Halloween is big business for Big-D
Profits can be thin, but thrills are high in operations that generate plenty of business.
Dallas Business Journal - by Jan Buchholz Staff Writer
Here’s a scary statistic: The Dallas area has more than 25 major haunted houses while Houston has three and Phoenix has four.
“Dallas is one of the best markets in the country for haunted houses,” said Steve Kopelman, co-owner of Thrillvania in Terrell, one of the largest destination haunted houses in the United States.
That might sound like a self-serving opinion, but Leonard Pickel, one of the foremost haunted house consultants from Charlotte, N.C., concurs.
“It’s right up there as one of the top markets. There’s over 200 Halloween events in the area, so per capita that’s a lot,” Pickel said.
Kopelman said any viable haunted house will earn revenue of between $350,000 and $1 million, with profits ranging from zero to six figures. That’s because there are temporary employees to pay, sales taxes, income taxes, liability insurance, property insurance and the development costs of creating new thrills each year.
It’s not the kind of business that anyone’s getting rich in.
“It’s a lot of work and investment to make any money,” Kopelman said.
Michael-Marie Lane, co-owner with her husband, Billy Roadifer, of the website www.dfwhauntedhouses.com, believes that per-capita, Dallas is at the top.
Lane knows interest in her website is stronger than ever, with 10 million hits last season and 30,000 unique visits. Consumers are looking for a variety of haunted house experiences and will visit multiple haunted houses to get their thrills.
“It’s a very subjective thing,” Lane said.
Pickel thinks the region’s haunted house strength goes back to the early 1980s, when he worked as an architect here. He lent his expertise to the March of Dimes, which operated a haunted house as an annual fundraiser. Pickel had experience. He created a haunted house while attending Texas A&M in 1976 and his interest in them continued growing after graduation.
“There was a lot of that kind of stuff in Dallas. Even church groups did haunted houses, so I think it’s a history of nonprofits operating (haunted houses) that set the foundation,” Pickel said.
Another key factor: Two special effects experts set the stage locally in the 1990s: Lance Pope and Drew Hunter.
Pope created Thrillvania, starting with a property at the Texas State Fair and eventually relocating to a 50-acre parcel in Terrell. Hunter, who now works in Florida for amusement ride and haunted house developer Sally Corp., also got his start in Dallas and Austin and continues to make a living in the business.
But it was Pope, in particular, who captivated both Pickel and Kopelman before his untimely death seven years ago.
“Lance was absolutely brilliant,” Pickel said.
“He was an industry icon when it came to special effects,” Kopelman said.
Pope’s parents tried to run Thrillvania alone, but the work was overwhelming. They turned to Kopelman five years ago, who now partners with them. Kopelman lives in Houston and also operates permanent haunted houses in Phoenix; Indianapolis, Ind.; Columbus, Ohio; and Greensboro, N.C. He’s consulted on dozens more across the United States.
He expects the market for Haunted Houses to grow because Halloween retailing continues to grow.
“Retail has been looking to bridge the gap from back-to-school to Christmas,” Kopelman said.
The National Retail Federation estimates that Halloween generated about $4.75 billion in consumer spending in 2009 with the average person spending $56.31 for costumes, decorations, candy, greeting cards and events.
Haunted houses are big business, too, some of them costing upwards of $1 million to create, Kopelman said.
Even the most simplistic haunted houses require a certain level of special effects and marketing to draw a crowd, so even a temporary facility requires thousands in upfront investment.
Pickel, who has written books and articles about the business of creating and operating haunted houses, said there may be no better time to start a haunted house given the inventory of empty retail, particularly big boxes.
“Finding a good location is harder than finding the money, but now is a prime time to buy a building,” Pickel said.
Kopelman expects between 20,000 to 30,000 people will spend an average of $25 to visit Thrillvania during its weekend runs that start Sept. 24 and wrap up on Halloween. The rest of the year Thrillvania is closed, but Kopelman is working a bonecrushing schedule preparing for next year.
“My first convention, the International Association of Amusement Parks, is in Orlando in November,” Kopelman said.
There are more conventions throughout the year, consulting, contracting with new vendors in the food, costume and even fortune telling industries and developing new haunted houses and attractions.
This year, Kopelman expects new 3-D technology involving the matriarch of Thrillvania, Lady Cassandra, to set a new standard of scariness. It was developed by Themed Attraction Design in Jacksonville, Fla. Ultimately it is scariness that sells any haunted house.
“You can never lose sight of that. People want to be scared first. The technology is second,” Kopelman said.