Fruit and veg farm by day, one of the country’s leading scare attractions by night. Over Farm, Gloucestershire, has its Halloween recipe just right
In 1982 Rob and Sue Keene converted a former lorry garage into a farm shop and now grow over 20 varieties of fruit and vegetables. But when the pumpkins start appearing, things head into terror territory following a diversification idea that attracts, and scares the hell out of, over 30,000 people each season. We talk to Matt Keene.
What made you create Halloween events at Over Farm?
In 1982, my father opened ‘Over Farm Market’ in order to sell fruit and vegetables produced on the farm. In the early 90’s he visited America on a conference where he found farmers diversifying in similar ways to himself. One of their main seasons was Halloween with farms selling thousands upon thousands of pumpkins to the American public for carving and culinary use. He returned to the UK brimming with ideas and set up our first ‘Pumpkin Festival’.
In 2002, after another visit to America, he came back with the idea of sending customers out in the dark on a flat bed trailer towed by a tractor with the sole intention of scaring the life out of them. Here is where the ‘Haunted Hayride’ was born. In 2008, having run out of roller coasters to ride, adrenaline addict Wayne Davis and Kevin Sudds came on board with the event and ‘Frightmare’ was born. In 2010 I began to oversee the event. Since then, we have grown the Frightmare family massively, with around 10 key people involved in various aspects of the event.
Describe the events and how many people they attract
We now have five scare attractions at Frightmare. All of the attractions run from a central hub. Here you can purchase food, drinks and merch, watch shows and other street performances, use toilets or just absorb the atmosphere. The attractions are based just outside of the main hub – Caged, The Offering, Wonderland and Séance are all walk through attractions where you go through as a group of between four and 14 people. Different scenes take place as you pass through each attraction.
Our Haunted Hayride is a purpose built tractor and trailer ride around the farm with a few extra surprises thrown in for good measure! Each trailer takes a maximum of 28 seated customers at a time.
Our attractions are all designed for our actors to push the boundaries of human emotion to the limits in a safe and controlled manner. On peak nights we will be catering for around 2,200 people.
Daytime activities operate under the ‘Spookyard’ title and use the same infrastructure installed for the night time events, but with a few added fun bits targeted at young families. This includes pumpkin carving, tractor and trailer rides to the pumpkin patch, fun shows and much more. We can cater for up to 1,000 people per day.
Both events are run in house, although during Spookyard we have a fun fair come in and setup their own attractions which are available as a secondary spend should people wish. In total, we’re looking to put around 30,000 people through the doors to the two events combined.
How did you find applying for permission to run the events?
This was something we did many years ago when applying for an alcohol license for our retail and wedding side of the business. Essentially we have a premises licence across most of the site for up to 4,999 people on site at any one time. We do have a couple of restrictions such as notifications to local residents when large events are on and some noise curfews to adhere to.
How have you planned the layout?
Mostly through years of doing it! We use a health and safety consultancy that plots the event onto a CAD drawing, but I like to move things at the last minute just to annoy them. Around 80% of the event is based in marquees built off a barn that acts as the central arena. We’re now quite inventive at joining things together that wouldn’t usually be associated with one another.
How did you research and source your infrastructure?
Again, a lot through the experience of having done it for a few years. We have a bit of an idea of what works well and what doesn’t.
We try to get to as many other similar events as we can, either UK based or further afield. As you can imagine, it’s a very short season so this can be tricky. This does help us see what’s working well for others and shows you where you could make possible improvements.
What provisions do you make for power, lights and sound?
The event is run 90% from generator power. We’ve found it to be more reliable than the mains supply. We have two large generators that power the majority of the site, these are run in sync so if one ever shuts down the other will be able to power the whole site by itself. The small amount of mains power we use is for fridges, coolers and computers, stuff that needs to stay on when we power down for the night.
Our two technical lads take care of all our sound and light. It’s way too complicated to explain everything… but there’s lots of it!
All attractions have a comprehensive emergency stop system in place… just in case.
How do you manage admissions and visitor safety?
We use a digital ticketing system called Digitickets. This integrates nicely into our website and allows us to fully manage customer requests in house. This does involve answering phone calls and emails from customers for a variety of requests and queries, but due to the complexity of the ticketing structure it is the best and most cost effective solution for us. We don’t use any other ticket sales mediums due to bad experiences with voucher sites, and again how complicated our structure is.
Customers book an arrival time to the event. This helps us to reduce congestion in all areas massively, especially the main entrance. It does reduce dwell time slightly which probably affects secondary spend; it is something we are working on for next year
Visitor safety is taken very seriously. We use a company called Entourage Live to help us monitor this. They do numerous site visits and issue us with a report after each visit offering advice and areas to improve on. Our safety documentation and reporting procedures cover hundreds of pages, but it’s certainly an area we are happy to invest in for both the public’s safety and to cover ourselves should the worst happen.
How do you publicise the events?
90% of our marketing budget is spent on social media and content creation. It really is the only way to promote this type of event. The level of engagement we have with our customers is incredible, and you can see with a few mouse clicks exactly what is working and what isn’t. We have two companies involved in our marketing, one that specialises in social media marketing and one that specialises in public relations.
The other 10% is spent on flyer production, billboards and attending other events such as carnivals to promote.
What challenges have you faced?
Rapid growth is something that we have to factor in every year, although this is a good problem. Lots of maths goes into working out exactly how many people we can put through each attraction. A huge step for us was going from 672 people per night to over 1,000 only a couple of years ago. A slight tweak to the way we ran the Haunted Hayride has made all the difference and allowed us to now run over 2,000 people per night.
How profitable are the events?
There is absolutely a financial benefit, however it is the sort of thing where it is very easy to spend thousands of pounds on a cool prop or an extra actor for here or there. We do watch the budget quite carefully and try to keep costs less than 50% of turnover. It is hard work but once up and running it’s one of our favourite times of year.
What are your plans for next year?
Top secret! We usually have a few ideas for future years up our sleeve. We spend a lot of time while the event is live collecting data and seeing what we can improve on.
What other events do you hold at the farm?
Halloween is by far our biggest time of year now. We also hold a music festival – Barn on the Farm happens the first weekend in July and hosts around 3,000 people. Our wedding venue operates all year round (excluding October!). Strawberry picking in the summer and a number of other smaller events throughout the year.
What advice could you give to someone coming into the industry?
Ask people that already run similar events to have a look around. The industry is small and most operators are lovely genuine people who are more than happy to show you around. The scale we operate at currently blows my mind, but it has only really become this size in a few short years. Any knowledge I have, I’m happy to share with those that are wanting to learn.
The main thing that makes Frightmare work is people. During the peak nights there will be around 200 staff on site. All of us love what we do – seeing people laughing, screaming and generally having a good time. It really is one big family, everyone looks out for each other and that really shows in the finished product. There’s no way on Earth we could achieve what we do without these amazing people.
Don’t invite press and reviewers to the preview (first) night! It really isn’t a good reflection of what the event will be like the following night or week. Let staff find and get comfortable in their roles before inviting people that will judge. That’s this year’s lesson!
HEALTH & SAFETY
Entourage Live – www.entourage.live
They let us know how best to do some of the ridiculous stuff we do; “Can we put fire cannons on the Hayride route?”
Luxury Pavilions – www.budgetmarqueehire.com
A local company – we take most of their kit over the event.
RU Electrical – www.ruelectrical.co.uk
POWER & LIGHTING
In house by my amazing technical team Dom and Robbie
Fat Toni’s Pizzeria – possibly the greatest pizza you will ever try!
Passion 4 Juice – Amazing coffee, waffles, soup, wraps and vegan snacks
Abbey Loos – www.abbeyloos.co.uk
Digitickets – www.digitickets.co.uk
Brilliant for low cost and integration, but heavy on back office management. Perfect for us.
NFU Mutual – www.nfumutual.co.uk
Scream Park Entertainments – www.screampark.co.uk
They help us with scare actor recruitment and look after the actors throughout the event. Perfect for when you reach a certain size.
Fear FX – www.fearfx.co.uk