The COVID-19 pandemic called for businesses in every industry to shift the way they operate. Live events like experiential attractions, concerts, and other in-person performances adjusted some or all of their business model. Some shut down completely for an extended period of time. As live events continue to reopen, haunted attractions and escape rooms are among the many businesses that implemented changes to their operations. Many operators say the changes have made their venues stronger and more efficient.
Ticketing and admission procedures were among the biggest changes for haunted houses and escape rooms. “We went from a public booking model to a private booking model,” said Lori Warsing, co-owner of Captured LV, an escape room with locations in Bethlehem and Allentown, Pa. (Warsing owns the attraction with partners Marcelo and Angela Morales and Jeremiah Warsing). “[Pre-COVID] we were always running mixed groups, so you could purchase one ticket if you wanted to, and the others would be available. But with the private model, we would sell tickets to a small group. Obviously, financially it had a negative impact. If we would completely sell out on a Saturday night, we’d make a great profit. Now we may only be at 50 percent capacity [with the private groups]. From a staff and customer service standpoint, things run a lot smoother. People feel more comfortable not playing with strangers.” Warsing said their overall attendance has been down. “We moved to the private model. People are coming in smaller groups, and right off the bat, we’re down from that change alone. Before COVID, corporate bookings were a huge part of our business. Companies would use us for their international visitors—they’d go to dinner, then do an escape room. We’re not seeing the corporate element return yet. We’ve had smaller corporate groups of maybe eight or 10 people, but the large-scale corporate booking is not back yet.”
Michael Gull, general manager of Escape the Room MKE in Milwaukee, Wis., and his team have made many of the same changes. “All of our rooms are now private, regardless of how small the group is. We’ve also enacted cleaning/sanitizing protocols to keep the guests and staff safe, and we encourage unvaccinated guests to wear masks, as well as requiring unvaccinated staff to wear them. In addition, we’ve reduced the number of superfluous props in the rooms, and games in the lobby. We’ve also got hand sanitizer within 15 feet of wherever you are in the facility.”. Jason Loeb, owner of Trapology Boston in Boston, Mass., said in the past year his venue has had a lot of adjustments and continues to adapt to the times. “Right now it feels like this is the new normal. We’ve been trying to streamline operations. It’s been really tough—not just from a business standpoint, but trying to keep morale high with the staff. Trying to meet the new needs and expectations from customers, from cleaning to keeping the customers safe. We’re trying to pivot with that,” he said. Loeb’s team also switched to a private ticketing model. “We did an open ticketing system prior to the pandemic. People are a little more anxious to be in a close space with strangers now. We’re trying to put their concerns at ease and only providing private experiences,” he said. Like other businesses, many haunted house and escape room operators fast-tracked long-term projects and procedures to generate revenue in the wake of abbreviated hours, reduced capacity, and closures. Loeb said he and his team were discussing a private model but implemented it sooner than anticipated. Loeb said the private model was “always one of those things we knew we’d have to evolve. From a financial standpoint, we appreciate the open ticketing model more, but we knew we’d have to transition to the private model sometime.” Besides adjusting their ticketing model, the team at Trapology launched two new projects. Their indoor room has been closed since the fall of 2020; he and his team offered an outdoor escape room, in which customers go on puzzle hunts throughout Boston Common, and a board game for an at-home escape room experience. “We thought the outdoor escape room would be like a pandemic Band-aid, and we’d dump it when everything came back and reopened. Lots of people have said they’d like to have the outdoor game all the time, so that’s something we’re considering keeping. With the at-home game—we never saw ourselves as a board game kind of company, but we’ve always pushed ourselves to diversify our product portfolio. The products we’ve developed due to the pandemic will continue,” Loeb said.
Haunted attractions like Field of Screams in Lancaster, Pa., also turned to an online reservation system in 2020. Jim Schopf, who co-owns the attraction with brother Gene Schopf, said they continue to use the system in 2021. “That was one thing that carried over—it forced people to book online and make reservations ahead of time. That enabled us to spread the crowd out throughout the evening, even though we’re an outdoor attraction. We could spread the crowd out—fill out time slots, people had to choose what time they wanted. That worked out very well.” He said there were changes within the attraction itself, as well: “The actors were not as engaging. The customers wore masks, the actors wore masks. Customers had temperature checks. The actors weren’t as ‘in your face’ and approaching customers as they normally would be—it was a ‘less aggressive’ setup. We also had sanitizing stations around the park. They were the biggest differences. There was more cleaning—spray the wagons down, do backpack cleaning, spray the buildings down, wipe down the high-touch areas. We had to do our due diligence in that regard. All in all, 2020 was a success in that we were able to reopen safely. We didn’t have any problems or incidents. We were just happy to open and salvage some of the season. 2021 is a bit more of a normal season. We’ve been watching everything closely and making sure we’re following any policies. We’re at full capacity and there is no masking mandate; however, we’re still using the online reservation system to keep the crowds more spread out,” he said.
The Haunted Forest at Schuster’s Farm in Deerfield, Wis., is operating under a state-ordered mask mandate for their fall 2021 season. Unlike many of their competitors, Schuster’s was able to stay open for the duration of 2020 due to being an outdoor attraction. “Our county has a mask mandate in place right now. Last year, everyone was masked. Competitors who were indoors—everyone had to have a mask on, so we would as well,” said Don Schuster, who co-owns the attraction with wife Theresa. “We also sold timed tickets, which was huge—it really kept the crowd down. We will continue to do the timed tickets. The changes made it much smoother. The part that really hurt was we’d been selling VIP tickets for $35; with the timed tickets there was no advantage to the VIP tickets. We went down a little bit on concessions, but not much.”
More than ever, haunted attraction and escape room operators strive to give customers a fun, safe, and memorable experience—literally an escape from the news and everyday stressors. Schuster said one of the most unique aspects of their attraction is the location: “Customers get a hayride out into the middle of the woods. You’re dropped off and it’s pitch dark out there. You’re out in the middle of nowhere.” He said customer safety and satisfaction is critical: “We take care of our customers. We have a Walk of Shame for any customer who can’t make it through the attraction—if it’s too scary or too much, if you’re anywhere in the haunt and can’t make it through, one of the actors will escort you out. We are still a working farm, though, and we take customer safety very seriously. We try to be very safe and give customers value for their money.” Schopf said “A great customer experience is for the customer to either be scared, or if they’re hard to scare, they want to be entertained. Some people have fun watching other people get scared. From start to finish, you want them to feel they’ve come to a professional haunt. You want to give them a value for their money.” He added, “We experienced a successful season in that we saw a lot of people who wanted to be out. They had no problem wearing masks and following the protocols. I liken it to September 11. We’ve been in this business for 20 years. We reopened the following weekend after September 11. That season had a similar tone—there was a need for normalcy and people needed to feel like they were going about their normal lives. They needed something to ground them. In these [catastrophic] events, the entertainment industry is a grounding point for people.”
Loeb said Trapology’s focus on story is what brings in repeat customers. “We say we’re an immersive entertainment experience. A lot of it is story-driven. In the early days of escape rooms, there wasn’t much in the way of story. Today, customers want that story. They want to be immersed. That’s what really makes it. I look at our early games and current games—they’ve all been pushing the love of story and characters. That’s what makes our customers come back.”
Warsing said a happy customer starts with happy staff who enjoy what they do. “We try to create meaningful work for all employees. They are all incredibly talented. We try to learn their strengths—do they love art, gaming, social media—and see where their strengths can be used. One of the best compliments I get is when an applicant comes in for a job and says, ‘Your team is so amazing, and I want to be part of that.’” Gull said, “We pride ourselves on our ability to provide a unique, memorable experience, so I hire personable, entertaining team members, who connect with our guests, and hold that connection throughout the entire experience. From the music, lighting and decor in the lobby, to the humor we infuse into the process, the whole experience you’ll have at Escape the Room Milwaukee, is different from any other escape room. Also, I’ll do card tricks for anyone who’ll stand still long enough.”