Practices that Are Here to Stay- Pandemic-Related Changes at Haunts and Escape Rooms

-By Sara Karnish
Medical settings and hospitals aside, COVID-19-related restrictions have largely eased (or have gone away entirely) in many parts of the country. The two-and-a-half-year pandemic caused some long-term effects on countless businesses. Within the attractions industry, specifically haunted houses and escape rooms, operators were forced to alter how they do business. Many of the changes became permanent. It’s no surprise to Brett Bertolino, vice president, director of operations at Halloween Nights at Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia, Pa., that haunt and escape room operators found ways to remain open and generate revenue for two years despite limited hours and health mandates. “People who run these events are creative, can tweak their product, and pivot when necessary,” he said. “[The last two years] is not inconsistent with what we’ve seen in the past. We’ve had to change our products due to weather and other occurrences.” Bertolino said two operational trends stood out: “One was timed ticketing. So many attractions moved to timed ticketing. Many folks in the industry were thinking of moving to it, but never took the steps to do it. We’ve been using timed ticketing since 1991 for Halloween events. We employed timed ticketing for our daytime events and it was a seamless transition. We were already very experienced with timed ticketing and our consumer base was already used to it. [It] became the industry standard. I think that’s one thing you’re going to see more of,” he explained. The other trend was a greater emphasis on personal hygiene. “At our peak, we employ 300 people for our Halloween event. People are in close quarters with makeup, dressing. People were really diligent with their personal hygiene. Not just wearing masks but washing hands, not coming to work if they were sick,” Bertolino said. “We had fewer illnesses of any kind than we did prior to the pandemic. We did all of these personal hygiene precautions. We’ve seen it is possible to run these events safely.”

Maggie Parker of Events, Sales and Marketing Director of The Big Event, Cherry Hill, N.J. The center targets women with advertising efforts in networking sites, mommy and business owner groups and through social media.

Norissa George, general operations and event manager at Doldrick’s Escape Room in Kissimmee, Fla., said they had two operational trends emerge: “Touch-free waivers and check-in process. Masks were required for all guests until late February 2022. Staff members continue to wear masks. Our games have been private since we opened in June 2018 so that wasn’t an adjustment we needed to make,” she explained. “Guests seem to really enjoy the touch-free waivers and quicker check-in process.” Charlene Blankenship, owner of Laurel House of Horrors in Laurel, Md., said they were doing timed ticketing before the pandemic, so there was no impact on their operation in that sense. “We did change our pricing on everything—with the cost of materials and what we did for sanitizing, costs went up a lot,” Blankenship said. “The cleanliness level of masks and costumes has gone up a lot. We were always good about washing the costumes, but now for the makeup, we have stations set up and have gotten that more organized. We’re setting a better protocol. We didn’t do some attractions like the Claustrophobia Wall or Vortex Tunnel. We’re looking to bring those things back, but how to bring them back safely.”
Nicole Ginsburg, partner, VP Business Development and Production Director at Intrigue & Co. Escape Room in Syracuse, N.Y., and Frightmare Farms Haunted Scream Park in Fulton, N.Y., said most of their haunt operation experienced a shift. “We now focus on attraction/position/zone specific rehearsals and training to limit the number of individuals gathering at once. Frightmare has four attractions along with Scare Zones, Hayride hosts and queue actors,” she explained. “In addition, costuming, make-up, SFX, ancillary, security and parking staff all gather at different times prior to the season. This has increased the number of preseason commitments for the operational staff but has also led to getting to know each individual that makes up each department on a more personal level since the groups are smaller.” Makeup application is all airbrushed and actors are assigned masks. Ginsburg added they moved to a larger facility to ensure adequate distancing and provide enough space for actor dressing areas. At Intrigue & Co., “as of now, we are still offering work from home options for positions that make sense. We still offer virtual options for our meetings. We also adapted paid sick days for all of our employees. We still have masks and sanitizer available for all staff and customers. We expanded operations and converted previous spaces to allow for spacious dressing room, employee break room and office work spaces,” Ginsburg said. “As for our customer experience, initially we shifted to limiting the number of other customers in the building. Now we have changed our game play patterns and offer a strategic schedule to help limit exposure to other players while visiting.” She explained, “Museum of Intrigue and the Intrigue & Co. gaming model is coined as the ‘evolution’: of Escape Rooms, offering an open floor plan play model where players get to pick a story, find clues, solve puzzles and interact with characters all while exploring a 10,000-square-foot ‘museum’.” Ginsburg said at Intrigue & Co., “with the exception of limited capacity, most of the changes we made are here to stay! [At Frightmare Farms] We actually had to make multiple shifts in our operation. Most were done out of an abundance of caution and most are here to stay. A great example of this would be our queues and all the logistics that go along with it. In 2020 we did a large expansion to allow ample spacing. We traded the strategic double file line system, where we would pack people in to maximize spacing, for spread out and themed lines that take customers from a central location. It has expanded the parks overall footprint which has in turn increased the number of security and support staff that we employ each year. This has been beneficial as a whole.”

The Big Event Food and Beverage Manager Julie Wilkes, Guest Experience Manager Amanda Ormsby, Assistant Events Team Louis Haimes, Junior League Coordinator Michele Young. Mechanic Omar Bowen, Game Mania Arcade Guest Experience Kristy Barlow and Sales and Marketing Director Maggie Parker. Kids cited for good deeds by the local police department can get vouchers for free bowling at the center.

Despite the challenges haunted attractions and escape rooms faced, some positives did emerge. “First, it showed we can operate safely during a pandemic,” Bertolino said. “It was overwhelming that the public, despite everything happening in the world, still wanted to come out. We had a huge demand during the pandemic in 2020 and 2021. Some other really positive things—it showed this industry is sustainable and can weather these types of storms. We’re in Center City Philly so we’re kind of limited in what we can do. We had a lot of restrictions in Philly. We figured out creative and cool ways to incorporate masking—all characters and uniformed employees made the mask as part of their costume/uniform. In 2020 we didn’t have the haunted attraction because there were too many unknowns. We created a new program called Night Tours and gave nighttime tours of the building. It was really popular. It was an opportunity where we probably wouldn’t have tried that model if it wasn’t for the pandemic. We kept that program in the summer of 2021 and 2022.” Rather than continue their longtime haunted attraction Terror Behind the Walls, Bertolino’s team decided to try something new—a Halloween festival called Halloween Nights. “We wouldn’t have been able to try these new things—we wouldn’t have necessarily been challenged,” he said. “[The pandemic] forced everyone to take a step back and try things we couldn’t have done in the past.” Blankenship said the biggest lesson she learned is to always plan for “just in case,” because it can really happen. “In this industry, there’s no guarantee you’ll operate each season. You hope that nothing crazy happens. When it does happen and you can’t operate, you have to plan on a lower level—for instance, how can you open safely and stay open?”
Because of the changes to many of the attractions, customer service and satisfaction remained a top priority. “People are trying to offer more features,” Blankenship said. “We will maybe not see as many people, but we want to give people a better experience. In my opinion, COVID brought in a more VIP experience. We try to be family-friendly, and be family-friendly on a budget. My biggest customer service tip …in dealing with the public, everything has to be within reason. Try to hear what the customer is saying, and respond accordingly. I stress to my staff—our job is to safely give guests what they’ve paid for and what they’re looking forward to. Try to always keep that level up.” George said, “Every guest is different and every group has different wants and needs. Be flexible enough to adapt what you can and provide your group with what they need to have a great experience. Listen and be willing to learn from everyone’s personal experiences.”
Ginsburg said when working with customers, “Be kind. Listen more. Be solution oriented. Customers are people who want to be heard now more than ever. Even if the request is outlandish or the answer is a big no, listening, answering with kindness and offering solutions is the best strategy for any person and it is often the very best that we can do.” 

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