By Cliff Martin
Many business owners remain content with their businesses. They feel
that if their businesses were going to take-off, they would. Well, in
reality, you must work at a business and direct it to where you want it
to take you, not the other way around. Most of the time, business success
is simply planning not to fail.
When a business fails, the owners blame anyone and everyone in sight
except themselves. They thought that they knew everything they needed
to know. Unfortunately, the one thing that they didn't know was how to
compensate for economic woes. Building a business requires you to have
the insight, the vision, and the will to make it work. 95% of all business
owners spend more time working IN their business than ON their business.
Are you one of them?
Plan your Business
Instead of working season to season, developing a business plan will give
you a 'roadmap' to know how to proceed in the coming years to grow your
business. A business plan gives focus and directs efforts. It presents
goals to help determine what needs to happen to ensure future success
in your business.
Plan your Haunt
Document your floorplan: the rooms, decorations, props, exits, actor positions,
costumes, support personnel, break areas, parking, exterior lighting -
everything you can think of. Put it all on paper. Match the plan to the
site. If it doesn't fit on paper, it probably wont fit on the ground!
Use this plan as a guideline to develop your budget and its impact to
your business plan.
Make an Operating Budget
To avoid 'unforeseen' costs and heavy losses, creating an operating budget
helps determine whether or not ideas can work in your business context.
Track Operating Expenses
Do more than simply keep your receipts. Regularly enter expenses into
a ledger, either paper-based or computer-based. Products such as Excel,
Quicken or QuickBooks can greatly simplify daily business activities -
even for a seasonal business.
Plan your Operations
Develop and document procedures for your operations. Create name tags,
sign in/sign out sheets, work and break guidelines for your employees.
Create an employee handbook and give a copy to everyone who works for
Implement a planning calendar
A personal planner like a DayTimer, DayRunner or Palm Pilot will help
organize tasks that need to be accomplished on time. Keep a record of
all important due dates. Estimate the time it will take to implement the
tasks, and note in your timer when you need to start each task. Maintain
a calendar Keep an up-to-date calendar handy so that everyone responsible
for the haunt's progress can easily find tasks and due dates. Hint - keep
a large laminated planning calendar prominently displayed in the work
area. Keep an eraser and marking pen attached to the calendar.
Keep your planner updated!
Keep a large notepad close by and encourage everyone to make notes on
things they need, things they may suggest, things they like and don't
like. READ these notes every day, and respond to them!
Develop a Professional Image
This applies to everything you do: advertising, the look of your location,
the actors and their costumes, and your operations.
Your customer's first impression is the first thing they talk about!
Things to do:
- Create quality artwork and advertising materials. This includes a
professional look and presentation of logo; concise, understandable,
and well written commercials and print articles.
- Build a great façade. If your venue is within view of the public,
such as walk-by traffic, your façade should be first and foremost,
before the inside show even begins construction.
- Train your staff. Your staff should know what to do in most every
situation, and what you expect them to do in the unforeseen situations.
- Pay Attention to Details - They often make the difference. Being well
organized will show, and being unorganized will show even faster.
When you get to scrambling, it's often easy to overlook the small stuff.
Make a trusted helper "King" or "Queen" of small
Things to avoid:
- Equipment that is unsteady, shabby, or cheaply made.
- Signs handwritten on cardboard with magic markers.
- Disorganized parking lots and entrances/exits.
- Sets and effects that are partially built, not working, or temporarily
fixed with visible duct tape.
- Staff that is unprepared for questions and unexpected events.
- Lack of adequate staff for taking tickets, directing customers, directing
- Employees who are dressed in street clothes, with no name tags or
uniforms that identify them as employees of the haunt.
- Employees who loiter within sight of customers when on break.
- Lack of signs with directions to the haunt. Signs should be professionally
produced, easy to read, and on sturdy material.
- General disarray of area around the haunt (trash and overflowing trash
bins, exposed electrical cords, air compressors and other equipment
not hidden from customer's view)
- No insurance. Yes, be sure to have adequate liability insurance for
- At best, an unprofessional atmosphere makes the customer uncomfortable.
At worst, it makes them angry enough to tell their friends to stay away.
Analyze Your Show
The two most important aspects to your show is Safety and Value. Be sure
your show meets all the inspectors requirements, and then some! Be sure
you have the procedures in place to ensure safe operations. In the case
of an incident, its better that everyone knows what to do, instead of
scrambling, or worse, panicking. You need to be sure your show is genuinely
safe, meeting all necessary codes and then some.
You also need to be able to guarantee your patron a decent return for
their entertainment dollar. A half dozen scenes, even good ones, that
take only 7 minutes to go through are not worth $20! But is it worth $10?
or $6? or $3? Make your patron's dollar worth it and they'll be back with
their friends. And they'll all be back next year!
Analyze your attraction from an outsiders point of view. Become the person
that never heard of the event, lives 15-30 miles away, and has no clue
where you are located, but wants to go to a Haunt. Or get a trusted haunt
buddy to do this for you.
Is your location clearly marked? Is the parking defined? Are you easy
to find? Is it easy to park, buy a ticket, get into the haunt? Did you
wait too long and get bored?
Analyze your promotional material ... Is it short, concise and to the
point? Why boggle up a 11x17 poster with graphics if there's no map, phone
number or address ... Same for Radio ads ...
Find your show and business weaknesses. Ask questions. Seek advice. No
matter how it may dent your ego or bruise your haunt baby, actively seek
Develop exit interviews from your guests. They can tell you a lot about
themselves, their impressions of your haunt, how effective your show and
marketing was (or wasn't). Find out what works and doesn't work. Create
a way to capture the opinions at least 10% of your nightly attendance.
The 10% number is generally considered statistically significant to make
decisions on customer responses.
Ask your staff every night what works or doesn't. Ask both privately
and publicly. Setup up some time before and after the show to find out
what your staff is thinking. You can avoid problematic situations if you
know what might be broken, missing, or who's angry with who and make adjustments
even minutes before the show opens! Be sure you're approachable - stop
- look in the mirror, take a deep breath, and smile.
Don't forget to do a serious end-of-season evaluation session with your
staff as well. If you create an atmosphere where they feel safe in sharing
their ideas, complaints and accolades, you'll learn immensely!
Learn to Delegate
To grow, you need to trust and invest in others. At a minimum, you need
to have a key person responsible for each of the following areas:
- Technical operations (lighting, sound, special fx, animatronics)
- Costuming and makeup
- Administration and box office
- Marketing and promotions
These do not have to necessarily be paid positions, but do try to find
someone who knows more than you about each of these areas and help them
blossom. Don't worry -- you're still in charge if you're paying the bills!
Focus on People
Every other aspect of this or any other business depends upon the quality
of the people involved. Haunts tend to attract teens, "grownup kids,"
and other people who simply enjoy playing with props and talking about
Halloween. This may be fine for a home haunt or a school activity, but
is unacceptable in a business environment where hundreds of hours, thousands
of dollars and professional reputations are at stake. The people involved
must demonstrate skill in their areas of responsibility, must be willing
to work as a committed team, must set and meet deadlines, and must understand
the requirements of a business.
A team of responsible, creative, enthusiastic people can have a ball constructing
and operating a successful haunt. A team of undependable, egocentric,
moody individuals who simply like the idea of Halloween, the goth style,
and props run the risk of losing a great deal of time, money and respect.
Actors, backstage hands, guides, builders, managers, all must take their
roles seriously if your haunt is to succeed. Choose your people carefully!
Customers equal cash. Repeat. Customers equal cash. Most haunted houses
split their priorities 90% Haunt (rooms, etc.) and 10% customer service.
It's only natural. You've got lights, sets, and effects to worry about
- who thinks about the customers?
Consider a customer service position, someone whose sole task is making
sure your 'customer guest' feels they are in the right place getting a
great value for their dollar.
Have a Passion for Haunting
A haunt owner must have a real passion for the Halloween experience. Quite
frankly, it can't be "just about the money" or you are much
better off investing your time, effort and cash elsewhere. You're never
going to get wealthy running a haunt. But you can pay the bills decently
if you do things right, are willing to stick in there a few seasons, and
know how to manage an operation. Your Halloween passion is what will give
you the energy to make it through 20+ hour days for 2-3 months (at the
Obviously, you have to be in decent health to take the wear and tear
(loss of sleep, quite a bit of physical labor, stress related to obnoxious
patrons, rain-filled nights and code enforcement Nazis). You also need
to be certain your family and significant other is supportive of your
commitment to this thing. Nothing can tear apart a relationship - or tear
you apart inside - as badly as trying to be 100% loyal to too many masters
at the same time.
Learn, Learn, Learn
How do you grow? Analyze, study, research, get off your pedestal and seek
out other haunters around the country to learn from. No one knows everything.
The sad truth is that, since most haunts are only open during the same
30-day period, it's virtually impossible for an owner to visit many other
haunts while in operation. But try to visit as many as you can - and check
out others even in the "off season." Be open to every new piece
of information and education available (seminars, books, magazines, web
sites, the IAHA, mailing lists). Take courses at your local community
colleges on business, advertising, and marketing. Network with professionals
in your community and learn from them. Join a local service organization
and develop relationships.
Filter What You Learn
Try not to just get jazzed about fun, new props and gadgets. It's easy
to spend your energy on the candy and forget the big picture of running
a more effective operation. Of course improving your production is one
of those elements, but it's not the Whole Deal.
All too often, owners throw money into the 'toys' to " improve their
operation". It IS fun, and exciting, but does not necessarily cure
problems. What was your guests lasting impression? Was it the $5,000 spider,
or was it the .02¢ spider a staff member gave to all the children
in the family while they waited in line? - which still sits on top of
the TV in the living room!
Always keep this filter in the back of your mind:
"Will this help my business grow?"
It's amazing how many distractions can be dismissed when this question
is answered. Improve Your Business Processes In quality improvement circles,
there is a process known as "value-added flow analysis" (VAFA).
Three basic criteria are used to determine if an activity adds value
to a process. Then the value added time is divided by the total process
time. This produces a percentage of time spent adding value to a process.
The three criteria are as follows. An activity must meet all three to
be considered value adding.
- An activity adds value if the customer cares about it.
- An activity adds value if it physically changes the part going through
- An activity adds value if it is done right the first time.
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