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Building a 5 Minute Escape Room
Tue, May 19, 2020
Building an Automated 3 Minute Escape Game
Ben Armstrong - NETHERWORLD Haunted House - www.Fearworld.com
  Escape games!  A year ago everyone was talking about them, and if they weren’t opening them they were thinking about it.  Not us. Long, long ago we tried all sorts of wacky haunt related activities until we made a simple decision – focus on the core!  We did and it worked out for us very well and allowed the haunt to become successful. But EVERYONE was just diving into these escape games and it seemed to be the main thing haunters wanted to talk about. Did we want a new full time job? No thanks… the haunt kept us busy enough. Did we have room for it? Nope, we were using every inch and didn’t want to pull back on show space. But then I heard Kelly Collins speak about 3 minute escape games and it got me thinking…Only open when the haunt is… Only takes up a tiny footprint… Something new and fun to try…. So we figured why not and jumped in!
Right out of the gate Max (my son) and I were most concerned with throughput, and we wanted to build a game that was completely automated with zero reset time.  The space would be small - 8x8 feet with a small tech room on the side, just big enough to squeeze into a corner of the gift shop. Since we had a bunch of steel grating and were cranking out FR tech panels with our new vacuform machine, we wrote up an industrial concept and called it THE MANGLER’S FEAR MACHINE after one of our more well-known icon characters.  A five step clue stream was decided upon, with each discovery revealing the next.

The room is run by a cascading series of Fright Ideas Flexs controlling multiple videos shown on two different monitors using Bright Signs for playback. When the guests first enter the room, a video of the Mangler explains the game, and the countdown begins on a second monitor. There are several “scare” effects that players can trigger including a saw blade that drops into the set, strobes and crackers, etc. but they do not affect the actual clue stream. If the players do not trigger the first sequence effect soon, the Mangler appears every 30 seconds or so with an increasingly clear set of clues. When they move to the second puzzle he resets and moves to the first clue for the second puzzle, etc.  so clues are automatically given throughout the game. Since it is only 3 minutes long the operator watching the guests from a monitor will also give audio prompts if they get too far behind.

The game is basically “stick your hand in a disgusting place” to find the hidden button, and needless to say they really appreciate the hand sanitizer we supply as they leave the machine!  We beta tested the game at a summer event we did at the haunt and after a few tweaks to make the game easier including adding subtitles for the Mangler, and a few lighting changes to make the clues more obvious we were ready for the season.
The game would have run about $5000 with parts and labor to make from scratch, but we had a lot of the materials available so it didn’t really cost that much out of pocket.  A day for the walls, a few days for vacuform production and finishing, a few days for steel and wood fabrication for the puzzles and scares, a day or so for paint and set dressing and props went pretty fast. The most time was spent on tech, audio/video and also in wiring up all of the effects, pneumatics and controllers in a way to make it very resettable and still very safe – it was a big concern to us that boxes would not shut on people’s hands for example, if there was a power drop.

Ultimately it was a success. Around 5000 people paid an extra 5 bucks to play with about 3000 winning the game. With only one staff person to run it and very happy customers we were glad we did it. Not exactly haunt numbers but still lots of fun and not a bad profit center as well. Now full sized escape games… THAT will be a story for another day!

  Posted by Larry 2.56 PM Read Comments ()
How to Save Haunted House Vendors and The Haunt Industry?
Fri, May 15, 2020

How to Save Vendors and What Should Haunt Owners Do? 

Even before this pandemic, several vendors had already gone out of business.  Now with the virus situation, Transworld cancellation, and haunt owners not placing orders out of fear of not opening, will more ill fate plunder our vendor community? What options do vendors have?  (The majority of this article was written prior to the cancellation of Transworld show and mostly applies to how vendors should price their products in the future.) Even before all this, vendors were struggling. Some had already cancelled their booths and filed bankruptcy.  I can't speak for these companies, but I can tell you this…Overall, haunted house vendors do not charge enough.  I’ve talked to someone who builds escape room attractions charging only $50,000.  I’ve talked to someone else who builds haunted houses who jumped at the chance to build one for an amusement park for only $75,000.  I'm like WHAT?  You can't make any money, especially after you build, ship, and install. Anytime I get a call, my first question is budget.  If it’s $100,000 or less, my answer is SORRY.  Why?  On every project, the buyer expects you to ship and install.  Some companies don't have  the kind of experience of installing attractions like our company, but let me forewarn.  You can get tied up on site for a couple weeks on an install, paying people every day, hotels, food, travel costs, and more.  Simply put, you can't do it for $50,000.  Just because someone offers you a job, doesn't mean you should take it.  Sometimes doing nothing is better than doing something that will tie up your company’s time and prevent you from doing something else that actually makes money.
Same thing goes to vendors who sell animations, costumes, masks, and more.  The industry started almost like a hobby, and some never left that mentality.  Haunted house owners charge $25-$35 to enter their attractions not $8-$10 like in 1999.  Vendors:  Success is about how much you make, not how many you sell.  As a haunt owner, I learned long ago that customers don't choose which haunted house to visit based on price; it’s about the quality of the haunt.  If your a vendor with the best product, then trust your price with a built-in margin, so you can take care of your employees and your family.

Too many new vendors come into the game thinking they must keep the price as low as possible.  When Transworld started this show in St Louis,  the site was chosen in part because it was the cheapest convention center. Why?  The idea was if you make the booth prices super low more vendors would buy booths and the show could launch more successfully.  I encouraged Transworld to charge admission fee to maintain those lower booth costs  Initially Jen thought NO WAY, but if people can't pay $100+ to support the show and the vendors, then they don't need to walk in the door.  The cost of the show needs to be shared by vendors and buyers alike.  I recently talked to a big retailer, and still he thinks of the Transworld show as a convention not a tradeshow.  Why did he say that?  Clearly too many actors and enthusiasts show up, plus some haunt owners bring up to 30 of their staff.  Some people run around in costume.  Some people are there just to have fun.  I can understand his perception, but I argued back that Transworld is a tradeshow, because it’s a show for a billion dollar industry.  (You could argue that Escape Rooms worldwide might be a billion dollar industry now too.)  Transworld could charge $200 for entry to weed out the non-buyers and not worry about losing a single valid buyer.   Vendors: you would spend more time on the show floor talking to qualified buyers, not people who roam the floor without any ability to buy a $5000 prop.  Haunt owners: you should NOT bring 20-30 of your staff to waste vendors time.  This must be a tradeshow not a convention.  Midwest Haunters Convention is a convention, so take them there.  Transworld should be a place to do business. 
Vendors shouldn't be worried about losing one sale due to raised prices.  You're entitled to make a profit.  If a haunt owner cries about the price, ask them if they're lowering their admission price?  You'll hear crickets!  If we're going to maintain a strong & healthy vendor community, companies might need to raise prices and not be afraid to make a profit.  For an escape room attraction, I charge minimum $100,000 while so many others sell them for $50,000, but many companies are going out of business, and I'm still standing.  Ghost Ride is still standing , now in it's 21st year.  Creative Visions is still humming along after 27 years.  If I make more money from 1 sale than you make from selling 3, well that is a problem for YOU, not me I want to focus on doing a GREAT JOB offering the BEST product and service.  It’s not about how many I can sell.  You learn from experience and experience teaches you quantity doesn't equal profit.  Learn the motto: Work smarter not harder and deliver a better product both on-time & ahead of schedule.   That is how you do it!

But how do vendors survive an entire year of virtually no orders?  Vendors: It won't be easy, but you can survive.  For starters I hope you got approved for a PPP loan from the government and are using it to hire your staff to build inventory.  Yes, build up inventory, because you need to bet on yourself.  Ten years ago haunts typically bought products in late July and early August, using credit cards to finance upgrades.  This could be the case again. Haunts want to know what conditions will be in 6 to 8 weeks from today.  The economy is going to re-open; it has to re-open, because having a depression, poverty, and high crime would destroy more lives than this virus ever could.  Right now states can't pay their bills. Cities and townships are laying people off and cutting budgets, because they have no revenue.  Cities and States have no other option but to open and once they do there won't be any turning back.  This will become very clear by July, and once that happens haunts might start calling asking 'WHAT DO YOU HAVE'.  Use government PPP loans to build inventory, because there will be haunts calling in late July, and when they do you'll have product.  Re-read what was written above, stop the discounts and make a profit!  If a haunt owner wants to wait until July or August...FINE, but charge appropriately because you have a business to save. No matter what happens, Transworld should strongly consider moving the Tradeshow to January or February to help vendors, at least for 2021, if the convention has open dates.  Either way the show is currently booked for March 4th 2021, the earliest ever, so that helps!  

What should haunt owners do this 2020 season?  I've heard a lot of really wacky concepts like hayrides and haunts doing drive thru... dumbest idea I've ever heard.  I'm not risking any of my actors getting hit by cars.  Overall, haunt owners have different ideas on what they should do, but honestly why consider doing anything outside the realm of what you normally do?  Yes..."buyer confidence" is low right now, and haunt owners are fearful of lower attendance, so skim costs to offset that possibility.  For example, you can switch ticketing to Fearticket.com, offering the lowest fees with the best system and fastest scanning PLUS remarketing! Fearticket offers regular tickets, timed ticketing, dynamic pricing, group scanning, and everything in between. And, FearTicket doesn't keep your online convenience fees, so technically many of you could actually MAKE MONEY by switching. (Shameless plug, I know...Sorry.  Still, you should switch. )  

Speaking of timed ticketing...Is that the saving grace we all should incorporate for 2020?  Good question but NOPE!  Is timed ticketing going to prevent actors from being within 6 feet of customers or customers stopping in the haunt and backing up the groups? Is that going to prevent a screaming, fleeing customer from running into other people? No. So how would timed ticketing solve that problem?  

Thinking positively, haunts might actually thrive in this environment.  After all, we tend to all do well when people opt for "stay-cations" rather than "vacations".  What you should do right now is PLAN TO OPEN!  Get your websites updated, get your social media content created, repair your haunt, interview possible staff members, plan your marketing. What else would you do...wait around until the last minute?  Yes you're going to spend some money, but this is your only option.  Just make sure if you sign marketing deals, add a clause you can cancel with 24 hour notice.  If for some reason you can't open, well you can still cancel all the marketing, you don't hire the staff, and you simply cancel everything. (I believe you will open though.)  

Things you could consider to give the public trust in your attraction: (1) Post Warning Signs everywhere including your website.  Visit www.Hauntworld.com Fright Forum where you can get FREE warning signs to use.  Your warning signs should warn people against entering if they're sick, suggesting everyone wear masks, wash their hands, etc. (2)Put washing stations at the entrance. (3)Take touchless temperature of every staff member and maybe every guest too. (4)Spray-sanitize everyone's hands as they enter. (5)Purchase affordable masks for every possible customer and require them to wear them while in the attraction

Other thing to do:

(1) Reduce spending overall. 

(2) You could remove sections of your haunt to reduce staffing, while adding midway attractions which make money.  Haunts need to add more scareboxes / scarezones so actors can stay busy hitting multiple sides of the attraction from one area.  REDUCE STAFF!  

3)  Marketing:  Don't throw a wide net, focus on marketing to the CORE audience.  Cut out all TV and almost all radio and focus on Google, Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, mass email and maybe Youtube with a few billboards. Oh and Hauntworld.com!  All haunts should seek better deals from marketing companies or skip them. I also would not launch early marketing programs; I would start marketing no more than 10 days before opening date to save money.

4)  Public Relations:  This is the year to SKIP ALL PR efforts.  Why?  The media could be your worst enemy this year, asking specific questions about safety.  I would avoid the media in 2020 and keep a very low profile. Open your haunt, do your best, and make it thru. 

5)  Reduce operating Days:  This is not the year to open in early September or stay open deep into November.  This October has 5 weekends so maybe you skip September all together. Maybe instead of opening every night in October just open weekends.  Do what you need to do to cut costs, and focus on the meat and potatoes. If you open later, you'll save labor costs and marketing costs. We've already decided one of our haunts (LEMP) will only open TEN DAYS just Friday and Saturdays in October.  We have cut some days from Darkness and Creepyworld too. 

6)  Add Revenue Generating Upgrades:  Instead of building new scenes, create new revenue generating attractions like a small zombie paintball arena, a 5-minute escape room, gift stores, photo ops, horror arcade, pumpkin smashing, anything that is FUN that generates additional revenue.  You can do this simply by removing the last 2000 square feet of your haunt.  This is a smart move!

7)   Buy the new How to Get Rich DVD on hauntedhousesupplies.com:  (I know... another shameless plug.  Sorry.)  I might have titled the DVD wrong, because some mistakenly think this is about how to start a successful haunt, but it's more for haunted house owners who currently own a haunt. The DVD shows you how to reduce staff, how to open a gift store, how to build scareboxes to maximize actors, how to market your haunt more effectively, how to create 5 minute escape rooms, and so much more.  You can get this DVD at www.HauntedHouseSupplies.com with that being said, this DVD will help you RIGHT NOW!  It is by far the best DVD I've ever made; sadly we didn't get to promote the DVD at Trasnworld.  All the same, snag this DVD, because it will help your business. 

And FINALLY, become a member of the Hauntworld Fright Forum. You can't learn anything on Facebook.  Come to the Fright Forum, where we can talk, share, learn, exchange, trade, etc.  I'm posting important information every week on the forums and the blog, and tune into Hauntworld.com to listen to our new podcast which will start soon!

Happy Haunting,
Larry Kirchner

PS:  I never thought in a million years we'd get to issue 50 but it was a goal and we made it!  Always set goals and achieve them.  It makes everything between worthwhile.  Congrats to Hauntworld Magazine!  Get your subscription now at www.HauntedhouseMagazine.com 

  Posted by Larry 11.12 PM Read Comments ()
Should All Professional For Profit Haunted Houses Pay Actors
Fri, May 15, 2020

 I want to  talk about should haunts pay their actors.   I see this as a two headed dragon.  Some actors online who actually volunteered are crying about “being forced” to work long hours & not getting paid, I'm like WHAT?  Who forced you to do anything?  Even if the haunted house was paying you wages, you're not forced to stay there.  This is America.  We live in an age where customers, employees, and volunteers alike can lash out on social media when unhappy.  Truths are embellished, lies are told, one-sided stories are given, & rumors are spread.  Short of getting an attorney and filing lawsuits, your best bet is to block those people and ignore!  You really can't do anything about crazy people spreading rumors about your business.  But in this situation, these actors (who supposedly signed an agreement to work for FREE) are lashing out.  How dumb is that?  You signed a document to volunteer if you don't want to work for free don't problem solved.  There are many haunted houses around the country that need volunteers especially charity based haunts.  The entire haunted house industry started as a charity based industry .  Operating haunted houses with volunteers for charity is nothing new and for many haunts it will always be volunteer only making people scream for great causes.  Kudos to those haunts and the people who donate their time.  With that being said I don’t think a private, for-profit, very successful haunted house should make money off the backs of their actors, NO WAY, but those actors only have themselves to blame.  You signed the agreements, you worked, and you did it of your own free will.  Don't cry now.  If no one volunteers, then they’ll become a haunted house with no actors OR they’ll start paying actor wages.  I also hear rumors of haunted houses allowing 12-15 year olds to work in their haunted houses as actors... truly i find this totally irresponsible.  Anyone who operates a haunted house knows the crowds can get rough to have someone 12 to 15 working inside your haunt is a bad idea.  I never hire anyone under 16, and older is preferred.  Who knows what is or isn't true on social media anymore.  It's the American way now to lash out thru social media to find crying eyeballs for your plight. 
I  understand some haunts need volunteers just to keep the doors open, and those who donate their time do so of their own free will because of a strong passion for haunting.  Haunting is without a doubt a disease and a passion for many.  Big giant haunts, with massive attendance for profit should pay their actors otherwise they'll face this type of criticism every season.   But hey I've always learned in this industry what works for one doesn't always work for another.  If actors don't like volunteering their time don't show up! That solves that problem right? If a successful for profit haunted house wants to operate with volunteers, and people willingly sign up in droves that is their choice.  On the flip side if some of those same actors don't like it then find a new place to haunt where they pay!  Again problem solved.


Speaking of wages the biggest issue haunted house owners face is the cost of doing business, and payroll is a giant expense.  Truthfully, haunted houses could become obsolete fast.  Haunt owners are migrating away from haunting.  They’ve discovered lower operational cost options like escape rooms, axe throwing, social media bars & more.  Their passion for haunting brings them back again and again, but operating a haunted house with over 100 staff members  is too expensive, and it’s hard to manage all those personalities, especially when you bring social media complaining into the fold.  Haunt owners are experiencing a reality check.  We need to pay our staff but at the same time find our way back to operating with 30-50 actors not 75-125.  Is more better?  Is more scarier?  If a horror movie had someone jumping out around every corner, would that be better than a scream when you least expect it?  More than monetary, I can understand why a haunted house wants to operate with volunteer actors.  With volunteers, they're getting people who really want to be there.  Still, I feel they should be paid.

The Darkness opened a year round escape room facility 3 years ago, and now those escape rooms have almost passed The Darkness in total revenue, but due to staffing differences, the escapes are easier to operate and more profitable by far.  When you build new haunt scenes, you make no additional money, but when you build a new escape, you get new bookings.  See the differences?
Instead of just changing up the haunt annually, I’m more focused on additional fun options.  Today, the exit of The Darkness is filled with games, pinballs, a mini escape, gift store, and an electric chair experience.  All of these are added FUN for the customer and more revenue for my business.  At Creepyworld, we totally cut out a haunted house and added a midway with axe throwing, zombie paint ball, a mini escape, photo ops, gift store and horror movies.  When I finally acquired the building next door to the Darkness, my first thought was BUILD ANOTHER HAUNT.  Now I'm removing that haunted house.  Why?  Because it doesn't make money like adding axe throwing, escape rooms, a bar, games & pinballs.  I had to choose…Keep paying a ton of actors to operate a $5 up-charge haunt, or lose 5,000 square foot of haunted house and pick up a full time, year round social bar with axe throwing and more.  This is the future!

My plan for The Darkness (with all its amazing animations and cool special FX) is to attempt to operate with 50-65 great actors who are the most dedicated, want to be there, and care about the business.  To accomplish this, we need to focus on making the haunted house mean and lean, offering a variety of scary fun things to do that aren't necessarily a haunted house.  I now prefer upcharge attractions whereby ONE person can operate, and still bring our guests a great experience.  I believe the days of trying to be the longest and biggest haunt (which requires the highest number of actors to operate) are over.  Things are shifting and shifting fast.  Look no further than the Transworld show itself.  It started as a 50,000 square foot haunted house only show.  Today, it’s Halloween, Escapes, Christmas, Agritainment, VR, and some Halloween retail, and who knows what next.  This is the future, and I see Transworld embracing it.  No longer are they just looking for the next haunted house exhibitor, but instead focused on new entertainment industries as a whole. 
In closing, your staff is your most valuable asset, you should pay them, but rather than going with some kind of volunteer based formula, trying making your haunt better while at the same time shorter and more manageable.  Go thru your haunt and build scareboxes so actors can access more area to scare. Bring in new attractions for your guests to spend money on, stop relying on being the longest haunt, how about just the best and most fun experience!  Count on the most dedicated staff members, rather than filling in area's with people who don't really want to be there in the first place.  The original Darkness use to do close to 50,000 people and we ran with a staff of 35 to 40 actors so doing it with a dedicated PAID staff of 50 to 65 is defiantly double for me.  By shortening the haunt, which reduces dependency on a large staff, adding more side attractions, and using new reclaimed space for year around escape rooms for example is going to help your business STAY IN BUSINESS.  Yes its getting harder for haunts but if you get smart you'll weather the storm and PAY your staff!!!  
  Posted by Larry 10.36 AM Read Comments ()
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