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A Biz Strategy To Die For

People are dying to attend murder mystery weekends and it’s helping hoteliers make a killing.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010
Caryn Eve Murray
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In 1985, during Ken Hayward’s first year on the job at the Grand Hotel Mackinac Island, guests discovered his body in the outdoor tea garden, where he’d apparently been murdered.

A few years later, when machine-gun fire blasted through the revelry at a cocktail party in the same Michigan inn’s night club, a handful of bullets nailed a now-familiar target: Hayward, again.

“This time, I was killed in full view,” said Hayward, vice president of sales and marketing and, at long last, a now-retired repeat victim of the Grand Hotel’s annual October murder mystery weekends.

For more than 25 years, the hotel has been serving up everything from sleuth to nuts for guests with a hankering for a good whodunit. Lately, Hayward’s role has been just as key; but now he’s fortunately been able to fulfill his mission while staying upright and animated.

“I have been involved in restructuring how we have done it,” he said. In the latest incarnations of the popular weekend, actors and writers with the theatrical company, Suspicious Acts, have been raising eyebrows and offing victims, he said, all pretty much to the delight of guests at the 19th century hotel.

In their sometimes vast array of creative packages, hotels and inns may offer a ballroom dancing weekend, crossword puzzle weekend, yoga weekend, girlfriends’ weekend and even Wild West weekend, but it seems the murder mystery weekend is the one event that is, in every sense of the word, to die for. A tool for corporate team-building, as much as for family reunion amusement, its draw leaves little mystery about its intense popularity.

“We are fairly regional in our reach most of the time,” said Hayward, “but guests will come from a little further away because they enjoy participating in these weekends.” The weekend is typically a two-night package, all inclusive with meals and, of course, with ample clues to the crime dropped like so many mints on a pillow. This year’s October intrigue will be scripted as “Death Casts a Vote,” set in 1928, as unhappy political activists plot as they grouse about the presumed inequities of the two-party system. Last year’s event, “Tune in to Murder,” was set in 1938 and revolved around a struggling radio network.

Like Hayward, Donna Davis Mixon doesn’t mind dying for a good cause – and the innkeeper has, when the occasion calls for her own theatrical rubbing-out during murder mystery weekends at her MD Resort Bed and Breakfast in Aurora, TX, outside Fort Worth. “Sometimes we play the victim, sometimes the guest does,” said Mixon, who bought the property in 1999. The bed and breakfast does between 15 and 20 such weekends each year, many of them customized for family reunions or companies looking to bolster working teams on the job.

Steady guest demand isn’t the only reason Mixon launched the packages. She demands them, too, she said. “I love stuff like that. I have always really enjoyed murder mystery dinner theaters. It probably all started back with [TV’s] ‘Perry Mason’ when I was a kid.” Even though corporate business is down somewhat, she said, traffic has been steady since the programs were launched during the inn’s second year in business.

The magnetism of the weekend “is all in the eye of the beholder,” she said. “There are women who love scrapbooking and there are women who would never come to a scrapbooking retreat weekend. That’s where we, as innkeepers, have to offer a variety of things.”

At the Glen Tavern Inn in Santa Paula, CA, however, murder mystery has been snuffed out – but rumors of its permanent death may be exaggerated.

“We needed a minimum number of 10 patrons to make it work and the last three times we scheduled it, nobody did it,” said George Martinez, manager of the 80-room inn.

“Even the Halloween one, which we thought would be a big hit, wasn’t,” he said. “It was because property taxes were due the next week. It was in sync with big bill payout for everyone.”

Martinez said the economy was partly to blame, but also the costs attendant with utilizing the hotel restaurant, Enzo’s, which at the time was being run by someone else under a lease agreement.

“We had to build the weekend around the price point of the restaurant, what they wanted plus what the [theatrical] company wanted,” Martinez said. Now the hotel runs the restaurant too, eliminating that factor and some of the cost.

“It’s on the back burner for now but we are definitely going to start kicking it up again in the next few months,” he said.

On the other hand, death by stabbing, pistol, poison and other means is still going strong at Mohonk Mountain House in New York’s Hudson Valley, where director of marketing Nina Smiley said she is proud of the establishment’s status as the granddaddy of the murder mystery weekend.

“We created the genre when we started it in 1977 and we’re still doing it,” she said. “Of course now you can do this at a resort, on a train and even a cruise ship.” The appeal is simply that “people like to have something to sink their teeth into,” and for the thinking guest, that amounts to more than just a porterhouse steak in the dining room. And so, “Dead of Winter” horrified and delighted guests simultaneously in 1977, with a tantalizing brochure by artist Edward Gorey and numerous mystery plots to follow by the novelist Donald Westlake, who often attended and hosted such events.

“It was just an opportunity for people to come in the winter and do something completely, mind-bogglingly different,” Smiley said. The company staging the events provides the actors as well as the bodies left behind in the wake of crime, leaving guests free to perambulate and speculate.

She said this year’s event, a vampire-themed plot with the name “Blood Lust Murder,” will take place March 12-14 and will likely find “the house hopping with mystery fans and others” throughout the 265-room resort.

“It is good clean mystery fun and has a dedicated following,” she said.

That’s just as true at the Stone Lion Inn in Guthrie, OK, where every weekend is a killer weekend, thanks to plots with titles like “The Reading of the Will” and “A Murder in Babylon” playing out to their inevitable conclusions, year-round. The owner of the 40-room establishment, Becky Luker, is both author and director of these dramas, and the guests, who often garb themselves in costumes reflecting the relevant period, are the players.

“We describe it as participatory theater,” said Leisa Reynolds, Luker’s friend who assists at the inn. Typically the guests are groups of friends who know one another, but there is still an occasional corporate client wanting a team-building exercise or simply a company party – either on the premises or off, when Luker takes the act on the road.

The good news, said Reynolds, is that while the economy has chipped away somewhat at the theme weekends, business has only slowed down, not halted. At the Stone Lion, as elsewhere, suspicious stabbings and shootings are still very much alive – even if the victims are not.
Caryn Eve Murray
Associate Editor
Hotel Interactive® Editorial Division

Bio: Caryn Eve Murray is a freelance writer and an assistant editor on the news desk at Newsday on Long Island. During her tenure as a business writer for New York Newsday, she covered the city's small business community for which she won the Distinguished Business Reporting Award of Excellence from the New York Newspaper Publishers Association. She has also been a feature columnist and writer and has ...
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