A 25-year veteran of the entertainment and exhibition industries, Tom Zaller has helped create and bring some of the most enthralling sights and surroundings ever witnessed in Las Vegas—immersive experiences before that term became trendy. As president and CEO of Imagine Exhibitions, the impact of Zaller and his team can be currently examined on the Strip at REAL BODIES and National Geographic’s Rarely Seen at Bally’s, and an innovative new project is slated for the coming months, also at that destination: The Cabinet of Curiosities. Zaller discussed the excitement and challenges that come with the job.
How do you go about creating that perfect mix of education and entertainment that makes these experiences stand out?
People visiting Las Vegas aren’t coming to be educated, they’re going to have fun and a real entertainment experience. Maybe “education” is not the right word. We want to give people stories to tell. For example, with Rarely Seen, you may not be interested in photography at all or understand how photographers spend their entire lives trying to capture this moment that happens in a millisecond. But once you see those images, you’ll be telling your friends at dinner, “Did you know these guys went to the North Pole and did this and that to get this image?” That storytelling is one of the reasons we do what we do.
That National Geographic exhibit is pretty new. What makes it so special?
National Geographic curates a variety of different shows and (this one) is all about places and subjects and moments that are rarely captured—you just don’t see photographs of these things. It’s some of the rarest photography in the entire collection, which is saying something. I’ve been lucky enough to travel quite a bit and my favorite place in the world is Siem Reap in Cambodia. It’s just majestic and unique, and there are photos of one of the famous temples there in the exhibit. You see that and you just want to go to that place. And we also do these large, immersive experiences with video projection, not just photography on the wall, but something that makes you feel like you’re inside the image.
“Immersive” is definitely the new buzzword, whether it’s a production show on the Las Vegas Strip or a presentation like these.
Our industry has received a lot of attention in the last few years because when live shows were closed, we had gallery spaces you could come to and be socially distant and still have a couple hundred people. And that’s one of the reasons (the industry) has become more digitally aware and there are more tech-driven experiences out there. When I did the first traveling Van Gogh experience in France, it was very expensive, and now that technology is basically on every corner.
So the innovative use of video, projection, and other immersive elements is just the latest advancement in the industry?
This technology is just another way to tell a story, or enhance the story, if used in the right way.
Your next Vegas project is going to take things in a different direction. Tell us about The Cabinet of Curiosities.
I’ve had this idea since 2005, because I went to a museum and saw what was called a cabinet of curiosities, if you can picture an old wooden display case with big glass windows and a little vignette inside, or some oddity from around the world. It doesn’t have to be a physical object, it could be the sentence inside a fortune cookie. So for our project, there’s a bar so you can come in and get a drink, and you’re drawn in because there’s odd, unique furniture, and a little something for everybody to just keep discovering and find these unique moments. And in the corner of the space there’s a room full of locks and safes, and that’s the entrance to the speakeasy. You have to decipher something our locksmith has placed there, and that gets you access to this room where we’re doing specially crafted cocktails, and again, telling a story.
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