After a series of acquisitions and openings of new attractions, Denver-based Thirteenth Floor Entertainment Group is the largest haunted house company in the United States, with 15 locations nationwide from Florida to California.
At the height of scare season, the company has about 3,500 people working at its attractions. The HR paperwork is almost as much of a nightmare as the haunted houses. "Sourcing the people is one thing, but onboarding them is another huge challenge," says Chris Stafford, one of the founding partners of Thirteenth Floor. "It's created a lot of unique challenges."
There was an opportunity for the company to grow since its 2002 founding, thanks to a pervasive dynamic and the mom-and-pop haunted house industry. "There are a lot of people looking at retiring," says Stafford. "We can offer an exit plan they might not have otherwise."
About 60 people work at Thirteenth Floor headquarters in Denver year-round, and many of the masks for proprietary characters like Mr. Hollows -- "our Mickey Mouse or Donald Duck," says Stafford -- are made in a Denver shop.
Its main manufacturing facility is now in San Antonio, Texas, where a crew of welders and fabricators make all manner of shocking scenes come to life. That's largely because Dan McCullough, another founding partner, is based there. "He's in charge of innovation and production," says Stafford. "Centralizing production made sense."
At a 25,000-square-foot workshop, McCullough oversees a staff of about 10 employees, "everyone from skilled carpenters to detail artists," says Stafford. "Now we're able to centralize production there and keep those people off the road."
The combined skill set allows for the factory to manufacture a wide range of scream-inducing machinery, including electromechanical special effects and control systems for audio, lighting, and motion.
Case in point: Thirteenth Floor opened a 35,000-square-foot haunted house in Jacksonville, Florida, for the 2018 season. "The entire haunted house was built in San Antonio, disassembled, shipped, and reassembled in Jacksonville," says Stafford.
Stafford says the company outsources some welding in San Antonio and buys animatronics from Greeley-based Distortions Unlimited as well as Unit 70 Studios in Columbus, Ohio, and sources a lot of props from Ghost Ride Productions in Bellevue, Washington.
"Other than that, we try to keep stuff in-house if we can," says Stafford. "It is such a niche industry and so specialized, it doesn't translate well." He adds, "The genesis of this whole industry was a lot of do-it-yourselfers. You have to innovate, and troubleshoot, and figure it out on your own."
When it comes to local peers in the fright business, Stafford has been a longtime supporter of Distortions, and he's also a fan of Landon Meier of Denver's Hyperflesh. "I have one of his baby masks in my office," says Stafford. "He's amazing -- super creative and satirical."
But it wasn't until the interview for this column that Stafford became aware of Frank Coffman, the custom gorilla-suit tailor in Boulder. Stafford mentioned that he was in the market for a good gorilla suit, so I emailed him CompanyWeek's 2017 profile of Coffman after the call.
I'm hoping Frank's handiwork becomes part of the ever-growing inventory of things that keep Thirteenth Floor customers coming back every Halloween -- and awake at night the rest of the year.
Eric Peterson is editor of CompanyWeek. Reach him at email@example.com.