PHILADELPHIA (Army News Service, Aug. 29, 2008) - The Army opened the Army Experience Center, a one-of-a-kind, 14,500-square-foot virtual educational facility Friday at the Franklin Mills Mall.
The AEC, central to the Army Experience Pilot Program, offers visitors the opportunity to virtually experience many aspects of Army life, while evaluating new marketing strategies.
Located near a popular entertainment facility and an indoor skate park, the AEC features a number of interactive simulations and online educational opportunities. It is manned by more than 20 Soldiers who are available to share their stories with visitors and answer questions they may have about the Army. Although the Soldiers who run the center are trained recruiters, the AEC is not a recruiting center, according to Ryan Hansen of Ignited Corporation, who partnered with the Army on the project.
"The center is an attraction tool. There is no recruiting mission here," Hansen said. "Here it is more about changing perceptions."
The Soldiers at the AEC don't have quotas. They don't wear traditional Army uniforms, but rather black Army polo shirts and khaki pants. They are from diverse backgrounds and have unique stories to tell. At first glance they seem more like tour guides than Army recruiters, and in a sense, they are. They guide center visitors through their tour of the facility.
"They are the Army," Hansen said. And as the center's slogan states, "The Army is more than you think it is."
Through market research, and proven outreach tools like the "America's Army" game and the mobile "Virtual Army Experience," Hansen said the Army learned that the best way for people to become acquainted with their Army was for them to be able to touch, feel and see the Army in a non-threatening environment. By incorporating the lessons learned from and technologies of those outreach tools, officials believe the Army Experience Center will make the Army accessible to visitors.
"What we are doing here is reaching out to Americans, giving them the opportunity to understand their Army," said Maj. Gen. Thomas P. Bostick, head of the U.S. Army Recruiting Command. "Oftentimes people have a negative perception of the Army, but the negatives are a very small part. Our Soldiers are well-trained, well-equipped and serving a great mission."
The Army Experience Center, Bostick added, will help dispel many of the myths that exist about the Army.
Transparency was one of the main focuses in the design of the center, said Maj. Larry Dillard, AEC program manager. The outside is made of glass, as are the fronts of every enclosed space within the center, with the exceptions of the simulator areas, which require low light to operate.
"Everything's transparent. We don't want to fuel the misconception that once our Soldiers tell their great Army stories, we drag kids behind a 'black curtain' and they come out enlisted," Dillard said. "We have nothing to hide. If someone wants to know more about the Army, great. If not, at the very least we will have changed their perception of the Army. The Army is a great deal and people just don't understand that."
The idea of the center, which cost $12 million to design and construct, was first conceived in December 2007, said Ed Walters, chief marketing officer and principal deputy secretary of the Army. "Visitors to the center will have a better idea of the training and career opportunities afforded our Soldiers, and the high-tech nature of our institution."
Upon entering the AEC, visitors provide a minimal amount of information to register -- name, date of birth, address and education level. They have the option to receive additional information about the Army, but are not obligated to do so. People of all ages are welcome to visit the center, but gaming activities are limited to people 13 and older, as the Entertainment Software Rating Board rates many of the gaming activities T for teens.
Following registration, visitors are then issued an identification card, which is swiped at each station within the center. All activities are free to participants.
"Everything in the center showcases a piece of the Army," said Dillard.
The Global Base Locator highlights Army installations throughout the United States and abroad. The Career Exploration Area lets visitors use its touch-screen technology to learn about 179 different Army career fields. The simulator area houses three simulators, including an Apache helicopter with pilot and co-pilot experiences, Black Hawk helicopter with four door gunner positions, and an armored Humvee with driver and gunner positions.
The gaming area lets visitors play America's Army, the Army's official computer game, as well as other games. There are a number of Xbox 360s plus networked PCs for video games.
The Tactical Operations Center highlights Army career opportunities in communications, command and control, military intelligence and technology. The area can also be used for group presentations and online education, Dillard said.
A large lounge area fills the middle of the AEC, and there is a small retail area that offers Army-branded merchandise and snacks for sale (the Army does not receive profits from sales).
The Army will run the Army Experience Center as a pilot program for up to two years, Walters said.
"We will be analyzing results of the various areas throughout that time, and determine if any of the innovations can be used as separate entities at other locations."
There are no plans to replicate the center in other markets at this time, Walters said.
"The Army is not all about boots and guns," Dillard said. "We want to give people the opportunity to experience the Army for themselves, so they have an understanding of what Soldiers do, and they can be proud of their service."