Operation Halloween: Managing Haunted Events in the Era of Coronavirus
This article is part of Funworld's series on haunted attractions in the era of COVID-19. Join us to learn more about what haunts will need to consider to operate during the pandemic.
Wearing masks for all, just not monsters, is in. Conga lines snaking through a haunted house are out.
“I think it’s important to recognize the reboot button has been pushed in our industry,” says Scott Swenson, a haunted attractions planner, who’s created more than 300 haunted houses. “It’s terrifying on the one hand, but on the other hand, it’s really exciting because it gives us the opportunity to fix things.” As the creative director of Busch Gardens Tampa Bay’s Howl-O-Scream event for the event’s first 15 years, Swenson is now the principal at Scott Swenson Creative Development, planning haunted attractions for clients around the globe.
“I think the biggest shift we’re going to see in haunted attractions is going to be the operational side,” he says.
Everything from queuing, throughput, capacity, cleaning, marketing, and finances will be different this fall. With early planning, Halloween events can entertain safely and still generate revenue in a new way.
“We need to face the challenge and get creative in the very best way,” says Manuel Prossotowicz, the director of marketing and sales at Movie Park Germany in Bottrop, who also plans the park’s annual Halloween Horror Festival.
Guests arriving at a haunted event may find things look different in 2020, Swenson says, as one major theme park operator has told him they are evolving their arrival process. “When guests arrive, they will get a mask to wear that is the bottom half of the face of their icon,” he says. “They are taking all of their guests, including them in their safety precautions, and creating an artistic statement.”
Another statement to make: staying clean. Disinfecting publicly, in view of guests, using additional staffing, is something Swenson recommends to his clients. “People are now going to want to see your staff going in and wiping things down with disinfectant. It shows you’re taking this serious enough to keep your guests safe.”
To stay within character, operators may want to think of ways cleaning crews can be incorporated into their Halloween theme or appear in a costume while cleaning inside a haunted house.
Navigating the Maze of Haunted Houses
The star of every Halloween event is the haunted house. That won’t change according to John Ruisch, the creative director at Leisure Expert Group in the Netherlands, a design and fabricator of haunted houses for theme parks. “The concept of a haunted house will be mostly the same,” says Ruisch based in Amsterdam. “Everything will depend on the evolution of COVID-19 and what the measurements will be for October.”
To help combat the coronavirus, Swenson believes operators need to develop new hourly procedures. “If they are smart, they’ll shut down every hour perhaps and do a spot clean of the area inside, especially if there are areas with railings,” Swenson says.
Moving mazes outdoors would create several limits. “Our most favorite haunted houses are indoor,” Prossotowicz says. “I guess we would lose the atmosphere of the event if we just have outdoor mazes.” The Movie Park Germany’s biggest maze is located within a sound stage, sporting a ceiling height of 15 meters, allowing for plenty of overhead space for greater ventilation. “We have dimensions that will allow us to operate a maze that is not too tight,” Prossotowicz says. “It would be impossible to change such a big haunted house into an outdoor version.”
Event planners also have to take into account daylight hours. Halloween Horror Festival opens each evening two hours before sunset. Having all outdoor haunted houses would require the event to start later in the evening. (Halloween Horror Festival at Movie Park Germany traditionally offers eight haunted houses and four scare zones.)
Get In Line
Upon reopening on May 29th, Movie Park Germany changed crowd and queue line management, following the recommendations of the German government and local authorities. “We will and need to adapt the learnings and experiences we get within our new daytime operational procedures and adapt them to our Halloween concept,” says Prossotowicz.
Here are ways Movie Park Germany is looking to move guests through Halloween Horror Festival in 2020:
- Queue lines will only move in one direction.
- Bigger outdoor lines will be built, thus avoiding the need to wait indoors.
- The cancelation of pre-shows will prevent guests from standing in a confined space.
- A timed ticketing approach will allow guests to select what time they want to enter a haunted house. This could be done when visitors purchase their tickets online.
Swenson is a believer in evolving tight queue lines. Instead of guests proceeding through a block of metal fencing, he suggests operators create a bullpen, where guests can roam freely, distance themselves from others, and complete a task, where they gather clues to solve a puzzle. “You put a bunch of different things in different areas so that they earn the right to enter the haunted attraction,” he suggests.
Party’s Over for the Conga Line
Capacity through a haunted attraction is key for keeping wait times low and guest satisfaction scores high. Using a conga line—where guests are continuously admitted in a winding snake line—can keep lines moving. Swenson says this is the year to use a pulsed entry, where guests are admitted in small groups at timed intervals.
When one of his clients looked to increase their capacity by moving to a conga line this fall, Swenson redirected their plans in reaction to COVID-19. “The first thing I told them was, ‘That’s great—for 2021. Don’t do it this year.’ I honestly believe—from not only a safety standpoint, but [how] we have been programed by being quarantined—that there are going to be a large number of people who are going to be a little hesitant to go into a mass event,” he explains.
At Move Park Germany, Prossotowicz says, “We always try to avoid conga lines to create a more intense and immersive experience.” This year, the park may pulse their entry into haunted houses. “To create a better capacity, we could check when the group passed a certain area where we can guarantee that they will not get in conflict with another group,” he says. The park is looking at the use of sensors, combined with a traffic light system near the front of the queue, to manage entry into houses.
Having lower a capacity is something Ruisch says operators need to plan for in 2020. “The capacity of the houses could go down if we are still in the 1.5 meter economy. Then there will be no more conga lines and the scare actors need to train themselves in different scare techniques,” he says.
Managing Expectations with Marketing
A guest’s satisfaction level at a haunted event will be directly tied to how the event is marketed in 2020. With fear a real emotion during a global pandemic, selling fear as fun will need to evolve this year. According to Prossotowicz—who also handles brand development at Movie Park Germany—operating under a different slogan each Halloween allows the park to adjust their approach to current trends and different social climates.
“The slogan is a kind of subtitle that allows us to market the event clearly within the target group and transport the main focus,” he says.
Instead of using fear as a selling tactic, a revolving focus can center around a character, a novelty item, or an anniversary. For example, during the 20th anniversary of Halloween Horror Festival, the park used the slogan, “Celebrate the bloodiest birthday party ever.” This year, a more mild slogan may be more appropriate. When Movie Park Germany added a popular DJ to their event, the park coined the more subdued slogan “Dance with the daemons.”
Now is the time of year to tweak a marketing plan or develop a new slogan, as Ruisch says it’s “a bit early” in the Halloween planning cycle to share full details of an event.
“We are working with the parks for the Halloween season 2020, but all of the planning is still very confidential at this moment,” he says.
Modifying Revenue Projections
If social distancing measures are still in place this autumn and park capacity is limited compared to 2019 levels, Swenson says haunted event operators need to realize their revenue will dip in 2020. While adding additional operating nights in order to serve more guests may be an option, costs will ultimately rise. “One major theme park has floated the idea, ‘Do we reduce our capacity to 25% of what it once was?’ And then how do you make the business model for that work?” Swenson asks. He says reducing capacity by 75% would result in an increased admission price and the need to generate additional revenue inside the gate.
Movie Park Germany’s Halloween Horror Festival first started with a 12 day run. With its popularity rising over the last four years, the park offered 23 event nights in 2019 to meet the demand of guests wishing to visit. “We hope to operate Halloween 2020 with the same amount of event days than past years,” Prossotowicz says.
Meantime, Swenson believes a new era is upon seasonal haunted attractions. “Are we going to get back to the way it once was? I don’t know,” he says. “In my heart of hearts, I have a tendency to believe we are establishing new rules.”