Greetings all! I’m back from my rather long writing hiatus but rest assured that I have still been solving puzzles, cracking codes and escaping whenever possible.
As an enthusiast and having paid to play dozens of escape rooms, I have found a few common threads of success among the better of the rooms that I have played. So I’m going to begin 2019 with a departure from the usual room review (although I have lots of those in the pipeline to be published) with just a handful of ideas for escape room owner/operators to ponder and apply to to their own operations.
The first mission of an escape room is to provide a fun, challenging and memorable experience for the player.
That’s it. The subgoals of profitability, repeat business, business growth will all come to the escape room owner who successfully completes the first mission. (I’ll make the assumption that the business owner has the basics of business under their belt.)
How do you accomplish that mission? I have six suggestions to offer you based on my experiences playing escape rooms across Missouri and Illinois. I’ve also attended the Disney Institute and have spent my professional career in hospitality, customer service and marketing in case you need my bona fides over and above my escape room fanaticism. When I talk about these points, and know of an operator who I believe does them exceptionally, I will make mention of them. Allow me to dispel any concerns you may have about paid endorsement, good ol’ boy shilling, complimentary tickets or any other such consideration. None of the rooms mentioned have any idea that I am writing about them and I have received no compensation of any kind.
- Staffing. A good game master/room guide/puzzle sherpa (or whatever you choose to call your employees) can make or break the experience for your guests. Rule one: hire for the personality, not the experience. I’ve had what could have been good or even amazing escape room experiences positively trashed by lazy, disinterested and even crabby employees. Real life bad example: an escape room with a prison theme had decent ambiance and very challenging puzzles. It could have been a good Sunday afternoon experience except for the two nerdy love birds manning the business that day. They barely greeted us. Minimal warm up or instruction. After our three clues were received and we were stuck they simply shut down any communication with us. No verbal. No onscreen. They simply ignored us after that. This escape room failed miserably at the simplest mission goal: fun. It was definitely challenging and memorable, but for the wrong reasons. The solution? If you are in need of staff, keep an eye out among your CUSTOMERS. If you come across someone with a passion for the game, speaks intelligently about it and is the kind of person you would hang out with, you might want to think about calling them for an interview. Who better to lead a game than an enthusiast? No paid advertising needed, just an ordinary interview and background checks will tell you if you have a good candidate. Real life GOOD example: a single game location with an evil plot to subvert at No Way Out. The gentleman who greeted us and ran our game was extremely friendly, knowledgeable and even made my very reluctant teen daughter comfortable as she played her first escape room. He was a great host, gave excellent clues, seemed genuinely excited when we beat the clock AND gave my son (who managed to figure out a puzzle that allowed us to jump ahead in the game) a free T-shirt that he still proudly wears for his accomplishment. My only wish is that they had more than one game so we could go back there but I heartily recommend them to friends who ask my opinion of escape rooms to visit. It would have been a good experience anyway, but he made it GREAT!
- Escape Room Swag: If you aren’t familiar with the term, swag is merchandise associated with a brand, usually given away or sold for a small cost. The back of my girlfriend’s PT Cruiser is adorned with stickers from escape rooms that we’ve done who gave them to us. It could be a sticker, magnet or some other promotional item. Even judiciously given T-shirts can be swag. Whatever you do, make it quality, unique and memorable. It’s low cost advertising for your room, builds loyalty and sets you apart from the rest. I have no doubt that among my fellow escape room junkies that swag items are like merit badges and are proudly displayed/worn. Create yourself some swag with a hook and apply it generously to your customers. The sticker we received from Twisted Key has held up better than any others we’ve gotten…it still looks great even after a year out in the weather. And I just acquired a vintage Dodge van that we took on it’s first road trip this past weekend to an escape room in Columbia, Missouri and I’m looking forward to plastering it with escape room swag from all over the country.
- Environment: Here’s where my Disney education REALLY kicks in. I’ve played escape rooms that have a minimalist approach to the ambiance/decor and I have played escape rooms with a thematic environment that rivals the creations of Disney Imagineer creations. Both can be satisfying games but a well designed environment adds memory value to take your room from “that um one, you know, that had the cool locks” to a lengthy dissertation of the furnishings, soundtrack, details, etc. I understand that not everyone has the budget for extreme environment setup like the folks at St. Louis Escape do but I want to acknowledge their commitment to an immersive experience. Their long history in designing, building and operating haunted attractions gives them a huge advantage in this area. And I am not saying that everyone needs to go to this degree but thoughtful, related environmental touches including lighting, furnishings, artwork, background story, soundtrack and lots of small detail touches can go a long way to adding to the experience for your players. The owner of Alton Room Escape has a self-created escape room with excellent environment quality that isn’t budget-busting or technology heavy. The devil is in the details and if your details work you are creating a positive impression.
- Maintenance: Some of the best and most expensive escape rooms I’ve played have had the experience diminished by damaged/malfunctioning aspects. If your room is technology heavy, make sure that the tech works or else you will have unhappy players. I’ve had games run down the clock because of technical glitches in the room’s functions. That’s a personal pet peeve. I’d rather re-schedule or get a refund than play a malfunctioning room. And it doesn’t even have to be the high tech stuff. The game room I played over the weekend had combination locks that the paint and finish and legibility are all worn out because the lock has run it’s useful life. Shell out a few bucks and keep your locks fresh, readable and operable. If you’re going for authenticity to your story line by having a battered, weathered lock on something, use an operating key padlock instead. Another escape room had clues on a calendar but the calendar was torn and crumpled (probably because of some petty, childish player throwing a tantrum) but should have been replaced immediately. Make sure that you and your employees have the supplies and equipment to make repairs/replacements quickly to keep your room running and players happy. More than once I have heard “oh we told the owner that it wasn’t working” and yet they are still taking people’s money for a malfunctioning room. Do not be THAT kind of escape room operator. While we are on the topic, a great way to keep your players’ goodwill is if there is a glitch, stop the clock and see if it can be quickly addressed. Nobody wants to watch their clock run down as someone fiddles with switches or batteries, etc. If it can be fixed, restart the clock and let them proceed with their game. If it can’t be fixed, the team should win by default. And if you REALLY want to keep their goodwill, offer them a free/discount game that same day or for another date. I’ve had operators simply brush off room malfunctions as if to say “oh well, it happens.” Not with my 80 to 120 dollars it doesn’t.
- Connection with your customers: This is a biggie. Several operators have stood out in all the rooms we have done because they made a point to talk to us before and after. And they ask for feedback on the quality of their room. The folks at Mind Break St. Charles were fairly new in the business and have a great self-created storyline and puzzle series that was quite challenging. They had noticed a low success rate among their players and asked for suggestions on improvements. That is meaningful to both player and operator because it validates both and can give instantly actionable feedback to the operator. Not to mention the goodwill it creates with players. Don’t fall into the trap of getting defensive (and I understand how natural that can be) even if the feedback isn’t good. Most of the time, they aren’t trying to insult you or your room. Try to keep in mind that the players remarks may be colored by frustration and separate the kernels of fact from the chaff of the delivery. I also understand that there are knuckleheads out there that can and do bitch about anything and everything. You can gain a lot by talking to experienced room players. Escape Uranus is a fun, quirky business in Southern Missouri that is an unashamed kitschy tourist destination with a restaurant, tattoo shop, the Uranus Fudge Factory (the best fudge comes from Uranus) and recently opened a number of escape rooms on their property. The operator chatted with us after we did two of their rooms and appreciated our suggestions for tweaks. They also have a portable escape room that they take to local school and other organization functions to help promote their brick and mortar rooms, which leads to the last topic.
- Marketing: I’ve touched on marketing with the swag discussion and this whole post is an exercise for helping you create positive word-of-mouth advertising which is the cheapest and most effective for of marketing there is. I mentioned the creative genius of the Uranus portable escape room. There are a couple of other operators who did Scavenger Hunts for cash and prizes like Beast Escape Room which is a sole proprietor escape room as well as the larger corporate group Breakout Games. We did the Breakout scavenger hunt. It was fun even though we didn’t even come close to winning anything. Groupon might be a good tool if you find that you have a slower time of year and want to generate some traffic. Another good idea during those slow times (if you have multiple rooms) is to offer a deal to players that includes a significant discount to play a second room that night. Hey, cash flow is cash flow and little bit extra is better than none. I had that offered by both Breakout and Twisted Key and both times we took them up on it. The gent at Twisted Key added the incentive of free T-shirts for our team if we finished in less than 30 minutes. We didn’t make it under 30 but we loved the motivation and it made it a bit more fun! I’m a big fan of Guerrilla Marketing (I even became a Guerrilla Marketing Coach) and that style of marketing can lend itself beautifully to an escape room. Go out and buy some that book series and get your creative puzzle hats on. Marketing is no less a puzzle than you are creating for your players, it’s just of a different style. Offer your room (off hours) to schools for field trips. Or Scout troops. Or as unique pre- or post-prom activity. Band together with other operators in your area that you are friendly with and set up a crawl (like a pub crawl, minus the alcohol) where players visit 3 rooms in a night for one price. Maybe have food trucks or other food & drink set up at the end. Lastly, if you aren’t actively using social media, you are truly missing the boat. Even I enjoy seeing my family’s picture pop up on the Facebook page or Instagram page of whatever room we just completed. Acknowledgement and validation are two big motivators of the younger generations who especially love to see their pictures on social media. Setting up Facebook, Instagram and Twitter pages is easy and can be a great relationship builder and promoter. The more clever among you could find very creative ways to engage followers on the three.