My first long-term job out of college was at Walt Disney Imagineering. It was a place unlike any other I had known before or have worked at since. Every meeting was full of “creative tension,” where the designer of some fabulous experience would get excited and wave his hands a lot while the engineer at the other end of the table sat with arms crossed finding a million reasons the vision couldn’t be built. There were often violent exchanges triggered by misunderstandings and the inability for each to speak the other’s language. But it was this dynamic group consciousness that shaped the wonder of every attraction and park I helped build.
We never compromised, instead, stretching the limits of every vision. If it broke during the process, it was rebuilt into something better. Always becoming something nobody had seen before – because it was imagined in a way nobody had before.
Meeting Douglas Ayres
It’s been a few decades since I had an experience like that. But that changed in late 2020. I had the good fortune to meet Douglas Ayres, founder of the Ayres Hotel Group, whose Allegretto Vineyard Resort in Paso Robles, California, is a client of Parker Sanpei. Mr. Ayres is a fascinating figure who dreams as big as we did at Imagineering, and who understands how to build those dreams, with the intention of sharing them as gifts with his guests.
Parker Sanpei had planted a seed with Douglas when brainstorming experiential ideas for the grounds of his resort. We recommended places for guests to meditate – a natural extension of the property’s focus on relaxation and renewal brought to life by its spa, its world art collection, and its grounds constructed to enhance the flow of energy from the land’s sacred and healing properties.
Mr. Ayres took this seed and planted it. He envisioned meditation stations around the entire perimeter of the property for visitors to find solace and healing in. But therein was the challenge. There would be visitors with deep spiritual roots who practiced ancient healing, and those more interested in the less structured practices of morning yoga and afternoon tea. And all sorts at either end of the spectrum, or off the spectrum entirely. So how would we create an experience that spoke equally to those who simply wanted an afternoon stroll and those seeking deep guided spiritual or emotional healing?
The Gardener and the Brand
We had to start with a brand – one that would immediately spark the imagination of anyone who heard about this experience. I like to base brand development exercises on the legacy of the thing we’re working on. So in this case, we chose to understand more about Douglas Ayres and his vision. We walked the spots where the stations were being built listening to his stories about how the energies aligned at certain locations and how the cosmos guided him to plant twelve of them according to the order of the Zodiac.
We swapped experiences visiting sacred sites overseas and my own experience as a student of mythologies and spiritual practices from antiquity. We found commonalities and synergies and waved our arms a lot, but it was one phrase that Douglas spoke that I’ve uttered so many times myself that put the pieces together for me: “As above, so below.”
In short, this is a phrase long-used to describe the reactive relationship between what happens in the heavens and what happens on Earth. It has similarly been used by modern spiritual practitioners who consult the Zodiac to plan the most effective times and methods for healing the body, mind and spirit, based on the movements of the constellations throughout the year.
From our walks, I found it beautiful and endearing the way Douglas referred to himself. I recalled speaking with someone who had once encountered him on the property taking care of the flowers who didn’t know who he was. He simply knew him as the gardener, because that’s how Douglas introduced himself. So from all of this bubbled up an evocative name that came to me all at once: “The Star Garden Trail.” That was the fun part. It got harder from there.
I’d been a member of the Interfaith Council in Los Angeles whose mission it was to build mutual respect between members of different religious faiths – even those without a belief system. That served me well here. I started off all wrong, trying to translate the Zodiac into stories that every visitor could appreciate. But that didn’t feel like the real purpose of the trail. I then tried to map healing properties to each of the stations, but there isn’t an authoritative source that works for everyone.
So I thought about what one should focus on at each station from Aries through Pisces, mixed in a little Hero’s Journey, and believed I had nailed it. There were two glaring problems. First, not everyone would be on the same journey. And second, it felt too prescriptive to tell everyone that, no matter their purpose for walking the trail, they had to start at the first station and end at the last. Logistically, too, this could get complicated with a lot of guests on the trail at the same time.
Too much time went by with iterations of these elements before it came together. I had been focusing too much on the destinations at first. And then a single journey. But I couldn’t shake that everyone had their own journeys to take. So I shifted gears into imagining the many different reasons people could be walking the trail. To heal oneself emotionally. To receive guidance from the cosmos. To enjoy the gifts of the earth and the experience planted here for them. And I decided it made more sense to provide guideposts and different paths. Let people explore and fulfill their desires and needs in whatever way they would like.
But how do you navigate a bunch of interconnected roads without signs or a map? My first task became to produce a printed guide that contained information about The Star Garden Trail. The guide introduces the reader to the intention planted by Douglas Ayres, the Zodiac, and a chart of some possible correspondences. Here’s how that looks.
Next, for those who wanted to walk the trail with a purpose in mind and meditate on this intention throughout their journey, we collaborated on a set of corresponding questions to ponder.
The Seven Paths
Finally (this is where it got really fun again), was to imagine different ways to walk the trail tied to some themed journeys. We thought about people who loved astrology. We thought about the sacred land we were surrounded by that once belonged to the Salinan Tribe of Native Americans, and the shamans that lived among them. We wanted a kid-friendly journey, so borrowed from the European myths of the mischievous Fairies.
In the end, we landed on seven paths, each an experience in itself, to engage all the visitors we could. They are documented in the guide as The Star Path, The Life Path, The Meaning Path, The Purpose Path, The Fairy Path, The Shaman Path and The Intuitive Path.
I’ve taught meditation and vision work, so I wanted to also include some sacred stones. Many people find that holding something special in their hand, wearing it around their neck, or tucking it in a pocket will remind their subconscious that they are in a different time and space, which invokes the right mindset for meditation. I remembered one of the coolest stones I had in my own collection called Staurolite, also known as a Fairy Cross because it comes out of the ground looking like a tiny chiseled cross. I assigned that one with the Fairy Path and recommended starting the journey at one of the two crossroads on the map, partly to reflect the shape of the cross, but also because according to legend, fairies are found at the intersections between our world and the unseen world. Crossroads are such places.
Two of my other favorite stones in my collection are Moqui Marbles. They are iron and sandstone concretions that have a weight and warmth to them that, according to history, were used by the Moqui Indians in Utah (now called the Hopi) as male and female pairs by shamans to facilitate vision work. I knew them as “Shaman Stones,” so assigned them to our Shaman Path. Shamans communed with the sky and stars, so we suggested that the traveler end their journey at the top of the “Mount of Olives” – the highest place on the property nestled among the vineyards and olive trees. It offers an unobstructed view of the heavens and surrounding land. It just so happens that Douglas has also built a medicine circle atop that hill, making it the perfect location for all of these elements to come together as a perfect meditative environment.
Celebrating our Connection
There have been small celebrations around The Star Garden Trail already, as it is being prepared for its worldwide release. Everyone I have talked to has loved it – whether they “felt something” during their journey, found solace, or simply enjoyed the stroll around such a magical landscape captured on the outer grounds of this luxury resort.
In my job as CMO at Parker Sanpei, we have shared the idea of attractions like these as opportunities to build interest and loyalty for our hotel and resort clients. Our study of the changing tastes of travelers reinforce this. Future travelers are seeking the next level of personal satisfaction which includes trying things that are new and different, deeper and more meaningful.
But maybe most importantly, working on The Star Garden Trail reminded me that, no matter what the industry, we remain connected as a single human race in everything we do. We should find more time to celebrate that truth. We should honor those who came before us and embrace those around us. We can all benefit from acknowledging there are things greater than ourselves that are worth exploring. Together. Because these discoveries, no matter how small or personal, add to the world, seen and unseen, creating joy in the existence we share.