How a Haunted House Owner Survives the Next 10 Years

Tue, May 19, 2020
How a Haunted House Owner Survives the Next 10 Years
By Larry Kirchner

The haunted house industry is moving into an entire new decade, the ROARing twenties.  Who will scream the loudest in 2020?  What haunted attraction or vendor will make all the right moves to survive into the next decade.  If you haven't noticed things are drastically changing.  Can I make a prediction?  After seeing several haunts and suppliers call it quits in 2019, I'm predicting the industry as we know it is going to change once again.  My prediction is several more suppliers are going out of business or downsizing.  I believe we're going to see several middle to small haunts close their attractions, and haunt  vendors can't survive on the Netherworld's of the industry alone. 
Just as our country must have a middle class (otherwise we'll turn into the next Venezuela), so we must have small and medium sized haunts.  They make up 90% of every attraction that will open in 2020.  Most of these attractions do not make enough money to earn a living, yet they survive.  Why?  This is very much a passion-based business, and these people will borrow every cent they can find to re-open, because they love haunted houses.   Many small haunts run their attractions with volunteers and in many cases operate for the sole benefit of a charity.  I believe most of these haunts will survive on passion alone.  But what about the haunted houses that strive for the next level, every year spending more and more, hoping to break thru? 

These haunted house owners are quickly learning… there are other options to make more money with less hassle.  To operate a professional haunted house in 2020 you must understand digital marketing, social media, and be able to evolve to meet a new level of competition.  Haunted Houses are no longer just in competition with other haunts.  No, no, no.  Now you have all sorts of competitive social activities such as axe throwing, escape rooms, vintage arcade bars, botchy ball bars, Top Golf, plus wacky mini golf is about to invade the scene.   Many haunt owners have already taken their operation skills and their ability to build themed attractions and have opened escape rooms and axe throwing.  Some haunters opened escape rooms that are now grossing more revenue in 4 months than their haunted house.  Some axe throwing facilities are grossing more money than the highest gross haunted house in our industry.  You operate these attractions with a handful of employees, offering full time jobs, and gone are the hassles of dealing with 150 employees to operate one single haunted house.  Many haunt owners are getting older and wiser.  Let's think about this for a moment: less stress, easier to manage, and three times the money of a haunted house. 
The other problem haunted houses face is competition from amusement parks who've totally embraced Halloween.  Many theme parks advertise their events as FREE to season pass holders, while our haunted houses range from $20-$35 dollars.  Sure, when those customers get to their local amusement park, only then they realize their “free entry” doesn’t include the haunts which cost an additional $30+, but that is a minor detail.  Haunted House owners can't offer the type of concessions, rides, and infrastructure of an amusement park.

I believe this industry is headed for the cream of the crop mega haunts and the charity haunts with little to no middle-class haunts.   Many haunters have sold or closed their haunts and joined other companies/haunts.  The ranks are thinning and will most likely continue to thin big league. 

We use to own Halloween, but now the competition is fierce and coming from more than just other haunted houses.  One of the biggest killers of our industry stems from those who didn't further educate themselves to learn digital marketing or evolve their haunts into massive entertainment, rather than continue to only focus on the scares. 
Let's look at The Darkness for example .  My first mistake was building a side haunted house called The Hive behind my escape rooms.  I quickly realized this mistake after I built a very successful escape room business.  Now I want to sell that haunted house to free up space to build out my escape room facility to add more attractions that can be open year-round.  I want to offer axe throwing, a bar, vintage arcades, pinball, board games, and maybe bowling.  My up-charged haunted house makes about $65,000 a year, whereas my new bar might gross $500,000+ a year. 

In the last 5 years, we've added tons of photo ops, to the point no one can even go into the haunted house without getting their picture taken.  We want every customer to have a keepsake.  We never opened for special events, but now we open for both Krampus Christmas and Bloody Valentines giving out free candy & photos.  Never before did we focus on icon monsters not to scare anymore, but rather take pictures with guests so they can share on social media.  Now we actively recruit our customers via Fear Ticket to leave us a review.  Fear Ticket has a feature that allows me to send every single customer an automatic email 2-hours after their visit asking for a review.  This year we had the best reviews ever!  For 20 years, we told people no video, no photography.  Now we encourage it, hoping they live stream their screams!   For two decades once the customers left the last scary scene the haunted house was over. Now after the last SCREAM we have a massive entertainment room that features horror video games, horror pinball games, an electric chair ride, a 5-minute escape, gift store, snacks and tons of photo ops. 

At Creepyworld, we built a really fun outdoor que line with photo ops, and a midway at the exit with zombie paintball, free horror movies, game booths, an escape room, a free pumpkin display and (again) tons of photo ops.  Now, the most important actors are the ones in the midway who don't scare anymore but just take photos with guests.  Imagine that!  My focus isn't how many guests but the average amount each guest spends between the ticket, additional activities, food, drink, and gift shopping.  Customers don't want to be scared as much as they want to have fun. They want an experience with friends that they can document on social media.  With our marketing, we use lines like 'GRAB YOUR FRIENDS AND SCREAM TOGETHER'.  Today everyone does things as a group and if one person in that group doesn't like to get scared the entire sale could be nixed, so you must learn to ENTERTAIN your guests.  You need to make sure your guests are sharing their experience and showing their friends who didn't attend just how much fun they missed! 

Here is the bottom line: The small charity haunts with volunteer staff will survive, but professional haunts will not survive on that passion alone; you must adapt to 2020 customer demands or you will not make it.  As for vendors, we don’t need more dead bodies.  We need innovation that meets these new 2020 demands like innovative photo ops, things that promote our business, maybe an arcade machine that triggers animations inside the haunt, something a person pays to play. Or wouldn't it be cool if a vendor came up with a system that videotaped a guest’s experience thru the haunted house?  Now that is something we could up sell!  As for VR (virtual reality), we don't need 30-minute games; we need 5-minute intense experiences to increase revenue, small short experiences that can readily be up sold.  How about cool photo booths, apps for our website that involve turning guests into zombies then wrapping the photo with our logos?  It really is time for all vendors to start thinking about the future. Are you a vendor?  Can you create a product to help us either sell a ticket, entertain guests, dominate social media, or make us more money?  If so that is what we want and need to buy! 
How does one know what haunts want to buy?  How do you figure what is working or isn't working?  How do you honestly get the help you need?  We had that in the Hauntworld Fright Forum where people learned more than they ever did thru any other medium, but then we fell into the Facebook trap.   Now our industry has hundreds of useless Facebook groups where the conversations are dominated by enthusiasts or seasonal haunt actors referring to themselves as haunters.  Even if someone asked a legit question or post a great tip, most of us never see it, because other useless posts are made, washing it away the useful posts 10 miles deep.   Most big industries have private message boards, where people go for information.  The Hauntworld Fright Forum does still exist for your use if/when needed, but I'm not saying the Hauntworld Fright Forum is your answer.  I’m simply saying haunted house owners need a forum for professional discussion.  It’s really that simple because we're all scattered in our own worlds across the social media universe.  Time is money, yet people can spend hours looking around social media and still learn nothing and share nothing. 

In closing, Hauntworld Magazine under my direction has always focused on articles to help your business first.  The seminar topics I choose to speak on at Transworld are always about business first.  I am well known for having one of the most detailed haunted houses in the World. If I were to do a design & detail seminar, I’m sure it would sell out quickly.  Yet, I choose to focus on helping haunt owners with the information that I know will help their business the most. I’ve learned the hard way that buying the best new walls or 3 more animations or 10 more masks, don't buy you another customer.  Yes, as haunters, this is what we enjoy, but your haunt needs information and most importantly it needs to adapt for this current generation of customers.  With everything being said as haunt owners we still want cool masks, costumes, animations and gadgets to make people scream, but at what point do you already have enough?  Your new first focus should be on growing entertainment options for your guests, start with a zombie paintball side attraction.  Big money maker and guests find it fun!  Secondly stop stressing about how many guests, but rather entertain the ones who come, and give them options to spend more money with you! 

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