By day, Rick West is Rethink’s Show Writer, working on a myriad of projects ranging from theme park concept narratives to marketing material and new business collateral. By night, his attention turns toward much darker, sinister things; things that prowl in the gloom underneath your bed, or howl at the full moon during autumn when the air is crisp and cool. For roughly 8 months out of the year, Rick is heavily involved in Midsummer Scream Halloween/horror convention as its Creative Director. The convention just made its second appearance at the Long Beach Convention Center, welcoming more than 15,000 guests the weekend of July 29-30.
Midsummer Scream is best described as “the Comic-Con of Halloween”, which it easily lives up to. For two days, the show features more than 225 artisan vendors selling everything from gothic jewelry and hand-painted Ouija boards, to film-quality silicone masks and props; world-class panel presentations featuring the likes of Universal Studios Hollywood’s Halloween Horror Nights, Knott’s Scary Farm, Queen Mary’s Dark Harbor, and Six Flags Magic Mountain’s Fright Fest; live entertainment that includes burlesque performances, horror-inspired immersive theatrical productions, and twisted magic shows; a “Screaming Room” where guests can watch amateur short horror films or videos from last year’s Halloween events across Southern California; and a robust education schedule that includes seminars, live makeup demonstrations, prop-making courses, and much more. One of the cornerstone elements of Midsummer Scream is its massive Hall of Shadows – a dark zone on the sprawling show floor that is roughly the size of a football field, featuring over a dozen haunted attractions, hundreds of free-roaming monsters, billowing fog, and high-energy exhibitions by the Decayed Brigade “slider” team several times a day on a 112-foot-long runway.
In many ways, Midsummer Scream feels more like a horror theme park than a convention; that’s by design, not a mistake or coincidence.
“Conventions of all types exist around the world,” explains Rick. “Here in Southern California, Midsummer shares a very high-stakes window of just weeks with Comic-Con in San Diego, and D23 in Anaheim. Cons of all shapes and sizes reflect everything from pop culture to industry-specific needs such as fishing, fashion, or even the latest and greatest copying machines and office supplies. If there’s a widget, there’s a convention for it.
“What sets Midsummer apart from most other shows, is that we approach everything – from content to execution – like you’d do a theme park concept design. You first figure out what your story/theme is – in our case, it’s Halloween, mixed with horror in general – and you build outward from that foundation. Everything we have at Midsummer can easily be bridged thematically to brand – horror, the macabre, or Halloween – from vendors and entertainment, to our education program and panel presentations. With each idea we spitball in planning, we ask how it connects – where the Halloween/horror thread is; if we can make that connection, we proceed. This ensures our show feels right to our guests. Even something that may on the surface, seem like it’s a stretch – like our Tower of Terror panel discussion, or kitten adoption lounge – makes sense for our brand. Midsummer by default, attracts a lot of theme park fans who are there to see Universal, Knott’s and Six Flags unveil their plans for Halloween. It makes sense then, to expand on that, tapping into that group so that we can justify something like a Tower of Terror or Haunted Mansion-type of presentation. We named our kitten rescue component the ‘Black Cat Lounge’ and promoted the fact that black and orange cats would be up for adoption throughout the weekend in a setting where they’d be free-roaming and playing with guests in a really fun environment; it made sense, and the Lounge had a healthy line of visitors waiting to get in from the beginning to the end of our show, generating a slew of anticipated adoptions.
“Our design goes way beyond content creation, as well. We recognize that our volunteer staff – more than 150 this year – are our front-line people; our version of Disney Cast Members. It’s extremely important to us that our entire team feels like a family, and treats our guests as just that – guests, as opposed to convention attendees/numbers. Midsummer spends a great deal of time on volunteer orientation, and we empower our entire staff to be proactive problem-solvers. Never does one of our people tell a guest, ‘I don’t know’, or shrug them off; they’re trained extensively to stay with their guest until a question has been answered, even if it means leaving their post to find out together. At the end of the day, it’s common sense – you treat your guests the same way you’d want to be treated. In our opinion, it takes more work to be rude or dismissive than it does to be friendly and helpful. Each and every one of our volunteer applicants is vetted to make sure they are a right fit for our us. Without a strong, well-trained team, an excellent convention can easily be seriously tarnished by poor customer service or a non-existent staff. It happens all the time at major shows all over the country, and that’s a shame.”
Rick has an extensive theme park/customer service background that includes experience as a Disneyland Cast Member, Knott’s Berry Farm Operations Associate, and Visitor Services Manager for Aquarium of the Bay at Pier 39 in San Francisco. One of his mentors in the art of customer service was Van France, the architect of Disneyland’s orientation program, and creator of good show/bad show, on-stage/off-stage mentality for theme parks; he even coined the title “Cast Members” for Disneyland’s employees under the direction of Walt Disney in early 1955.
Having worked for numerous themed entertainment design companies including Thinkwell, BRC Imagination Arts, The Hettema Group, and now Rethink, Rick’s understanding of and approach to the guest experience, as well as his extensive list of industry acquaintances and peers is a valuable asset to Midsummer Scream’s executive team.
“The basis for everything is story,” says Rick. “Even for a convention. Story converted to marketing or business speak is ‘branding’. If you keep that in focus at all times, and understand how important your front-line people are, you have a recipe for success, or at least, a big leg up on your competition.”