Universal Orlando Exec on Deploying Tech to Theme Parks

By Stephen Ellison |  February 3, 2016

Cool demo, but can it scale and deliver real business value?

That question describes Al Callier’s approach to emerging technologies and innovation: while some companies like to boast about how fast they adopt shiny new technologies, Callier contends that there’s a real need for process, project management skills, and continual conversations with business unit leaders before you try to roll out the latest gadget, app, or hackathon demo.

The vice president of strategic innovation and emerging technology for Universal Orlando’s Parks Technology division, Callier managed the overhaul of the parks’ WiFi capability and the launch of a mobile app. His next mission is exploring the business potential of the Internet of Things. All those initiatives required a systematic approach, rigorous testing, and a strong technology platform, Callier says.

“If you don’t have a platform on which to leverage, on which to innovate,” Callier says, “it doesn’t matter how sexy your demo is – it can never be big, you can’t scale it. You can do niche executions that affect small numbers of people, sure. But our business serves millions.”

Callier has worked for 13 years at Universal Orlando – a subsidiary of Universal Parks & Resorts, which operates under the NBC Universal umbrella (which in turn is owned by Comcast.) He has been with the Parks Technology division for about four years. Callier reports to Bill McCorey, senior vice president and chief information officer for Universal Parks and Resorts. InnoLead talked with Callier about his Parks Technology team and its approach to delivering new products and supporting new strategies.

Don’t Build the ‘Batcave’

InnoLead: How big is your team, and how does it operate?

Al Callier: Generally speaking, we average about four to six directly on my team, but our model is deliberately small… [We’ve] got a core team that manages things and, at any given point, we can pull in managers from our [project management office], and we also work with a lot of contractors and technology partners.

When we formed my team a few years ago, and I sat down with our CIO, we deliberately said one of the pitfalls that seemed to be common in nascent innovation organizations is you build a team and then it becomes sort of like a Batcave, a tree house – like there’s something going on over there, but not that many folks are involved, and we’re not quite sure how it’s relevant.

The second half is we did not want to form a team that would try to control everything or own everything, because innovation is a broad concept like creativity or strategy. We have a leader of strategy, we have a whole division called Universal Creative – and they build and design the rides and the attractions. So it’s not practical to say “We’re going to own creative, and we don’t expect anyone else to do so” or “We’re going to own strategy, and we don’t expect anyone else to be strategic.” The same is true for innovation. Our mission is to be a catalyst for innovation.

InnoLead: So your team essentially gets the wheels in motion. How does it typically start?

Callier: My team focuses on what you would generally describe as the “fuzzy front end.” The fuzzy front end of things is when you’re trying decide strategically how you want to approach an opportunity, what kind of emerging technology can lend itself to the opportunity, what are the formulas for success … and how do you form business cases, how do you test. Some of our departments might say, “We have a general idea of what we might want, but we’re not completely sure how we want it.”

At any given time, we may have a half-dozen or more active initiatives, and each one has a different work structure supporting it, using some combination of what I just described, whether it’s internal, vendor partners, or the broader company within NBC Universal.

How We Set Up a New Center of Excellence

InnoLead: What was it like before you put this system in place?

Callier: Before we started this, there was no official overt team focused on innovation. And our CIO has a background that spans a lot of areas. One was being involved with IBM’s Center of Excellence (COE) in a prior position. So when he came here, he thought no one really owns innovation, and we don’t think about it like creative or strategy – we sort of develop it like a center of excellence. My background here has spanned a number of key areas. I was hired to this role [because previously, I was] one of the largest customers to IT. I was managing visual marketing, visual content, all of our Web properties. I put together our first team for CRM, our first mobile application, our mobile website. So as a big customer of IT, I was very in tune with the team, and I had a great relationship with the CIO.

After about a year of being here, he said he really wanted to establish a center of excellence around innovation. He basically sought me out and said, “You know, there’s leverage maybe in getting someone with a certain amount of technical savvy, but with an outsider’s perspective…” So I literally came over from the divisional marketing side to the parks tech side, and we started from scratch. I’m the first person in the company that’s ever had a title that said “innovation” overtly.

There Isn’t a One-Size-Fits-All Process

InnoLead: What’s been the main difference?

Callier: Well, the key difference is it didn’t exist as a focal point, and over time, what we’ve learned is a couple of things. First: People assume innovation is all about demos and gadgets and the next new thing. What you run into very quickly – because we’re not a startup; we have a lot of legacy – is no platforms means no scale. It’s relatively easy to whip up a demo of almost anything – we see it at hackathons all the time. Whatever you’ve proved you can build in a weekend, all you’ve proven is what you can build in a weekend. There’s a phenomenal difference between a desktop demo and production-quality execution ready for the general public. So platforms matter.

Point two is there are a lot of philosophies that have been documented around innovation and project development, but here’s the reality: I don’t care what your innovation process is, each opportunity has unique aspects to it – it is not a one-size-fits-all. It’s very difficult to take a process and force it onto every opportunity in the same way. The process is helpful to give you some general principles that are defensible and value-driving, that people can grasp and understand. But innovation is an applied science, so you look at the opportunity at hand and apply it to that. And every engagement we do has a lot of customized dynamics – customized to our use cases; customized to our current technology footprint and what must change to accommodate the innovation; customized to our unique brand engagement within our competitive set. We don’t do things like our competitors. That’s on purpose. We have a different brand impression we’re trying to make, and I’m sensitive to that. And the way we think about innovation supporting guest experience has to factor into those dynamics.

Beware the ‘Fog of Possibility’

InnoLead: How does your team determine how to approach a given project?

Callier: You absolutely must engage others in the process. But you have to be the jumpstart. It’s a question of if you’re going to own something, what are you going to own? And in our model, it’s the internal startup. You have to take the … baby of the idea, and you’re not going to take the baby all the way to high school or college, all the way to being a grown-up. But you’ve got to keep it nurtured. You’ve got to grow it to the point where it can have critical mass that can justify building it into something scalable and meaningful. A project needs someone to own it, so it doesn’t dissipate into what I call the “fog of possibility,” meaning there’s so much we can do, anything seems possible. When anything is possible, and you’re inundated with all these new capabilities, how are you going to pick what you’re going to do exactly? Because in technology, at some point, you have to build a specific thing, and you can fall into a trap of never-ending possibilities. Then you get fearful of, “Well if we build it, when will it become obsolete? And if that’s going to happen quickly, maybe we should wait.” Well, you’ll be waiting a long time if you get into that cycle.

Going From Vapor to Paper to Bricks

InnoLead: So a project is initiated. What happens next in terms of its progress?

Photo Credit: Kevin Kolczynski, Universal Orlando Resort

Callier: I use the “vapor to paper to brick” analogy all the time. You go from talk, which is vapor, to writing it down, which is paper, to building it, which is brick. It’s easy to talk about this stuff – that’s just vapor. In your mind, it’s a tangible thing, but in the minds of others who are would-be stakeholders, it’s not tangible. So you’ve got to get it written down so people can react to it, and that takes thought leadership and maybe some courage. [You’re giving] people something to throw darts at. … Then, when it’s time to lay bricks – write some code, build an app, do an actual trial – it takes some work. You may put some quality energy into doing the pilot, and when the going gets rough, people might question, “Wow, we’re not even sure we really want to do this. Is it worth the time and energy?” And that’s when we go back to our original thesis. As long as the original thesis can hold up, yes, we will stay the course, we will follow through. We will do our trial, and we will go to the next leg of our journey.

So the pathing and sequencing of things is something my team puts a lot of thought into… At some point, another team is going to take it over and run with it, but someone has to lay out the scenario for action in a way where other people that have their day jobs can say, “I can see that series of things coming to fruition.” Without that, it’s just, “Hey, I saw the Apple commercial, it looked cool” or “Someone sent me this link” or “I went out to a restaurant and saw this cool thing, maybe we should do that.” No delivery team can take any of those things and go do it. You’ve got to put some time into it and deal with the tough questions – security, privacy, encryption, legal risks, exceptions to customer behaviors – most people will behave in a certain way but some people won’t. We have to think through all those things because we serve a broad, mainstream audience. … And our team member population who has to serve them – they’re not technologists – they are everyday, hard-working people out there doing the job. You gotta make sure they can operate the technology in an effective way to serve the guests. … It’s a rough road. We make that road easier to travel.

InnoLead: Talk about some specific projects or strategies you’ve launched.

Callier: We launched our new mobile application in June [2014] – the new Parks Mobile App. My role was leading the tech strategy that preceded the building of that app. So I led an engagement with a technology partner on the technical strategy for the app. Once we had the tech strategy, it went to requirement and got built, and we have had very positive guest ratings. And they have persisted. When we launched, we took some guest surveys in July and August [2014], and we just did it again last July and August, and we still see that same performance – which is not easy to do.

Another one is the strategic technology planning for the parks’ WiFi. We had an opportunity to provide leadership in that area, working very closely with our network operations team and our technology partners like Cisco. Our guest-facing WiFi also launched last year, and we’re already working on the next upgrade. Now that we have the platform, it’s how are we going to innovate on the platform? We can really turn up the energy on all these great promises of what you can do if you have a robust WiFi network. I think the next frontier for us is the Internet of Things.

Opportunities In the Internet of Things

InnoLead: How do you envision the Internet of Things being applied?

Callier: The thing about our company is we’re like eight businesses in one – the theme park operation alone includes rides, shows, attractions, ticketed events. But we also operate hotels, we have joint venture partnerships, we have a major food and beverage operation, a major retail and merchandise operation. And every single one of these businesses is its own vertical. So I can have a very deep conversation with our retail and merchandise team about what we’re doing with innovation in our retail and merchandise locations. Then I can go and talk with our restaurant operations group, and say let’s talk about innovation in food and beverages … every one of these verticals is a related but separate conversation because all of these teams have their own businesses to run that add up to the total.

All of these entities have hardware and equipment, all sorts of things – door knobs, showerheads, garbage cans. A theme park resort is just a massive conglomeration of physical assets. Well guess what? Pick your spot. The Internet of Things can make all of them smarter, more capable, easier to manage. So it’s daunting, because we have so many things we can tackle, and right now I think we’ve been tackling them by department, opportunistically, in a more ad hoc fashion. What I want to do is work on more of a strategy around key points of leverage. I’m not going to launch a hundred proof-of-concepts on everything we can touch. Maybe a half-dozen areas of economic, operational or guest-experience benefit. … It’s funny because if you talk to the large technology companies developing products and services for IoT, they literally say “Internet of Everything.” So when I’m on these conference calls, I laugh out loud because I’m thinking, “Why don’t we just call it Internet of the known Universe?”

Everything can connect to the Internet or the cloud – it goes on and on. So our challenge is one of organization, prioritization, and finding the areas where we’ll get the most leverage. I probably sound more like a consultant than an innovation leader. But that’s what the role demands – you have to deal with priorities and business cases.