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April 14, 2022

Haunt Team Retention with Travis Rhoad of Reaper’s Revenge

Haunt Team Retention with Travis Rhoad of Reaper’s Revenge

Over the years, Travis has developed a family philosophy to retain team members, and today, we’ll explore some concrete things you can do to retain your haunt team.

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Reaper’s Revenge, in Scranton Pennsylvania, started in 2006. A founding member, Travis Rhoad oversees most of the things that involve the employees. With a staff of 240 every show night, there’s certainly a lot to keep track of. Over the years, Travis has developed a family philosophy to retain team members, and today, we’ll explore some concrete things you can do to retain your haunt team.

This is the 4th episode in our mini-series introducing the new Haunted Attraction Association Board Members.

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Travis: We started with a brush hog and a chainsaw, and actually made the trails and started this all.

Philip: And unlike a lot of other haunters, Travis didn't start out as a home haunter, he started off in the restaurant business.

Travis: We have a restaurant, and we decided we wanted to do something fun. Paul, who was pretty much the inspiration to do this, used to go out to San Diego and they had a haunted barn ride. He thought that was a very cool idea, and I being one of his friends, we decided to start this.

Philip: And he thinks that start in the restaurant business allowed him to form his leadership style of treating your team as a family.

Travis: We all do every job, there's no one person has one thing and does another, so we all team together. I think that kind of pushes the narrative towards the family team member sort of thing.

Philip: Travis give us the big picture, tell us more about Reaper's Revenge.

Travis: We're one of the largest haunts in the United States, and we're in a relatively small market. We have 240 people every single night that are just out there to entertain you, and make sure the show runs smoothly. I take pride in that, and we're going to pull people in from two and three hours away because of what we are.

We are linear, so you don't get to choose where you're going to go. On the hayride, from visual to just literally sound, to deprivation, even, in some of our other attractions. Like Pitch Black, we have deprivation, and you cannot have all your senses, and that does tend to mess with people. So, we get into that as well.

Philip: So, you do have different attractions, like you mentioned, you have your hayride and then you have the Pitch Black, and the other ones you go through. So, it's a linear experience, and I'm wondering, do you change up any of those themes year after year?

-or do you just -

Travis: Oh, yeah, absolutely. Absolutely. We actually, more or less, we add on.

Philip: Okay,

Travis: We do some changes.

Philip: -Keep building. -

It just gets bigger.

Travis: Yeah, it's going to get to be where it's two hours, before I know it, just to go through. But no, definitely, we do make a lot of changes in different scenes. We made a very large change on the hayride last year, and there's many more changes coming this year. Actually, probably more than the last. So, pretty excited.

Philip: We will come back to that. We'll come back to some of the changes that you're looking forward to. But before we get to that, I wanted to ask you directly, what kind of expertise do you feel that you bring to the Association Board?

Travis: I don't think I add anything, there's so many talented people. But I will just say what I kind of have my expertise in, is mainly employee relations, finding those people, and finding them into the right places, knowing when to use them in dual roles, and other things, and just kinda keeping that family together. Because you can ask somebody to come to work for you, but if you haven't talked to him for the last nine months, are they gonna listen?

Philip: What do you think is the biggest misconception for haunters when it comes to employee relations?

Travis: Just to forget about them, to think they can just have one animatronic to take the place of a couple actors. I am lucky with our haunt; my partners, with animatronics, use them as a distraction for a real actor, because the real actor just has so much more expression.

Philip: How can we keep their actors engaged?

Travis: I actually use Facebook to keep up with them within our actor and employee page, and we continue to do that. We have events, we just had a hockey game we went to, we sold tickets, we met there, and sat as a crew. We have a bowling thing coming up later, we have a barbecue thing coming up later, we have our actor clinics throughout the summer, we have makeup classes. So, we just try to keep it like something that just goes year-round.

Philip: Let's dig into that, how often do you have events for your actors?

Travis: Usually every couple of months. Anyone that's listening to this within the haunted industry knows that if you just don't talk to them until, you know, three weeks before the attraction and go, "Hey, how you doing? I miss you, you coming back?" It just doesn't mean the same. If you've kept up with them and been a part of what they're doing, you know, liked their photos, liked their things, tell them happy birthday, it's all part of it.

Philip: Tell me about your actor clinics.

Travis: Honestly, our biggest goal is to try to make them feel more comfortable being uncomfortable. We just show that there's so many different personalities, so many race, creeds, sexuality, it doesn't matter, we all fit together when it comes to, I call it, Reaper's Family, and it means something.

Philip: Give me an example of an exercise that you'll do at a clinic.

Travis: Basically, we kind of do that whose line is it anyway, sort of thing where we act out different things. We do the hookah, that kind of thing, to get people to actually scream and start letting loose, if you're familiar with that. And it makes them really come out of their box, and that's what we're trying to do. We've found people that could barely talk turn into some of our most fantastic talking characters.

Philip: Yeah, it sounds like a lot of improv exercises.

Travis: Absolutely.

Philip: Of the actors that you have that come for your season, how many do you think engage with you at these clinics, and at the events that you do throughout the year?

Travis: Of our core, over half.

Philip: So, it really is a quite significant amount of them participating, and you think that, of course, directly correlates to you getting active retention?

Travis: Absolutely, and that's the most important thing. I have personal relationships with so many of my actors, and it's just something I consider a family.

Philip: One of the biggest issues this year, one of the biggest concerns, as we even heard during the Q&A State Of The Industry address is staffing, of course. You can't turn the whole culture of something on a dime. You know, it takes a while to kind of get to a place where you're getting half of your team to come and participate in clinics and events. That's a huge achievement, you know? When you have so many people, you get half of them to come in, that's a big deal. I don't think a haunt could do that overnight. If there is someone listening who would like to develop this kind of culture that you have, how could they start?

Travis: I guess you just kinda try to look at yourself through the eyes of an actor who is doing the same action, probably 300 to 400 times a night. The best way to do that is to give them a feeling of belonging. My guy down here, he's putting in the effort, I'm going to do it too. I am a service person, they like consistency, they like to be recognized, they like to feel like they belong with something. And they do, and they understand if it's fake. We try to make sure that they belong as a family. They give up so much and two months they give up every weekend, sores and bruises, sprains, getting punched, and all this other stuff, it's really amazing. It takes that extra thing, and it's definitely not about the money. So, they need to know that we're family,

Philip: Ultimately, right, humans just want to feel like what they do matters basically. Especially when it comes to haunt actors, I'm wondering, do you do anything to illustrate that sense of purpose to people? I mean, making them feel like they're part of a family is one thing, but that's more internal, but what about external? Like making them feel like they understand that what they do helps people get a break from what's going on in the world, that kind of thing.

Travis: Yeah, absolutely. We actually, at the end of the night, we have bonfire meetings. We give out awards throughout each attraction. We recognize them. They can stay or go, they don't have to stay, but we actually rule through everything and give thanks to everyone that's there. Then we have our ending party, which is always very important to us.

Philip: I think the concept of giving praise to a team member is pretty important, can you give an example of how you do that?

Travis: Most of the time they say, "this is for a person who has done this, this and this, and very proud." And they come out and they do this and then they call their name and they, we make them, in front of everyone, do their whole skit, and then we all applaud them.

Basically, I have five attractions. So, I have five people who lead those attractions and I give them the stage, so to speak, at the bonfire and they announced the two best actors, as they went through the haunt, that gave it their all that night and exceeded their expectations. So, they get recognized that way, and they get a patch that they can put on their swag, or their Reaper's gear, or whatever they have.

Philip: Are you at all concerned about any of the staffing challenges? Like, are you doing anything different because of staffing concerns

Travis: I feel that we are lucky in a lot of ways because of our family, and people that could tell their nephews and nieces, and they come. Because we are, I feel like a, I don't know, more rural community, so to speak. But, you know, we do have those challenges. But we're, I think, ahead of the game. But all I can say is about trying to make these connections, once you get somebody, and if they're a decent employee, you've got to learn how to keep them. That means learning about them, and taking the time to have somebody just say, "Hey, who are you?"

Philip: Let's change directions a little bit here. I'd like to talk about the future. You mentioned previously, you have some changes. I don't want you to give any spoilers, but can you tell me more like the genre of it changes that you're looking at this coming year?

Travis: We're just trying to improve. We're not making it any smaller. We're actually making it a little bigger. We're extending our final scene. We're doing multiple changes throughout our five attractions. More overhead, so watch for that, and some very new construction as well. So, you'll get to see all that. I can't wait, I mean it is so much. We're actually going up there next week.