PGAV Eager to Re-Brand the City with Transformational Spaces

Estimated reading time: 4 minute(s)

In the newly renovated offices of PGAV Destinations, Mike Konzen, the firm’s principal and chair, explained to me his concept of a St. Louis “Creative Core”.

The basic premise he outlined is that within a 10-15 block radius of the City there is a dense cluster of over 160 creative firms specializing in advertising, PR, multimedia, digital marketing, and design. That concentration should provide the City with a powerful lure for top creatives across a variety of industries. More interesting to him though, is the potential of this deep talent pool to re-imagine what the City could become and start building transformational spaces within it.

St. Louis’ Creative Core from PGAV Destinations on Vimeo.

PGAV Destinations has a keen understanding of what goes into making a place a desirable destination. As their name suggests they specialize in it. The company’s portfolio spills over with projects and awards featuring their years of exhibit and attraction design. Chances are, if you have kids and you travel, you have seen their work.

The 53-year old agency made its mark in 1975 helping to design and launch the first Busch Gardens at Williamsburg.

Since then, PGAV has worked on some of the most well known theme parks and attractions in the world, from SeaWorld and Discovery Cove to aquariums like the Georgia Aquarium or the St. Louis Aquarium, which is currently under construction. Countless Zoos and museums too, including the award-winning Sea Lion Sound at the St. Louis Zoo and exhibits at the Kennedy Space Center.

The Creative Core idea came out of a keynote address Konzen gave at the St. Louis Business Journal’s Best Places to Work Awards.

In that speech, Konzen outlined the things he believes make work meaningful and rewarding – collaboration, passion and creativity. He also spoke about St. Louis’ legacy as an advertising and creative mecca in the 50’s.

“This isn’t like we are trying to build something from the ground up,” says Konzen, “This is already here.”

He ended that speech with a vision that our modern creative community could build on that legacy and re-brand the City. What started as a recognition of existing creative capacity, became something of a clarion call to St. Louis creatives for action.

A creative city that attracts top talent

“Can world-class creativity thrive here in the Midwest? Absolutely!” he says. “It’s what we do. We don’t have a pool of freelancers to pull from…We hire creative talent from all over to live here. We import top creative talent and export top creative thinking.”

To answer his own question another way, Konzen cited a recent article in STL Magazine entitled More and more creative firms are locating downtown. Can they recreate St. Louis? from Jeannette Cooperman, a staff writer at the magazine and a freelancer who has worked for PGAV in the past.

The article does a thorough job outlining the variety of agencies that make up the Creative Core and interviewing their thought leaders. Creative thinkers at these agencies echo Konzen’s enthusiasm around the City’s potential: they speak of the City’s recent renewal, its vibrancy, the creative collision, and “stimuli” that occurs while working in the City every day.

Rebranding our creative City

There’s also a recognition that St. Louis has a powerful stigma around inequality, hosts pockets of entrenched old world thinking, as well as contending with a deep-seated self-image problem.

Eric Thoelke, creative principal of TOKY, a renowned design agency with clients worldwide, put it succinctly, “We need a better brand as a city.”

Karen Baker, Sr. Director of Branding and Marketing, agrees. “You Google St. Louis and you still see there are a lot of negative stories,” she says ruefully. Together with PGAV’s staff and Konzen, she’s been working to change that with the Creative Core story.

Konzen sees this rebranding as a process already in progress. He points to the City Garden, Kiener Plaza and the Gateway Arch Park as examples of places with a transformational effect on the City and its image.

“If part of what you are trying to do is advance a creative enterprise zone, you have to look at the all the things that the people and companies that will live there find important,” he says. “A big presence of public art is important…A big sense of creative public space is important.”

Throughout the office were the artifacts of what Konzen calls “destinology” — the concept boards, the architectural plans and the work product required to create immersive environments. Painted two-dimensional landscapes were juxtaposed with analogue three-dimensional models made from carved foam core, both techniques still used extensively in place design and planning.

The idea that a place can change a person’s world-view and perspective is part of the job. PGAV employees, encouraged to travel with a $1,800 annual stipend, post their adventures from exotic locations around the globe on a massive map in the company’s lounge.

As part of the tour, Konzen and Baker, showed off the HIVE (Highly Immersive Virtual Environment), an in-office virtual reality theater with a wraparound resolution for displaying multimedia. Surrounded by three screens, a viewer can enter into one of PGAV’s planned destinations and interact without the normal bulky VR headgear.

I explored the Cobra’s Curse, an exhibit and roller coaster at Busch Garden’s Tampa.

“Be careful,” I was warned, “It can make you dizzy.” It did.

As theme park designers, the Creative Core concept seemed of a piece: the natural extension of a creative enterprise whose goal is to design immersive environments and popular destinations. If a creative agency should take the lead on a rebranding effort, PGAV just might be the perfect candidate.

As I left, I wondered if within a few years, with enough wind behind the sails of the ship Mike Konzen helped launch, the Creative Core idea might take a different form, as a three-dimensional rendering of a new St. Louis re-imagined.

And then I remembered, that it had already come to pass, in the shape of a massive Aquarium being built just down the street at Union Station. Just like he said, I thought, “it’s already here.”

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10+ years of New York and St. Louis agency experience as an integrated producer of broadcast, social, digital and radio taught Jason Sindel to beware the agency woo and embrace the authentic story. A St. Louis native, Jason is inspired by the radical changes taking place in the city and is a contributing writer on EQ.