How to Become More Successful in 2021 - Escape Rooms and Haunted House
Thu, April 29, 2021
WHAT DID WE LEARN AND WHERE ARE WE HEADED – Haunted House Season 2021
Not every haunted house or escape room will survive covid 19 the season from hell known as 2020. However, the haunted house and escape room industry are about to change forever. The escape room industry is an easy one to discuss first so let’s dive in. Somewhere on the internet there is a website tracking escape rooms that have closed the list is LONG! So, the obvious is yes, many escape rooms closed but for many different reasons. Let’s analyze.
PART 1 - ESCAPE ALIVE FROM THE ESCAPE ROOM INDUSTRY
Escape Rooms closed in droves because it was destiny, lets be honest there was way too many. The same thing happened to the haunted house industry back in the late 1990’s and the same is happening to the escape room industry. If we’re calling a spade a spade most of the first batch of escape rooms were not very good. As I predicted haunted house owners would swarm in like a pack of killer hornets and change the industry. Haunted House owners understand theming, special effects, and showmanship a lot better than the first wave of escape room owners. I remember the early days of escape rooms it was all about puzzles and nothing else mattered. Now escape rooms are about PRODUCTION first and puzzles second this is where the haunt owner is stronger. At the end of the day the customers only care about having a good time. Yes, there are some really hard-core escape room players who care but the mass majority of customers care only about the overall experience.
Today we see more reviews from guests talking about the theming, special effects and less about the puzzles. So, in short, the escape rooms that are surviving are the ones who’ve ramped up the production. Yes, puzzles are important but not nearly as important as the quality of the experience. Many escape rooms owners just don’t have the experience, skills or knowledge to do both puzzles and create Hollywood level theming. Clearly many escape rooms went out of business due to having no customers during the covid shut down. However, I believe other escape rooms are falling out due to lack of overall quality of the escapes. Escape rooms cost on average $30.00 to play per person and when many don’t have jobs, how many escape rooms do you honestly think they can visit at $30 per person? How many haunted houses do guests visit every year at $30 per person? I can answer that question about 1.5 per Halloween, which means the overwhelming number of possible visitors will only experience one haunt per year.
Escape Rooms also lost the ability to have corporate events, single players booking into unfilled games, which slashed revenue but, in the end, there was just too many escapes, and way too many bad ones. In one big tidal wave haunted house owners double the number of escape business within an 18-month period it simply overwhelmed the industry. Covid or no covid escape rooms are here to stay they’ve proven it but maybe 4 or 5 per market not 20 plus. So, if you’re still surviving what will put you over the top or keep you business?
Escape Rooms need great word of mouth so customer service is very important as is producing HIGH TECH HOLLYWOOD level theming and special effects. I can honestly say we don’t have the best puzzle streams but who’s outdoing us on theming and special effects? Our escape rooms are out pacing every single other escape room in St Louis combined. What are we doing different? I can tell you… we’re not thinking along the lines that we’re an escape room facility as much as an entertainment facility. We’ve added blacklight mini golf which EXPODED … now we have people playing golf and we’re booking them into escape and vice versa. Furthermore, we added pinball machines and arcades giving guests something to do while they wait for their escape experience. Everything puts us heads and tails above some 3,000 square foot escape located in a strip center with a small lobby and 4 escape rooms. I think if you want to be really successful you must think more along the lines as ESCAPE ENTERTAINMENT CENTER. Furthermore, I think its important to rotate and update your escape rooms adding new themes and experiences. Update your escape rooms adding pre-shows, animation, and improved theming. Lastly, I think its very important for escape rooms to have great videos, photos to give guests more information when they choose which escape room to visit. Overload your guests with information and strong visuals. If you haven’t already figured out digital marketing the key to reach guests, one quick not I would mention facebook is not worth the investment. People don’t go searching for escape rooms on facebook, they search for them on Google. Keep that in mind, we do ZERO marketing on Facebook for our escape rooms.
Hopefully very soon you can re-open your escape rooms, start booking private parties, and opening your rooms up to single players which will really increase revenue. With all that being said the escape rooms that will survive are the ones which create experiences for your customers. Due to covid and nothing to do we added THREE new escape rooms and the mini golf… we didn’t throw in the towel we kept investing and now it paying off in spades. If you believe in what you’re doing, then take chances because in the end no risk no reward. Good luck! On a side note our escape rooms will be open to the industry during Transworld Escape Room show you can learn more at www.StLouisEscape.com
PART 2 – HAUNTED HOUSES AND THE FUTURE OF HAUNTING
I’ve been making people SCREAM for 32 years but who’s counting. Every single year I think I have it all figured out then Y2K happens, or 911, but Covid never saw that coming. Every haunted house got thrown into a panic as the Transworld show cancelled, vendors didn’t know what to do, haunters not knowing if they could open, simply put a mess. Vendors struggled but survived and many haunts pulled the parachute on the season long before even a single leaf fall to the ground. The haunt season looked BLEAK but guess what… haunts that opened got overwhelmed with business. Why? Very simple most everything that people do normally like NFL, NBA, MLB, NHL, College Football to amusement parks, bowling and everything between didn’t allow people in the door. People were starved to do something anything and visit haunted houses they did in droves. With strong demand came a lot of problems, such as a lot of violence, unruly customers, fighting, shootings, it was a complete nightmare. In one weekend we saw 4 or 5 shootings across the industry on the same day along with one being fatal. At my haunted house we saw the same however we took action beefing up security, working with the local police, closing early and more.
I predicted from the start you couldn’t follow covid rules not for a haunted house, you would create wait times so long you’d create worse problems. There was only one way to get control of your haunt you had to get people into the door faster… the longer people waited the more problems you had. Yes, we took many covid precautions and even got a lot of compliments from our city officials and guests. We did things we never did before like offer washing stations, hand sanitizer, required face masks, but keeping people 6 feet apart inside a haunted house that was NEVER going to happen. I believe haunted houses across the country did the very best they could to keep their guests and staff safe while trying their best to stay in business. If you’re going to operate a successful haunted house you must operate a SAFE haunted house which means good security. I know a lot of haunts dealt with customers who just acted like idiots… best way to deal with this now and into the future is by NOT keeping them at your facility waiting in line for hours.
At our haunts we’ve changed EVERYTHING and for good! We’re closing at 11:45 pm, we’re stopping all ticket sales at 11:30, and we’re moving them into and thru the haunted house faster than ever! Not only are we moving them thru the haunted house fast but we’ve also cut actors by 35%. But how do you keep up the quality of the show you might ask? Your first thought is to buy a bunch of animations but WRONG… animations break just like actors get tired. We focused on creating all scareboxes to access more areas of the haunted house so one actor can do the work of 2 or 3 actors. Furthermore, rather than adding tons of really expensive animations, we added 20 air cannons to Darkness and 30 to Creepyworld. Air cannons are the best animation money can buy and they’re the cheapest! Air cannons added a lot of screams and they almost NEVER break! Furthermore, we made all of our haunted house’s SHORTER… at Darkness we sold and removed the Hive which required 18 actors. In replacement of the Hive we built a mini golf and TWO more escape rooms that make 5 times more money than the secondary haunt while also requiring virtually no labor. At Creepyworld we removed two whole entire haunted houses and in 2021 we removed yet another haunt from the show.
Now you might be asking if our customers are happy about shortening the haunted experience. We actually got the best reviews ever by decreasing the length of the haunt, you also decrease the perception of how many actors you should or shouldn’t have. The biggest complaint is you don’t have enough actors, but when you shorten your show to accommodate the actual number of good actors you can employ you also improve the overall experience. Then when you create scareboxes that can access multiple zones of the haunt you create the perception of having twice as many live actors as before.
Today its not about how long the haunted house is but the experience of the overall attractions. At Creepyworld we’re replacing a haunted house with a video mapping attraction which requires NO actors and could end up being the most talked about and shared experience on social media. I would call that a win win! We want people sharing EXPERIENCES at our attractions because its not about SCREAMS it’s about giving your guests an amazing experience. I can promise you Creepyworld with fewer actors, fewer haunts, will get the best reviews we’ve ever had and it took 32 years to figure this out. The Darkness now has the most amazing gift store, arcade and museum with TONS of photo ops! The last impression is the best one for guests as they snap photos, buy t-shirts, and leave happy!
We’ve also gone heavy with special events, in 2020/21 we’ve DOUBLED our attendance for Krampus, Valentines and Scream Break attracting nearly 5,000 guests. Unlike many haunts around the country we attracted 5000 paying guests with ONE NIGHT ONLY events rather than opening for an entire weekend or across multiple weekends. This brings me to my next point, why are you open so many nights during the season. Why spend the money, wear and tear if the guests will come across fewer nights? We did MORE guests in 2020 than we did in 2019 across fewer nights, and fewer hours, with less marketing dollars, and the lowest number of actors ever!
The future of the haunted house industry is simple… open fewer nights, sell your tickets online where you can collect taxes, ticketing fees and collect your guests’ data for digital marketing. With digital marketing you can TARGET your customers reducing costs by 50 to 75%. Traditional media is over, no TV, no radio, and even billboard didn’t buy a single one. Why would we? We attracted 2000 guests to Bloody Valentines one night only event with about $3000 in digital marketing by simply targeting the people who are more likely to buy a ticket. Next Halloween our goal will be to reduce the cost per customer to $1.50 by simply targeting the most likely customer, rather than a broad approach. Couple reducing marketing, with reducing labor by creating scarezones for actors to work multiple angles, hiring just the best actors, adding tons of air cannons and lastly reducing the size of the haunted experience. With the space you remove from the haunt you add 5 minute escape rooms, zombie paintball, gift stores, pumpkin displays, photo opportunities all of which either increase revenue or guests experience.
PART 3: Conclusion and the EXIT
What is a typical haunted house? I can tell you… wait in a long line, finally you get in actors jump around and scream at guests, then they exit the last scene and boom they’re back on the street heading to their car. Isn’t that kind of anti-climactic? Today’s haunted house should look to reduce the size of the haunt and create space for a new ending one that doesn’t scare anyone but one that leaves the guests with the last chance to take pictures, do something or buy something!!! Minimum wages are going up no longer can haunts afford 150 actors, you must get down to 40 or 50 or 65 actors. There is an old saying more/bigger isn’t always better and in the case of the haunted house industry its dead on the money. At the end of the day today’s customers want a FUN experience, a SAFE experience, and finally the opportunity to experience cool stuff, take pictures look around in a gift store, or shoot some zombies with a paintball gun. Remember everything now escape or haunts is about the EXPERPEINCE not the puzzles not the screams but the overall EXPERIENCE.
After you visit the Transworld show in 2021 and then get back to your haunts remember this observation. We created a small Jack o Lantern display at the exit of Creepyworld where I noticed everyone crowding around taking photos. I realized upon witnessing thousands of people stopping just to snap the photos with carved pumpkins that people want opportunities to celebrate Halloween, then share them with their friends and family. In response Creepyworld will now have a MASSIVE PUMPKIN BARN as the exit, with 4 times as many carved pumpkins, and hopefully many more thrilled customers. Haunts are no longer about the SCREAMS they should be about the ULTIMATE HALLOWEEN EXPERIENCES. Many will buy seminar after seminar at haunted house tradeshows, or watch youtube videos, or read comments on facebook about how to grow your attendance and most of them will be wrong. There is no need for you to waste two seconds of your time or money just read this next sentence… GROW YOUR ATTENDANCE by focusing on creating the ULTIMATE HALLOWEEN EXPERIENCE! Create an EXIT strategy for your haunted house giving your guests the opportunity to capture HALLOWEEN on their phone then share it with all their friends. Create the conclusion to your haunted house with photo opportunities centered around a massive gift store, selling multiple versions of t-shirts, hoodies, mugs, masks, and everything you can put your logo on. Create 5 minute escape rooms, zombie paintball arena, anything that gives your guests another chance to create memories which can be shared.
Going forward target your audience and save marketing costs. Cut actors, hire the best ones, give those actors better options to scare MORE people by opening up access points. Add air cannons, tons of photo opportunities, buy a big monsters instead of putting in the haunt put them at the exit! The future has to be cutting costs, reducing operation days, reducing marketing, while at the same time INCREASING revenue and customers experience. Bigger isn’t better, scariest is no longer the bat signal but overall customer experience, where you create HALLOWEEN memories for HALLOWEEN fans!
Good luck in 2021 and Happy Hauntings
PS: There is another Hauntworld Magazine on the way just after Transworld. Stay Tuned.