How to Reopen Your Haunt During the COVID-19 Pandemic

Fear Factory, the first haunt to reopen, discusses its strategies

Right now, the haunt industry is being faced with something we’ve never done before—reopening our attractions in the midst of a pandemic. We’re all wondering when and how to make this happen. In this article, you’ll hear from the general manager of Fear Factory in Salt Lake City, Utah, Spencer Terry, about how his attraction did just that.

Fear Factory’s reopening event was its annual Halfway to Halloween, which took place on May 29th. For months prior to that, the attraction worked with government officials to build a contingency plan, which allowed it to hold the event only two weeks later than originally scheduled prior to the pandemic. This article will discuss aspects of that contingency plan, which Fear Factory is making available for free to attractions, because management wants to share their experience, knowledge, and suggestions with not only the haunt industry but with the entertainment industry and theme parks as well. “Putting together the plan took an extensive amount time, but the execution of the plan by our team was flawless,” said Spencer.

This article is based on a talk Spencer Terry gave during HAuNT Connect. Scott Swenson of Scott Swenson Creative Development and A Scott in the Dark moderated.

Key Takeaways

  • Begin by working with your local and state public health officials.
  • “We recognized that we had to invite someone in to help us. We discovered there are 60 different things on the state level that we’re required to do.”
  • There was entry signage that listed requirements and expectations. Guests had to read this sign, look up at a camera, and nod their head in agreement to provide recorded, visual consent.
  • “If businesses [in your area] don’t have immunity [against COVID-19-related lawsuits], push your legislators for that.”
  • Assure that staff feel safe.
  • “Crises are terrible, but they also accelerate the development of good things—like an effect you probably never would have tried otherwise and ‘aha!’ moments that you never would have had.”
  • Create an A team and a B team to prepare for reopening.
  • “Our exit survey indicated that we’d marketed this event in such a way that guests felt safe enough to buy a ticket during a pandemic and be in a space where there were a lot of other people.”
  • “Basically, before you sell an event, you have to talk about safety. If you don’t, you’ll lose ticket sales. End of story.”
  • People are ready to get out and get scared.
  • “Haunted houses might consider sending out a survey to find out how many people would actually attend if their attraction opens this Fall.”
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Image Credit Fear Factory

Watch this Session

The video recording of this session is available free on HAuNT Connect.

Work with Your Local and State Public Health Officials

Even though we’re in the midst of a global pandemic, the issues, challenges, and regulations each haunt faces are locally based, so be certain to take the proper steps with the information in this article to understand how it applies to your locale. The Fear Factory case study provides valuable information to use as guidelines for the reopening of your event, but it’s not a simple copy-and-paste guideline.

Although there’s talk of a resurgence of the virus in the Fall, Fear Factory decided to do a test model now to plan for reopening—but not just for its attraction. “It wasn’t just about us opening. It was about an entire industry,” said Spencer.

Fear Factory’s contingency plan was released the first week of May. It wasn’t extensive, said Spencer, but it was sufficient to allow his team to approach the local health department to see if it would be possible to reopen. He also contacted the Governor’s office, other state agencies, the county, and the city. “No one responded. We explained that it wasn’t about making money. We wanted to see what we could do and how this was going to affect us now and in the Fall,” he explained.

The owners of Fear Factory soon realized they needed to connect with someone on the inside. “We found the CEO of a RESPRO, Dennis Keith, who’s been a food-safety inspector for 15+ years. He also has a connection to the COVID world, and he became our inside guy. We hired him as a consultant. That was a big learning moment—recognizing we had to open that door and invite someone in to help us. We discovered there are 60 different things on the state level that we were required to do.”

As Spencer’s team proceeded to plan for reopening, the language in the regulations often changed. “The language was always in motion, and there were learning moments every day as my team planned for the reopening.”

Spencer emphasized that it’s necessary to start working with public-health officials early. “The health department’s job is to make you jump through hoops, so you need to be proactive.”

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Image Credit Fear Factory

Specific Challenges Related to Reopening

The first thing that the Fear Factory owners, Spencer, and his team had to figure out was how to present a consistent message. Once that was nailed down, they were able to start planning everything else—the implementation, the training, the marketing to customers, ticket sales, and the execution of the event.

When it comes to letting your guests know what you’ve specifically done to address coronavirus concerns, Spencer recommends that you create special signage that stands out from your other signage—like making it a different color or putting a red bar across the top. On page 55 of Fear Factory’s contingency plan is a copy of a poster that was displayed throughout the haunt: “Your safety is our priority.” Spencer explained that this poster “basically says, if someone in your group messes up or doesn’t want to comply with the rules, they receive one warning. If they mess up again, the whole group will be thrown out. So, the group will keep that person in check. Peer pressure works, folks.”

There was a sign posted before guests entered the attraction that listed requirements and expectations. Guests had to read this sign, look up at a camera, and nod their head in agreement to provide recorded, visual consent. “We had to clearly communicate—perhaps almost abrasively—that we were serious about people adhering to the rules. It worked. We had no issues.”

Also, no contact means everything is cashless. All tickets to Halfway to Halloween had to be purchased online. “Some people arrived at the gate with money in hand, and we had to turn them away,” said Spencer. “That was tough, but we needed to do it.”

Another consideration was insurance. “When the decision was made to reopen our economy, some people were reluctant to open their business, because they were afraid of getting sued. In Utah, a bill was passed that conferred immunity on all businesses against COVID-19-related lawsuits—a business can’t be sued, because there’s no way to prove COVID-19 was contracted at that location. I don’t know why more states aren’t passing this kind of legislation. See what the status is in your state, and, if businesses don’t have immunity, push your legislators for that,” Spencer urged.

One area in particular that provided a challenge was makeup. Fear Factory now only applies makeup using airbrushes, and it had to reduce the number of makeup artists in the makeup room from 17 to seven to maintain the six-foot distancing. However, they came up with some terrific makeup that incorporated PPE. Character masks were also created that integrated PPE. “I don’t think our production lab has ever been as busy as it was in the last month and a half,” said Spencer. “If people are interested in seeing photos of the masks our team created, we’re happy to share them.”

Another area of focus was costumes. “Costumes are tricky. Our goal is to have one actor in one costume for the entire season. Not everybody has a budget that allows for that, but, in our case, it’s vital. There’s a concern about coronavirus and other pathogens remaining for a certain period of time on fabric—costumes, seats—and we have to address that.”

Assure That Staff Feel Safe

As the first haunted attraction to open nationwide, a big concern was assuring that staff felt safe, so having a detailed plan in place was crucial. “At first, there was concern among our actors and our front-of-house staff, because they’re right there with the customers. We told everyone, ‘If you don’t feel comfortable for whatever reason, you don’t need to be here. We’re going to supply you with PPE and make sure you’ve got everything, but each individual has to make that decision.’”

Another change has been eliminating areas of the haunt that are subject to guest contact—claustrophobia walls, barriers, curtains, or any areas where guests have to push through, walk through, or move something out of the way. “All of that is gone,” said Spencer. “That was a difficult conversation, because those things serve as decoys to make the scare happen. So, taking that away is tricky. We had to think about the scare differently.”

Spencer pointed out that change is always going to happen—and that change has gone into hyperdrive with the pandemic. “You can either walk away from what appears to be a problem or lean in and try and figure out a way to make it work. Crises are terrible, but they also accelerate the development of good things—like an effect you probably never would have tried otherwise and ‘aha!’ moments that you never would have had. Our 60-page contingency plan includes a page or two of learning moments from our team.”

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Image Credit Fear Factory

How to Prepare for Reopening in Less than a Month

Fear Factory had about three and a half weeks to prepare for its reopening. “We focused on building props and scares to comply with the six-foot-distancing requirement. Scares had to happen outside that six-foot limit, and, as we know, scares work best the closer the actor is to the guest. We used audio scares, and we also used lighting in certain areas to create a sense of transition. We, in the industry, need to come up with ways to create transitions that don’t interrupt the flow or throughput but make it clear to guests where they’re supposed to go. One option is pathways that contain three right turns—turn, turn, turn—which has the cinematic effect of creating a visual wipe into the next room.”

Spencer believes it’s important, now, to have many staff cleaning and being seen cleaning. “We surveyed people exiting our Halfway to Halloween event and asked if seeing employees cleaning and wearing PPE made them feel more concerned or made them feel safer. The responses indicated that people felt good about seeing employees walking around in PPE. Our exit survey indicated that we’d marketed this event in such a way that guests felt safe enough to buy a ticket during a pandemic and be in a space where there were a lot of people. Basically, before you sell an event, you have to talk about safety. If you don’t, you’ll lose ticket sales. End of story. By the time we opened, we were already sold out. We put our plan on our website, which referred visitors to our ‘commitment to safety’ and an FAQ page, so they knew what we’d done to prepare and assure their safety.”

Create an A Team and a B Team

Spencer is looking at creating an A team and a B team for reopening in the Fall, similar to what restaurants are starting to do right now. “If anyone on a shift gets sick, everyone on that team has to quarantine for 14 days, so the idea is to have a back-up team ready at all times,” he said.

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Image Credit Fear Factory

People Are Ready for Haunt Season

That Halfway to Halloween was a sell-out, along with the positive responses from guests in Fear Factory’s exit survey for this event, demonstrate that people are ready to get out and get scared. However, data show that wearing masks and being conscious of social distancing take away from the fun of going to theme parks and attractions. “Our survey showed that people missed being touched by the actors—which had been an optional upgrade at Fear Factory. Also, we didn’t have concessions open, and we didn’t have our rides open, and people said they missed those things. Unfortunately, part of the new normal is that there are changes everywhere we go—the grocery store, our place of worship—but I think people are ready to lean into that.”

This Year, of All Years, You Need to Do Everything Right

Spencer emphasized how important it is for haunts to make the proper preparations and do this season right. If a haunt gets shut down, it doesn’t just affect that haunt and that market but the entire industry. This is why Fear Factory is making its contingency plan available for free to anyone in the entertainment business. “We were told we should charge $2,000 for this document by a third-party consulting firm, because it’s absolutely worth every penny. I even pushed our owners to do this, and they said, ‘Nope. We want to get this out to everyone in the industry to help pave the way.’ We, at Fear Factory, took the first step. We paved the first mile of a 30-mile journey, and each haunted house will pave another mile when it reopens. We just have to keep on doing that.”

Fear Factory added 20 additional items to its contingency plan above and beyond those required by the state. “That was probably overkill, but, as the first haunt to open, we wanted to do it right. And, at some point, it became less about Fear Factory and more about our industry. This plan cost us a lot of money, but our goal was to test this now rather than in our busy season.”

Spencer noted that some attractions in the Salt Lake City area are opening at 15% capacity, which isn’t sustainable. “We estimate that about 30% of our market won’t want to go to a haunted house this year, and that means our market will be very different. Haunted houses might consider sending out a survey to find out how many people would actually attend if their attraction opens this Fall, whether it be a large haunt or a small haunt. Some nonprofit haunts I’ve spoken to only make $5,000 to $10,000 in a season—and half of that may go to PPE and other mitigation efforts this year. So, it’s necessary to take all this into consideration when deciding whether to open.”

For the Halfway to Halloween reopening, capacity was decreased by 65% to 75%, depending on the hour that guests were there. “We knew we could safely have greater capacity, but, as I’ve said, this was a test, and we didn’t want to stress out our team or tarnish the industry. We’re building models by spreadsheet right now to come up with a best-case scenario for opening in the Fall.”

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Image Credit Fear Factory

Receive a Free Copy of Fear Factory’s Contingency Plan

To receive a copy of Fear Factory’s contingency plan, click here. On the Fear Factory website, under “FAQs” on the “Contact Us” page, visitors will be able to see a summarized version of the plan that was sent to all of Fear Factory’s customers. There’s a form to fill out to receive the 60-item PDF version. Fear Factory wants to make this available to everyone and also know who’s receiving it.

In summary, Spencer stated,

“In this crazy time, my advice is that we, as an industry, stay focused and move forward.”

Scott Swenson

by Scott Swenson

HAuNT Connect

about HAuNT Connect

HAuNT Connect is a FREE online community to connect the haunted attractions industry at large. Featuring live education and webinars by industry experts, vendor showrooms with products, virtual meeting opportunities to discuss and source products for your attraction, peer-to-peer networking, idea sharing, and more. Register here.