It’s time to explore one of the most controversial issues in the North American escape room market.
Private Ticketing – Refers to a ticketing model where an entire group experience is purchased at once. This eliminates the possibility of strangers sharing the same experience. It is the most common ticketing model outside of the United States. In this model, there is a set price for the entire group experience. It sometimes varies by player count.
Public Ticketing – Refers to a game where admission is purchased by each individual player, thus allowing for the possibility of strangers sharing the same experience. This is a common ticketing model in the United States. In this model, the price is per ticket and isn’t adjusted based on how many tickets are booked.
It is commonly believed that:
Escape room players prefer private ticketing because they don’t want to share these experiences with strangers.
Escape room owners prefer public ticketing because it is a more lucrative business model.
To get the best of both worlds, companies occasionally offer a private ticketing model for the same price as the maximum number of individual tickets. This is positive sales spin.
In truth, however, the ticketing model debate isn’t so black and white.
When The Locked Room opened in Calgary, AB, Canada in August of 2014, they opened with public ticketing. They were the first company in their city and the subsequent companies followed their lead. At the start of 2017, however, they switched over to entirely private ticketing.
So, what happened?
We recently interviewed Edwin Tsui, Managing Partner at The Locked Room, about this transition.
Room Escape Artist: You have recently switched from public ticketing to private ticketing. Why did you make the switch?
Edwin: By 2017, we’d expanded to offer 8 more escape rooms and competitors had opened up others. The majority of our rooms were no longer filling to the maximum, but our prime weekend spots were still filling up with mixed groups.
On a Saturday with 132 rooms running across 3 locations we would log an average of 1 or 2 cases of groups vocally expressing their displeasure at being paired with others. For these groups our customer service team would follow up with them to resolve, get feedback, and compensate them (regardless of fault). We also acknowledged that we were likely alienating some of our non-vocal customer base: the “that was great, but I would only do it again with only my friends” camp.
Despite running hundreds of thousands of players through our rooms and having giant disclaimers and warnings about public ticketing, we still regularly had groups come through unaware about this policy.
As a brand with 12 rooms in a single city, repeat and return customers are crucial to the long term survival of our business. We began to consider a switch to private ticketing as a commitment to player experience and long term sustainability.
In the meantime we also launched a US location that was entering as the 4th company to market in a new market (Omaha, Nebraska). We decided to start with private ticketing there as a way to ‘disrupt’ in a market with only public ticketing games. We thought private ticketing might be the hook for new players.
Let’s do the math. What were/are the ticket prices?
Our old pricing model was on a per head basis. It was $24.95/player with no minimum group size. It was a public ticketing system where strangers could be paired with each other.
Our new pricing model retains the same pricing at $24.95/player, but with a minimum booking size (3-4 players depending on the room). All bookings made under the new system are private with no special exceptions for weekdays or weeknights. Players may bring along additional teammates for pay-on-arrival without any special notice.
What were you expecting to happen when you made the switch?
We expected a few things:
- A moderate initial revenue drop (10-15%)
- A strong positive public response
- A drop in customer service-related issues
What actually happened when you switched to private games?
In response to our expectations:
- There was no initial revenue drop. Our online sales decreased in the realm of noise (~5%) but we made up the difference with an increase in in-person payments.
- Overall, the switch had a strong positive response. A few individuals, however, contacted us expressing their displeasure with the room minimums or telling us about their positive experiences with the public ticketing system.
- We experienced fewer customer service-related issues, exactly as expected… and even better!
Unexpected positive side effects:
We are able to staff a bit more efficiently. Since there are no longer ‘difficult’ groups of strangers to mix together (i.e. a group of 8 with a group of 2 or a group of 4 adults paired with 4 teenagers), our staff feels more relaxed. Consequently, they perform better in terms of customer satisfaction, faster and more accurate room resets, and ability to maintain games in between bookings.
We were able to push the private ticketing offering as a strong marketing campaign for the lull months (January, February) of the new year, encouraging people to come back or to try a room out even if they couldn’t gather a full group together.
Bonus interesting point:
Most customers simply didn’t notice any difference. They didn’t know that there were 2 different systems. First-timers would never know the difference and a large percentage of returning players had never been paired with others under a public ticketing system.
After operating under each pricing model, do you have a strong opinion in this debate?
The sides of the ticketing debate often have clear divisions between owners and enthusiasts. This is the expected result of different goals: profit versus customer satisfaction.
As an owner and enthusiast, I see no advantages to the player experience with a public ticketing system over a private ticking system, given equal or similar pricing for both options.
There are exceptions such solo business travelers or individuals without like-minded friends, but they make up a trivial percentage of the players coming through our doors.
The majority of our room escapes are best with 4-6 players. While we get fewer groups of 8 or more since switching to private ticketing, that also means more groups sizes closer to the optimal amount. Since we do not run games tuned for more than 8 players, I cannot comment on the public ticketing model for those types of escape rooms.
We launched with public ticketing to generate profit. At the time, our 4 rooms were constantly booking out, selling every possible spot on both weekdays and weeknights. It made no sense to turn away eager paying customers. We acknowledged that we were making a player experience sacrifice in exchange for a better bottom line. If I were to have a do-over, I would still have launched our company with public ticketing as the first escape room in town.
We switched when we shifted our goal to long-term sustainability. I believe that private ticketing will play a big role in achieving that goal. It was a pleasant surprise that we could improve the player experience without a hit to our bottom line. It’s an added bonus that I personally feel better about what we offer to our guests!
Is it the right choice for every company? Maybe not. However, if you are solidly booked through public ticketing, don’t be surprised if the market starts shifting towards smaller games with private ticketing when new escape room venues pop up in your city.
Room Escape Artist’s Conclusion
For The Locked Room, given the type of experience they offer, private ticketing makes the most sense. It provides a better customer experience, more effective staff members, and equal revenue.
Much of the nuance comes down to the product offered.
If your room escapes are designed for over 8 players, we’d probably still recommend public ticketing. It would be challenging for most people to bring a large enough group to fully enjoy the experience.
However, if your room escapes are designed for 2-7 players, we recommend private ticketing.
We fully agree with Edwin on the following points:
- Private ticketing will reduce customer service issues.
- Private ticketing is great in a competitive market.
- Public ticketing makes sense in a population dense, non-competitive market… but there aren’t too many of those left.