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Haunt Business Tips

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 you!

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!

Encourage suggestions
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 stuff!

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 parking, etc.
  • 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 your event.
  • 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 ...

Get Feedback
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 others opinions.

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:

  • Construction
  • Technical operations (lighting, sound, special fx, animatronics)
  • Actors
  • Costuming and makeup
  • Administration and box office
  • Marketing and promotions
  • Security/EMS/parking.

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 least).

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 the process.
  • An activity adds value if it is done right the first time.



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