This blog is based on Episode 33 of my A Scott in the Dark podcast, which was called, “’Tis the Season.” This wasn’t a Christmas episode. No. It was summer, which is the season when we start preparing for haunting. By this time, all of the major theme parks and scream parks have completed their auditions, and they’re starting to release information about this year’s haunt season. Here in Florida, for example, Universal Studios had been releasing the concepts for its haunted houses for this this year one at a time to get that excitement going early.
By the end of summer, you should have all your changes and designs complete for the season ahead with an eye toward the implementation stage. At Howl-O-Scream, we used to say that all of our top-line concepts had to be done by the end of January or beginning of February, and by the time summer events at the theme park started to slow down or had already closed, we could shift all of our labor and energy into the creation of the Halloween event. If you do Halloween and also a Christmas event, your changeover time is short. This year, in particular, most haunted attractions extended into November because of where Halloween fell during the last week of October.
Auditions and Other Resources to Find the Right Kind of Talent
Let’s talk about auditions, which can be controversial. I’m a proponent of doing auditions for a number of reasons. Chief among them is I feel this is best way to find the best cast possible. I have all of my characters in each room planned out ahead of time, so I know what each of their traits are, what their costume is, and what their props are. It’s important for me to find the right person for the right role. My thinking on this is explained in my recently published book, Follow the Story. I’m all about the story.
So, I make everybody audition, including my volunteer actors. This way, I make sure I have people who aren’t only the right people from a performance standpoint but are committed enough to show up for an audition and stay through the season. Auditions are also an early way to help promote your event. You might even get some media attention. Often, the news story will go like this: “You’re not thinking about Halloween, but the folks at Busch Gardens Howl-O-Scream are.” That’s a great way to plant seeds in July or August for your Halloween attraction.
In some states, high school students receive volunteer hours for performing in a haunt. You can partner with a high school and get some of the drama students or the class clowns—those larger-than-life youngsters—and provide them a way to channel their energies and put in their volunteer hours.
My auditions consist of a series of improv games. I’ve been casting and training people for so long now that I can pretty much tell within the first three minutes of the audition whether someone is hirable or not. By the end of a 10-minute audition, I can usually tell what kind of role they’re going to do best in.
The cast will make or break your haunt. This is something I feel very strongly about. As you’ve heard me say before, if you give me three good actors and a candle, I can scare the crap out of you. Make certain your actors work together as a team and they’ve got each other’s backs. Scare acting is a team sport, and there’s no room for grandstanders, showboaters, or divas. The audition process makes sure everyone starts on an even level. Also, in my opinion, when people are chosen to be part of a cast, they feel special. That being said, plenty of haunters get great results without holding auditions.
Start Your Marketing Campaign
Once your casting is complete and your construction is underway, try to get ahead of the game with your marketing media. I like printed material for marketing. Some people do flyers and posters, but one of my favorites is party hats, which I think is absolutely brilliant. With high school students, printed material like a hat will show up at their parties. Posters and fliers work well with older audiences.
Printed material can be especially effective when put up in record stores, comic book stores, bars, or in a university area (on the university activities board). I’ve also heard that table tents can work well in the right restaurant or bar. Please sound off in our Facebook group about what has worked for you.
Printing can be done either locally or by an online vendor like Vista Print. [Full disclosure: I don’t get any kickbacks for mentioning this company.] Local printers and online companies often have sales on print runs, so start paying attention to any discounts. Your bricks-and-mortar printer might be able to turn a job around faster than an online vendor if you need something in a hurry. Know your printing needs and deadlines, so if you see a sale offering 40% or more off the regular price, you can spring into action. When I had a booth at the Transworld show, I waited until Vista Print had a sale on retractable banners and got my banner for 50% off. Get on the email lists of printing companies, and watch for the sales.
Business cards are a great way to promote auditions. They can be left around at high schools at the beginning of the academic year.
Jump on the media layout on your computer and continue to craft and fine tune your message. Before things get wacko-gonzo crazy, put together five different ideas for whatever advertising you’ll be doing: flyers, posters, banners, etc.
Share your first marketing message when you’re still weeks away from opening. A second can be shared two weeks out. Then do another one for opening and another for what I call the hump—the middle of the season when your guest flow is starting to slow down. Do one more blast on the final weekend, which is your last chance. Get them done now, and plug them in at the appropriate times.
Your Best Marketing Resource
Ultimately, the best marketing resource is your cast, because they’re the folks that are the most excited about your haunt. Some haunts do profit sharing. If that’s the case with yours, your cast is going to want a gazillion people to come out and experience your haunt.
You can provide your cast members with images to post on social media. Allow and encourage your cast to post images of themselves with the haunt’s logo. Give them some ownership, a brag tag that says, “Hey, it’s me. Come see me, friends.” A cast of 50 who contact five people, each of whom contact five more people, can soon make the message viral. It’s a powerful driver for ticketing—online or otherwise.
Providing tee-shirts to cast members by September is another great marketing tool. Shirts can be ordered in bulk and serve as walking billboards. They can even be sold as merch. This is part of broadcasting a consistent message: “We’re the best haunt in town.”
Pins are a cost-effective way to get your logo out there. I have Scott in the Dark candle-bulb pins with me at all times. I hand these out to as many people as possible, because it’s a great way to build brand recognition.
Look for Partners and Sponsors
You can also think of reaching out to partners as part of your marketing strategy. Don’t consider other haunts in your area solely as competition—the enemy—but as actors in the same ecosystem as you. If you’re both doing good work, it will only expand general interest in haunting. You can cooperate with these partners to grow the demand for more haunting in your area.
Try to recruit local vendors to help market your haunt. If you have a small-town haunt, perhaps you could have a local ice cream shop create a sundae filled with gummy worms and bats and skulls and name it after your haunt. The customer buying it might get a 10% discount to visit your haunt or something like that.
For more mature audiences, consider teaming up with a bar. See if a local tavern will name a drink after your haunt or allow you to put up posters and a display featuring one of your key characters. Your greatest strength in finding a sponsor is to tell them about last year’s attendance. There are many ways to come up with a mutually beneficial arrangement.
Use any reason you can think of for you and others to talk up your haunt. When you put up your posters, fliers etc., document it on social media. Example: “Here we are putting up posters at Bob and Martha’s record store.” Or, if a bar agrees to name a drink after your haunt, take three cast members in full costume and makeup to the bar, have them test that drink, and videotape the experience. The more you talk about your haunt, the more other people will talk about your haunt.
The biggest haunts, scream parks, and theme parks have sponsorship deals with Coca Cola or Pepsi, but this is arranged regionally, believe it or not. SeaWorld in Texas has different corporate sponsors than Busch Gardens in Tampa or Busch Gardens in Williamsburg. Most distributors are willing to put bottle hangers, stickers, or wraps on their products. Strategies like, “Show up with an empty can of Coke and get 10% or $10 off” can work effectively.
Coke people want to sell Coke, and you want Coke to promote your haunt. So, it’s kind of a win-win scenario. Sponsorships could work for you, but this requires getting in early. Summer might be too late, but it never hurts to try. If at first you don’t succeed, chances are they’ll remember you next year.
Eventually, you get into the construction phase of the season. You’ll likely be doing much of the construction yourself, but don’t hesitate to outsource fabrication to someone in your area who can create staging and deliver it in pieces. This might be more efficient in terms of time and money. Offsite construction and storage (for the off-season) could be a reasonable part of your business plan.
If you outsource carpentry or fabrication, go over everything with a fine eye to make sure everything fits together as a unit. All too often, we see flats that don’t line up. Their seams are open, so they look like flats rather than brick walls or whatever because the pattern of the bricks wasn’t lined up properly.
One aspect of fine finishing is getting your staging to look old and scary. I love going in and aging stuff, getting my Hudson sprayer and filling it with a little bit of acrylic paint, a little bit of water, and some Coke or diet Coke. I prefer diet Coke because it doesn’t draw as many flies. The carbonation in the diet Coke keeps the paint in liquid form longer, so it drips farther down the wall. You can just spray in the corners with your Hudson sprayer and then go back and do another layer of another color. The carbonation makes it drip all the way down, which creates some really cool aging. It’s quick and easy, but you can’t do this unless all the walls are up…
Document the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly
Document everything you’re doing—even those things that don’t work out. You might find a way to make use of this information later—perhaps as early as mid-season. This means documenting every aspect of your construction. Get out there, take videos, and put them up on YouTube. Document the casting process with photos, video, and quality audio. Don’t worry, you’ll be nowhere close to giving away even a fraction of the scares in your haunt. I’m not talking here about a point-of-view walkthrough. I’m just talking about putting images and video on your social media from when you first start preparing through the end of your event. People return to social media when there’s new stuff to see. If I get a message that says XYZ page has something new, that’s where I go.
Tis the season, because we usually think of things too late. When the Spirit store has taken over the first floor of the closed Sears in your local mall, you know it’s time to really start to kick things into high gear. I trust I’ve jogged your memory or given you some new ideas or things to think about. As I often say, I don’t have all the right answers; I just have a whole bunch of really good questions. Use your creative mind to come up with the right answers that work for you.
Please go to our A Scott in the Dark group on Facebook. If you’re not a member, please join and share your thoughts. And, until next time, rest in peace.