Postmortem: The Garden of Spirits on Scaling & Contingency Planning

I had the delight of going on-site to interview Scott Swenson, the Creative Director for The Garden of Spirits at CW’s Gin Joint in Tampa, FL. Scott discusses the event and how critical both contingency planning and scaling are for events of all sizes.

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Arriving at The Garden of Spirits

“The Garden of Spirits is the third incarnation of what we had planned to do for Halloween 2020. We originally wanted to bring back The Vault of Souls, which was an event that we did for three years. When we were making our plans early in the year, we weren’t sure what the COVID restrictions were going to be, and so we chose to redevelop the event in a COVID safe way.

We decided to position it as the Halloween celebration for CW’s gin joint, a well-known restaurant in Tampa, which has a fenced in courtyard. We filled it with quirky characters because the owner of this area doesn’t like to do blood, guts, and Gore. We had two seatings per night on the 30th and the 31st of October and they both completely sold out. Selling out did not mean that you were shoulder to shoulder. All the tables were a minimum of 10 feet apart, and people could sit in their own groups. The groups ranged from two to eight.

garden of spirits
Image Credit: Philip Hernandez

A Focus on Performers and Atmosphere

“We had everything from ballroom dancers who would come out and do a lovely waltz in the dark to Maven Misbehavin, our resident burlesque performer and fire performer. We also had Jackson gray who messed with everybody’s perception of gender. He started the evening as a woman and finished the evening as a boy, and then went back for a little party dress at the end of the night. And then of course, some of the characters that we used in the Vault of Souls made a reappearance. We had Shinobi the clown. We had Wisteria who was reading everybody’s auras. We dad two live taro readers who were busy throughout the entire night giving readings.”

“If you were looking for a haunted, a traditional haunted attraction, this was not it. This was a lovely dinner in a spooky environment, which had tableside entertainment and created an atmosphere that hopefully people remember for many years to come.”

garden of spirits
Image Credit: Philip Hernandez

Scaling for the Future

“We’re curious to see where this can develop and where it can go. The nice thing is we’ve started in a very manageable model that can expand based on whatever the restrictions are or aren’t looking to the to the next season. It also means that we can add nights if we choose to. It turned out better than I ever could have hoped. I’m hoping that we can build upon that success and continue to evolve this event so that it becomes something that can be done year after year after year.

We started this event when the restrictions were at their highest. We can always add more tables. We can always ramp it up. We can always ramp it back. As it stands right now, there is physical distancing through all of the tables.

Yes, it limits the capacity, but the idea is to use it to not only generate revenue, but also to continue to show that CW’S gin joint and The Vault are doing seasonal events that will continue moving forward season after season after season. If we were to add more nights, it would actually be even more sustainable because if the fixed costs. The performance labor of course would, would extend, but it’s the fixed costs that you have to really look at when you’re comparing it to food sales and alcohol sales. And it’s also a great way to bring more attention to the restaurant itself.”

Image Credit: Philip Hernandez

Planning a Festival Series

“It gave us the opportunity to introduce not only the restaurant, but the festival series to more and more people. And I say festival series, because we’re not just doing a Halloween event this year, we’re doing a New Year’s event which is going to take place in the vault, which is an indoor space. And we’re also going to do in 2021, we’re doing a Valentine’s Day event called ‘The Vault of Love – Silk & Chocolate,’ which is all about sensuality and the joy of chocolate.”

How can Haunts Plan for 2021

“I think if you are planning for the haunt season of 2021, I would suggest that you do two very important things-  Look at what worked, what didn’t work and reevaluate, but do it now. Make your plans now, because the more you plan, the more flexible you’ll be, the more nimble you’ll be, depending on what happens in the haunt season of 21.”

scott swenson
Image Credit: Philip Hernandez

Keep Your Roads Open

“I think the only way to plan for the next catastrophe is to keep as many roads open as possible. Make sure that you have ways to ramp up or ramp down your event. Don’t get greedy. It is more important for you to do your event and make a small profit than for you not to do your event and lose your brand recognition over the years.”

by Philip Hernandez