As seen on Blooloop, get behind the scenes at AOA: delivering big projects with people-first values
Leading immersive experience design, technical production, and project management company AOA was recently named in Inc. Magazine’s prestigious annual Inc. 5000 list of America’s fastest-growing private companies for the third time and has been a continuous ‘Best Place to Work’ recipient. Most recently, Founders Mike Ostendorf and Tom Acomb were named to the blooloop 50 Theme Park Influencer list for 2020.
Mike Ostendorf brings 28 years of hospitality and turn-key entertainment project management experience to his role. He previously served as Chief Operating Officer of The Ginn Company, Vice President of Project Management for the Cumming Corporation and Senior Project Manager for Walt Disney Imagineering. Mike has lead pre-development for some of the industry’s most complex entertainment endeavors, and has been responsible for several successful global new-product launches.
Tom Acomb has been in the entertainment business for 30 years, with an extensive career in concept design and creative development strategy worldwide. He has worked on projects from A-list feature films to international themed entertainment experiences for Fortune 500 clientele. This includes 15 years as a Disney Imagineer, and significant work with Universal Studios, Marvel, Google, Facebook, Apple, Coca-Cola. He serves on the board of directors with The University of Alabama AIAA SETC and The University of Florida TEI programs. He has also received over a dozen Themed Entertainment Awards.
The Origins of AOA
Ostendorf gives his perspective on the company’s beginnings and its evolution:
“The ideas behind the company date back to 2006 or 7, when Tom and I were working for a start-up real estate developer. We had always discussed doing our own thing and always knew our career talents were complimentary to each other. At the start of the 2008 recession, we started talking more seriously about creating our own company and the excitement began. “
"I think we needed to experience the day-to-day grind of not being happy at what we were doing, not being able to control our own destiny, not feeling we were making a huge difference in our careers, to get us to the beginning days of the company.”
"We learned a lot at Imagineering, from the 2nd generation after Walt. Amazing, legendary mentors. Then we went and worked for some other folks and realized that there was a market to provide our creative process and PM procedures globally.
I also think there was a history and a business chemistry with the two of us. Some of the projects that we went through at the end of our Disney tenure were extremely challenging. Both personally and professionally.
"The Lights, Motors, Action! extreme stunt show at Disney's Hollywood Studios is an example. We delivered that in the middle of the worst hurricane season in Florida's history, and against a tsunami of other challenges too long and confidential to list. Starting our business didn't seem like it was going to be as challenging as some of our previous projects. We knew what we were going to be like under pressure and knew we could take it head on.”
A Different Type of Company
“One of our goals, from before day one, was to create a company that was a throwback,” says Ostendorf. “Like a family, where we care about our team and want to know their kids' and their spouses’ names, we want to see them have a balance. We strove to create a company where we are invested in their lives, not just a payroll service.”
"Our past in Imagineering in the 90s was so much about that. We watched corporate loyalty dissipate as time went by, and we set a goal to bring it back. We wanted to be more than just a place to collect your paycheck. What Tom dreamed up and we built for the Winter Park Studio is certainly a testament to that!”
"From the very beginning, we set out to make AOA a different type of place. Looking back over 12 years, those goals that we initially formed exist strongly today in AOA. It’s beyond Tom and I now – the team has carried it on.”
“We always felt, if you're going to build a team in showbiz, its members are going to sacrifice a lot to be at work," Acomb says. "And you need to take care of them. Another thing we felt was that if you're going to have to work as hard as we do in our industry, it makes sense to surround yourself with people that you want to spend that time with, to share the highs and lows, and to celebrate success with.
"Creating an environment where they want to be here, and you want to be around them, just made sense. Those were some of the early perspectives and they became our company’s DNA. Our studio is unlike any in the industry. Come by and see for yourself!”
Working From Home Nothing New at AOA
One of the company’s initiatives that resonates in today’s climate is the policy, adopted from the beginning at AOA, of facilitating working from home. Ostendorf says:
“In those early days, our advisors all told us we were crazy. We'd never get the work product out of our people from working at home. Yet for nearly 12 years now, AOA has had a work from home policy, and there has never been an issue with it. Ever.
“Now that we are in this COVID-19 environment where everybody's working at home, one of our current advantages is that it was nothing new to AOA. We've always been doing that.”
“It's totally normal for us," agrees Acomb. "As we were growing the company in the beginning, Mike and I would say a couple of things as we were interviewing people. Number one, you never know what curveballs life is going to throw at you. If you have to deal with life's appointments, you have to go to the dentist, the air conditioning guy is coming, we don't want to hear about it. Just get your job done and take care of the things in life that you've got to do.
The other statement we would make was that if it’s a big life curveball, and you have to leave AOA, we want it to be an absolutely miserable day for you when you come into the studio to tell us. If you are anguishing over it, yet the best thing is for your future is to go, then we have done what we set out to do. It means we created the environment that was special, and we were more than just a place of work.”
"Those always registered. I think a lot of the early people that we hired wondered if we were in sales mode. Now, 12 years later, they would attest to you that that's absolutely the way we treat everybody.”
There are other core principles to which the company has remained true from the start.
“We were always very passionate; we had nothing to sell," says Ostendorf. "We were going to come in and do our job, we would show you our books and always be transparent. With AOA, we wanted to be part of the solution, and a go-to resource for our clients’ biggest challenges.
"I think those early principles from the beginning play out day to day. And they have played out over the last 11 and a half years because we have nothing to gain from it. Our job is to help our clients design a project, and to deliver that project on time and on budget. Part of that is just being a transparent part of the overall team.”
OUR JOB IS TO HELP OUR CLIENTS DESIGN A PROJECT AND TO DELIVER THAT PROJECT ON TIME AND ON BUDGET
Acomb says: “Some folks bet against us when we started. They thought we were nuts, starting a business right in the middle of the recession.”
Proving them wrong can be a source of drive and satisfaction:
“We are always up for the challenge, and there has definitely been fuel in being told, ‘We're not sure you can make it.’ I think it's good to have some stuff like that motivating you.”
A Strong Working Relationship
Outlining the route that brought him to his current role, Ostendorf says:
“There was some destiny that was probably involved in Tom and I coming together, though we didn't know it at the time. We met around 1994 at Walt Disney Imagineering.”
It transpired they were six months apart in age, and had attended the University of Cincinnati at the same time:
“We didn't know each other at UC but graduated at the same time. And here we were, a year or two later, meeting for the first time at Walt Disney Imagineering, and getting ready to work together, for what became the bulk of our entire working career. 25 years working together this year and counting!
“I think what's unique is that, while Tom and I can do a lot of similar things very well, we do know our respective skills. We have excelled, from the very first project, in being creative, solving problems, being nimble and efficient. Tom comes up with a lot of content for our clients, sometimes from out of the blue, and I have always been energized with the challenge to make them a reality.”
"A lot of those very early things, where we were able to navigate the waters successfully, delivering a whole bunch of small projects at the Disney company, really play out in our everyday life, and have done so for our entire careers.”
Acomb adds his perspective on this:
“Many of our lines are pretty well-rehearsed after 25 years. We were both raised the same. We grew up in blue-collar families where hard work was mandatory. Building those relationships that way, being transparent, allowed us to get a lot done. Because people trusted us. That wasn't something we had to work on; it was a reflex from our parents. And, there were great folks at the top of WDI that routinely took chances that Mike and I could get it done for them.
WE WERE TAUGHT A WORK ETHIC THAT CARRIED US, AND IS STILL CARRYING US RIGHT NOW
"With all these little projects that we had to jump into, we could always call somebody, ask for help, try to figure out this scrappy workaround plan. We had built a reputation of capability; if we said we were going to do something, we did it. If we said we were going to follow through, we did. It allowed us to gain some momentum. We always remembered those that helped us. Amazing what a ‘project team t-shirt’ can get done on a big job.”
"Again, a big part of it was tied to the commonalities in our upbringing. We were taught a work ethic that carried us, and is still carrying us right now.”
The AOA Team and COVID-19: The Global Pandemic
The current situation illustrates this, says Acomb.
“When the COVID crisis happened, nobody had to pick up the phone and tell Mike and I that we had to revert back into a role of putting in the hours and trying to navigate through troubled waters.
"We just said, ‘this is what we have to do’ and that's pretty much been our attitude since the beginning. From a career path standpoint, we always met in the middle and yet covered the spectrum of needs.”
“And, our team’s culture and family-like approach to what we do has been invaluable. They have had to have tremendous agility these last 8 months, and they have supported each other in and out of the workplace."
"It makes Mike and I smile when we hear, after the fact, that there was a virtual happy hour that our team did over a weekend just to let off some steam. Again, that is bigger than just a job, it is a true cultural indicator when these types of things happen on their own.”
"Now, here we go again,” says Ostendorf. "We have a pandemic around the world, and there is no playbook. Those problems are much more complex than project challenges. COVID-19 remains a mystery right now; we're just working around it hour by hour, day by day, week by week. We have held our team in place during this crisis, and even added a couple folks.”
Going into more detail on the current COVID-19 crisis, its impact on a macro and micro scale and the coping strategies going forward, Acomb says:
“Our approach has generally been to take it day by day. We are leveraging the relationships we have across a widely diverse range of companies to understand the various impacts of the crisis. We have a great client in Delaware North. Here, we have been assisting them with some of their works as they've restarted. They've told us how they're marching forward.
"Our general perspective is that you deal with it as it comes at you, and don't make key decisions until you've got a really solid understanding of where things are headed.
"You can't come out with a doctrine that says, this is how this particular venue is going to manage COVID-19, and this is exactly what to do. Because it's changing every day. On the business side, you have to be able to understand that in any crisis your team is going to manage their response differently.
"One of our biggest challenges at AOA is that not all of our work is in our back lawn. It's across the country, and we do international work as well. For example, we do a decent amount of work in Hawaii, and it's a long trip. It’s just reopening now to visitors. It’s been gravely impacted economically.”
Working Towards Shared Goals
The pair were never on separate agendas, says Acomb.
“We always had the same goal. We weren't aligned in our own self-reward on any of the projects. It was, ‘Here's the budget, here's the schedule. We know we've got to deliver high quality; we’re one team, let's get it done.’ That was always a commonality from the beginning.”
“I think there's always been a mutual respect for both of our strengths, and why we can both dabble in whatever - project management, or creative, or technical. We’re both very aware of our individual strengths.
"When the need is to rely on one another on a particular project, we have benefited from that greatly. Because there have been projects where Tom and I don't overlap at all. And there are projects at AOA where we very much need each other’s strengths. We are very good at knowing how and when and where to use that, to its benefit.
"Our culture is about doing the best quality job we can, and how we deliver it. It's not about Tom or Mike or even about AOA’s image. It's about the success of our clients and giving them what they want to the best of our ability. I think that's truly a unique skill set, because a lot of people and companies aren't ego-less.”
Most Memorable Projects: Lights, Motors, Action!
Moving on to talk about memorable projects, Acomb says:
“The standout one for the two of us is one we did together at Imagineering: The Lights, Motors, Action! Stunt Show. It was a super challenging project, especially to be built here in the United States with very different regulations. I had worked on the team that delivered the show at The Disney Studios Paris, but very little was a direct copy from that show.”
"When we started the business, I remember we were meeting with an attorney for the first time, getting our paperwork in place for the new business. He made a comment, saying ‘You guys seem to do pretty well with each other. But, you know, there's a lot of stress and pressure that goes into being in a business partnership.’
"Having just come off the Lights, Motors, Action! job, we absolutely knew that we were up for that challenge. It wasn't going to be a problem. Someday, a documentary could be made on what it took to make that show a reality here in Florida. We could for sure make a good television mini-series at a minimum. And, we’d be trending on social media if we did, believe me.”
"We were a super small and lean team on the Lights, Motors, Action! project. Some of the things that we did regarding how we built our team on that project were very forward-thinking. We took a different approach than had been done before. So, that one stands out for sure. “
Most Memorable Projects: Working with Disney as AOA
"In AOA’s heritage, one of the projects we're most proud of, and where Mike did the heavy lifting, was the Via Napoli Ristorante e Pizzeria at Epcot, Italy,” says Acomb.
At this point, they had just started the business. AOA was trying to establish itself, and the pair were chasing work. Jeff Vahle, current President of Walt Disney World, was an early supporter of Tom and Mike and encouraged them to pursue some of the work often done by 3rd parties in support of Disney’s projects.
“Mike was the day to day lead for it. Here we were, supporting Disney with building something inside the berm of their theme parks, at a point where AOA had a mere three employees, and we were two of them. We really started right out of the gate with that, learning a lot of lessons along the way.”
“We knew the quality standards of the Disney company, and delivered something special with the Epcot Italy effort, working with Disney as our client and partner. That was a big moment and it led to us being the go-to for several other great projects at Epcot. We had earned their trust and respect and we were happy being in the support position that they needed to get work done.”
Ostendorf says: “I agree. That first project, the Via Napoli Ristorante e Pizzeria at Epcot, is memorable.
“It’s one thing to undertake projects like that with a big team and unlimited resources. But as a new company that is trying to grow, building up a high-end project inside the berm at Epcot is something quite different. It was an unbelievable project. We delivered it within a very short window of time.
A Resilient Team
"With respect to those early days, for me the projects that I have been most proud of are those done over the last two years,” says Acomb. “Our leadership team have assembled such an amazing group of talent that we can hand over big challenges to them, and they're getting it done, day in and day out. “
"They have gotten on board with the process, program and the culture of the company. And they deliver the quality without micromanagement. We've built a team of doers who push themselves and strive for perfection."
"Truly, I have to say, all our projects stand out to me. Tom and I have a finger on the pulse; yet we have unbelievable people that are continuing the traditions we started AOA. Every project that we touch gets the same level of passion and commitment.”
"They’re all different projects, sure. Galaxy’s Edge: what gets better than that? But everything gets the same amount of effort, attention and level of detail as the next, no matter the magnitude. We love what we do; our employees love what they do, and I think the end results show that.”
Facing Challenges Together
Inevitably, there have been challenges to overcome along the way.
“Challenges are different on every project," says Acomb. "Each job has its own set of parameters. Sometimes it is cost, sometimes it's schedule, sometimes it's the intersection of those in terms of the level of quality you're going to be able to deliver. Sometimes it's cultural influences on the work that we do around the globe.
"I think the challenges of the projects have become less onerous because we're used to solving problems and with age comes experience. The WDI culture that we came from was extremely challenging. Every job was new; we've never repeated anything. Most of our work is a one-off, complicated, kinetic challenge that is a blank sheet of paper on Day 1.”
Respect for Business Anniversaries
"The real challenges, as we look back, have to do with navigating the needs of being business owners. There are a lot of challenges there, most we had no idea existed.
“I have a whole new respect when I see major business anniversaries. For instance, when it’s a hundred-year-old family-owned company, and you go, wow. There's a lot of maneuvering that you've got to do to keep a company safe and sound and strong over the course of a century.
THERE’S A LOT OF MANEUVERING THAT YOU’VE GOT TO DO TO KEEP A COMPANY SAFE AND SOUND AND STRONG OVER THE COURSE OF A CENTURY
"If I had to pick one of the main categories that are challenging on all our projects, schedule is typically the hardest one. If you've got the time and the budget, you always get the quality. But trying to achieve a world-class level of quality in a shorter amount of time is one of the most challenging things that we have to deal with in today’s market. I suspect Covid-19 will add to this challenge, with even more aggressive budgets and timelines. Ingenuity will be key.”
Always a Team Effort, Only One Goal
"Then there is a long list of “business owner lessons’ learned over the last 12 years, and plenty of surprises,” says Acomb.
“The challenges on a project can be largely boiled down into a few buckets," agrees Ostendorf. "Usually budget schedule, quality, and sometimes personalities. We solve those through the alignment of the team.
"None of these projects in this business get built by one person. They get built by a group of people working collaboratively together for a common goal. One thing we do well is to align the team to that common goal, so we’re all working towards the same objective.
"Friction happens when there's misalignment within the project team. The problem solving and the project work is the easiest part of what Tom and I do.
“We started a company in the middle of the worst recession since the great depression. That made people think we were crazy. But we did it; we were successful, based on the formulas we've talked about.”
Thoughts on Industry Trends
Addressing industry trends and how those might evolve, Acomb says:
“This would have been an easier question to answer in February than it is right now. I think the post-COVID valuation to our industry is going to be sweeping and extremely impactful on how things look over the course of the next couple of years.
"Will it be reversible if it needs to be reversed? I don't know. You can liken a lot of what we're all going to learn to the post 9/11 practices that are now fundamental. Globally, we all just adapted to the new way of living, and traveling.
"As far as the trends go, on a macro level, I would like to believe that we're going to continue moving in the direction of the mega-immersive environments that you're seeing delivered by Universal with both phases of Harry Potter, and what we recently supported with Star Wars: Galaxy's Edge and Pandora: World of Avatar at Disney.”
"Immersive attractions and experiences are always going to be desirable, and more authentic than having VR goggles on, or an AR app on your phone. It will be interesting to see how COVID affects where some of the industry goes. But, essentially, I believe we’ll continue down the highway towards building super-impactful giant themed attraction lands. Technology will play a role, but won’t take center stage.”
Ostendorf agrees: “I think the easy part will be what do we do with social distancing and sanitation in entertainment. We have all learned, having been quarantined, how important and precious social interaction is. What we will see is different ways of social interaction being figured out.”
Future AOA Projects
Touching on current and future projects, Ostendorf says: “One project we can mention is the Mote Aquarium project at Benderson Park in Sarasota, Florida.
"We've been working with Mote for the last two years, helping them bring to life a tremendous new aquarium and root scientific center. AOA is helping to grow the old facility, and bring a brand-new state-of-the-art facility to life.”
In addition, he says:
“We are partnered up with Meow Wolf to assist them in delivering their Las Vegas venue as well as their Denver venue. We've been working with Meow Wolf for just over a year, and are in the process of bringing those two new projects to life, along with some wonderful new projects that they have in the works.”
Branching Out, Satellite Style
"The latter part of this year is an exciting new opportunity in that we will finally, after 11 and a half years, open our West Coast office, and a Central West office. We have been encouraged by a few particular clients to be a tad closer to their operations, and we are thrilled to make it happen.”
“We’ll also further establish our presence in New York City. We do have a couple of exciting things in New York that are underway. So, those will be announced over the next six months, including a big surprise tied to the One Vanderbilt skyscraper in Midtown Manhattan. Super exciting stuff.”
"The nice thing about the way that things are evolving for us heading out to other markets, is it’s not a case of going out to see what we can do. We have a pretty good order of work in these other locations, and it's the right time now to make that situation formal.”
“We should mention that some clients have been actively pursuing growth work throughout COVID. We do a lot of work for Blackstone, for example. They are touching multiple jobs, and we've become a creative house for them, exploring a lot of different ideas in real-time. A company of that size that is motivated to develop when the market has dipped, and has kept us extremely busy.”
Feeling hopeful for The Industry
"Each one of our team members has a different way of how they're going to want to address their response to COVID,” says Acomb. “We have to respect the needs of our team and how they're going to want to move forward. Plus, we need to understand that our clients are looking for day to day changes in their approach that benefit their business.”
“I must say how well we've seen the local theme parks react. Both Disney and Universal are doing their best to provide the safest environment that they can.
THERE’S A LOT OF COLLABORATION WITHIN OUR INDUSTRY; A LOT OF SHARING OF INFORMATION
"In terms of innovation, which parlays into this, maybe the answers aren't there yet. But the one thing that we are seeing that brings optimism and hope to the situation is the willingness to collaborate.
"There's a lot of collaboration within our industry; a lot of sharing of information. You bump up against folks in this industry. It's a very small one, where you occasionally compete for work. There are also friendships, and mutual respect. Seeing the collaboration emerging into entertainment, design, and delivery has really been delightful.”
Entertainment Is Resilient
Ostendorf says: “It is going to be interesting for some time. We have taken a straightforward approach with our employees. We're very forthright and transparent. But at the same time, there is a lot of fear, not just among them, but out in the world no-one knows what tomorrow brings.
"It's important for us, as leaders, to make it clear that this industry is resilient. The people will come back, they will travel again.
"We will bounce back. The elimination of the fear that people are carrying is something that we will continue to focus on as leaders. We want to bring a calming factor, as best we can, to our employees, so that they know we're working hard to take care of them.
"There are positives. It is easy to get caught up in the negatives.
"COVID will pass, and our industry will come back, probably larger than it ever has been, because of the demand. People will want to jump on airplanes. They will want to go to great places like Walt Disney World or Disneyland or Universal. They will want to have those special experiences with their family and truly appreciate them more.”
New Ways of Working
"In a lot of ways, I think things could come back bigger than ever once we get over this,” says Ostendorf.
“For the moment, it's really a lot of blocking and tackling every single day right now. But there is an end in sight. We’re going to get through it and get there.
"At the end of this, the whole industry will have learned a new way to do business. It won’t be about how many airplanes you can get on or how many different cities you can be in, in a week.
THERE IS AN END IN SIGHT. WE’RE GOING TO GET THROUGH IT AND GET THERE
“The fact that the entire industry has learned how to use video conferencing more regularly, and that it's become accepted in our business, will help us be able to accomplish more in a single week than we previously could. That is a big positive for our future.”
Acomb agrees and says, “Getting on board with the trends and tools that have risen to prominence as a way of getting work done is paramount. Keeping up is always a challenge, but where there’s a will, there’s a way. And, as we all know in entertainment, ‘The show must go on.”