Brand Experience Center interview

Previously published on Blooloop

Located about 70km apart, in Rotterdam and Amsterdam respectively, the Rotterdam Port Experience and new-look brand experience center Heineken Experience may share part of their name, but otherwise differ in a number of ways.

By Owen Ralph

Whereas the Heineken brand experience center is based around a global brand that has a clear set DNA and, one hopes, appreciative audience, the Rotterdam Port Experience must engage its guests with what by definition is a less accessible topic. It also has the disadvantage of being located in a city with far fewer tourists than Amsterdam.

Located underneath the Erasmus Bridge, which links the port (Europe’s largest) to the rest of the city, the Rotterdam Port Experience makes clever use of its space, commandeering part of a car park and using a number of tricks to convince visitors this 1, 800 square metre building is much bigger than it really is.

The illusion begins when guests take an elevator ride, engineered by Lagotronics, to the top of a fictional skyscraper that, were it real, would replace the Euromast as Rotterdam’s tallest building. As they alight onto the observation deck on the “200th floor, ” guests take a dark ride around the top, peering down at the lights of the city down below.

And this is about as far as the storytelling goes, in terms of deliberate narrative. The attraction was created for the Rotterdam Harbour Company. Rather than devise a single theme to thread the experience together, the team decided to use a more freestyle approach: “We do not take you by the hand – we want the visitors to piece together their own view of harbour life based around what they see inside, ” says project director Reinder Holtkamp.

Over 70 Dutch companies were involved in supplying the technology and equipment inside the Port Experience, but as with many of the best ideas, some of the most effective are also the most simple. In the foyer a huge map made from glass panels allows guests a unique perspective of Rotterdam and a sense of just how big the port is. Elsewhere there is a clever take on the timeline, using small displays with content that changes as users slide them along the line.

The largest, most expensive and hardest to install (they had to take out a wall to get it in) part of the Port Experience is the Harbor Ride, a simulator attraction comprising eight two-seater lifeboats that escape into the harbour for a perilous but action packed journey. The ride was by built to order by four companies, based around a concept from Kranendonk Experience Network.

Guests can also ride a jet ski through the harbour or, if they wish, sing a Dutch sea shanty, in a “blue screen” exhibit that superimposes their image onto a video backdrop. The resultant film can then be e-mailed to the friends, a nice viral marketing opportunity for the attraction’s operators.

Secondary spend opportunities though are few and far between, and while the end of tour gift shop features plenty of maritime-related merchandise, there is little dedicated to the Port Experience itself. Outside the attraction, signage is at a minimum, to the extent that the attraction’s existence may, unfortunately, go unnoticed by many of those passing by.

When it first opened in 2001, the Heineken Experience brand center replaced a brewery tour that had gained a certain reputation amongst beer-thirsty tourists, and the brewer  now presides over one of Amsterdam’s most popular attractions.

Cleary Heineken wanted to communicate more about its brand, something that made it unique compared to other alcoholic beverages. BRC Imagination Arts, which was responsible for the recent overhaul of the Heineken Experience, defines it succinctly using a three-point outline: “Born in Amsterdam, raised by the world …cheers!”

The facility used to entertain around 350, 000 guests a year, and following the BRC revamp can now cater for closer to half a million. Both sets of figures are respectable for an attraction of this kind, particularly when one learns that the Heineken Experience is located “the wrong side of the canal” from most other Amsterdam tourist outlets.

“For Heineken though, the message communicated inside is more important than attendance, ” says Bart Dohmen, who heads up BRC’s European office in the Netherlands. “If, however, you can educate more people to become brand ambassadors and take your message around the world, then it is a win-win situation. The new-look attraction has only been open a short time, but already the indications are that it is working.”

Built inside what was a fully functioning brewery until 1988, the Heineken Experience takes guests on a tour that exploits the beer’s Dutch heritage but intertwines it seamlessly with the brand’s global ambitions in the 21st Century. Visitors are immersed in every aspect of the brewing process and get to see, smell, touch, and taste everything – the quality raw ingredients, the incomplete brew in progress, and the pleasure of a finished beer in the futuristic Star Bar.

BRC also adapted a motion base from the old Heineken Experience to create a theatre-style effects “ride” called Brew U. Although there’s a lot of technology at work behind the scenes throughout the attraction, it never distracts guests from the experience, or the brand.

At the end of the tour there is the chance for one more Heineken, which guests enjoy surrounded by 360-degree moving images of cities such as Hong Kong, London and Paris, chosen for their aspirational connotations. “Corporations with valuable brands recognise the importance of connecting fans to the values and ideals associated with their company and products via a brand experience center, ” notes Dohmen.

Unlike the brewery tour of old, the emphasis now is on success, without excess. They may look bigger, but both beers served at the Heineken Experience are just 250ml each. Try getting drunk off that.

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