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Friday, Dec 8, 2023

PROFILE — Universal Adapter

Larry kurzweil, head of l.a.’s biggest theme park and its citywalk mall, has been overseeing some big changes at the growing attractions Larry Kurzweil has been very busy since he arrived at Universal Studios in 1997 as vice president and general manager of CityWalk. He immediately began working on a 93,000-square-foot expansion of the shopping, dining and entertainment venue that was completed this spring. Among the newcomers are 12 restaurants, including Pitfire Pizza and Versailles; five entertainment offerings, including a virtual speedway attraction; the Rumba Room, a Latin dance club; and seven new retail shops. In the midst of that expansion project, Kurzweil was promoted to president and chief operating officer of the Universal Studios Hollywood. As a result, he now oversees the theme park and studio tour in addition to CityWalk. Earlier this year, the tour was updated to incorporate videos and narratives about the movies made on the sets, and several new attractions were added to the theme park, including a ride based on the most recent “Mummy” film and a live show called “Rug Rats Magical Adventure.” Researching restaurants, nightclubs and other entertainment options may sound like a dream job, but as Kurzweil points out, the amusement business is not exactly all fun and games. Competition for leisure-time dollars is fierce. Bigger and better movie theaters are proliferating all over Los Angeles and, in addition to theme parks such as Disneyland and Magic Mountain, Universal also competes with local dining and retail areas like Santa Monica’s Third Street Promenade and Old Pasadena. Although Universal had developed a master plan with the intention of expanding its theme park to better compete with the likes of Disney, that effort was suspended in November 1998, and Universal has made no move to revisit the plan since then. Further complicating the picture is the move earlier this month by French conglomerate Vivendi to acquire Universal’s parent, Seagram Co. Kurzweil would not comment on that pending $34 billion takeover. But he did discuss Universal’s focus on building its San Fernando Valley-based entertainment venue. Question: What were some of your objectives when you began the expansion project for CityWalk? Answer: At the end of the day, you have to know that Los Angeles has a lot of choices. CityWalk is still largely about locals and in an ever-increasing landscape where new stores and shopping centers are built all the time, we wanted to make sure we created our own contemporary relevance. It was very important that we chose what was the best in the category for each particular concept. No. 2 is that any well-known brand names had to make a commitment to doing something different at CityWalk. We didn’t want to look like the mall center down the street, nor did we want it to be confused with any other entertainment centers. Q: What kinds of things did some of these companies bring to the center that they don’t do elsewhere? A: Take the Daily Grill. It committed to the best Daily Grill offerings in a shorter menu. It’s got architecture and design you won’t find anywhere else, like the world’s largest coffee cup, which you won’t find anywhere but at Universal CityWalk. Sometimes it will be the design. Sometimes it will be the menu, but there will be enough elements that you will say, “Wow, this really is different from what I’ve seen before.” Q: Did the tenants have to sign exclusivity agreements that keep them from opening similar outposts elsewhere in L.A.? A: There were certain requirements, many of which I won’t talk about in a public forum. But there’s a good number of requirements that when you sign up with CityWalk you won’t see in the next couple hundred years anything in this state that looks like that because of how we construct our leases. Q: Some of the deals you made with tenants are not traditional lease deals. Can you talk about that? A: We own approximately one-third of the street in some way, shape or form. Sometimes we fully own a unit. Sometimes we’re a joint venture in a unit. But most of the deals are straight tenant deals and all tenant deals have a participation in some percentage of sales (that go to Universal, over and above the lease rates.) Q: How has the response to CityWalk been so far? A: Our attendance is up big double digits vs. a year ago, and most tenants will tell you they’re hitting some record numbers. Q: What kind of sales per square foot performance are your retail tenants experiencing? A: I’d rather not say for competitive reasons. But our sales per square foot are in the top 10 percent in the United States. Q: What impact has the expanded CityWalk had on Universal Studios theme park? A: It’s hard to link them together. The good news is we’re having a very good spring and early summer at the theme park. I think we have the momentum of the “Terminator 2” ride introduced a year ago. There’s also the “Rug Rats Magic Adventure” and the new studio tour that we introduced two and a half months ago, so it already had momentum. It’s hard to ascribe what specifically belongs to the park. Both businesses are rocking and rolling. Q: What was the reasoning behind updating the studio tour? A: (We wanted to) take an experience everyone is familiar with and bring it to a new era of technological advancement. What guests want are numerous textures of information. And rather than giving them one texture looking at all those great sets it’s now other layers of texture for sight and sound. Q: To an outsider, it seems as if you had a dream job, going around the country for 18 months picking the best entertainment and restaurants. What was it like? A: It’s not quite that simple. It’s every bit as much fun in terms of having to create something for a great brand like Universal Studios, but you have some real challenges. Here it’s about land use. Try developing that 93,000 square feet to the needs of 25 tenants when you’re totally landlocked. Q: What do you mean by landlocked? A: The 93,000 square feet is a very specific footprint that goes around the Hard Rock Cafe. Some tenants might have some very specific needs in terms of how they need their space to be configured. We don’t have the flexibility to lay down big boxes. Space management here is very, very difficult. Then you’ve got financial challenges in developing a center in a major urban property where costs are just forever escalating. And last, but not least, you’re working furiously toward a timetable. It’s like getting 25 trains across the country to come into Chicago at about the same hour. That’s a challenge. Q: How did you get involved in the amusement industry? A: I started here in 1997 as general manager of CityWalk. My background was in marketing. Universal was looking for an individual with marketing background. There was a little bit of a question because I had no real estate experience. But I quickly tried to identify competencies that would help us manage the project. Q: Your master’s degree is in industrial administration. What is that and how did you transition to marketing? A: Industrial administration is an advanced analytical MBA program, a computer-oriented curriculum. At the time, I was looking at a career in market research. I quickly moved over into brand marketing. I thought it was far more exciting managing the various aspects of a business, rather than just one specific area.

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