to Sol Kerzner, the legendary hotel magnate. When he opened Sun City in his home country of South Africa in 1979, Mr. Kerzner sparked a renaissance in the entertainment destination industry. Perhaps his best-known development is the iconic Atlantis Resort in the Bahamas, a truly integrated destination that features one of the world's largest man-made marine habitats, one of the Caribbean's biggest and most innovative casinos, a spa, golf and tennis, a water park, intimate encounters with marine animals, thrilling nightlife and entertainment, and dozens of bars and restaurants. All of this was built around a 2,300-room hotel complex. A getaway like this offers fun for the whole family.
In 2013, Mr. Kerzner’s company announced that a new Atlantis resort would be built on Hainan Island at Haitang Bay in China. Falcon’s Creative Group was selected to provide thematic and interior design services as well as art direction for two of the resort’s highly themed areas: Lost Chambers Aquarium and the 200,000 square-meter Aquaventure Waterpark.
I wish I could describe the feeling I had when our collaboration was made official. To be working with Sol Kerzner, a visionary pioneer, was an honor. A titan in the industry came to us to help elevate ideas and take his project to the next level. We were asked to reinvent an established and well-respected IP. That was refreshing, and it opened up our playbook. Although Atlantis is an ancient and alien world, we had to weave in elements from the contemporary world, and they had to be stylized to reflect the Asian culture. There were also many technical aspects to consider, especially with the huge tanks that these marine animals would be inhabiting. Their safety took precedence over all else.
Asian media outlets have put Atlantis Sanya in the same class as Shanghai Disneyland, which means the integrated resort is playing a leading role in a very large tourism market. It also means that we are living in a new era that some are calling the experience economy.
Hoteliers and developers certainly understand that the experience economy’s main goal is to cater to an audience looking for escapism. It’s similar to the mega resorts on the Vegas strip. Adults can role-play in an environment where their alter-ego is allowed to run free. That type of experience is a big hook for a lot of people and has stood the test of time.
It’s fantastic that the hotel industry has put a concerted effort into providing such escapes, along with integrating luxurious amenities that guests appreciate. But when you add the additional layer of a story that captures visitors’ imaginations, you have something special. That’s what Mr. Kerzner did with his first Atlantis.
Before even one slab of concrete is laid, however, critical questions must be asked. What would consumers find appealing? What would engage them? What type of escapism are they looking for? What do they want to discover?
This escapism backdrop is the common denominator in our work for entertainment destination resorts. Falcon’s has been fortunate to have earned sixteen such projects with more in the pipeline, including the recently announced Katmandu theme park in Punta Cana, Dominican Republic. I attribute our prolific history in this area to the fact that we embrace storytelling while also speaking the language of architecture. Story is a higher priority than almost anything else. The story drives every decision and answers questions mentioned above.
The parts and pieces of the development, known as the program, define what the consumer is looking for in terms of physical spaces – a spa, restaurants, shops, parks, etc. This plan usually exists before a developer brings us on board, and we support those concepts. However, nothing is set in stone at this early stage; the program is malleable. We bring our fresh and experienced perspective to the collaboration process. During conversations with clients, we’ve found that the story we create influences the overall program. In this way, we challenge our clients to be open-minded regarding their ultimate vision.
Developers know that by hiring Falcon’s, they are mining a resource with a specialization in themed experience design. Based on our years of master planning, we know what mix of products will garner the best results and promote maximum engagement. But we also have an innate sense for what could be wildly popular. We know what works in the theme park business, and although destination resorts are a different medium, the process of methodology we go through is similar. We leverage the same tools in both realms.
While some of these tools are rooted firmly in the creative sphere, others exist within the architectural domain, which is the world I grew up in and studied in college, before stepping into professional roles where I designed buildings and unique spaces.
The institution of architecture was established a long time ago. Everyone worldwide has been educated on the process and knows what it takes to design a building. There are rules, codes, and protocol that everyone abides by. At Falcon’s, we embrace those general guidelines, but we add another layer on top of that, which is the theme, but it includes so much more. That’s one thing that makes us unique. We believe that architecture and theming are not independent components. The two are integral ingredients that must tie seamlessly together to organically shape the story and ultimately, the solution.
Over the last two decades, we have combined our powerful storytelling capabilities with our pragmatic architectural know-how to make an impact in the destination resort industry. One such example is Bà Nà Hills French Village, located in a secluded mountain region in central Vietnam. Falcon’s was tasked with transporting visitors back to medieval times and creating an environment rooted in historical fact while integrating fine dining, shopping, and live entertainment in ways that seemed natural to the story.
We pitched three different concepts to our client. An abundance of research went into these tales, and each one was infused with rich details. We were armed with the clay we needed to firmly mold any of the stories. Why did we go to such lengths for all three options? Because we wanted to justify every element we were proposing. For example: What’s your reasoning for putting a gothic cathedral there?
All of the components in Bà Nà Hills, and other resorts like it, serve a purpose and have a backstory, even if the visitor is entirely unaware of it. It’s like an actor who questions his character’s motivation for a scene. The audience will never know he inquired about this, but because the actor was able to fully embrace his character’s thoughts and emotions by grasping his motivation, he delivers a more nuanced and powerful performance, one that is completely believable. Without that seemingly trivial detail, he might’ve come across flat or even soulless.
It works the same way when designing an imaginative, story-driven experience. As designers, we have to live and breathe every single detail about what we’re proposing in order to fully seize the essence of the story and present it in its best possible light.
Well before visitors journey through these impressive settings, we put ourselves in their shoes. We embark on an adventure of the senses to choreograph their entire experience. Lots of other firms can design the roads, the infrastructure, the operational layout. What we do is role-play. We are an external resource for our clients to help flesh out the right story and uncover the hook.
What we’re designing is an escape from reality, or to put it another way, a chance for people to immerse themselves in an alternate reality. Maybe these destinations feel nostalgic, but they are boldly original. If we have done our jobs right, the resort can even offer a different experience the next time the guest visits because of its dynamic nature.
I can honestly say that the destination resorts Falcon’s has designed are unique places, in the truest sense. No two are alike, and they’re different from other firms’ destination resorts. Our artists, writers, CAD designers, creative managers, and engineers want these special places to exude authenticity, while also giving visitors the feeling that they are exploring a world unlike any other on Earth.
Experiences like these can enrich lives. They are not your everyday vacation. They are fully developed fantasies that ignite the imagination of everyone who steps foot on their soil. That’s one reason why we love destination resorts so much. It gives us another opportunity to tell profound stories.
With all design work, there’s a lot of stimulating, back and forth conversation as we seek the right formula. Obviously, a massive amount of effort goes into the process. At the end of the day, we want to see our ideas and vision come to life, not only from a physical standpoint but an engagement one as well. When I see the public’s reaction, it’s almost surreal. I can sense their joy and amazement when they discover something new, and I know they’re absolutely allowing themselves to get lost in these exciting worlds and stories. I can’t think of too many professional experiences I’ve had that are more rewarding than that.
President/Chief Creative Officer
Cecil founded Falcon’s in 2000 with the goal of developing inspiring experiences for people of all ages. This dreamer’s visions have taken flight in the hands of a talented team that continues to bring joy to a global audience with award-winning designs, attractions, and content.