Designing an Experience: FORREC's Thomas Gould on water parks, ski resorts & the future of leisure
“The thing about leisure,” explains Thomas Gould, “is that it’s a discretionary choice — people are spending their precious free time and hard-earned money, so we need to create places where they can satisfy their greatest expectations and dreams.” As the Director of Resorts at FORREC, “an experience design company that creates transformational places,” Gould has advised countless clients and developers around the world on how to transform their businesses into sought out leisure destinations.
“Be they ski resorts, beach resorts, or themed hotels, my main focus is the integration of leisure development into the land,” clarifies Gould. The designer relies on his knowledge of ecology, topography, art, and architecture, along with careful observation of the culture and context, to design unique experiences for people looking for something extraordinary. But he also relies on the input of FORREC’s clients and collaborators: “I believe great design stems from communication. Every project involves so many choices, opportunities, and constraints.”
Because the scope of projects that FORREC works on is monumental, the demands of Gould’s job are constantly evolving, just as our understanding of entertainment does with the emergence of new trends and technologies. But, Thomas Gould has his work cut out for him. ARTpublika Magazine had the pleasure of speaking to the expert in hospitality planning about his current role, previous endeavors, and the artistic components of working for an international entertainment design company.
What attracted you to this field?
I studied Landscape Architecture. In the late 90s, the profession seemed to be focused on ecology, which is of course important, but it was the artistic, cultural and economic aspects of landscape architecture that attracted me in the first place, and I wasn’t immediately clear on the many directions this profession could take me.
After graduating, I went to Whistler — a ski resort in western Canada — and decided to be a ski bum for a winter. While I was there, I found a whole industry of people using landscape architecture to integrate buildings and communities into challenging mountain landscapes to build ski resorts. So, I pursued that for a little while. And, over the years, those projects sort of morphed into these different forms of leisure.
How did you get interested in landscape architecture to begin with?
Through my parents. My mother worked for the university I attended, the University of Guelph, and knew some of the landscape architects from the department there. So she, no pun intended, sort of sowed the seeds in my mind about it at a very early age. I think she said: “This will be a really interesting career.” And she was right.
Did you tell her that?
(Laughs.) I have, yes.
What were your favorite hobbies when you were growing up?
I spent a lot of time outside. In the summer, I’d [take out] the little sailboat that we had, or go paddling around on the canoe. And in the wintertime, I’d go skiing or skating. I also picked up painting in high school. My dad was a graphic artist and my mom painted, so I painted a little bit, too. My major really brought my love of art and nature together — landscape architecture was a natural fit.
What kinds of work do you find yourself gravitating towards? What are your preferences?
At the moment, I gravitate towards projects at the intersection of nature and architecture, that are also lively and interesting. I think it’s the most important thing. A client might have a 100 million dollars and an idea for an iconic building that may be fantastic to look at, but once you’ve been impressed by it at first glance, what else is there? I like places that draw you in and make you feel like you want to explore — places that give you the potential to discover something.
You got involved with FORREC in 2014. What did you do between finding the ski resort and then starting this job?
I followed a girl to London. After arriving there, we went our separate ways, but the city opened up a whole world to me. It was a hub of big, innovative design companies. Working for a firm there, I got to be involved in some great, ambitious, and forward thinking development projects around the world. That’s where I got my first taste of the global practice of design.
What was most appealing to you at the time?
There were a lot of projects in the Middle East that were very ambitious. Let’s say we had hundreds of square kilometers of desert, and the vision was to turn it into a new city or a community or resorts, overnight. The ability to plan something incredible from scratch and to start with a blank slate was very exciting; that sort of broad stroke, visionary work was interesting to me in the beginning. There was a lot of creative freedom.
After you’ve had a chance to work on these global projects, what did you do next?
Actually, ski resorts brought me on my next journey. At the company that I was working for, we had an opportunity to work on a great big ski resort. Somebody turned to me and said: “How are we ever going to find someone with ski resort expertise?” And I said: “Well, I actually have a lot of experience.” I was on a plane to Almaty, Kazakhstan, the next day. It was a fast-moving project, and the sketch that I drew in the early days went on to get built as the little village that sits at the bottom of the Shymbulak Ski Resort there.
What did you do after that?
I built myself a little niche by working on ski resorts. Ski resorts then took me to Singapore, which is, of course, near the equator and the tropics. A developer based there had acquired a ski resort in Japan, renowned for some of the best snow in the world, and we won a competition to design the master plan of the village. So, my wife and I moved to Singapore.
Crazy how your post college experience changed your life.
That quick ski bum season at Whistler in 2000 turned into a fifteen-year adventure around the world. It was time to come home and be a little closer to my family. I was fortunate enough to join FORREC, a global company that’s working on more of these big, [interesting,] projects. So, even after moving home, I still get to travel and see the world.
Do you have a general estimate of how long it takes to complete a project?
When we are planning big resorts from scratch, the clients often want things to happen as fast as possible for whatever reason. We always say that we can move as fast as they can, but a good design process is going to unearth some constraints as well as more opportunities than the clients perhaps considered, so they often need to take a little bit of time to think about their decisions and make their choices. But, on average, a master plan takes anywhere from four to six months and, in some cases, longer.
How do you get these projects?
As experienced professionals, we want to have a dialogue with our clients. [Although] clients trust our reputation and our creativity, the best solutions can’t be made in a vacuum — designers aren’t mind readers. When clients tell us about their needs, hopes, and dreams for the project, and we can discuss our thought process along the way, we are better able to find creative and inspiring solutions that will resonate with their objectives, and those, I think, make the most interesting projects.
Let’s say that your firm was hired to build a water park, can you talk about the kinds of considerations that you have to address?
Of course the first thing on our minds, and the minds of our clients, is to create a truly fantastic experience for the guests. But to bring that to reality there are many pragmatic considerations that, if we do our job right, the guest will never know about.
Some of the first questions we ask are related to capacity and the target market: How many people do we want to host? How many people do we want to fit in any one given space to enjoy themselves to the max? Then, the fun part starts: How does the space make the guest feel and what are the creative aspects that will make that place unique?
Is that what the firm did with the Happy Magic Watercube in Beijing?
The look of the water park that FORREC created is so unique, but I think that the really interesting story there is legacy planning. It’s very exciting to bring the world together for the Olympics every few years. But it’s also very costly, and you have to figure out what to do with all the infrastructure after the games are over. So, the Watercube was actually planned from the beginning to have a second life as a water park.
The space the water park now sits in was actually the media center during the 2008 Olympic games. Then, when the games concluded and all of the reporters and media people went home, a part of the facility was turned into a water park to give it a legacy and to create something that’s an asset to the community after the fact.
The technical considerations — the pumping and filtration mechanisms to deal with all that water — were planned, but not built from the beginning. Once you have a comfort level with all of those details, then you can hide them from the guests. That’s what makes waterparks, the best ones, so immersive or enjoyable. And it’s those kinds of challenges that make designing places like these very interesting.
How many companies do you work with to pull off something like this?
The concept is generated with us; we come up with the storyline and the visuals that tell that story. Then, as the project moves forward, we start to bring on people with specialized skills. The most important people supporting us are the aquatic engineers, because we don’t design the filtration and pumping mechanisms. We also work with specialist fabricators who understand how to make all of those themed elements come to life. The trick with waterparks is that we are in a very humid environment, so we need to think very carefully about what will last in such environments.
So, would you say that collaboration is your strongest asset?
In the design industry, we hear about individuals who are the figureheads, but the reality is that any big and exciting project takes a lot of people — it takes a strong vision from the beginning, but it takes more than just one person from one company to make it a reality.
How have your occupational responsibilities changed from being a senior designer to Director of Resorts?
The difference, I think, is scale. FORREC works on a lot of different projects. Rather than being one of the key designers on one or two projects, as the director I am overseeing multiple projects and opportunities at any one time. It’s about having a broader view of the industry — understanding trends, new ideas, and also blurring the lines between my field (resorts) and any other disciplines we can bring together to make great places. So, it’s my role as the director to work with my colleagues to create new formats for these developments.
We did work for a casino resort in Asia that was looking to attract a new audience. The typical casino patron there was male and over 50 years old. This developer was looking to expand the market and attract a much younger audience. FORREC’s experience with waterparks appealed to him, but he didn’t want to build a waterpark for families, he wanted to target millennials and young adults. By creating a very spa-like atmosphere, but using some of the fun and action elements from waterparks, we got to create something new. That was probably one of the more interesting projects that I have worked on so far.
So, what did you end up doing?
We created a sculptural element that guests could climb on, float through, jump from, and drift around, using elements that we normally see in spas, put together with contemporary design. To me, the future of entertainment is coming from blurring the lines between retail (hotels), and entertainment — that’s as fun for children as it is for adults.
Do you have a favorite project?
My favorite project is probably that project I just described at the casino, but another is the ski resort in Japan. Japan has a unique culture. So, to bring in some expertise from the West in terms of planning and development, and to integrate that with the Japanese culture and landscape was amazing. But I think it’s also important to be careful, because we’ve all seen things that are trying to be what they are not — we had to design with the culture in mind but bring in our own vision.
What kinds of books do you like?
I think of myself as a designer, but I read The Economist a lot. I feel like a lot of designers get frustrated because clients often say: No, we can’t do this. We can’t afford that. To me, when planning big scale or small-scale projects, the economic context about what their impact may have on the community and the economy they are supposed to serve helps understand why our clients may be thinking the way they are.
Note* All images are the creative and intellectual property of FORREC.