Introducing Dark Encounters, the SME with a spine-tingling story
Dark Encounters is the perfect business to help Bionic celebrate Halloween this year. Why, you ask? Because this SME is truly as spooky as it sounds. It offers ghost tours, scary walks and expert paranormal investigations all over the south of England.
From East Sussex ghost hunts at Fort Widley and Porchester Castle to seeking out any creepy activity at Bursledon Brickworks in Southampton, Dark Encounters (and its sister companies) delight in anything scary. Its aim is to provide fantastic quality experiences for its floods of eager customers.
“We started in 2005,” says Jonathan Fost, the brains behind the business. “I’d been working in marketing and PR and saw that a lot of businesses were struggling with revenue. They were running a standard 9-5, but there was a huge opportunity to utilise their space outside of those hours.”
Jonathan told Bionic that’s how the idea for Dark Encounters appeared to him. Not in a premonition or anything ghostly (unfortunately). However, what began as an initial idea grew into a fantastically frightening company with widespread success over the UK.
“There’s something really fascinating about going into a building after dark” Jonathan thrilled “Seeing what happens when it’s locked up and everyone has left, to think who might still be wandering around!”
Since set up, Jonathon has expertly nurtured the business and adapted with ease, they now run intricate escape rooms, Christmas ghost stories by candlelight, zombie experiences and more. Dark Encounters is still the crux, the main brand, and is still very much centred around paranormal hunts, heading into spooky historic buildings and seeing what (or who) you might find.
The other aspects of the business like the escape rooms, guides and experiences involve live actors to bring the stories to life. They are aimed at thrill seekers and adrenaline junkies itching for a scare.
But the multiple parts of the business have done well over the years and although they entwine, they are successful in their own right. Jonathon cited the sheer number of exploration locations on offer as one of his biggest achievements though.
“Opening so many locations to our customers has been a big achievement. I have people saying to me ‘this is amazing I’ve never even been to this place during the day, let alone at night!’” He tells Bionic. “We increase exposure to these amazing locations, as people often come back to see them in the daytime.”
So, what has Jonathan’s scariest experience been? Creeping around these creaking old houses, castles and historic grounds must have dislodged a ghostly apparition or two. He laughs, not wanting to give too much away.
“I think all those times locking up at creepy locations by yourself makes you hardened. I’m probably the worst person to ask about ghostly sightings because I’m cast iron. But these buildings can be creepy.” He ponders before going on “I’ve run events and seen people literally jumping at their own shadows, they’re really scared, then I have to lock up that same location afterwards, that’s when your imagination starts kicking in!”
He considers before elaborating on a spine-tingling memory. He was running a virtual game and became convinced he could hear someone else with him in the otherwise empty location.
“I remember I was running a virtual escape in Burlington, and I was on my own. I was speaking to this group online and giving them clues. Suddenly, I became very aware of footsteps upstairs when I was completely alone. That was scary, I remember thinking ‘well, at least if something happens to me it will be caught on camera!’” He laughs.
But even though this spooktacular business has been going from strength to strength, Jonathan says they have faced their own set of struggles. But conquering them has only made them more determined to adapt and grow.
The biggest struggle was probably getting back to business after Covid.” Jonathan says thoughtfully “Shutting down was the easy part but getting started again was hideous! I’m used to planning months, even a year ahead, so to get off that enormous cycle was like a break. But having to get everything organised again was hard. Getting risk assessments and paperwork ready, and getting things signed off was a struggle. There were so many gear changes.” He remembers.
He added “I think the other hardest part is consistency. Everyone wants to do spooky things in October. For me, Halloween is every day but there have been times I’ve had seven events running on the same day. It can be a struggle maintaining growth when the market is ebbing and flowing during the year.”
That’s true, for ‘Halloween’ businesses like scare mazes and horror-centric walks and tours, it can be hard to pike interest during the warmer months when everyone is embracing everything summery, not scary. But Dark Encounters manages to strike that perfect balance between informative, fun and downright terrifying. They even host educational tours of the same haunted locations for schools, these expert guides aim to lift the lid on the historic side of the spooky sites.
Fangtastic Business Advice
So, what is the very best part of running his business? Jonathan had two answers for us.
“The best part is seeing the enthusiasm of our customers. I could be really evil and say the scare element of running the business is my favourite part too though.” He chuckles “Sometimes you see some really good reactions! But I love it when the audience is really getting into the event.”
Jonathon tells Bionic that he has a trusty pool of freelance actors for the ghost walks and other interactive events but there’s something unique about the actual paranormal investigations he hosts.
“A lot of people use mediums in paranormal investigations, and we used to, but we don’t anymore. it’s all about the individual experience of the location to me. If you have a medium, they sort of take away what the customer feels about the location.” He continues “I want to know what the customer feels about the building itself, what are they sensing, smelling, hearing. I don’t want them to feel something because the medium put the idea in their head.”
He told us about his background and why he is so interested in creating a carefully considered experience for his customers.
“I have a background in physics” Jonathan explains “So everything I do is done methodically. We collect case studies of each event and detail what happened. So, we have over 600 case files on different locations that we go through and analyse.”
And how does Jonathan keep his staff motivated? He says by thinking about them and their needs. What they want to get out of their role.
“I’d say I keep my staff motivated by giving them variety. We use freelance actors for the ghost walks and escape rooms, but if they are going to the same location and reading from the same script each day, it can get boring for them, so it’s about finding new ways of doing things to keep them motivated or putting them on different locations.”
Growing with the ghosts
And what’s next for Dark Encounters?
“The key now is expanding and building the brand” enthuses Jonathan. He then goes on to tell us about one of his business inspirations.
“I’m hugely inspired by Deathly Tours in York. They have such a great social media presence, amazing branding, everything about them is fantastic. They’ve really cracked social media.”
And how does social media benefit Dark Encounters and its sister companies? Jonathan tells us he’d love to have more time to craft an expertly considered social plan to boost business, but it’s difficult with so many accounts to run.
“Ah social media, I wish I could be better at it” He laughs “but we have seven channels for different parts of the business and it’s just so time-consuming. It’s easy to let it slip when the business is doing well, or tours are selling out.”
He goes on:
“But I’ve started capturing pictures and videos of events and locations, as well as 360 videos which I want to start doing something with on our social channels.”
He’s thought deeply about the sort of online presence he wants though, because of the nature of the business, he doesn’t want to spoil any scary surprises, especially on the ghost walks and tours.
“There’s a balance between exposing what you do and spoiling the surprise and effect of it” he agrees. But Jonathan knows that people love to be scared, and love to seek out thrills and that’s what makes Dark Encounters so popular all year round.
“We were one of the first people to do live broadcasts of our paranormal investigations.” He says excitedly “We partnered with a radio station called ‘Rave 105’ and at our peak, we had around 198,000 people watching one of our live investigations. You could go on to watch the live event taking place. This was about ten years before Facebook allowed that sort of thing on their channel.” He added.
And what, apart from the pesky ghosts, is Jonathan’s pet peeve? What really gets his ‘ghost?’
“We get a lot of people thinking they can do what we do for themselves. They think they don’t need public liability insurance or anything like that.” He tells us.
“A lot of people don’t see the background details you have to deal with when running a business. You need to look at your own sustainability model and build your business slowly but strongly.” He says.
So why does Jonathan think it is so important to champion small businesses? He says he prefers the experience of using a unique company to get the products he needs.
“At the moment we’re needing new branding, we’re working with a local place and helping them build their business in the process. I like shopping small, it’s easy to go onto Amazon and just pick the cheapest option. But if you use a small business, you get a bespoke offering and while it might not be the cheapest, the product will probably last longer.”
“Getting what you need is a bigger investment in the long run.” He concludes pensively.
And finally, what does Jonathan think about the interest in the paranormal and all things spine-tingling? He believes a lot of people crave that ‘controlled thrill’. The feeling of being in danger without actually being in danger, the fight or flight response kicking in.
“I think some people feel general delight in being scared, that’s why I think the events with our actors are popular. Even at Christmas, we run ghost stories and it’s about that atmosphere, sitting by candlelight listening to spooky stories. People love it.” He says, continuing:
“With the paranormal investigation side of the business, I think people are curious about the afterlife and it’s exciting to consider something might be beyond”
Creeping out around 18,000 adrenaline junkies since their set-up, Dark Encounters are always trying to up their game. And this Halloween is no exception. The team just ran a Porchester encounter on October 8, but they have slews of dates creeping up in the coming months.