GRAND RAPIDS — Like any small businessman, The Haunt owner and operator Jim Burns knows how scary reaching the three-year mark can be.
“You hear the old saying about how it takes three to five years to make money — if you don’t go under, that is. Well, we’re confident that we’ve made it past that three-year curse,” Burns explained. “The first three years were definitely a challenge — you are continually reinvesting your money and buying new things.
“But now in our fourth year, we already have what it takes to run the show,” he said. “I’ve got the right team on board and the right talent, and we’re ready to really start moving forward.”
Burns returns with a core management group along with a group of 30 volunteer actors that have all been with him since the 2001 debut. This year’s 105-person-a-night production is again staged at 2535 Waldorf Court in Walker, occupying 22,000 square feet of a 36,000-square-foot industrial space.
This season’s theme marks the first year that The Haunt is portraying an actual haunted house. Previous themes have presented spectral carnivals, haunted hospitals and last year’s industrial nightmare.
In construction since late 2003, the Ravenwood Mansion features a 30-by-55-foot house façade, 18-foot waterfall, tilting room, spinning vortex tunnel, and a 3-D section. Built and designed using the stage and film experience of the creative team of Scott Crampton, John Cluff, Patrick Kelley and Tami Plont, The Haunt’s goal has been to create a production on par with Hollywood or world-class theme parks.
Sixty actors are needed to run the show each night, with nearly that many off-stage personnel split between the box office, security, concessions, make-up and management. A trained EMT, off-duty police officer and dancing troupe are also on hand each night.
“It is a large theater production, and we have a unique situation in that we are a close-knit family,” Burns said. “But the bottom line is that it’s a business, and if we don’t show a profit we don’t stay open.
“I’m learning more and more each year that it’s hard to make money in the haunted attraction business,” he said. “But it’s getting a little easier each year. You learn from your mistakes. You’re able to apply those lessons to the future and not make the same mistakes twice.”
Burns said that the hardest lessons he learned have been in marketing his business — one of the most difficult hurdles to overcome as a small business. Burns experimented with different types of promotion and advertising in the first two seasons, finding success with print coupons, radio and billboards.
Last year, he opted to outsource those efforts to a local marketing company, a decision that proved to be a costly mistake, as The Haunt suffered its first significant drop in attendance.
“They didn’t know our industry,” Burns said. “They knew marketing as a whole, but the haunted attraction industry is a unique situation. We’re only open for 25 nights, so it’s guerilla marketing — you have to attack for 60 days and then it ends. You don’t have six months to promote yourself and hope for people to come.”
Back in control, Burns has expanded on the campaigns that have proven successful in the past, incorporating 500 point-of-purchase displays with the coupon program and stepping up radio and billboard advertisements.
In the first week of October, the campaign appeared to be working. The Haunt Web site received 300,000 hits, phone traffic and VIP ticket sales had reached an all-time high, and opening week numbers were neck-and-neck with that of 2001, when The Haunt was located at one of the region’s busiest intersections.
When the attraction relocated from its first location at 28th Street and Breton Avenue to the city of Walker, Burns was relieved that attendance dropped only a few hundred people from the first-year high of 35,000.
“We moved off the beaten path, but I wasn’t worried about that,” he said. “We’re a destination spot — you don’t drive down the road and see a haunted house and decide to stop in.”
In the coming year, The Haunt will move again, out of its leased building to its own permanent residence a block away at 2070 Waldorf Ave.
The new location will allow the company a number of advantages over its previous locations. With its proximity, a re-education of the market to the new location is not necessary, saving a significant advertising investment. With ownership, a wider range of structural changes can be made, including painting the ceiling black and building a permanent concessions area.
The new property also comes with four acres of wooded land, which, because of lot shape and terrain, is useless to developers but perfect for a haunted forest. A small, separate portion to the rear of the building can be used to house another Halloween-themed attraction, this one aimed at children.
“Our popularity has come from scary, not gory,” Burns said. “We were even on the cover of Haunted Attraction magazine for our efforts at pioneering that concept. But it’s still scary and we still put a PG-10 rating on it. Parents keep asking if we can turn the lights on during the day some time for the small children, but even with no scares, I still don’t think it’s appropriate for the younger crowd.”
The Haunt’s attempts to avoid the gory theatrics embraced by similar attractions across the nation have led to success while others have suffered. The Haunt’s attendance has been consistently triple national averages, even in tough economic times.
National demographics have identified 12- to 22-year-olds as the key market, but The Haunt has seen success beyond those ages, with 25 percent of patrons over the age of 30. Burns has been especially surprised by the reception of the business community.
Groups of travelers from Indiana, Detroit and Canada have purchased tickets for use on October visits to West Michigan. Local companies have staged outings to the attraction as team building and motivational exercises, while others have purchased blocks of tickets for distribution among customers.
Sponsors have also been drawn to the attraction. With 30,000 people coming through its doors, a popular Web site and over a million pieces of print in circulation, the attraction is providing promotional opportunity for companies like Coca-Cola, Monster Energy Drink, Wild Boar Harley Davidson and Family Fare.
“Because we don’t have anything objectionable or offensive, companies and sponsors are willing to attach their name to us,” Burns said. “Other attractions that have all the blood and guts can’t figure out why they can’t attract these sorts of companies.”
The Haunt has had an impact in other arenas as well.
Last year, Burns and Wyoming Fire Marshall James Hutchinson spoke at the Michigan Fire Inspectors Convention in Lansing. A week later, The Haunt hosted 50 fire marshals from across the state in a tutorial on haunted attractions.
Burns and Hutchinson are currently helping the state to develop a codebook specifically for haunted attractions.