Niche Market Award

PocaHAUNTus Haunted House Honored at 2024 Iowa Tourism Awards

By Erin Sommers. Story originally appeared in March 27th edition of The Record-Democrat

PocaHAUNTus wasn’t just a hit with thrill seekers. The haunted house, a joint project of the Pocahontas Chamber of Commerce and the Pocahontas Fire Department, was named the Outstanding Niche Market Initiative for rural Iowa at the 2024 Travel Iowa awards last week.

The judges for the awards noted a few things about PocaHAUNTus and the Chamber’s efforts to market the event. “A smaller initiative than most of the other submissions, and significantly less resources than others, but appreciated how the submission was written and showed impact in the community,” one reviewer wrote. “Also appreciated new methods of advertising that hadn’t been explored previously.”

Another judge added:  “(This) group utilized many media sources that are not new to the industry but were new to them. Clever name for the event!”

Wendi Malecek, a haunted house aficionado who was a driving force behind the project, said she was honored to work on PocaHAUNTus.

“This award was definitely not an expectation,” Malecek said. “It was only made possible because of all the hard work of volunteers. And the amazing support of Pocahontas and surrounding communities. Who knew a simple fundraiser idea would turn into so much. The Haunted House was a huge success and we look forward to bringing it back year after year.”

Sarah animatronic

Pocahontas Chamber of Commerce Director Parker Aden said he was grateful for the recognition from Travel Iowa and the Iowa Economic Authority.

“Putting on PocaHAUNTus was a major undertaking for us, and it’s delightful to see our event recognized at a state level,” he said. “It’s especially thrilling for us to receive an award from such a prestigious ceremony for the inaugural year of the event.”

Chamber members Malecek, Karen McNeive and Heather Schoon were the core team driving the creation and design of the haunted house. They all attended the event with Aden.

“We may have had a solid core group of four people, all with differing talents, who were able to bring the idea of a haunted house to life, but it’s no secret that the success of PocaHAUNTus wouldn’t have been possible without the many volunteers who donated their time, resources and energy to the project,” Schoon said. “This award is truly for everyone who committed to making it happen.”

McNeive agreed. “It was such an honor to receive the award on behalf of the Chamber and have our community spotlighted and recognized by the state of Iowa,” McNeive said.

The Outstanding Niche Market Initiative for rural areas is limited to applicants from cities with 10,000 or fewer residents or a county that is among the 33 least populated in Iowa.

In his application, Aden explained how the haunted house was both a fundraiser for the Chamber and the fire department, but also offered a type of entertainment not easily available in the county.

“We wanted to do this specific event to fill a void that we felt we had in our county — there were no other haunted houses unless you drove 30 plus minutes,” Aden wrote. The two organizations teamed up to put on and market the event, and worked with our local newspaper — The Record Democrat — to make and distribute marketing materials. We knew haunted houses are not for everyone, but there definitely exists a niche group of people that would travel hours to attend. We wanted this event to not only excite and entertain our community, but we also wanted to break into that niche market.”

Last fall was the inaugural year for the haunted house, which presented some challenges for the groups putting it together.

“Being a first time event, we knew we needed to break into new markets to gain attention,” Aden said. “We broke new ground on social media, making a new specific Facebook page for the event and a TikTok page, the latter of which neither organization had never done before. Our TikTok page received over 7,000 views on our video as a brand new page during the first 60 days of being created.”

Chamber members helped to spread the word about the project online, using a few fun taglines and puns they came up with. One was the event’s name, respelling Pocahontas with the word “haunt” in the middle in all capital letters. The tagline for the event took advantage of Pocahontas’ nickname: “You can’t spell spooky without Poky.”

All award winners
All award recipients during the 2024 Iowa Tourism Awards at the Iowa Tourism Conference in Des Moines.

Chamber members and supporters posted about being at the haunted house while it was opening, reminding their social media contacts that the event had begun.

“By the second weekend, we heard from several attendees that our event was recommended by word of mouth from first weekend attendees,” Aden said. “We saw a flood of recommendations on social media as well. PocaHAUNTus had taken on a life of its own being shared and raved about on Facebook, especially outside of our community. This is not something we typically see for our other annual events.”

It all worked so well that the event drew in 927 people in attendance in total for both weekends, he said. The house averaged more than 200 visitors per night.

“Through our collaboration, we were able to create excitement for the event, fill a void our area of Iowa had for haunted house events, pull strong attendance numbers, and successfully accomplished reaching our niche market in putting on PocaHAUNTus,” he said.

Aden said Chamber board members understood that they couldn’t just market the haunted house to Pocahontas, which  has a population of 1,800.

“Although operating on a small town budget, we put a great effort into marketing this event, including unconventional marketing for small communities, such as making a TikTok page, renting a billboard, doing ticket giveaways on radio stations and promoting it internally inside of local and nearby school districts,” he said.

More than 400 hours of volunteer time went into converting the fire station’s shed into a two-story haunted house with multiple themed rooms. The cost for the initial start-up was about $3,500. “Several set pieces and decorations in our haunted house were hand crafted and constructed,” Aden said.

Chamber and fire department volunteers were flexible as the event debuted. “When the weather was extremely cold for October during the second weekend, we didn’t cancel our event like other local communities did,” Aden said. “Instead, we adapted and moved our registration and line up procedure inside the fire station to keep attendees warm and allow the event to continue on. We were always diligent of what challenges and issues we needed to address each time working on the event.”

In all, the event raise $8,780 and collected nearly 400 pounds of food to be donated to the local food pantry.

“Pocahontas is a small but mighty community,” Aden said, wrapping up his application. “Perhaps Bill Menner, Executive Director for Iowa Rural Development Council, detailed it best in his visit this past November when he stated multiple times that he could not think of another community that size of Pocahontas, that has some of the amenities that we do. This was made in reference to our local appliance store — Seiler Appliance — and the quality of their inventory. It was made in reference to the new comic book and game shop — Meltdown Games + Comics. And it was made in reference to our haunted house, and the high quality of which it was.

“Despite being small and rural, the Pocahontas Chamber works to put on multiple events throughout the year,” Aden said. “We do what we can to entertain and provide a quality of life to northwest Iowa and those who want to enjoy what small towns can offer, whether that be for one event or throughout the whole year.”

He said he and the Chamber members were honored by the recognition. They aren’t sitting back and waiting for Halloween to roll around. “We are already working on this year’s run of (the haunted house),” he said after receiving the award. “And I want to give a special shoutout to Wendi Malecek for having the vision for this event. We followed her lead to help pull it together, and that’s why it was able to be the success that it was. She is the true champion for the success and continuation of PocaHAUNTus.”

Family Fun Posted April 5, 2024

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