The company was founded in 2002 by Phil Hettema, former senior vice president of Attraction Development for Universal Studios.
Hettema refers to the company as an “experiential design and production firm,” adding that “that’s fancy jargon for, ‘We create stories you can touch.’ We’re in the business of storytelling by creating experiences.”
Some of the company’s biggest projects in its 20-year history are the High Roller Observation Wheel at The Linq in Las Vegas, the One World Observatory inside One World Trade Center in New York, the “Beyond All Boundaries” exhibit at the National WWII Museum in New Orleans, and the DreamWorks Water Park in East Rutherford, New Jersey.
“If you have a big idea but don’t know who to go to or how to do it, Phil’s your guy. He’s been involved in world-class entertainment destinations of all types,” said David Codiga, who served as executive project director for the Linq. “His team has a skill set of talent and services that could help any large client realize their dream.”
Hettema said clients generally approach the company with either a specific idea they need help executing or a story that they need THG’s help to tell in an interesting way.
THG now has about 35 employees inhouse. Hettema and his team of designers and engineers work to “make the impossible come to life.” He said one of the biggest challenges is creating designs in ways that are functional and not just a set piece that you might see in a movie.
At any one time, his company has 15-20 projects in the works in different stages. Once ideas are finalized, Hettema said they are built all around the world. The firm has had a project that was manufactured in as many as 12 different countries.
Projects usually take four to five years, which Hettema attributed to their size, permanent installation status and variety of features.
THG provides design and master planning services and uses specialists for certain elements of its projects.
Despite the company’s local headquarters, it hasn’t done a lot of projects in Los Angeles County.
“We haven’t done all that much work in Los Angeles,” Hettema said.
He added that the company, however, would like to do projects locally.
“I’m a native Angeleno and very proud to call this my home,” he said. “This is the epicenter of the theme park experiential design world; it’s all centered here because of the presence of Disney.”
David Kerschner, former president at Legends Hospitality, which runs the One World Observatory, said he was attracted to THG for the project because of its creative approach.
“To say that their proposal was far and away the best in terms of creative content would be an understatement,” Kerschner said of using Hettema Group for the project. “It really blew us away. We thought it was an incredible idea, very creative, very one-of-a-kind. There really wasn’t much of a decision for us to make.” He added that the project was “probably the crescendo of my career.”
Legends worked with THG on a plan for the site back when it was fighting for the right to operate the observatory.
Kerschner said that THG’s work on the project “transformed the observation deck building” industry, and others that have been built since have now included full experiences like THG created for the One World Observatory.
“Everyone understands that the bar was raised,” Kerschner said.
Codiga called Hettema “an idea and inspiration person. He is looking to take the client’s idea and make it bigger than they could ever imagine.”
He added that the High Roller Observation Wheel “challenged the assumptions of prior wheels” and pulled off something most didn’t think could be done. Other wheel constructions had been bulkier, and one of the improvements Hettema made was to create the wheel with what’s called a single-band structure.
Since the project wrapped, Codiga had been working with Hettema on projects that fizzled out when Comcast Corp. bought DreamWorks. Still, Codiga said he would be interested in working with Hettema again.
Hettema sees a bright future ahead.
While the types of projects the company creates might once have been “thought of exclusively in the sector of theme parks,” they are now “spreading quite widely to other sectors,” Hettema said.
“We love the thought that what we do can spread across any sector, and expect to see that trend continue,” he added.