What Haunters Can Learn From Participating in Tradeshows Outside the Haunt World
In this blog, I’ll be talking about my experiences at The Special Event show that took place from January 8 to 10, 2019 at the San Diego Convention Center in San Diego, California. I call this a parallel industry tradeshow. Although it wasn’t a haunt tradeshow, I was lucky enough to present a seminar on incorporating atmospheric entertainment into large-scale events and festivals. This was the first time I’d ever been to this show, and the only reason I was there was because one of my clients, Zoo Tampa, thought this would be a good show for me. So, I applied to present and ended up teaching a seminar. There were over 100 people in attendance at my seminar. I asked myself, “Who would want to come to talk by a haunter geek at a special event?” But there was a great response. It was an absolutely phenomenal tradeshow, and I was glad my seminar went well.
Whatever Event or Show You Attend, Be There When You’re There
I attended a number of seminars while I was there, and I wanted to share that experience with you. One of them was on how to get the most out of this The Special Event show, and it was good information for pretty much any convention you go to, whether it’s a haunt show or any convention or tradeshow. The most important thing was, make sure you’re present. Don’t spend your entire time at the tradeshow on your phone. It’s an investment to come to tradeshows, so be there when you’re there. Set up time outside the tradeshow to do your work if you need to do work, but be present at the show. You’ve paid to be there, so don’t waste your money.
The other thing that was brought up was to use this event as a networking opportunity—meet people, talk to them, attend various and sundry social gatherings, and, if you’re waiting in line for something and you see somebody in front of you who has a nametag or lanyard for the event, make sure you talk to them and introduce yourself. This was especially important for me, because this is my first time at this show, and special events isn’t necessarily the kind of industry I’m familiar with. I’ve done special events but for theme parks, zoos, aquariums, and that sort of thing, so they were more like festivals. The folks at this show are everything from wedding planners to big corporate planners, so I didn’t know anybody here.
Another thing I heard at one of the seminars is that it’s important to be aware of all that’s going on and everything any tradeshow has to offer you. The reason I’m sharing this information is because this is a golden opportunity for anybody. If you’re planning to go to any of the haunt shows—HAuNTcon, Transworld, Midwest, Midsummer Scream, or any of the haunt conventions—all of these have great information. Participate, walk up to people that you may have seen online, and say, “Hi, I’m so-and-so.” It’s important to say hello, because, just like at this event, the haunt tradeshows are just as open to people chatting with you. I know I certainly am!
So, take advantage of the show itself, be present, and be a participant. I was happy to hear this is true in pretty much every industry, not just haunters. Everybody knows that haunters are a great big family, but the folks in the special-event world also refer to themselves a great big family.
I’ve always said that the majority of business at a haunt convention is done around the bar. I think it’s important to attend the seminars and educate yourself, even if it’s a topic you don’t think is going to be of interest. Expanding your knowledge really helps you.
A Seminar on First Impressions Confirms My Views
Another seminar I attended was all about first impressions. This was covered in a recent Seasonal Entertainment Source magazine [formerly The Haunt Journal]. If you don’t have a copy of this publication, you should, because it’s free, it’s quarterly, and it’s quite good. And I’m not just saying that because I write for it pretty regularly. Philip Hernandez and the Gantom people do a really good job of putting it together, and there’s some really cool articles in there—one of which happens to be a written version of my presentation at the Gantom Leadership Symposium this past year, which took place the Queen Mary, in which I was talking about first impressions.
So, I decided to attend a seminar presented by someone on the exact same topic to see if I could polish my views. What was really fascinating to me was, she said pretty much all the same stuff I said. She expanded it a little bit more and focused more on your brand—not just personal interaction but also email interaction and website interaction. It was really nice to not only have my views reinforced but to learn a more about something that’s near and dear to my heart.
Presenting and Serving Food that Integrates with the Event Theme
Then I went to the opening-night party. When a special-event show does an opening-night party, they pull out all the stops. I was thrilled that much of what I’d been talking about in my seminar regarding atmospheric entertainment and the different purposes it serves in a special event were all demonstrated at this party. It took place on an aircraft carrier and was themed to the 1940s. And, there was this amazing food. There were caterers there providing not only different samplings of food but also different ways of serving it.
So, I got to thinking that this is something haunters need to know. When you decide to put culinary or food into your mix as a way to earn revenue, make sure it’s displayed in an interesting way. For example, haunters could display cotton candy in bags clipped to a giant spider web. Obviously, you could serve stuff in coffins and cauldrons. There’s a whole bunch of opportunities there.
A Different Sort of Photo Op and Other Unique Ideas for Haunts
On the second day at The Special Event show, I had an opportunity to see the tradeshow floor. I have to say, it was so much fun to go to a tradeshow where I’ve never seen the vendors before. Having gone to the haunt shows for so many years, it’s always kind of, “Let’s see what the returning folks have that’s new, and let’s see what new folks are here.” For the most part, it’s going back and seeing the same stuff over and over again, so I can go through the tradeshow floors pretty quickly. This one was roughly the size of a HAuNTtcon tradeshow floor, and it had such interesting new vendors for me. There were laser vendors doing some fun laser stuff and a lot of photography vendors who were taking photos.
That got me thinking, “Why aren’t there more photograph options at haunted attractions?” I think everybody has selfie stations and uses them for promotional purposes, but these guys were actually taking photos, and some of them were high-end and professional. They posted them via the Internet or emailed them. So, they weren’t only taking photos and providing opportunities to guests, they were gathering data—email addresses—to build a communication database, which I thought was a really cool idea. You could sell those photos as well. Add a monster in there, have your photographer take a quality monster portrait, and email it to the guest. You don’t have to worry about printing costs, and you don’t have to worry about much overhead. You could have everybody repost it on their social media to promote you on a media night, preview night, or special VIP night of some sort.
Another thing I saw on the tradeshow floor that was unique and could apply to the haunt industry were these cool, inflatable, character costumes. One was a giant white dragon in which a performer provided the back two legs and another performer puppeteered the head on a long neck. This could work really well in a haunt, especially in a blackout house or 3D house—an inflatable character that comes to life and doesn’t have to hide behind anything. If you put the puppeteer handling the head into a black morph suit, make everything else blacklight-reactive, and paint it with 3D paint, that would be a new twist for a 3D or chromadepth house.
A Seminar on Storytelling
Later in the day, I went to a seminar that was all about storytelling. Most of you know this is the number-one thing I love to talk about—the importance of telling a good story. This was the guy who does events for the MGM hotels in Las Vegas, and he was talking about everything you’ve heard me talk about. First, have a good story with a beginning, middle, and end. This helps give you focus and helps make the emotional impact much stronger, whatever you’re doing. He was taking everything I’ve always talked about related to storytelling and making applicable to the special-event industry.
If, for some reason, you aren’t familiar with my rantings about how important story is, there’s a series of articles in Seasonal Entertainment Source magazine that has my opinions and ideas about the importance of storytelling.
What’s Old is New—in a Different Venue
Sort of switching topics here, there’s a lot of really cool technology out there that isn’t horribly expensive—or, at least, it won’t be horribly expensive in another year or two—and which haunters should grab on to as soon as they can. There were a couple pieces of programmable LED lighting equipment that were really neat. There were a few robot things, including one that looked like a cross between Wall-E and Johnny 5. (If you know who Johnny 5 is, you’re my age.) It had a camera in its face, a screen in its chest, and it was controlled by a remote operator who was standing out of the guest’s sightline as the robot approached them. He wasn’t only creating the movement of this robot but also the voice. The robot was able to take pictures and generate video—again, another way to connect to people’s social media accounts.
On the third day, I was back on the tradeshow floor. I saw things that were considered new to the event industry that haunters and theme parks have been using for years and years. That was a real eye-opener. One thing we’ve been using in haunted attractions are chromadepth glasses or chromadepth technology for 3D—more specifically, those little light-point or point-source hologram glasses, the ones where when you look at any light point and it throws an image around it like a heart or a logo or a phrase or a saying or a skull or whatever. We’ve been using these in theme parks for at least 15 or 20 years, but they were one of the new things for special events.
Another thing I thought was an interesting adaptation was the vortex tunnel. They’re now doing this with curved, LED video monitors, which gives you significantly more options but is also significantly higher priced.
Although this probably wouldn’t apply too much to the haunt industry, SkyFire Arts does a fire and lightning show in which, as the name suggests, they wear basically chainmail, are grounded, and shoot lightning between three different performers. They also shoot pyro. If you have an outdoor haunt or an outdoor queue or an outdoor performance area where a lot of people gather before or after your haunt, this would be a really cool show to have. It would light up in a nighttime venue.
A Virtual Reality Dining Experience
What else was there that I thought was really fascinating? There was a really interesting experience called Sublimotion, which is a virtual-reality dining experience. It’s probably the most expensive dinner you’ll ever have. You go into a white room and, with each course, the projections on the walls change the environment. You wear VR glasses for part of the meal, and there’s projection mapping on your plate. It was the most high-tech fantasy dinner I’ve ever seen. The idea is clearly way beyond the budget of most haunters, but taking special-effects technology and creating a dinner was pretty cool. So, haunters, if you want to do a seance dinner or a ghost dinner and use the various technological things we use to create haunts, projections, monitors, light programs, air cannons, and that sort of thing and to create a dining experience that tells a story, this would be very cool as an upcharge—probably for the theme-park haunters or the larger scream parks.
However, just about anybody could do it. It’s basically about adding food to your haunt—not just hot dogs and hamburgers but an actual, sit-down meal that thematically ties in. You can use your special effects to have a projected ghost flying around the table or the room as guests eat, or have a video monitor in a frame that comes to life to announce the next course. This is technology we already use. This is a new way of looking at it and approaching it.
There was a company there called Atomic Design that has a lot of really cool fabric backdrops. They come from the concert industry, but now their real bread and butter is high-end special events. Their products are both rentable and purchasable. Check them out. You might find some really cool things. Again, they’re not inexpensive, but just looking at what they have might give you ideas for unique textures for your walls and your backdrops so guests aren’t looking past a scene at the brick wall of your building. They use stretch spandex to create scenic shapes, projection surfaces, and backdrops in general. I’m not sure what the application might be for haunters, but I think there’s something there that’s worth looking into.
There was a company called TLC Creative that had what they call water tubes, which are essentially internal fountains. Think of a giant test tube inverted over the top of a single-shoot fountain with LED lights at the bottom. If you’re doing any sort of sci-fi or just want to do some sort of cool, mad-scientist’s lab, these things are really neat. I’m sure the MacGyvers out there could figure out a way to construct these themselves and make them significantly more cost-effective. They were nine-feet tall and amazing.
In addition to all this super-cool stuff, there were a few things that made me say, “Hmm, I’m not sure that’s even interesting or necessary.” Probably the most unusual one was called Shushi. No, I’m not slurring my words. I haven’t even had my glass of wine for the night yet. Shushi is sushi made in the shape of shoes. Yeah, I don’t know. You’re kind of on your own with that one.
There was another one that was kinda weird and kinda sad at the same time. It might be cool if you’re a real technogeek. A company is using facial-recognition software to chart the emotional response of an audience by focusing on 75 people and mapping certain indices on the face—like when the eyebrows go up or the brow furrows or whatever—and matching that to an emotion to produce a graph that shows, for example, when the audience was engaged but there was no emotional content, when they were marginally engaged but very emotional, or both. I say, just watch and listen to your audience. This is a high-tech company that spent a lot of money developing this, and I’m sure large corporations will eat it up. My thought is, we can do this by watching the crowd and certainly by standing at the exit of our haunt and listening to what people say as they come out. We won’t have a cool chart and a fun piece of software to play with, but we can do just as much by watching and paying attention to our audiences.
Another cool item was Chat Bands. These are LED wrist bands to which you can send programmable messages in real time. This might have a really interesting application in the escape room industry. Just like Gantom Torch has individually programmed flashlights that do different things for different people, with these Chat Bands, you could send different messages to different people. You could send a clue to one person in the group, and they could relay it to the other people in the group.
A company called Fun4Events offers a temporary-tattoo printer that takes an image—like a logo or anything you can think of—and prints it as a temporary tattoo directly on the skin. I don’t know if this is an upcharge opportunity or a marketing opportunity, but, knowing haunters and their affinity for tattoos, it could be a popular item. There are tons of haunters who have phenomenal skin art, and this would be like the training-wheels version of that. It also gives you the opportunity to put your brand or your logo on someone’s skin, and they walk around with that. The tattoo is removed with rubbing alcohol, just like any other temporary tattoo.
Visit a Parallel Industry Tradeshow and Keep Your Eyes, Ears, and Mind Open
The take-home for me from this event was, even if you don’t think the tradeshow has something to offer you, be open to it, be open to learning, and be open to being a student. It was great to come to this show and not know all the key players, not know the successes and failures of the special-event industry, and find ways to make new friends, new business associates, etc. For those of you who are haunters, don’t limit yourself. People say all the time, “I wish I could do a seasonal haunt that goes on for 12 months.” There are some people who can do that, and that’s great if you’re in a market that will bear that, but it’s a challenge for the majority of folks.
What became apparent to me in attending this conference is we need to keep our eyes open and keep our options open to find ways to utilize our expertise in a new market. Don’t just think haunts have to happen around Halloween. The way we control guests, the way we control emotions, the way we control the flow of people through an atmospheric experience like a haunted house or an escape room can be applied to many different scenarios in many industries. Anything you learn can be applied to a haunt, or anything in a haunt can be applied to other things. That was the eye-opening takeaway from this.
A Great Opportunity to Share Information with Professionals in Another Area
I was supposed to go to the awards ceremony on the final night, but then I had the opportunity to go out to dinner with two new friends I met at the show. As important as the tradeshow floor is, as important as the seminars are, the most important thing is making new friends and sharing information with real professionals who are already doing this. I think that’s true of any tradeshow you go to. I think that most of my time should be spent hanging out with people, learning from my peers, and reaching out to share stories: “We did this when we had such-and-such a problem. How would you handle this situation?” That’s the biggest benefit from tradeshows. Whether it’s in your industry or in a parallel industry, that’s really the lesson to keep in mind.
I’ll be at the Transworld Halloween and Attractions Show in March in St. Louis, where I’ll be team teaching a seminar with my friend Robbi Lepre on how to do atmospheric theater year round.
If you’d like to comment on this show or make suggestions please, please do. Check out our Facebook group, go to AScottInTheDark.com or my website, or email me at [email protected]. Until next time, rest in peace.