Seminars, a panel discussion, and chats with folks from Dark Woods and Raybourn Creative
I recorded Episode 39 of my A Scott in the Dark podcast at the most recent HAuNTcon, which took place in New Orleans on January 17-19, 2020. This year, there were all kinds of new additions to the show because, as you know, HAuNTcon is now co-located with the Halloween and Party Show, which makes it significantly larger. What they’ve been trying to do—and what I’ve been trying to do as far as assisting them with my selection of seminars—is meld the two shows together to get the retail and the haunt sides to understand they share common ground and there are great opportunities for both sides when it comes to making bank off of the Halloween season. One of my seminars was on “Monstrous Merchandise,” in which I brought together the retail side and the haunters’ side to create some win-win scenarios.
This year, HAuNTcon was a “smart” show. So, with the app, instead of coming home with piles and piles of propaganda that usually ends up getting stored in a box for three years and thrown away, we were able to take our badges, tap them, and gather information from all the different vendors.
Listen to the Episode
The evening I arrived, I attended a networking function at a place called Fulton Alley, which is sort of a hipster bowling alley with a bar. Prior to that, I’d made a quick tour of the trade show floor, saw a bunch of friends, and checked in with Leonard and Jeannne Pickel, the folks from Scared of my Shadow, the folks from VFX, and got to say hi to Liz, who the woman in charge of the event.
My first full day at HAuNTcon was very, very busy day. I started the day by sitting on a panel with some incredible people and talking about the most recent information that came out in Seasonal Entertainment Source magazine. It was well attended. Then, in the afternoon, I had my first seminar—on “Monstrous Merchandise—which was surprisingly well attended. After my seminar, I was one of the hosts for the “Haunters to Watch” Awards, which is HAuNTcon’s new award recognizing excellence in the haunt community. Information will be coming out in Seasonal Entertainment Source about all the winners. Unlike most the haunt awards, this ne wasn’t just, come up and say thank you. Each one of the winners came up and did a small presentation on their attraction and what they did to be recognized by the adjudication team. There were five awards given out, and the winners’ names are posted on the HAuNTcon website, so check that out as well.
After a night of drinking and debauchery, I made it onto the trade show floor, where I sat down and talked with some new friends from Dark Woods Haunted Attraction, located in Natchitoches, Louisiana. This indoor/outdoor haunt is open during the Halloween season and also has a “Christmas in the Park” event during the holiday season. Dark Woods has a crew of about 40 people that participate throughout the year.
The members of the Dark Woods crew had decided to attend this year’s HAuNTcon as a team, and I asked them what they’d found most interesting about this year’s event.
One person responded that they really liked the education classes, because not only did they learn valuable information but it was a great way to meet people who were so like-minded in one place. That’s absolutely true. I’ve been coming to HAuNTcon for many, many years, and one of the things I like about it compared to some of the other shows is that this is the haunt show where people come to meet and support other haunters.
The Dark Woods team agreed. “One of the greatest things about coming here and having such a dedicated group is we get to appreciate the broad horizon of the haunt industry. Even if you’ve been haunting for 10 years, you go into these classes and always pick something up. Even if it’s just one phrase, there’s a lesson to be learned in every one of these classes. These people always want to tell you what they know, and that’s incredible,” said one of the team members.
That’s true of the haunt community in general. I think the haunt community is one of the rare businesses where you see people who are eager to share their “corporate secrets.” They’re eager to say, “Here’s what we did when we had that same situation.”
“With the classes here, we can take what we learned back to our team members who aren’t here and help them learn from our experience. We keep that information moving,” said another Dark Woods person.
The Dark Woods team offered that there used to be a time when everybody in the haunt industry held their cards close to their chest. They didn’t want to share anything, because they were afraid somebody would steal their ideas. Sorry, folks, but there are only about 10 ideas out there, so what matters is how you implement those ideas, and that comes down to the passion, cooperation, and camaraderie of your team.
The Importance of Team Building
The Dark Woods folks agreed that a dedicated team makes all the difference in a haunt—whether it’s a small home haunt or a theme-park Halloween event. As one team member pointed out, if you don’t have a good team standing with you, you don’t have a haunt.
The Dark Woods team spoke about how important it was for them to attend HAuNTcon as a group, especially the benefit of visiting places outside of HAuNTcon in smaller groups and then coming together to share their experiences.
I asked my tablemates what they felt created a strong, dedicated team.
One team member explained that, at Dark Woods, each person knows their role and is dedicated to doing it well. This creates a natural flow, which is essential for timing during the show. In addition, each person knows what other team members are doing. They know each other’s gags, and this results in everything being in synch. If one person suddenly isn’t in their place, the rest of the team knows how to adapt and fill that spot, so everything keeps running smoothly.
Another key ingredient to a cohesive, supportive team is inclusivity. The Dark Woods team shares with each other, whether it’s personal acting tricks, tips for shortening the learning curve, or whatever. The team is always trying to learn from each other and thinks of itself as a sponge. Anything new they can implement or learn, they do that—whether it be information from seminars at HAuNTcon or from talking casually with other haunters. As we all know, it’s crucial for a haunt to get better and better each year, and this takes a willingness and ability to absorb, to learn, to share, and to implement, noted the team.
The last factor to creating a strong crew, according to the Dark Woods team, is to spend time together outside of work, including during the off season. This might be having lunch together during the build of the haunt, sharing Thanksgiving or Christmas dinner, and gathering for a Fourth of July barbeque. This creates a sense of family that serves as a powerful glue to keep the team strong throughout the year.
How to Enhance Your Cast and Crew Retention Rate
One thing I was really impressed with about Dark Woods—and one of the main reasons I wanted to sit down and chat with them—is their team has a year-to-year retention rate of something like 75%. That’s absolutely stellar within our industry. It’s amazing, and I asked the Dark Woods team to discuss how they achieved that.
The Dark Woods team members at the table all agreed that flexibility was key to not only the camaraderie in the group but to their ability to do a great job. Flexibility and open-mindedness are heavily stressed in everything from actor training to management. Management is often frantic and running around doing a bunch of different things, so training in flexibility is essential to keeping these folks from having a meltdown. In the same way, on one night, an actor may be a wretched ghoul lurking in a graveyard and, the next night, they’re chasing guests with a chainsaw.
Each member of the cast and crew can be anything, anywhere, and at any time at Dark Woods. The park is large, and there are about 40 character spots. The Dark Woods team explained that essentially any of these spots could be filled by any cast member with the exception of a few token characters. In this way, talent is recognized that wasn’t obvious before, and this allows that actor to shine. Or, if that actor isn’t a good fit for a particular character, they’re put in a different place.
The way the characters and backstory are written, everything is left intentionally vague so each actor can put their own spin on any character. Basically, the character is themselves cranked up 10 notches, as one team member described it. Each actor is just being themselves in a different context.
Another thing the Dark Woods crew pointed out was that each person is more than just an actor or a makeup artist. Every person is there from the beginning, building sets or whatever’s necessary to prepare for the opening of the haunt. Being involved with the entire process creates a sense of family as well as pride.
One team member pointed out that people can even exercise on the grounds. In the last year, Dark Woods started a program called Haunt Fit. The park has a large midway, a backstage area, and some hills in addition to the trail, so team members can walk or run the park, including the trail. This has been a big hit.
Each team member agreed that what impressed them the most when they joined the haunt was the feeling of welcome they received when they walked through the door as well as the haunt staff’s enthusiasm for finding the best role for that person in the cast or crew. Everybody’s attributes are assessed and put to use.
In addition, the long-term members of the team serve as mentors who are willing to assist, teach, and encourage. At the same time, they listen to everyone’s perspective, including that of new people. The Dark Team agreed that there’s a lot of give and take among members, a lot of praise, and a lot of supportive suggestions for making something better. The team felt this sense of collaboration and encouragement is a main reason for the high retention of cast and crew from year to year.
One activity that builds team camaraderie—as well as improving the haunt—is having a meeting after every show to talk about how the night went. In addition, each night, the trail managers and owners select a member of the cast or crew who did an outstanding job, and that member spins The Wheel of Doom to win a prize. The trail managers and owners make this selection by listening to guests as they leave the park. They keep their ears open for comments like, “Man, whoever that was in the cemetery crawling on the ground in a dress did a damn good job!”
Then there’s the wrap party, which all the people at the table agreed that everybody looks forward to.
Dark Woods is a family-owned haunt. The Dark Woods team members agreed that it’s a place where they feel they belong, can be creative, be themselves, get healthy, and have fun. One person pointed out that the haunt owners, the Summerland family, care about the people as much or more than they do their haunt. They realize that without the people, they don’t have a haunt.
Well, I certain agree with that. The most important thing about any haunted attraction is the people who work it. I always tell haunt owners, if you have a thousand dollars to invest in your haunt, invest it in your people and not in another animation. Of course, we need props and atmosphere, but, more importantly, we need people. It sounds like Dark Woods has found the secret to creating a culture that reinforces itself. Everyone supports each other, because they’ve been given permission to do so. People know, coming in, that this is the environment at Dark Woods.
You may have noticed that not once was compensation mentioned by the Dark Woods team. To them, it isn’t about a paycheck, it’s about a culture. If you can develop that culture, you can have a successful haunt. Remember that. It’s true that theme parks, for a whole bunch of reasons, have to pay their folks and be competitive, etc., but Dark Woods has a 75% retention rate without offering monetary compensation. Each member of the Dark Woods team said they return every year, without any expectation of getting paid, because they love what they do. This is their motivation, and it’s all the compensation they need. That’s worth paying attention to.
The Day After
After the show was over, I met with an old friend and a new friend—Phil and Deanna Raybourn from Raybourn Creative LLC—at the vampire bar on Bourbon Street. I’ve known Phil for 15 years, and these are two wonderfully creative people when it comes to writing, producing, and directing. Sound familiar? Pretty much all the stuff I’ve done, but they do it better. What I really wanted to talk to them about was what they got from this show.
Phil replied, “What I saw was the amount of not only interest but love and passion for the industry that exists here. Also, the feedback from fellow haunters that are out there in the trenches and doing it every night is priceless. I learn as much from them as I try to impart to them my knowledge based on my experiences.”
I asked Phil about his background before he founded Raybourn Creative.
“Sixteen years ago, I started as stage manager at Busch Gardens Williamsburg. I did that for a year and then got more and more into Howl-O-Scream. I was creative director, producer, and designer of mazes and shows. You and I were counterparts at our respective Howl-O-Screams, you in Tampa and me in Virginia.
I then asked him how he addresses people who believe they’re in constant competition with other haunters or other people in the industry.
“Competition Breeds a Better Product”
“The truth of the matter is that competition breeds a better product. I don’t think it should be looked at as competition. It should be looked at as a way to challenge yourself to deliver something that’s better for the public. Look at people you’re competing with as inspiration to drive you to deliver something that’s even more exciting than you’d ever thought of,” he said.
“We can either view these relationships in an antagonistic way, or we can view them as supportive. I tend to view our relationships as supportive. I think that’s how people should view other haunts. Go to other haunts, look at what they’re doing, and become friends with those people, because that’s the way to grow your own business. If you can learn something from somebody, if you can talk to them about your challenges and they can talk to you about their challenges, it’s just going to make you both stronger. It doesn’t have to wear you down. It doesn’t have to be either-or. It can be, ‘Let’s do this together.’”
Of course, I agree completely with Phil. I’ve been blessed to work with great people, and I’ve got a huge list of resources that I’m always happy to share if somebody needs someone or something. Sometimes I can fill a need or solve a problem with just a phone call. In doing this, I build my client base from the people that I’ve worked with and the people I know. Networking is such a powerful tool. Anybody who thinks there’s only a finite amount of success out there is horribly wrong.
Deanna chimed in with, “There are two kinds of people in the world—those who view life as a 0-sum game and those who realize a rising tide lifts all boats. She then pointed out that, if you’re a person who thinks a rising tide lifts all boats, you’re going to have a hell of a lot more fun and opportunity in this business. When a job comes your way that you don’t have the bandwidth to take on, you recommend it to a friend, and they do the same. That’s how everybody’s work gets better, and it’s just a lovelier way to live your life, she observed. In having this perspective, we create better experiences for everybody around us, whether it’s our employees, the people we’re collaborating with, or the guests coming through our gates, Deana emphasized. We’re making things better, because we’re coming from a place of generosity and authenticity.”
Phil added, “The more we share, the more the business grows, and that, I think, is the key to it. How can we grow the business as a whole? Because that’s going to benefit everybody.”
I always tell people, if you think the idea you have is only yours, you’re wrong. Everything’s been written, we just have to find a way to make it unique, which often involves juxtaposing and combining those 10 ideas I mentioned earlier. Sometimes, when you take two things that seem to be from completely different worlds and smash them together, you create something that is, at least for a fleeting moment, new.
Deanna observed, “People who love to be scared realize it’s cathartic and safe to come into these environments, be scared, and get that done. And each of these people will interpret that experience in their own way. So, it’s not so much competition as it is this beautiful cooperation where we can all be scaring the crap out of people down the road.”
By the way, Deanna is also part of Raybourn Creative. It’s a dual-purpose agency. She’s also a New York Times best-selling novelist and an Edgar Award nominee. She has two different series of novels –The Lady Julia Gray series and the Veronica Speedwell series, which are both Victorian mystery series. She’s a wonderful, wonderful writer, and if you haven’t read her stuff, I highly recommend it.
Speaking of which, I just did a seminar on how to use horror literature in your haunted attraction, which will probably be published as an article in Seasonal Entertainment Source.
If you’re interested in finding out more about Raybourn Creative, check out their website, on Twitter at @RaybournCreate, or on Instagram at either @DeannaRaybourn, @PhilRaybourn, or @RayburnCreative.
What I learned from this HAuNTcon, and which we heard from both the Dark Woods folks and the Raybourns, is that it’s all about making connections and realizing that when the tide comes in, all ships rise. My advice is to make every effort to go to these shows. Make them part of your budget. Get out there and meet your fellow haunters. You can’t haunt in a vacuum. Well, you can, but you’re probably missing out on a lot, and you’re probably making mistakes that a whole bunch of other people have already made. When you go to these conventions, you find that out. You also get a new perspective, and you connect with a network of problem solvers when you meet other haunters.
The next HAuNTcon will take place in Dallas, Texas, from January 22-24, 2021. For more information, visit the HAuNTcon website.