Fire codes, Building Codes, Zoning, and leases – every haunter will face one of these issues. It’s complicated but there are some big pitfalls you can avoid.
Fire codes, Building Codes, Zoning, and leases – every haunter will face one of these issues. It’s complicated but there are some big pitfalls you can avoid. Brent Wilson from Planet Doom in Idaho Falls Idaho has over 30 years’ experience with these, and today we’ll outline some common issues. We’ll also talk about Planet Doom’s Halfway to Halloween event. Brent is one of the 5 new Haunted Attraction Association board members, and we’re doing this series to introduce each new board member to you.
Brent: My name is Brent Wilson. I'm the general manager of Planet Doom in Idaho Falls, Idaho. We are a 32,000 square foot professional haunted attraction. We are the primary funding source for the Bonneville County Sheriff's D.A.R.E. Program, drug abuse, resistance education program, helping to keep kids off of drugs.
In the early 1990s, I went to a haunted attraction in Orlando, Florida called Terror on Church Street, and probably a lot of your listeners are familiar with Terror on Church Street, it was an amazing haunted attraction, blew my mind. And ever since I went through that attraction, I was like, "you know what, this is what I want to do, and I don't know how I can make a living at it." So, I started off as a home haunter in the early 90s, and our home haunt got pretty big. I was living in Miami, Florida, we did do almost 1500 customers our last year before the police shut us down, because we were blocking traffic.
Then, you know, I relocated to Idaho about 15 years ago and kept the home haunt going. We had, here in Idaho falls, we had a local haunted attraction called Dr. Slaughters House of Terror. They were in operation for about 18 years, and then they went out of business and the D.A.R.E. Program had no funding source. I was like, "wow. You know, I love haunts. I've been a home haunter, I've got all these animatronics and stuff. Maybe it's time to jump in and take over."
And so, I did, and it's been a wild ride a bit, but in best way. I love it, it's my passion, I get to fulfill my dream. I'm not making money at it, but that's okay, I've got another business that supports the haunt, and I love every, every minute of it. Love it.
Philip: I do think that the D.A.R.E. part of it is really, really interesting because, if I'm remembering correctly, reading correctly, Dr. Slaughter's was the funding source for the D.A.R.E. program before you guys came in. So, if you. hadn't done this they would have lost their funding for the program. So, you kind of came in, and you went to pro, and you also saved the funding source for that program at the same time, like kind of two birds with one stone, right?
Brent: Absolutely. Yeah. You know, it was a cause that's near and dear to me. I was a musician growing up and I lost some friends to drugs, too many to count, unfortunately. So yeah, it's a cause that's near and dear to me, and without, without the haunt, the D.A.R.E. Program would cease to exist in our county.
Philip: Why do you think that's important to participate in the community like that?
Brent: Well, you know, I live in a small market. I mean, we do about 7,500 visitors a season. Given the quality of the haunt I want to have, I really can't do it for a profit in this market. For me to run a profitable haunt I'd have to move to a larger city, I believe. It's a labor of love. We're creating a big city haunt in a small town, and I love it. But there really is not a path financially, I think, for me to make a living at it in this town. But that being said, in the almost five years that we've been running the haunt professionally, we've made a difference in the lives of a lot of young kids.
We have kids at the haunt, and I like to think we're keeping them out of trouble, we're a positive influence on them, and I hope the D.A.R.E. Program sticks with them. Because some of the kids that participate in the haunt, they're not on a good course, you know, long-term, and I'm hoping we can help change that course.
Philip: What do you think is the biggest area of expertise that you have that you can share with members?
Brent: Well, for about the past 18 years, I've been working as a commercial real estate broker, and for about nine years prior to that, I was working as a zoning and building codes consultant. I'm a part owner in a firm here in Idaho that provides real estate location and site intelligence information to corporate real estate users. Some of my clients include Costco, Walmart, Sears, Kmart, frequently building codes and zoning code issues come up. That's been my area of expertise for almost 30 years. Almost everyone that opens a haunt is going to have a fire code or a building code or a zoning code issue, and I'm happy to help in that respect. And you know, when you're negotiating a lease, obviously it's about economics, but it's about control as much as it is economics, controlling your own destiny as a tenant. And there are some pretty simple lease clauses people can plug in that will give them more control over their haunt and their destiny long-term.
Philip: What would you say is one of the biggest misconceptions when haunts are looking at leasing?
Brent: I think one of the biggest misconceptions is that if the owner of the building sells the building, you have to move out. You may have a lease that's drafted that way, but if you draft a lease the correct way and include an attornment and a non-disturbance clause in your lease, if the building gets sold you still have a valid lease hold interest in the property. They can't kick you out. So, that's a pretty standard clause that haunters can plug into leases to make sure they don't get kicked out when the building owner sells. We see them every day, and so haunters should not get a lot of pushback from landlords. In some cases, you know, if there's a lender involved, they'll require that.
Philip: Can you give us three more tips, maybe, that haunters can use when it comes to lease negotiations or even, you know, to codes or any of these topics?
Brent: I would say, before you sign a lease, give yourself at least 20 days for due diligence. Contact the city building department, contact the zoning department, make sure what you're proposing to do is what they call an allowed use by right. Or in some cases it might require a conditional use permit. So, your lease absolutely needs to be contingent on zoning approvals.
Another point I would recommend right out of the gates is, get yourself an indemnification for any pre-existing hazardous materials, including asbestos, especially if you're going to be leasing an old industrial building.
Then the third point I would say is, remember, these leases are about control as much as economics. Try to negotiate options to renew your lease. As long as you're not in default, you should be able to negotiate at least one option to renew your lease, which is like a right of first refusal that says, "Hey, if I've paid my rent and I've been a good tenant, you can't lease the building out from under me. I get an option to renew my lease." Pretty standard, and not out of the question.
Philip: Can you walk us through the situations that you will avoid if you follow these tips?
Brent: Yeah. I mean, there's a lot of issues, there's a lot of red flags you want to watch out for before you move into a building. There's Americans with Disability Act issues, you want to make sure the building owner is on the hook for those, because They're not required to come into compliance with ADA because you operate a haunted house. They're required to do that for any commercial use. So that's an example of something you want to watch out for.
Hazardous materials are a really big deal. It could make or break your haunt. Other pitfalls, if you're moving into a building that was a different use, anytime there's a Change Of Use, you're going to lose any grandfather status on the prior use, and it's going to trigger requirements to upgrade fire sprinklers, upgrade accessibility, upgrade exiting. So, a Change Of Use is a, you know, that's a big deal, that's something you've got to watch out for, and make sure you don't get any hiccups.
Philip: Let's pivot a little bit now into talking about what you have planned for your haunt. You are doing an opening in May. Tell me about what You have planned for Halfway to Halloween.
Brent: It's kind of like our building's birthday to us. We were able to acquire the building about two and a half years ago from the prior owner, and it needed a new roof. The roof was just in total disrepair, and we had some water leaks we had to take care of. So, we had to shut down, temporarily, the second floor of our haunt; it's only about 3,500 square feet, but still, that's about 10% of our haunt right there. So, we spent the past two years fixing the roof, fixing all the structural issues, repairing the water damage, and we've completely rebuilt it. We just installed about 122 vacuform wall panels from NetherCraft upstairs, we've got some stuff from Nevermore Productions in route right now, it should be here next week.
We do every year, a Halfway to Halloween event, it's a great way to kind of showcase the haunt, get people in, get some income during the off season. But what we're really expecting to do this year is kind of show off the second floor and all the cool new stuff we've been working hard to install. I'm excited.
Philip: Do you ever worry that maybe, by showing off that stuff now early, that your kind of diminishing the excitement for it in the haunt season?
Brent: You know, that's a very good question, and that is a concern that I have. However, we've done this every year for the past few years, and what I find is, it actually has the opposite impact. It actually increases excitement for the fall season. Because I think a lot of our business is word of mouth. I mean, we do social media advertising, we do TV commercials. But frequently when I talk to customers as they're leaving a haunt, " how'd you hear about us?" And they'll say, "oh yeah, my cousin said it was awesome, and we loved it," you know? So, I think we get a lot of word of mouth. And so, if I can get people that haven't been to the haunt before into the haunt in May, and assuming they like what they see and they had a good time, they're going to tell their friends. It's a small community we have. In our regional trade area, we have about 250,000 people, and that's pretty small compared to a lot of major markets. I think a lot of its word of mouth. So, definitely that is a concern, however, luckily thus far we've seen the opposite impact. I think it's bolstered our numbers in the Fall.
Philip: Who are the people that show up to the Halfway to Halloween events? Is it like your rabid fans that will also come again then for October that come every year? Or is it people that, you know, are coming for the first time?
Brent: We set record numbers this past season, just like everybody else. But prior to this past season, the biggest numbers we ever had was during our Summer Scream Fest, Halfway to Halloween event in 2019. We had lines around the building. So, our biggest challenge with that is throughput. Because we're a small town there's not a tremendous amount of options as far as entertainment, and so it works well for us. We're located right next door to a bowling alley, and our geo-fencing software says that our customers are either coming from or going to the bowling alley when they attend our haunt. So, they just want a good time. It's not necessarily the hardcore, I mean obviously the hardcore people come out, but it's everybody.
Philip: Does that mean that in 2019 you had more people for the Summer Event than for some of the days in your regular season?
Brent: That does. Yeah, that's correct.
Philip: Why do you think? Do you think it's the competition? I can't imagine in a small town that there's other scary things to do in the middle of summer. I feel like you got that market cornered.
Brent: Yeah, and during the haunt season in the Fall we have about a half dozen competitors in our trade area, but our real competitor, our biggest competitor during the Fall is high school football. When there's a big game, we feel a huge dent. I mean, the best we can hope to do is pick up the scraps when the game's over. So, that's a big part of it. There's just not a lot of options in May for entertainment in our little town.
Philip: Give us a quick rundown, as we end up here, for your upcoming season. You're starting on September 23rd this year, is that correct?
Brent: That is correct, yeah, and then we'll run through Halloween. Pretty standard season for us, that's going to be about 18 nights. A lot of our actors are still in school, and so we try to limit it to Thursday through Saturday nights. We're doing pretty well considering we're working fewer nights. Our biggest challenge, we get about 50% more customers on Saturday nights. So, this year, like a lot of people we're switching to time ticketing, and we're also going to have tiers to try and incentivize people to go on nights other than Saturday nights. You know, it's, a good problem to have when too many people want to come to the haunt, but if I was a customer and I had to wait two and a half hours in line, I would not be happy. You know, it's something we're working on, we have invested in a new queue line management for intake, and like I said, tiered pricing, time ticketing, we're trying to alleviate the Saturday night demand and push those customers to different nights.