The following paper was part of a presentation made by Randy White, CEO of the White Hutchinson Leisure & Learning Group at TILE 2000 in London, UK in May 2000. The paper has been published in the official conference proceedings.

The Role of Culture in Location-Based Leisure Design

By Randy White, CEO White Hutchinson Leisure & Learning Group

Most international location-based leisure facilities (LBLs) follow the paradigm of using standard Western designs. To be successful, LBLs, especially those in community size markets dependent on high repeat visitations, need to be designed and operated based upon the local culture. Culturally-based design includes developing a storyline and theme that has a connection to the local culture. This creates a brand identity with strong emotional appeal. Cultural considerations also include the culture of women and children. Most LBL designs are androcentric and discriminate against women and children by their very designs. Culturally-based design requires extensive sociological and anthropological studies, qualitative research with consumers and trained observations.

Culture shapes and affects every aspect of life, including leisure experiences. Culture can be very obvious for factors such as language, food and dress. Likewise, culture can be very ubiquitous for many other factors, with subtle nuances that are not easily discernible.

To be successful, a location-based leisure facility (LBL) business should be designed based upon its local area's culture. Just as culture influences every aspect of an individual's environment and behavior, culture also needs to be considered in every aspect of an LBL's design-the physical environment, mix and design of events and programming, marketing/branding and operations. This approach contrasts with the paradigm in international LBL design of simply exporting standard Western leisure solutions and designs.

Culturally-based design is especially critical to LBLs that market themselves to a community size market where LBLs are highly dependent upon frequent, repeat business from local residents. Large LBLs, such as tourist attractions or theme parks, can often successfully incorporate escapist themes and Western designs, as the frequency of visits is only around once a year. However, LBLs that predominately market themselves to residents in a local community quickly experience 'theme burnout' and loose their repeat appeal with such an approach. They lack the needed emotional bond to the community that only culturally-based design can achieve.

One important aspect of culturally-based LBL design is the storyline and theme. The storyline is the mythology that determines the theme and drives every aspect of design. A storyline and theme that has a connection to the local culture and the target guests' values will not become dated and obsolete. Rather, it will provide a strong brand identity and repeat appeal for the project.

The best way to create a brand identity for a community LBL is to reintroduce the community to itself. In a sense, the community-its culture, values and lifestyles-becomes the brand. To accomplish this, you identify what about the target market makes its residents proud about their culture and community; you learn about their values, lifestyles and heritage; and then you integrate that into the storyline and theme as subtext. In a sense, the community and its culture becomes the brand and the brand celebrates the community and its culture. As such, the LBL has a strong emotional appeal, as it is based on what makes the local community proud, their values and heritage. This not only gives the LBL a strong emotional connection to its community, it also gives the LBL a soul. Soul is something lacking in many leisure projects whose superficial or Western-based themes lack any real meaning and relevancy to guests.

Culturally-based design needs to not only look at the community's culture, but also at the local culture of women and the culture of children. The majority of built environments, including most LBLs, are androcentric and discriminates against females and child users by their very design. The same is true of the way most LBLs are operated and marketed.

Almost all LBLs are designed and operated from a man's perspective. Most LBL owners and managers are men, as are most architects and designers. Even when the architects and designers are women, they often continue to have a male design bias as their professions, its traditions and its institutions of learning have always been dominated by men.

Research across almost all cultures consistently shows that it's the females who decide, 80 percent or more of the time, where and when families spend disposable leisure time and money. And if the family has children, although children may not decide where the family goes, they definitely have a strong voice in where the family does not go for leisure.

Women and children think, feel, process their senses, act and perceive the world and their experiences differently than each other and much differently than men. Their leisure preferences and needs and how they experience environments are different from each other and from men. Their brains are wired differently, both by nature and nurture (including local culture), and they have different skills.

And children differ amongst themselves based upon their stages of development. Our company has identified eight distinctive developmental stages for children that we call 'ages of leisure.' Their boundaries overlap because the rates at which children develop vary. Within each age group, children generally enjoy the same leisure activities. However, leisure that works for, say, young adolescents is neither appropriate for, nor desired by preschoolers and visa versa.

  • Infants: - up to 10± mths old
  • Older infants & toddlers: - 10± mths to 23± mths
  • Two-year-olds: - - 24± to 35± mths
  • Preschoolers: - - 3± yrs to 5/6 yrs
  • Primary grade schoolers: - 6/7 yrs to 8/9 yrs
  • Teens: - 9/10 yrs to 11/12 yrs
  • Young adolescents: - 12/13 yrs to 15± yrs
  • Older teens: - 15± yrs to 17 yrs

Culturally-based LBL design requires extensive research and planning. It is the extensive up-front cultural research that produces long-term success. The research involves much more than what a typical feasibility study includes. The research must go way beyond demographics. Although some of the research is based upon published information, most of the research deals with subtle cultural considerations that can only be unearthed by an astute trained observer who conducts research on-site. This research includes sociological and anthropological studies, qualitative research and trained observations.

As an integral part of the feasibility study and before our company even begins the preliminary design process for an LBL, we immerse ourselves in the culture to observe, research and analyze. Our research team includes a multi-disciplinary team of mostly women. If the LBL will include families with children, our research team includes a child development expert.

We read everything we can find that might give us some cultural insights. We find out what the target market does for leisure and where they go, and then we go there-to restaurants, parks, shopping locations, leisure and cultural attractions. We study the local architecture, design styles, home interiors and furnishings. We visit schools and meet with educators to understand both the pre-school and grade school education systems. We visit play areas to observe how children play and how parents and children interact. We search out sociologist and local cultural experts. Our female staff members hold focus groups with mothers and children. And in cultures where nannies are prevalent, we research their needs as well.

In some cultures, religion is especially important. In Muslim countries, for example, religion and everyday life are inseparable. Religion's impact on design and life is everywhere. Considerations can include seating arrangements in café areas, parent-child interaction, design of bathrooms, the need for prayer rooms and prayer preparation areas, the selection and preparation of food, even the rhythm and scheduling of the day's events. So we study the local religious practices and beliefs, keeping in mind that within any religion, there can be significant differences from one local area to another, as religious practice is a combination of religious doctrine and local interpretation and tradition.

In some cultures, history is especially significant, as it is important to residents' very cultural identities. In those cultures, we study those aspects of history in depth that are important to that identity.

The difference that culture-both an area's culture as well as gender and children's culture-can have on physical design includes such considerations as the leisure events, colors, finishes, anthropometrics, and scale of space. For example, Americans (excluding New Yorkers) require a lot of territorial space and are comfortable with large-scale environments. Other cultures prefer a smaller scale and less territorial space. Young children, who are half the size or smaller than adults, feel very anxious in large-scale spaces. Different cultures also interpret design shapes and patterns differently. What might seem like a disorganized mosaic of tiles in one culture seem comfortable and familiar in another. Even the speed of escalators differs. The fast-paced U.S. escalators will scare the heck out of someone from a more languid culture, whereas to someone from Hong Kong, they would seem too slow. The design of the acoustic environment is also strongly influenced by culture. Western cultures tend to tolerate much noisier environments than Asian cultures. Men prefer louder places, whereas they are a turn-off to both women and young children.

Our company's cultural research has uncovered many culturally-based design specifications for LBLs we have designed that are less obvious, but in many ways, possibly even more important to project success than the more apparent considerations described above. A few examples are:

  • Morocco - incorporating large smoking sections in the restaurant for mothers attending during the week. Women there like to privately rebel against the male run society by smoking when not with men.
  • Caracas, Venezuela - large birthday party suites to accommodate the culture's unique birthday customs and gun check lockers and metal detectors at the LBLs entrance since so many adults carry sidearms.
  • Dubai, U.A.E.- designing the FEC so it can operate as a woman's/children's only club weekdays, allowing woman to relax and unveil since no men are present. The center's name and mascot is LouLou Al Dugong which means "pearl of the dugongs" after the pearl-diving heritage of the region and the endangered dugongs or sea cows (relatives of manatees) in the Persian Gulf. School educators and children both expressed a strong preference for an environmentally-based theme. The center's bathrooms were designed to meet the varied practices of multi-cultural guests including Muslims, Asians and Westerners.
  • San Jose, California, USA - incorporating a major educational component (edutainment) into the children's events and offering an upscale food and beverage selection to meet the demands of the highly educated and sophisticated parents in Silicon Valley. Contrary to conventional wisdom, there are no computers in the center since it would be impossible to be better than the computers and programs children have at home.
  • Cancun, Mexico - An interior color and décor theme that matched the tastes of women in the culture. This was much different than what the men owners preferred.
  • Badajoz, Spain - incorporating a major casual restaurant in the LBL due to the area's strong tradition of integrating dining and leisure; and having children's play events, such as pretend aqueduct building, based upon the residents' identities being so strongly linked to the area's period of Roman dominated history.

Culture-whether based upon the area, gender, or adult versus childhood-differs greatly. Location-based leisure facilities, and especially community LBLs, need to carefully research and consider cultural differences in their designs and operations to assure success.

Author Biography

Randy White is the CEO of the White Hutchinson Leisure & Learning Group based in Kansas City, Missouri, USA. The firm specializes in feasibility, design and production of family and children's leisure and learning venues worldwide. Since 1989, the firm has been involved with over 160 projects, including ones in North America, Latin America, Europe, Africa and Arabia. The firm is recognized as the creator of children's edutainment centers and is currently working on the design of a family edutainment center. Two of the firm's international family entertainment center projects have received first place recognition for their design.

Prior to venturing into the leisure and learning venue industry, Mr. White was the developer and manager of over 300,000 square meters of shopping centers. His experience with shopping and retail has contributed to the firm's leisure consulting and design work with shopping centers and retail facilities.


Randy White is the CEO of the White Hutchinson Leisure & Learning Group, a Kansas City, Missouri, U.S. firm that specializes in market feasibility, consulting and design of FECs and family and children's venues. The firm has won many awards for the design of its domestic and international FECs. Mr. White can be reach at voice: +1.816.931.1040, fax: +1.816.756.5058, or via e-mail