Cover Story - March 2019

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A Revolution In Elevation

Seattle’s Space Needle elevates the visitor experience for the next generation

Story and Photos by Scott Fais

The Eiffel Tower embodies Paris.

Big Ben symbolizes London.

The Space Needle identifies Seattle, Washington.

“It’s how Seattle is known, but it’s also how we know who we are,” proclaims Seattle native Blair Payson. “Seattleites define themselves by the Space Needle.”

The iconic attraction—first inspired by a hand-drawn doodle of a flying saucer resting atop a stick—became a reality 400 days later at the Century 21 Exposition in 1962 (widely called the Seattle World’s Fair). Stretching 605 feet tall, the observation tower represented optimism at the height of the Cold War between the United States and the former Soviet Union.

“The Space Needle embodies the aspirations of human kind,” explains journalist Knute “Skip” Berger, who wrote the history book on the structure. “It was positive. It was technological. It was fun.”

Berger’s use of the word “was”—in past tense—summarizes the feelings of visitors to the attraction in the Pacific Northwest.

“We always think, ‘We’re timeless; we’re the Space Needle!’ And when we asked, visitors told us, ‘No, you’re not. You’re dated,’” concedes Ron Sevart, president and CEO of the Space Needle.

Armed with honest feedback, Sevart and those entrusted in the care of the 57-year-old icon faced the same dilemma many attractions owners and operators grapple with: how to evolve, while honoring the past.

The Space Needle gave Funworld an intricate look at how a recent $100 million renovation was completed with respect and careful consultation.

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The glass benches of the “Skyriser” and surrounding windows glow in the evening sun 520 feet above Seattle. (Credit: Scott Fais)

Planning a Revolution

As the Space Needle approached its 50th anniversary in 2012, Sevart and his team developed a plan known internally as “The Century Project.” The goal was to be as relevant in 2062, the 100th anniversary of the attraction, as the day the Space Needle opened in 1962. Honoring the original design intent of the attraction emerged as the guiding principle for the new renovation: share the view.

“We looked down, and it was just breathtaking,” recalls Blair Payson with Seattle engineering firm Olson Kundig. While maneuvering in a 4-foot-tall crawlspace underneath the lower level, Payson peered through small holes used to hold rigging equipment and agreed the old floor had to go.

“We need everybody to see this!” he says of the view looking straight down.

The blueprint for the future would in part remove the aging rotating floor and replace it with what the Space Needle brands the world’s first, and only, rotating glass floor. 

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Engineering the Overhaul

One problem: Olson Kundig would need permits from the Seattle Landmarks Preservation Board to remove the aging floor. A replacement floor made of glass would forever alter the look of the original design.

Back at the drawing board, engineers created the equivalent of a bus wrap—a covering that would allow guests to peer down through a transparent floor—but appear to be the old floor from the ground.

“We can look down and stare at the city below us through the floor,” explains Olson Kundig owner Alan Maskin of the new 7-inch-thick glass that is stronger than steel. “When you look up, you can’t see back in. It looks like the original floor.”

Thus, “The Loupe” was born—a rotating glass floor more than 500 feet up.

“Seeing people step onto the glass being unsure about their first step is incredible. I appreciate watching them discover something about themselves—and Seattle,” says Payson.

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“The View Will Floor You”

How the Space Needle marketed a $100 million renovation 

Before the dust settled and “The Loupe” started spinning, the Space Needle’s chief marketing officer, Karen Olson, knew she had a challenge.

“We don’t look any different from the outside! So how do you communicate that?” Olson asks.

Her team created two philosophies:

1. Stay Famous

“It’s a great brand platform in Seattle that represents the civic heart and soul,” she says. 

That means creating photo opportunities 605 feet up. When something significant happens in Seattle, the Space Needle will literally raise a flag atop the famed UFO-shaped observation roof to connect with the event. Sports teams, tournaments, and local charities will have their logo flown over the top. Pictures are then sent to the press. When local band Alice in Chains was releasing its new album, the group kicked off its media launch with a concert on “The Loupe.”

2. Turn Every Guest into a Fan

In an unprecedented move, the Space Needle declared all photo spots and images taken by roaming photographers be free of charge—at both the observation tower and Chihuly Garden and Glass. At first, guests were suspect.

“Our photographers had to wear buttons that read: ‘Serious. They’re Free,’” recalls the Space Needle’s president and CEO Ron Sevart.

Visitors share their e-mail address (something the Space Needle will continue to use when keeping in contact with past visitors) to receive the images. 

“We make it easy for them to amplify and share their experience,” Olson says about guests  placing the free photos on social media. “Then, we don’t need to advertise in every outer market.”

In addition, the marketing team sells tickets in a creative way. A mobile ticket kiosk set atop a  Segway can be deployed to areas where tourists gather, like Seattle’s waterfront, away from the Space Needle.

“When you’re in a crowd, the Segway stands 2 feet higher than everybody else,” Sevart says, conveying the greater height allows potential guests to see the roving kiosk. The wireless unit can sell tickets, print tickets using a thermal printer, and is compliant with Payment Card Industry Data Security Standards (PCI DSS).

“We built [the Space Needle] in 1962 as something all about the future,” Sevart says. “We should be thinking about showing things off that are kind of the way it could be in the future.”

Upstairs, the cables and bars forming a cage around the outdoor observation deck were replaced with towering glass panels leaning 14 degrees over the edge. Now, guests can sit on clear glass benches and lean backward in an experience named “Skyriser.”

“We are no longer a passive observation experience—it’s participatory,” says Karen Olson, chief marketing officer at the Space Needle. “When you sit in one of the glass benches of the ‘Skyriser,’ you slide out and see 520 feet down.”

The Seattle Landmarks Preservation Board granted the request for removing the former steel cage, since original 1961 concept drawings first depicted glass stretching above the heads of visitors.

“At the time, there was not the technology we have today. [The glass] couldn’t handle the wind capacity,” explains Olson.

In addition, Olson Kundig carefully cut through the metal floor separating the guest levels, creating two cantilever, half-moon staircases, allowing guests to now move freely between each story, without waiting for an elevator. A glass oculus window now sits at the bottom of the staircase, sharing the same view from 500 feet up that Payson saw at the start of the project.

“This is the edge you want in a place like this,” he says.

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Crystal Clear Cleanliness

With the addition of 196 percent more glass comes a greater need to keep “Skyriser” and “The Loupe” clean. While the Space Needle added jobs, interest first proved underwhelming.

“The initial classified ads read ‘Glass cleaner needed at the Space Needle,’” recalls the Space Needle’s Head Glass Cleaner Paul Best. “People immediately thought they would be hanging outside, so we didn’t get that many people applying.”

After the job description was rewritten for interior glass cleaners, the number of applicants increased. (The Space Needle’s engineering team is responsible for cleaning the outside glass surfaces while wearing safety harnesses.)

Best’s expanded cleaning crew now consists of three shifts responsible for keeping the “barrier glass” of “Skyriser” clean, along with the vertical “vision glass” windows just above “The Loupe’s” rotating floor.

The challenge for any attraction’s services team is keeping a surface clean—let alone a glass floor. Best’s team uses a quiet, hand-pushed Zamboni-like cleaner to remove scuffs. The OmniFlex is battery powered, removing the trip hazard associated with an electric cord. In addition, the glass composite used on the outdoor observation deck was designed with transparent laminates responsible for catching any graffiti.

“We can strip that off every few months and replace it if need be,” says Sevart. 

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Visitors admire the view while riding “The Loupe.” (Credit: Scott Fais)

Tastes of the Top

Pairing the view with food and beverage options creates a longer length of stay. The quick-service Atmos Café features Pacific Northwest-sourced fare and locally crafted beer. Executive Chef Jeff Maxfield created a menu featuring an appetizer using heirloom tomatoes, corn puree, smoked hazelnut dust, and fried cheese curds covered in basil oil. The presentation alone conveys a sense of gourmet. The remodeled kitchen at the 500-foot level also serves the popular Impossible Burger, a hamburger that tastes like beef, made 100 percent from plants.

The Atmos Wine Bar, located on “The Loupe,” replaces the Space Needle’s full-service dining room. Sevart says staying flexible using modular furniture allows “The Loupe” to be used in new ways.

“Maybe we will set up a third of it for a restaurant, and a third of it for a lounge, and a third of it for general viewing,” Sevart suggests, adding he is listening to guest feedback before rendering a decision.

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A viral wall displays social media posts. (Credit: Scott Fais)

Stay Authentic to Your Brand

One thing the Space Needle has considered, and passed on, is a walk on the wild side.

“We’ll use technology to do things that are cool and exciting that’s not throwing our guests off the building,” says Olson with a laugh. A free experience in the retail store allows guests to wear virtual reality (VR) goggles and experience what bungee jumping would feel like from 520 feet in the air. 

“We don’t want to be gimmicky,” Olson says pausing for moment. “Sure, we have a revolving glass floor, but we want to ensure it’s integral to the design.”

Sevart says the low-risk VR solution keeps the Space Needle current, while allowing guests of all ages and abilities to take the virtual plunge. 

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Chihuly Garden and Glass at the base of the Space Needle features the work of Washington artist Dale Chihuly

More Glass Next Door

At the base of the Space Needle sits its companion attraction: Chihuly Garden and Glass. The museum houses Tacoma, Washington, native Dale Chihuly’s renowned works of blown and spun glass. From suspended chandeliers and vases indoors, to what looks like knee-high spiraling plants and full trees of glass growing outdoors, the museum is a second attraction within its own right. The eight galleries of the exhibition end in a soaring atrium—designed to host special events and concerts—whose own glass ceiling gives views of the Space Needle standing watch from above.

“Putting two or three attractions together—if they are complementary—can be very, very, helpful,” says Sevart of attendance gains. The former park president of Six Flags Great Adventure and Hurricane Harbor in Jackson, New Jersey, led the regional parks when the property offered the water park and a wildlife safari as a second gated attraction.

The Collections Café at the museum is open for lunch and features treasures from Dale Chihuly’s vast collection embedded in the glass tables. Toy cars and antique cameras join colorful radios from the space race era displayed on the wall.

“You feel good about something that you put in the right market that people respond to,” he says.

And they have responded favorably since opening in 2012. Sevart says Chihuly Garden and Glass is traditionally ranked as the top attraction in Seattle on TripAdvisor and generated increased ticket sales for its towering brother next door.

“Putting this next to the Space Needle was a big deal. It did help,” he says.

 

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Uplifting What’s Next

While construction is complete, the next renovation looms. Both of the Space Needle’s elevators (last replaced in 1993) are approaching the end of their service life.

Sevart and his team now have a decision to make: match the current elevators that travel to the top in 43 seconds or do something new.

Original plans for the Space Needle depict double-decker elevator cabs. Honoring the original vision from 1961 would double capacity, but finding a manufacturer has proven difficult.

Yet, if the Space Needle could install a rotating a glass floor 500 feet up, its next aspiration will again prevail using the ingenuity at work in the early ’60s.

“The Space Needle is forward looking; it’s optimistic and represents the human kind that looks out, looks up, and looks forward,” Knute Berger concludes.

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‘Transform Moments’

Takeaways for providing sky-high guest service

The Space Needle President and CEO Ron Sevart operates by one slogan: “You will never get in trouble for transforming a moment.”

Sevart is a proponent of delivering strong guest service at every guest touchpoint.

“I’m after capturing the moment because that ties to people being happy,” Sevart says.

That meant developing a culture empowering each employee to surpass guest expectations. For example, if an associate overhears a conversation between visitors who comment ticket prices are too expensive (a regular ticket sells between $32.50 and $37.50 depending on expected entry time), employees are given the authority to escort guests into the attraction for free—without the fear of being penalized.

“Not one bit,” Sevart promises.

Employees are also empowered to escort guests to the front of the line—if there is one.

Through the combination of time ticketing, virtual queueing, and peak and off-peak pricing, Sevart boasts his attraction has eliminated waits on most days.

“We’ve set it up so people don’t have to wait in a line if they don’t want to,” Sevart says.

Chihuly Garden and Glass museum, along with the Collections Café next door, are both positioned to absorb some of the wait. He says a worst-case scenario would be a one-hour wait, where six years ago, Sevart recalls the wait to reach the top could extend beyond three hours. 

To help expedite security, the Space Needle turned to Evolve Technology’s non-invasive method of detecting explosives or firearms.

“It’s not a TSA kind of thing; it’s pretty casual,” Sevart shares of the screening device that also snaps a photo of each visitor. Two detection units can process more than 1,000 guests an hour, a rate that’s greater than the capacity of The Space Needle’s two public elevators. 

Sevart maintains his employee directive is simple in nature.

“All they have to look for is to transform the moment with a guest that is with them right now,” he concludes.