TEA News

20 June 2018

TEA Advantage: Brian Sands, AECOM

Brian Sands, AICP, Vice President / Principal, Economics, AECOM, is a man who loves data, and who loves the themed entertainment industry. Brian coordinates the team that pulls together the annual TEA/AECOM Theme Index and Museum Index - the global report on attendance at the world's top theme parks, water parks and museums published annually by the Themed Entertainment Association (TEA) in collaboration with the Economics practice at AECOM.

Photo at top: Brian Sands at the Chicago Skydeck, Willis Tower

At Six Flags Mexico

The collaboration that produces the TEA/AECOM Theme Index has been going on since 2007, and anyone with even a passing interest in themed entertainment looks forward to the appearance of this indispensable resource.

In addition to his role on the Theme Index, within TEA itself Brian is an active and dedicated member and volunteer leader. He has served on the TEA Eastern North America Division Board and now sits on the TEA International Board.

Like so many in this industry, he did not follow a direct path into themed entertainment. But his passions, skills and some fortuitous networking ultimately guided him to where he is today.

With the AECOM team during the construction phase of
One World Observatory, NYC. Left to right: Brian Sands,
Sarah Linford, John Robinett, Kathleen LaClair

A love of great storytelling came early. His mother—a literature and anthropology professor studying for a Ph.D.—read classic tales of Greek mythology to a very young Brian and his sister, forming some of his earliest memories. Around this time, he also had a wonderful trip with his dad and sister to Disneyland and Magic Mountain, and grew up going to Big Surf Waterpark, which created a love of attractions at an early age.

In college, Brian studied geography as an undergrad and then urban planning for his Master's degree. His fascination with numbers and a drive to “optimize a situation for all parties involved” led him into investment banking and a gig in London. Although the 80-hour workweeks were not easy, he gained a lot of valuable experience in risk analysis and mitigation, technical modeling, and general dealmaking.

Presenting with the AECOM team at the annual TEA Summit. 
Left to right: John Robinett, Linda Cheu, Chris Yoshii, Brian Sands

Valuable experiences aside, Brian Sands wanted to get closer to what originally led him to study urban planning: the ambition to create public spaces where people could have fun and meaningful experiences together.

Just after finishing his Master's, he’d met with Steve Spickard about an opportunity to work at Economics Research Associates (ERA), one of AECOM’s legacy companies. Ten years later, looking to move out of investment banking, he reconnected with Steve, who referred Brian to John Robinett (current title: Senior Vice President, Americas, AECOM; in 2016, John Robinett was honored with the TEA Service Award). John saw Brian’s potential and hired him. And as Brian says, “the rest is history.”

At Diagon Alley, Wizarding World of Harry Potter, Universal Studios

Joining ERA, Brian started working on projects all over Europe and the Middle East, many of which were focused on themed entertainment, right in the thick of the “go-go ‘90s.” A great mentor to Brian at that time was David Camp, then an ERA colleague in London, active within TEA and a participant on earlier editions of the Theme Index.

In 2000, Brian relocated back to the U.S. and returned to general urban planning. A few years later, he rejoined ERA in Washington, D.C. and began to move back towards the attractions segment of the business. That led, eventually, to his becoming more involved in the Theme Index and with the TEA.

In Las Vegas at the LINQ, with The High Roller in the background

In 2010, Brian attended the TEA SATE conference in Orlando. He was already acquainted with Judith Rubin (TEA PR, publications and social media). As longtime editor of the TEA/AECOM Theme Index, Judith became an important colleague Brian has worked closely with to this day. At SATE, Judith and others immediately and enthusiastically began introducing Brian to other members as is typical of TEA's welcoming culture. Brian's own knack for getting involved and for forming and maintaining relationships did the rest. 

About five years ago, Brian took over the global coordination of the Theme Index, a real impetus to diving deeper into the TEA. Around the same time, he also joined the board of the Friends of the National Zoo (FONZ), which supports the Smithsonian National Zoo in Washington, DC, and allows him to support one of the top cultural institutions globally with its mission to save species and educate the public about wildlife. That's also about the same time the indefatigable Brian joined the TEA Eastern Division Board.

These roles and activities have expanded his insights into the nature of the unique membership association that is TEA and how it creates and delivers benefits to its membership.

In his own words: “Being a TEA member is the best way I know of to connect with others in the industry, and there are multiple levels to connect on. The TEA is a ‘who’s who’ of the industry - when you look at the board members, the event sponsors, SATE speakers, TEA Thea Awards, etc. - and these are some of the people to be aware of and try to meet.

At the TEA Thea Awards Gala with TEA cronies. Left to right:
Michael Blau, Adirondack Studios; Scott Gill, ThemeWorks; 
Chris Conte, Electrosonic; Brian Sands

“Beyond making connections for connections’ sake, you are able to create stronger bonds, not just for new work opportunities, but more importantly—and this has been very true for me—to create a network of people who can help you. For example, they can help with issues you confront: a project-specific issue, a personnel issue, a client issue. Maybe it’s a ‘third-rail’ topic affecting the industry that you’re called upon to talk about.

“I think having that group of people in our industry, who are not necessarily your colleagues or the people you interact with on a day-to-day basis, has been invaluable for me. And it’s encouraged me to become even more involved and connected in the organization. The TEA creates the situations where you can make those connections.

Brian Sands with his wife, Leslie Oakey, at the TEA Thea Awards Gala

“And the TEA leads to knowledge about exemplary projects and major trends in the industry. That is incredibly important, especially for the creative side. We also get some awareness of other industries, because a lot of people in the TEA work in related fields. I do a lot of mixed-use work, retail/dining/entertainment work, hotel and resort work, and the ability to share that through people and discussions about projects is really important.

“For me, this industry is amazing. This is a business, but it’s also really about creating fun, exciting, interesting environments, particularly for families. I don’t think families have enough fun together and I think that one of the core motivators for me and for a lot of people in this industry is creating fun for families. I love being a part of that and I’m so thankful to be a part of the TEA.”


Robert Coker

Many thanks to Robert Coker, Senior Show Writer / Creative Development, Super 78  for writing this article as part of the TEA Advantage continuing series. TEA Advantage articles profile people and companies for whom membership in TEA was a significant boost and benefit to their careers.

Posted by Judy Rubin



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