Comedy and mystery on the menu

January 21, 2012
| By Pete Daly |
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“On sheer volume, nobody does more than we do, period. I hate saying we’re the Wal-Mart of this, but we really are. We make it affordable for the masses and we work on a volume scale,” said Scott Cramton of The Murder Mystery Co., based in Grand Rapids.

What the company does is live show business — murder mystery dinner theater, to be precise.

Cramton’s original theatrical troupe, founded about 10 years ago, was called GR Improv and did some public performances. Meanwhile, he received a B.S. degree in theater from GVSU around 2005, and that’s when his efforts began to gel in the dinner theater direction. An acquaintance who had a lounge in downtown Grand Rapids asked him if he could put together a murder mystery act to perform there. Cramton said he could.

“At that time, my motto was ‘say yes to everything,’” he quipped.

Cramton changed the name of his business to The Murder Mystery Co. in late 2008, when it started doing performances in Chicago.

He said murder mystery dinner theater is unique in the flood of entertainment available now. It offers one thing that electronic entertainment can’t: True interaction between the actors and the audience.

Private groups that contract with Cramton range from weddings to adult birthday parties to corporate Christmas parties. Some companies use it as a team-building exercise that is social and a lot of fun, without the stress of a ropes course and the accompaniment of mosquitoes and sunburn.

As the dinner winds down, someone in the party is “murdered” and a zany “detective” (a role played many times by Cramton) charges into the room and starts looking for clues. Usually some of the party have already volunteered to serve as actors/actresses, in addition to two or three from The Murder Mystery Co., and others form groups that work together to try to determine who the murderer is. Props and hats and boas worn by the volunteer actors are provided.

As the plot plays out, the murderer is surprisingly revealed — it could be someone from the audience — and the audience member who provided the best detective work is often given a prize.

Of course, the crime that begins the two-hour show is murder in some comical fashion: “It’s certainly somewhat of a comedy,” noted Cramton.

Cramton describes the private shows as the company’s “bread and butter,” but The Murder Mystery Co. also does scheduled public shows in restaurants, where individuals buy tickets in advance. The Brann’s restaurant on Leonard Street NW has hosted “at least 100 shows, if not more,” said Cramton.

Over the last two years, he said, the public shows in Grand Rapids have been sold out all but three times. Tickets average about $55 but deals can be found on Groupon.com, he said.

Private shows are “actually really cheap” compared to others around the country, said Cramton. Other companies typically charge from $1,500 to $2,000, but his company usually charges from $500 to $1,200.

Cramton said small business is more viable than ever before, mainly because of the Internet.

“The Internet is a pretty level playing field,” he said, but he added that his company’s turning point came in 2009 when he signed on with HubSpot, a Boston firm that offers online “inbound” marketing software, including website and blogging tools, search engine optimization, multichannel analysis and lead nurturing.

“Everything … is inbound. That was the big thing HubSpot taught me,” said Cramton. “Interruption marketing is dead.” He defined interruption marketing as someone seeing an advertisement and deciding to buy the product.

A few months after he began using HubSpot, Cramton said he was able to quit his day job as a salesman at a retail furniture company in Grand Rapids to devote all his time to The Murder Mystery Co.

“Two and a half years later, and I’m in 12 cities and I have 10 employees and an office,” he said.

His call center near 36th and Breton has a staff of 10 who work the leads they receive via the company website and other social networking websites.

“We don’t get 80 or 90 percent of our leads from the Internet,” he said. “We get 100 percent of our leads from the Internet.”

HubSpot hosts his website, which is still grimprov.com, and Cramton now has people on his staff who can design a webpage “and make it SEO-friendly, without almost any training, because the HubSpot cloudware is pretty much idiot-proof.” His cost for using HubSpot ranges from $300 to $500 a month, but one lead a month can pay for it “and we get 300 to 400 leads a month,” he said.

His company now does about 1,500 shows a year, with a little more than half of them private shows.

Murder Mystery Co. is able to offer shows in New York, L.A., Dallas, Chicago, Orlando, Minneapolis and a few other cities. Cramton said he recently received enough leads from Seattle to justify organizing a troupe there; he had been flying his L.A. actors up there for shows.

Cramton said his business differs from his competitors in two major ways: a very effective Internet marketing presence and lower prices. Some high-end murder mystery dinner theater companies may charge several thousand dollars for a show, sometimes including celebrities.

As for marketing, he said, “our best friend is a competitor’s website,” because he believes competitors’ sites are dull, with “not much thought put into it.”

He said the customer usually ends up choosing the more interesting website and the lower price — which means The Murder Mystery Co.

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