Take one look at the Gothic Revival-style Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia, Penn., and you can't help but wonder if Dracula or Frankenstein resides inside. The imposing castle-like structure was, in fact, home to more than a few scary characters during its 142 years of service as a prison — including gangster Al Capone and bank robber Willie Sutton.
Today, the penitentiary is a U.S. National Historical Landmark and museum that is open daily for tours. But during the Halloween season, the nonprofit organization's administrative staff goes to great lengths to leverage ESP's spooky vibe in the name of fundraising. The prison's cellblocks are transformed nightly into Terror Behind the Walls — a collection of six elaborate and interactive haunted house experiences that attract more than 100,000 visitors every year.
Terror Behind the Walls is ESP's largest annual fundraiser. "The event began in 1991 as a simple, one-night experience — a candlelight tour with ghost stories," says Brett Bertolino, vice president and director of operations for ESP. “It has since grown to a very complex, month-long event with many moving parts."
Making Seasonal Hiring Less Terrifying
For 2016, those moving parts include a speakeasy lounge at Al Capone's cell, a zombie dance team that performs every half hour and a cast of creepy characters for each haunted house. ESP recruits about 300 seasonal workers to help execute Terror Behind the Walls — actors, dancers, box office staff, parking lot attendants, after-dark VIP tour guides and many others.
“Staffing for Terror Behind the Walls is a very intense process," says Bertolino. “We need to have our 15-person event management team in place by the end of December to start planning the upcoming year's experience. We begin auditioning and interviewing seasonal staff in July. By the end of August, we have our team members engaged in safety, customer service and other specialized training so we're ready for business by the end of September."
Bringing on so many employees, so quickly, for Terror Behind the Walls is a significant challenge. “We have to enter 300 hourly employees into our payroll system and get them set up with worker's compensation insurance in about two weeks," Bertolino says. “We often need to rely on third-party consultants who specialize in nonprofit accounting to help support our two-person accounting staff."
A Process So Transparent, It's Almost Ghostly
To ensure smooth operations with online ticketing, ESP works with Seattle-based Interactive Ticketing. “We sell about 84 percent of our tickets for Terror Behind the Walls online, in advance," says Bertolino. “Working with a ticketing expert ensures that we're able to handle order volume in real time."
He adds, "The arrangement is also ideal for our reporting as a 501c3 nonprofit organization. We know exactly when every ticket was sold and scanned."
ESP's relationship with Interactive Ticketing provides value from a marketing perspective, too. “We know a lot about our customers, which helps us to market and upsell to them more effectively," says Bertolino. "Interactive Ticketing also automatically sends an email survey on our behalf to guests within 24 hours after their tickets have been scanned. Our two marketing employees could not do this on their own."
Face the Unknown with Confidence
Ghosts and ghouls aside, the scariest thing about Terror Behind the Walls, according to Bertolino, is the risk that this critical fundraiser for ESP might be sidelined by an unforeseen event, like a fire or natural disaster. Closing Terror Behind the Walls, even for one night, is much costlier than closing the museum on a typical day, he says.
“In 2012, we lost two show nights right before Halloween due to Hurricane Sandy," Bertolino recalls. "It had a huge financial impact on the event and our organization. We had to reschedule or refund every ticket from the two cancelled show nights."
To ensure ESP is protected financially in case Terror Behind the Walls could not operate at all during a Halloween season, the nonprofit maintains a cash reserve that is equal to about one average season of revenue from the event.
“Scary as it is, we have to think about the risk of potentially losing a whole season of Terror Behind the Walls," says Bertolino. "We need to do everything we can to make sure that we, as an organization, can survive for decades to come."
Jane Irene Kelly, who has two decades of professional writing, editing and reporting experience, writes about business and technology. Jane is a graduate of Syracuse University’s S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications and resides in Pennsylvania.