With the predicted increase in demand for travel and entertainment this fall, haunts need to prepare their staffing now. Episode 58 of Scott Swenson’s A Scott in the Dark podcast addresses the staffing challenges haunts may face for this first post-pandemic Halloween season, and gives some advice on how to recruit & retain staff.
- Industries across the board are having issues recruiting staff post-pandemic.
- If your budget allows, raise salaries or offer new incentives; this is not the year to decrease salaries.
- A reunion party/audition for returning cast helps to strengthen bonds and excite staff for the coming year. You can even turn it into a “friend raiser” and encourage staff to bring in potential new recruits.
- Explore new pools of talent you have not tapped into before, such as local colleges, high school drama clubs, and senior citizens.
- Empower your staff & actors to seek out new potential recruits with printed info cards.
- Implement a suggestion program to make your staff feel empowered & heard.
- Praise in Public & Redirect in Private. Tools like buttons, merch, and ScareIt Badges allow actors to publicly display their achievements.
Why We Should Be Concerned About Staffing, Especially in 2021
Why do we need to be so concerned about staffing, especially for this season? Well it’s because number one, guests are going to be coming out. You’re going to have more guests than you can handle this Halloween season. It’s pretty bold of me to make that statement, but I am pretty certain, based on everything I’ve seen in pretty much every industry. People are ready to get out, and when it comes to Halloween, they’re going to be ready to get out, get scared, and have a grand old time. So, you’re going to have the guests. That’s the first issue.
The second issue is staffing has become incredibly difficult, pretty much across the board. Restaurants are having challenges, the entire hospitality industry is having challenges, the whole theme park industry is having challenges, zoos and attractions are having challenges, and museums are having challenges. It’s really tricky now to get people to come and work for you. I think that part of it is, during the pandemic our lives changed, so we either got used to not working, or working in a different way in a different industry. So, to go back and instantly change that behavior is really tough. I’ve talked to some folks, actually, who even are having trouble getting high paying corporate folks to come back into the office, because they’ve been working from home for so long that they just are like, “I don’t need to be in the office.”
There’s some large corporations that have even stopped paying the leases on their office buildings because all of their staff works from home. They’ve leased a much smaller space that has a conference room and a few satellite workstations. So, if it’s affecting everybody that high up in the economic food chain, you can just imagine how it’s going to hit us in the haunt industry. It’s been so bad in some restaurants that there was a McDonald’s chain that was paying people $50 just to fill out an application. So, it’s a real issue and you’re going to need to address that issue in every way you possibly can.
Rethink Your Pay Structure
If you are a haunt that actually pays their performers, whether that is a one-time stipend for the entire season, or you’re paying on an hourly basis, my suggestion is: look at your budget and see if you can raise it. Whether it is because people have gotten used to stimulus checks and unemployment, or whether it is because people have had a chance to reevaluate, they’re not coming back to the performing arts because they found other ways to make a pretty decent living that seem to be a little more stable. I think people are a little gun shy of wanting to get back out.
I think that if you do pay folks, this is not the year to reduce their salary. In fact, this is the year to increase it if you can make it work. Run the numbers. Take a look at your books, see what you can do, and if you can’t raise their pay, dangle a bonus in front of them. For example, do a raffle drawing where everybody who was there every single night gets a chance to win a big prize that was donated by somebody. Or maybe this year you look at it and say, anybody who is there every single night gets a $25 bonus or a $50 bonus or a $100 bonus, or whatever your budget will allow – just to make sure that even though you’re not raising their base pay you are actually increasing their overall pay for the season. It encourages them to come every single night of the event.
Make Working For Your Haunt Fun
You’re going to have to try to find more unique ways to encourage people to come out and be monsters, ghouls, and demons. It’s weird because I never thought for haunters, I would have to say it’s going to be tough to get people back, but I think our behavior has changed enough over the last year that it’s going to be tricky to get people to come back and be a part of your after-dark family. So whatever you can do to make the gig more fun, I would strongly recommend it.
At Busch gardens we used to do a reunion audition where it was only for people who had worked for the event before. It was a great way for people to come back together, say hi, and catch up for the year. I think that is even more important now than ever, because it’s not just catching up from the previous year, it’s catching up from the previous two years.
I think it will be nice to have this big old sort of reunion party/audition to strike up interest and to get your people locked in as soon as possible. Competition for the human beings that run your haunt is going to be very, very high. So, start letting them know, “we are coming back. We are going to need you. We value you.” If you do a big gathering or get together or party for your returning folks say, “bring somebody to audition, somebody that you think will fit in” and actually do the auditions on the spot, offer them jobs, and get them locked in over the summer.
Getting an Edge Over the Competition
Some of you may be thinking, “I’m out in the middle of nowhere, I don’t have competition.” Which is true, you may not have competition from other haunts, but you will have competition from other industries. You might be competing with the local McDonald’s, you might be competing with the local hotels, you might be competing with even nine to five day jobs because people are now working those to make up for the money they lost over the past year. So, the takeaway is: whether you are a paid haunt or a charity haunt, find ways to make it really appealing and really fun to come back. Whether that is an increased paycheck or increased fun factor, both of those work. Even if you’re paid, the increased fun-factor is going to is going to help you as well. There are some people now outside of the haunt industry who are no longer comparing what the salaries are, they’re comparing benefits. So, if you can offer a benefit that your haunt actors always wanted that other local haunters or other employers can’t offer, then just maybe you’ll have the edge.
Finding New Employees
Over the summer do a big welcome back party to make everybody excited about coming back and seeing each other again. If you can, do it in person. Don’t do it via zoom because everybody’s tired of zoom. Have your staff invite some of their friends who might be interested in helping for this upcoming year. Make it a “friend raiser”, not a fundraiser – continue to add people to the potential casting pool so that you can make sure that you’ve got enough people to do it.
Another thing that you might want to explore is, can you tap into a market of potential employees that you haven’t tapped into before? Every haunt has its own untapped market. If you’re in a college town, try contacting a local sorority or fraternity and see if they want to provide you with 5-10 people every night of your event. If they do that, then say you’ll give them a donation to their fraternity or sorority. I have seen that work in the past. The only challenge I’ve seen with that is that you don’t always get the same people and you have to constantly retrain them because they’re not necessarily haunters. But, they are great people to put behind drop doors, to take tickets, or to sell popcorn – and if they’re selling popcorn and sodas they’re already making back whatever your donation is to the fraternity or sorority. Plus it opens those people who may have sold popcorn for you every year, who understand the haunt, to actually be a performer within the experience itself.
Another untapped market is senior citizens and people who are retired. There’s a couple reasons that I always liked targeting seniors. Number one, they have an incredible work ethic. Once they commit, generally speaking, they will show up every single night that they told you they can be there. Also, this is a demographic that recognizes when Halloween was cool, and when it was all about trick or treating and raising hell. So, they get it, and I also think it’s a really cool element to have people who have real maturity and real age. So, it’s not just either a latex mask of somebody who has some life experience that shows on their face, or just a bunch of lines drawn in by a makeup artist. I think it gives you a great opportunity. In my experience, generally speaking, the seniors are not the best for the startle scares. They’re great for atmosphere. Quite often, they’re incredible for a queue line because they can just roam up and down the queues and creep the snot out of people.
I’ve also had good luck with schools and acting schools. In college towns there’s always a theater department. If you can hire 16 and up high school drama clubs are great. Maybe that’s an opportunity just like with the fraternities and sororities, maybe with the high school drama clubs you say, “we’ll make a $300 donation to the high school drama club and we want X number of performers each night of the haunt.” Those kids might actually be kind of fun; you might be able to do something with them as far as acting goes.
Use Business Cards for Recruiting
For everyone on your staff have cards printed up that say, “you would be perfect for:” and then put your haunt logo. On the flip side, be able to write in an audition date/time, or further information, or a website where they can sign up for an audition. Carry them with you. I can’t tell you how many times I have been out and about, and I’ll see somebody and I’ll think, “you know what? I bet they’d be a really good haunt actor,” and if I had had these cards, I could have just handed it to them. Now, you have to be careful because you don’t want to offend somebody. You don’t want to just walk up to somebody go, “wow, you’re really creepy looking, you want to work for a haunted attraction?” Some people would take that as a great compliment, others probably not so much. It’s a direct marketing approach and my guess is that the people who already work for you on your staff, perhaps even you, are hanging out in places where people would be kind of like, “Oh, that’d be cool. I’d get to dress up like a zombie or a monster and scare the poop out of people? I can do that.” Look at staffing and look at your casting pool with new eyes, because it is different, and you’re going to have to find new resources to bring people in.
Staff & Actor Retention
Now let’s talk a little bit about retention. This is basically keeping people around from the beginning of the season, to the end of the season. Anybody who is thinking to themselves, “Oh, that’s never a problem. Everybody I start with are exactly the same people I end with in the exact same position, and none of them got injured.” – if that’s the case, then you are either incredibly lucky or somehow lying to yourself, because haunting is hard work. It breaks people, and people who are not used to it decide, “you know what, this isn’t for me.” Even those most dedicated haunt cast members, real life will rear its ugly head and then they have to leave. So, do everything that you can to retain your people. The best retaining tool I’ve found is to make them feel like they’re doing a good job. Make them feel like they’re being heard.
Implement a Suggestion Program
The first thing I would do – because it costs zero money – is to start a suggestion program. Start a suggestion program where on the very first night you all get together as a cast you say, “look, we want to grow this haunt and we want to make it better and safer. So, here is the suggestion box. Please put your suggestions in this box with your name and your contact information. Anything that we select will get recognized and we’ll say this is a suggestion from Bob and Martha and they suggested to do this. Thank you, Bob and Martha for making this better, as a sign of our appreciation here is a gift certificate to Wendy’s.” I promise you, the gift certificate to Wendy’s won’t mean nearly as much as the fact that the owner/operator heard their idea, thought it was really cool, and implemented it publicly. So, start a suggestion program for retention.
Praise in Public & Redirect in Private
Find ways to reinforce what people are doing, and the way that you reinforce is also important. Praise in public redirect in private. When somebody does something right, make sure that everybody knows that that person has done something right. Then if they’ve done something wrong or they need to be redirected to do whatever it is that they’re doing in a different way, do that privately. The reason for this is the moment you make somebody feel bad about doing what they’re doing, then they stop doing anything. If you make somebody feel good, then instead of trying not to get caught doing bad things, they try to get caught doing good things. The concept is basically positive reinforcement, which means reinforce positive behavior and reinforce it in a positive manner.
The other thing about praising publicly is it makes everybody else aware of what the right thing looks like. They may have seen John or Malique do something really cool, and you saw them do something really cool. If you say, “that’s exactly right, John and Malique, that’s the way to do it way to go,” then everybody else looks at it and goes, “Oh, John Malique did that. I wonder if I should do that?” You may find out that your whole performance level goes up, because again, you’re reinforcing the positive behavior. So, that’s kind of a double win. It not only makes your product better, but it also makes people feel good so they stick around.
Awards, Pins, and Badges
There are a bunch of other tools. I always like to catch people doing things right. I used to have pins printed up when I was in the theme park world, and they just simply said, “I scared Scott”. People would go out of their way to terrify me when I would do walkthroughs of the haunts so they could get one of the “I Scared Scott” pins. I only made probably a hundred per year. So everybody knew once they were gone, they were gone. Another way to reward people is last year’s t-shirt. If you’ve got old swag or marketing stuff, use that as a way to recognize great performance in your staff, in your actors, etc.
I think “ScareIt Badges” are one of the smartest things I’ve seen in the industry in a really long time. For those of you who aren’t familiar with ScareIt Badges, ScareIt Badges are basically either pins or embroidered patches, kind of like merit badges. After you’ve accomplished something, you can wear the brag tag of the embroidered patch. Some haunts put them on jackets, some put them on t-shirts. I’ve seen the pins on lanyards. The neat thing about them is that they are very specific in what they are rewarding. Two of the new designs, for example, are “most improved” and “group leader”, and they’re haunt based images that reflect what’s being rewarded. “Fan Favorite”, for example, is a skeleton hand doing a thumbs up. “Media Mogul” is an old fashioned creepy microphone. There’s a bunch of others.
Another thing that’s really cool is they have started doing slashes or hashes that you would in the military for each tour of duty or each year that you’ve worked for the haunt. Again, it’s retention. It is bringing people back, and it’s actually giving your haunt performers, the ability to share that they are haunt performers. “Oh, really? You’re a scare actor? Where do you do that?” And then they will insert the name of your haunt right there. So, it’s also marketing. I’ve always been a big fan of ScareIt Badges, I think they’re great. So, check them out at ScareItBadges.com.
Why Retention is Important
So, why is retention important? On a basic level, it prevents there being a big hole in the cast; you walk into a room that used to have three killer jump scares and now it’s a room that’s filled with clown mannequins. Which is creepy in and of itself sometimes, but it would probably be better if the guests were screaming out loud, as opposed to just walking through going, “those are clown mannequins, that’s creepy.” Over and above that though, you’ve also got the fact that there is a cost involved – whether it’s a cost financially or a cost in your time – to retrain new people and to bring new people into your organization. Obviously, if you are paying them and have to put them through some sort of orientation and get their information, that has a cost to it. Even if you’re a volunteer haunt and you have to take some time out of your night to train somebody new that is a cost; that is a cost of either dollars or time.
Costuming is another concern. One of the things that I don’t think we’re going to be getting away from in the near future is some additional concerns and safety precautions when it comes to costuming. Throughout the pandemic, most haunters chose to do one costume per person. I think that’s a wise choice. That’s always been my choice in theme park, simply because we need to make sure that we’re not spreading diseases. When you’ve got a cast of nearly a thousand, you need to make sure that you’re not spreading whatever one of them gets to everybody else, because then you lose your cast. At the very least, say for example you lose one person and get somebody to replace them. If you want to use the same costume and it can be completely washed great, but it’s still going to have to be altered in some way so that it fits the new person. So, there’s a cost associated with it.
I believe that shows get better as the cast sticks around. When you start to understand the heartbeat of the haunt – because every haunt has its own sort of pacing and heartbeat – that once you start to get that with your existing crew, it becomes more effective, and a much better haunt. So, that’s another reason to not only bring people back year after year, but retain them throughout the season, so that you’re not adding a completely different factor into a well-oiled machine.