Interviews with Friends at the 2019 HAuNTcon in New Orleans

TRADESHOWS ARE THE BEST PLACE TO MAKE FRIENDS AND GET EDUCATED ABOUT THE HAUNT BUSINESS

We’re going to do something a little different in the dark this time, because I just got back from HAuNTcon, where I ran into some friends and had conversations with them that I recorded. So, I won’t be telling you how cool New Orleans is, although it is, or about the tradeshow floor, which was great, too. This particular show is all about relationships, friendships, and hanging out with cool people while you’re at tradeshows, because that’s what I did pretty much the entire time I was in New Orleans.

The first interview is with Rick West from MidSummer Scream and Michael Roddy, both brilliant minds in the haunt industry—or the entertainment industry period. There was this wonderful, organic stumbling together of minds, which is what these kinds of tradeshows are all about.

The second part of this blog is my interview with Johnny Bronto, who’s already aired our conversation on his Haunt Scene webcast.

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We’re going to do something a little different in the dark this time, because I just got back from HAuNTcon, where I ran into some friends and had conversations with them that I recorded. So, I won’t be telling you how cool New Orleans is, although it is, or about the tradeshow floor, which was great, too. This particular show is all about relationships, friendships, and hanging out with cool people while you’re at tradeshows, because that’s what I did pretty much the entire time I was in New Orleans.

The first interview is with Rick West from MidSummer Scream and Michael Roddy, both brilliant minds in the haunt industry—or the entertainment industry period. There was this wonderful, organic stumbling together of minds, which is what these kinds of tradeshows are all about.

The second part of this blog is my interview with Johnny Bronto, who’s already aired our conversation on his Haunt Scene webcast.

Chatting with Rick West of MidSummer Scream

So, we’ll begin with my interview with Rick, who started out by mentioning he hadn’t been to New Orleans in more than 30 years.

“You were what, two, the last time?” I asked.

“No, I was a 16-ish, a junior in high school, and we were invited to come march in Mardi Gras. It was one of those unreal life moments.”

I told him I was an adult the first time I came to New Orleans. “It’s when we were in the planning process for Howl-O-Scream, and we came to the Global Halloween Convergence sponsored by Halloween magazine. That’s when I dove head first into the haunt industry and got to meet some wonderful people—people that, to this day, I still see at conventions and say hi to. That event was right here [the venue for the 2019 HAuNTcon] and we stayed at Hotel Mont Leon. That’s when I realized that New Orleans is one of the few cities where you can have five-star restaurants and somebody selling frozen drinks with a sign that’s painted on a piece of plywood right next to each other.”

I then asked Rick about MidSummer Scream—how it got started, where it’s at now, and what’s planned for this year’s event.

“The first year, we had something like 8,000 people, and this year we’re planning for 30,000. This is year four, and we’ve taken over the entire convention center.”

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“The first year, we had something like 8,000 people, and this year we’re planning for 30,000. This is year four, and we’ve taken over the entire convention center.”

“Because everybody in the world will want to know, what was the plan for having this exponential growth year after year after year? Or was there one?” I asked.

“Most of the team were creators of ScareLA and, for its first three years, the growth of that event was explosive. The growth of ScareLA was stronger and faster than ComicCon,” said Rick. “When we broke away to create MidSummer Scream, we knew we’d have that same velocity and that same trajectory as long as we kept doing what we knew worked. And there’s no big secret to that—it’s creating a show we want to see. If we did that, we knew we’d have the upward momentum,” he said.

“Now, actually seeing it come to fruition, it’s a little daunting. People say, ‘What’s it like? It must be really gratifying.’ It is, but it’s also scary as hell. It’s so big, you feel like you better not step back and look at the totality of it, because it’s really frickin’ hairy. So, I microfocus on little aspects, just kinda move forward with baby steps, and, somehow, it all magically comes together.”

“And it’s one of those things that, at this point, if it flops, it’s going to be a cataclysmic flop,” I offered helpfully.

“Oh yes,” Rick agreed.

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And Up Walks Michael Roddy

Just then in our conversation, Michael Roddy walked up.

“Scott, what are you doing here?” he asked with feigned innocence.

“I’m here to pick up this wonderful book called Haunter’s Tale by J. Michael Roddy,” I replied. “I can’t wait to read it, because I know a lot of the key players, and I happen to be a contributor to the book, about which I’m pleased.”

“It’s great I ran into you, because volume two will be coming out, and I’d like to do this every year,” said Michael. “My hope is that it will be an anthology, and more and more haunters will want to be a part of it. It’s my written creep show. It’s a great opportunity for people I really respect and who I think have a great voice in our community to share a piece of fiction, a photograph, or a true account of a ghost story. There’s also something called Scare Cred in which I ask these guys why they love horror. You were so kind, Scott, to be in the very first volume. I’ll probably hit you up for volume two, as well. The book is available on Amazon.com.”

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Getting Current on What’s Happening at MidSummer Scream

I then veered back to my interrupted conversation with Rick and asked him to talk about how MidSummer Scream got its name.

“I wasn’t by accident,” he said. “Obviously, Midsummer Night’s Dream is something everybody knows, so it’s already plugged into your mind, right? We needed a name that basically said when the event happened—midsummer—and what it is, which is something spooky. So, I spit out ‘MidSummer Scream’ to the group. They mulled it over for about 15 seconds and said, ‘We don’t have anything better, so there we go.’”

Despite the sort of seemingly tepid response to the name, Rick said they really liked it, so they proceeded on. “The whole thing was tumultuous, because we’d just broken off from ScareLA, and we had about four months to create this show and open it. Everything was just fast-fast-fast. There was no, ‘Let’s sleep on this.’ No, it was, ‘Let’s decide right now, because we don’t have time.’ So, that’s how the name came about, and the rest is history.”

One thing that’s so cool about MidSummer Scream is it’s a fan show, it’s an industry show, it’s just for people who really love the holiday. There’s nothing else out there like that, really.

Michael agreed. “You’re absolutely right, and that’s what’s so fantastic. It’s a genre con, but, at the same time, it’s more than that. It’s where professionals can show up and get together and share. It’s great.”

I asked Rick if there’s anything new and different for year four of MidSummer Scream.

“The size,” he responded immediately. “We literally doubled the size of the show this year, which is crazy. We thought, ‘We have a good thing going, and we know what people want, so we’re going to give them more of it. The show floor is huge—hundreds of vendors. Last year, we sold out for the first time. We sold out Saturday and Sunday.”

I was aghast. “How do you sell out a convention center? I mean, that’s incredible.”

Rick replied, “I think people will like this answer: It was our decision as a team. We decided at what point we were going to cap it, because we’d rather have people have a quality experience than us have a certain quantity of bodies inside there. We could have had thousands more—we had about 24,000 last year, over the weekend. We expanded our aisles by two feet last year. That might not seem like a lot, but having 10-foot-wide aisles go to 12-foot-wide aisles is a big difference. But it was still jam packed. The Hall of Shadows was busy, too,” he said.

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“So, we were like, ‘Oh my God, we need to cut this off, because it’s getting really crowded in here.’ You have a show that’s so successful, and suddenly it’s bumper to bumper and you can’t get anywhere. That’s a very negative experience. People are going to say, ‘Well, it was fun, but then everybody came, and it wasn’t fun anymore. So, we’re going to find smaller shows to go to.’ You can’t get those people back, so we made the decision, as a team. Yes, it’s a business, but we decided we’d rather have our guests have a good experience than us have a bigger payday.”

I agree. It’s got to be right before it has profitable longevity. You have to make sure you stick to your guns and do it right. Doing things well is far more important—in this market especially—because once you piss somebody off, they’re gone.

I asked Rick to talk about Hall of Shadows. I don’t know of another show that does the sort of dim sum of haunted attractions that Hall of Shadows has.

“There are tradeshows that have dark areas where vendors have their props lit up and that type of thing, but Hall of Shadows is absolutely unique. If I had to choose one component that sets us apart from any other convention or fan show, it’s Hall of Shadows. We have ten-plus haunts come in and set up over two days, and it’s basically a theme park, a Halloween theme park.”

I offered that it was like Howl-O-Scream got washed in hot water and shrunk down a bit.

“It’s fun-sized, like fun-sized candy,” Rick agreed. “That was something we were really keen on cultivating. People ask me what my favorite aspect of doing MidSummer is, and it’s having the platform and the ability to showcase younger, up-and-coming haunters. We have maybe three groups that are active in Hall of Shadows that are all younger than 17.”

I told him I remember that one of those groups did a kick-ass show the previous year.

“They were all great,” said Rick. “They’re amazing, and they’re coming back this year. I’ve got other younger people now who are really excited. I think we’re the stewards of that. We need to give these new haunters the canvas and the megaphone to do their thing. It’s on us to do that. The world isn’t going to hand that to them, so we have an obligation—as people who have kind of kicked the doors in—to grandstand these guys, because they’re the next John Murrays, Scott Swensons, and Jon Cookes. So, I feel very responsible to these folks, and the most gratifying thing is to see hundreds of people going through their haunts, coming out screaming and laughing, and saying, ‘That was so good.’ Ninety-nine percent of the people that go through have no idea it was created by a bunch of young teenagers, and I think that’s awesome. That’s so exciting.

Hearing Rick talk, I said, “Damn, I wish I’d that opportunity when I was a teenager.”

“It’s unique,” he replied.

I was feeling great about our conversation, and Michael coming by. If you’ve never been to a show like HAuNTcon or MidSummer Scream, this is what happens all the time—haunters just kinda hang out and chat.

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You Can’t Beat the Haunt Industry Camaraderie

At one point, Michael said, “You’re up for Mayor of Halloween. We’ve all decided you’re our mayor, so you go forth.”

I told him I’d continue to go forth and sing the praises of the haunt industry. I remember years and years ago at one of the early Transworld Shows I went to when I was with Busch and Rick was with the big U—Universal—at the time. At one of those shows, the Universal team was at one end of the tradeshow floor and the Howl-O-Scream at the other, and we were the new kids on the block—the young upstarts who didn’t know what the hell they were doing—but were starting to make a name for ourselves and people were starting to recognize us. I actually heard people saying, ‘The Universal guys are heading toward the Howl-O-Scream guys.’ They thought it was like the Jets and the Sharks coming together. But when we did come together—because we’ve known each other, because we’ve hung out together, and because we’ve shared each other’s events—we threw our arms around each other.

That night, we were sitting at the Holiday Inn bar having drinks and people were walking by going, ‘I can’t believe they’re talking to each other.’ That’s what the haunt industry is all about, and that’s what these shows are all about.

“We’re all a bunch of geeks, anyway,” Michael offered.

“We are a bunch of geeks, but we’re fanboys first,” I said.

“We love horror, so if you love horror, come talk to us,” said Michael.

“That’s right, good haunts beget good haunts. People always say to me, ‘Don’t you want your competition to suck?’ And I always say, ‘No, I want my competition to be brilliant.’”

“To raise the bar,” Michael chimed in.

“Exactly,” I agreed. “When the tide comes, in all ships rise. If you have a situation where somebody goes to your competition first and they have a really bad time, they won’t come to your haunt because they’re thinking haunted attractions just aren’t good. You want them all to be good. Each time an adrenaline junkie goes to a haunt, they want more. They want more, and they want it to be the next cool thing. It’s the same for haunt conventions. You want to have an experience where you can’t wait to go to the next one. I’m addicted.”

So, that wrapped up my great conversation with Rick and Michael. Rick and I planned to have a recorded chat, and having Michael stop in was just a dream.

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The First Simulcast of A Scott in the Dark and Haunt Scene

Now we’re moving on to my conversation with Johnny Bronto, who was at HAuNTcon with Haunt Scene. What we ended up doing was the very first simulcast of A Scott in the Dark and Haunt Scene. I was a servant to two masters—looking at the camera and talking into my phone.

Johnny started out by saying he’d never been to New Orleans before, and it was his first trip to HAuNTcon. He asked me if I’d been to New Orleans before, and I explained that Howl-O-Scream has a very strong connection to the city of New Orleans. In 1999, when we were doing research for Howl-O-Scream at Busch Gardens, the “team of three,” which was Lisa, Lisa, and myself came to New Orleans for the Global Halloween Convergence, which I already mentioned. We did our research by chatting with experienced haunters and attending that seminar. I explained that HAuNTcon is sort of like coming home. It’s a great way for me to pay homage and relive something that happened another lifetime ago.

Back in 1999, we were mainly trying to learn about the industry, we were looking for tradeshows, and we weren’t quite ready to go to Transworld—although we went the next year—because it was such a behemoth. We wanted to find smaller places where we could spend more time talking to people, and the Global Halloween Convergence was great for that. We met some industry icons at the time, and we met a bunch of people who’d done everything from home haunt to independent haunts to theme parks. It was a great sort of confab, so calling it the Global Halloween Convergence was perfect. We did the cemetery tours, the voodoo ghost tours, and that kind of stuff. There were seminars and classes on different things, just like they do here. That was my first experience of a haunt convention.

We’d already done Spooky Safari, which was the precursor to Howl-O-Scream at Busch Gardens in Tampa. We were shocked that Spooky Safari had actually broken even, because, at the time, we’d learned that theme-park haunts—or most large haunts—don’t start showing a profit until year three to year five. We felt really good about our big-boy selves. We’d made money—or we hadn’t lost money. I’ll put it that way.

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An Important Tip when Starting a Haunt

This brings to mind something that haunters often don’t think about. If you’re thinking about starting a haunt, look at your business model and make sure you can carry on for at least three years. Don’t expect that you’re going to become a mega-millionaire in your first year, because you’re not. You’re going to spend so much on getting the darn thing open along with the marketing you need to do up front. It’s a huge, huge undertaking in the first year or two. Be sure to work that into your budget.

Johnny’s Main Takeaway from His First HAuNTcon

I mentioned to Johnny that HAuNTcon is scheduled to be in New Orleans in 2020, so I hoped this wouldn’t be his last time in New Orleans.

“No, no,” he replied. “This will definitely not be my last time in New Orleans. I’ve fallen in love with the city, and it’s only been two days.”

I asked him to tell me the main thing he’d be taking away when he left HAuNTcon. What made him think, “Dang, this is cool!”

“I like the way people here are cross-promoting each other,” he said.

“You mean like this example right here, where we’re doing both a recording of A Scott in the Dark and Haunt Scene?” I asked.

“Yeah, or you’ll go to one table and they’ll have a little knickknack from another table, or they’ll have a set-up like MidSummer Scream where you go to a certain booth, take a picture, tag something, and you get a pin. That’s really effective and really cool when we collaborate. I’m all about the collaboration,” said Johnny.

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It’s All About Collaboration

Collaboration is something this industry is known for. Yes, there are some outliers who still play their cards very close to their chests, but, for the most part, haunters are collaborators. We want to share. You need people who are actors who collaborate with scenic folks who collaborate with lighting folks, etc. The atmosphere, certainly at HAuNTcon, is one of collaboration.

“I’ve been to other large conventions, and this one is a little more intimate. It’s not packed to the point you can’t walk. There’s plenty of space between the booths,” Johnny observed.

So, that wraps my report for A Scott in the Dark from HAuNTcon—focusing on the friendships and relationships that can be made at tradeshows. I hope you’ve enjoyed listening in on these conversations with Rick, Michael, and Johnny. If you’re a haunter and you’re able, even once during the year, to attend one of these shows, definitely take advantage of it, because this is where you get the chance to talk to pretty much everybody. I’m just stupid lucky to have made friends with all these folks. You can too, because nobody in the haunt industry is standoffish, so you can walk up and talk to anybody and have a great conversation.

The next tradeshow I’m scheduled to be at is the Transworld show, which is in March in St. Louis, and, of course, I’ll be sharing more information about that online, on social media, and probably on another episode. Once again, if we find ourselves at the same show, please come up and say hello. Hopefully, we’ll continue to grow the friendships and relationships that can be made within the haunt industry.

If you’d like to comment on this show or make suggestions, please do. Check out our Facebook group, go to AScottInTheDark.com or my website, or email me at [email protected]. Until next time, this is Scott Swenson for A Scott in the Dark saying, rest in peace.

Scott Swenson

by Scott Swenson

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