First Published in Haunted Attraction Magazine
I frequently get phone calls from people interested in starting a Haunted House. Sometimes they are Home Haunters who have been told by their friends and neighbors that “Their Yard Haunt is 10 times better than the professional ones in town.” Some of them are kids, (as I surpass 50 years of age, anyone under say 30 is a kid to me), with great enthusiasm, brimming over with ideas on how to scare people, but no clue how to raise money to get their mega-haunt into production or how to push enough people through an attraction to make it profitable. Or in some cases they are business people who happened to drive past a local Haunted Attraction at 9pm on the Saturday before Halloween, estimate the number of people in line, multiplied that by the ticket price and the number of days in October and get the brilliant idea that “Haunted Houses are a gold mine!”
At any rate, each of these people have the notion that they could make a good living scaring people and only have to work one month a year, “It’s only a Haunted House… how hard could it be?” Unfortunately, these people are on a dangerous path to financial ruin, and too many of these cases end up doing damage to the Haunting industry along the way. They will mortgage their lives to “get rich” in the Haunted House business and when they fail, (as a majority of all new business do), they fail hard, leaving actors, rent, prop, and advertising bills unpaid, and making it even harder for other Haunters to get landlords, employees or radio stations to even talk to them. At least the people who call me did do one thing right, they called a consultant! Which I hope will keep them from losing their home, their spouse and their life savings. If you are planning to open a Haunted Attraction, then please hire someone who has done it before to help you along the path! Even a poor consultant will save you many times over what his fees are. (Yes, in the pretense of full disclosure I am a consultant, but you don’t have to hire me. Practically everyone in this industry is an expert. Just ask them!) So, when these people call me, I attempt let them down softly and bring them back to reality. Let me hit some of the highlights for you:
- If Haunting was a get rich quick scheme, or even an easy way to make a living, don’t you think everyone would be doing it?
- A Haunted House is a year round business that takes enormous amounts of time and effort compared to what you get out of it financially.
- A Haunted House is a business like any other, and 60 percent of all businesses fail in the first 2 years. If you do not treat your Haunt like a business, it will fail too!
- A surprising percentage of Haunts in the country, do not “really” make a profit. If the owners paid themselves for their time, paid for their volunteer actors and labor, they would realize they Haunt because they love it, not because it is profitable.
- Most Haunt owners have non Halloween related day jobs to support them the rest of the year. Sometimes those jobs support their Haunted House as well.
However! It is possible to make a living with a Haunted Attraction, and there are people who are doing just that. For more than 30 years I have been doing everything in my power to help those who are not making any money, get to the profitable stage:
- Through the articles I collect and write for Haunted Attraction Magazine.
- Through the Haunt Ed Seminars I select and offer for HAuNTcon
- Through the 3 hour plus “How To Get Started” seminar that I offer at every gathering I can talk them into letting me speak at.
- Through consulting services, and brokering used attractions that I offer to the industry.
I am not sure how much of this is sinking in though. Too often I see people skip an important business seminar offered at a convention and hurry to the standing room only seminar on “Cheap Scares.” There is even a mentality out there on some lists, that making money with your Haunt or your Haunted business is somehow, not in the spirit of the season! These “Haunters” look down on others who “just pump people though their Haunt, so they can make a buck!” Please allow me to fill in those of you who think that profit is bad thing, (If you have been to one of my seminars, then I hope you have this statement engraved in your brain already!) … “If You Do Not Make a Profit With Your Haunt, Then You Don’t Get To Play Anymore!”
Now please understand, I am not advocating ripping off the paying public! That hurts the industry as a whole, but October is only 5 weekends long, and if your attraction cannot give people a show and move them along quickly while you are doing so, then you “Will not get to play anymore!” So after I have said all this, do you still want to do a Haunt? If so, the first thing you do, (after a web site and Facebook page) if you are thinking about doing a haunt is to write a business plan. Here is all you need to know about a business plan: TICKET PRICE X ATTENDANCE = TOTAL INCOME TOTAL INCOME – TOTAL COST = PROFIT (NOTE: Profit must be greater than or equal to zero. If it is not greater than or equal to zero, then don’t do the project!)
So how do we do that? Now this is going to upset several of you, and for that I apologize! Please understand. “It is my personal belief that there is no right or wrong way to Haunt, and that the following recommendations are just that, recommendations. They are simply Haunting principles that have made Haunts successful in the past!” Your particular situation could be quite different, (but I doubt it!) Disclaimer out of the way, here is what I preach to anyone who will listen:
- It will cost you between $20 and $35 per square foot to build an attraction, or a little bit cheaper if you decide not to hire a consultant. (NOTE: If you decide not to hire a consultant, then please also decide not to open a Haunted House!)
- You must spend in advertising $2 – $3 per person for every one person you are trying to get to buy a ticket, and this money must be spent wisely. You target attendance should be 20,000 people so that is between $40,000 and $60,000 in advertising dollars alone!)
- Attendance in most markets is exponential, it almost doubles each weekend!! To be able to do $20,000 people in 5 weekends (75 hours) your hourly capacity needs to be at least 700 people per hour on the last weekends. To design a Haunt that can take 700 people an hour and still give them a quality experience, you need to hire a Haunt designer! That is what they do!!
- In my personal opinion Haunts are overpriced, which is why I push people to go Multi Element! (Whatever you are charging now for your single haunt, if you divided it into two attractions you could charge more! So why do you still have a single Haunt?) My approach is at the very least two elements, but preferably 4 elements to get a $20 “combo” ticket price. (And please, put the Haunts side by side so people can choose which to go to next. When you put the haunts “nose to tail,” it is still just one big haunt with queue lines along the way!)
- Today, I try not design any attraction over 2,000 square feet. So a 4 element event, (which, now that you have 4 Haunts actually is an event!) is only 8,000 square feet of plywood actors and props. Each element is differently themed and should be a completely different style of attraction, not just more of the same thing! This provides a much greater perceived value than what a single 8,000 square foot Haunt that you would have a tough time getting $20 for!
- Don’t do a Haunted House in your home town, just because you live there! Go to the big city!! You will only be there a month or two and there are many more people there for you to draw from!! (Seems simple enough, but in over 30 years of consulting; only one client has said to me, “I want to open a Haunt where should I put it?”
- Don’t do a Haunted House inside of an interior Mall, and if you already are, consider moving it. Haunting is a date thing. Malls are a shopping thing. A guy who is trying to impress his date is not going to take her to the mall! For this and perhaps other reasons, it is more difficult to drive large numbers, 20,000 plus, people to an event in a mall. It is my experience that the same attraction would do much better out in the parking lot of the same mall, than it does inside.
- Panelize your wall system so you can easily change, rearrange, or move your attraction to a new building. And do not let the local building officials tell you your Haunt has to be built out of sheet rock. Nowhere in the code book does it say what a movable partition must be made of! I have seen a person run through a sheetrock wall before, and they are impossible to move! Flame treated lumber, flame retardant paint or spraying flame retardant on the finished sets are all ways to get the required flame spread rating for these “temporary panels,”
So! You take these numbers and plug them into the formulas above to figure out if your business plan will make a profit, (Note: It takes three to five years for most start up businesses to turn a profit! So put that additional cash in your business plan calculations.) If the numbers don’t show you will make a profit, then change the parameters, until they do. Increase you advertising budget, decrease the number of actors required, add an additional element to increase the ticket price, or decrease your construction costs! But do something to make the math work before you drive a single screw. Because! (Read it out loud with me!!) “If You Don’t Make a Profit With Your Haunt, Then You Don’t Get To Play Any More!”
Keep ‘Em Screamin’!
Leonard Pickel is Owner of Hauntrepreneurs(R), a Dark Design and Consulting Firm, Founder of Haunted Attraction Magazine, Owner and Creator of the Haunted Attraction National Tradeshow and Convention, (HAuNTcon), Partner of Findahaunt.com Haunted Attraction locater. Leonard is available for consulting, Haunt design, permit drawings and lectures, (like the one above). Contact him at 972-951-5100 or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org