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Museum Design

Dreams of Haunting

By Leonard Pickel, Hauntrepreneurs.com Themed Attraction Design and Consulting

First Published in Haunt Rater Magazine

Throughout the year I am contacted by people asking how they can get open a Halloween event. Passionate dreamers these people have long lists of things the “pro haunters” are doing wrong and loads of ideas on how to make a truly scary fright experience. All they need to make their haunting dreams come true is money and they want me to tell them where to get it.

So I thought I would write this article describing what I tell these haunt dreamers, just in case there are many more of you out there who are afraid to ask or don’t know my email address.

Not As Easy As It Looks

Passion is great, but profit is how you survive. A Halloween event is a business like any other, and you have to treat it like a business to make it successful. 60% of ALL businesses fail, and I know too many well intentioned people who have lost their life savings, their house and their spouse because their passion for haunting drove them into acting before they were prepared.

Funding and location are the two biggest road blocks to opening a Halloween attraction. All the scare ideas, room designs, graphics and proposed floor plans are useless without the money to make them reality and a place to put the thing so the public can pay you to attend. Unfortunately, both of these pieces of the haunting puzzle are extremely difficult to obtain.

There is no haunt investment stash of cash for  want to be haunters to tap into, and unless you have collateral, like equity in your home to leverage against (which I don’t recommend), there is no bank that will be willing to loan you money for such a business. Finding someone with money to invest in your venture, is possible, but you may have to give up control and even ownership of the event in the process; so why bother.

Acquiring a location that is suitable for your event can be even harder than procuring funding. Few property owners are willing to short term lease land or a building, for fear that they would miss out on a larger long term tenant while you are in the space. Haunts also have bad reputations due to fly by night Halloween event operators leaving the rented space in poor condition with unpaid bills, making property owners wary of leasing for a haunt.

Terror Wasn’t Built in a Day

If you have sufficient funding and a suitable location; great! You are on your way. If you don’t have both, then you have to be more creative and or patient. Some of these solutions may take time to manifest themselves but time is what you really need to get some experience before owning your own haunt.

For instance, you can get a second or third job and save up your own money to invest in a haunt. You could even save up enough to purchase a piece of property for a location. The property investment will increase in value and provides a buffer for a bad year or equity to leverage for the construction costs of the event itself.

You could also build three haunt rooms in your garage this October. Open it for the neighborhood on Halloween and work the bugs out. Then put all of that equipment and structure into a storage unit. Next year build 3 more rooms from scratch and repeat until you have a whole haunt in storage ready to set up (once you find a location and additional money to advertise the event.)

I highly suggest that you go to work for a haunt and get hands on experience. Volunteer if you have to, but work on all aspects of the event so you understand what works and what doesn’t.

But You’re In A Hurry

If your haunting dreams are keeping you up at night and you have to haunt now, but you don’t have money or location, then you need to find someone who does and team up with them. Contact local Family Fun Centers, Amusement parks, Water Parks or Sports facilities that are not taking advantage of Halloween and talk them into teaming up with you. They have parking, restrooms, gated property and infrastructure that will save you money on the event. They already have a presence in the community, sponsors you may be able to tap into for capital, and traffic that you can advertise to all summer long. They also have media contacts and client list to direct market to.

A venue deal should be structured so that you own the web site and URL, storyline and name of the event. This makes it harder for them to take over the event once you have made it successful. The venue would provide the facility, funding for construction and advertising for the event. How those funds are paid back to the venue, the income split, and percentage of ownership for the attraction after the event is all negotiable, but once the cash investment is paid back, the split should be close to 50/50.

What Not To Do

The biggest mistake I see people make is moving forward without proper funding. A Halloween event is like any other business. It is three to five years before you see a profit. You have to have the capital to open the second year or there will be no second year. Failing to advertise properly is another common mistake made by first time and long time haunters alike. It doesn’t matter how fantastic your haunt is, if you don’t advertise it properly, it will eventually fail.

Many first time haunters get shut down before even opening by not knowing building and fire codes that must be adhered to before opening a business to the general public. Check the zoning of the property before you sign a lease and make sure Entertainment is allowed. Put a clause in your rental agreement that the building is up to code for an Assembly Occupancy and Special Amusement Building, or is the responsibility of the building owner to make it so.

What To Do

Learn the “rules of the game.” The Life Safety 101 Code Book is at your local library or available online. It is the “rule book” for haunting. Read the Assembly Occupancy and Special Amusement Building sections of the book. Read about egress and electrical requirements.

Develop a business plan with set goals so you can track your progress and change course if needed. Start small and add every year to get where you want to go. Set a budget for each phase of the construction and stick to the budget.  If you don’t you will end up pulling money from other places like advertising, which is the worst thing you could do. Find someone who has done it before so they can keep you from making the same mistakes that have been made countless times in the past.

If you will follow this sound advice, it will keep your haunting dreams from becoming a nightmare.

Leonard Pickel of Hauntrepreneurs.com is a Haunt consultant and designer with over 35 years of experience helping people open their first Halloween event. Join him and other Haunters from across the country at the annual Haunter’s Convention, HAuNTcon. www.hauntcon.com