At last year’s Room Escape Conference in Chicago, we participated in a impromptu Trapdoor UNLOCKED recording session about operating an escape room. This roundtable discussion covered a ton of ground as we all tried to help Jason Richard of Steal and Escape in San Diego, CA, a company we haven’t played but have heard many great things about.
One year later, we caught up with Jason about the changes he made to set his business on a sustainable path.
… Just know that the audio quality wasn’t amazing as this was an unplanned recording in the middle of a bar.
Room Escape Artist: When this video was shot in August of 2016 – at the first Escape Room Conference in Chicago – how many customers were you seeing each month?
Jason: Things started very slow. Not counting customers who had purchased Groupons, we were only seeing about 10-20 customers a month.
A year later, in August of 2017, how many customers are you seeing each month?
With the constant fluctuations in our market (we’re in a tourism location), it is hard to gauge, but the average is around 300 customers for our one room.
What was the most important tip that came out of the round table discussion?
The two tips that stuck with me were:
- Reach out to other businesses and don’t try to do everything yourself.
- Apply the 80/20 rule to time management. 80% of your results come from 20% of your efforts.
It’s not that we didn’t know these things, but we weren’t practicing them. Since then, my wife/partner and I have decided where to focus our own efforts.
For example, we hired professionals to redesign our website and help with programming and construction. Also, we aren’t trying to do our business taxes ourselves.
Regardless of how simple these tasked seemed, it was the time that it took to learn and implement them that was the true cost.
Besides focusing your own efforts, what other changes did you implement that improved your business?
My favorite change was extending the time between groups. It takes away a time slot, but it lets us comfortably reset the room and interact with the customers.
At the conference in Chicago in 2016, Andrew King from Flummox’d Escape Rooms in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, gave a presentation on getting five-star reviews. It was hands down my favorite presentation from the conference because it went into the psychology of the experience. Before we had a great room, but now we have a great experience from beginning to end.
We start things off with a 10-minute lobby game that I designed around a small box. I also offer strategies for success in the room, such as communication. After the 60-minute game, we talk about the puzzles (likes and dislikes) and listen to suggestions. We also ask about other escape rooms our customers have played and we recommend other local rooms they would enjoy. We want to help grow a sustainable player base for the escape room industry here.
Secondly, we’ve expanded our social media presence. Previously we only posted pictures of winning teams. Now we also post pictures and videos from other angles of the business such as puzzle construction. I build and program all the technology myself and it can take a long time, so I show the progress along the way, as well as lessons I learned while constructing. I don’t know exactly how much direct impact this guerilla marketing has on the business, but it does generate interest in when the next room will be ready.
Finally, we switched from public rooms to private rooms. In the roundtable discussion I explained how much I love public rooms, but I understand that most customers do not. We are consistently told by customers that they booked with us because we host private rooms, which eliminates the fear of half the group showing up late and strangers that don’t get along. Bummer for me, but great for business.
You mentioned social media. What other new marketing techniques have brought in more business?
We’ve devoted more time to marketing. For example, we look for high performing Facebook posts to boost, which leads to customers. We also followed advice from Anthony Purzycki of Trap Door in New Jersey and approached at least 20 different business in the area. Some led to nothing, but the process isn’t instant and we see results weeks and months later.
Did you consult business resources from outside the escape room community? Which ones were most helpful?
“Escape room community” is a broad term. The Facebook groups (Escape Room Owners and Escape Room Start-ups) are fun to read, but they are also very similar to Stack Overflow. You need to research everything and then ask your question or get crushed by experts. That being said, I wish I had known about these groups from the start because they provide a lot of good information.
In terms of business books, I recommend How to Win Friends & Influence People. It shows the benefit of empathizing with the customer. I use this principle whenever I design a puzzle. I consider it from the customer’s perspective to make sure it is challenging rather than frustrating.
Instructables.com is great for ideas. It’s a website with user-created and uploaded do-it-yourself projects. I don’t type “puzzles” in the search bar, but I scan through it. When I look at the various projects, I ask myself, “How can I incorporate this sensor or project and turn it into a puzzle?”
The NPR podcast Hidden Brain deals with the way people think, which helps with creating fun puzzles and offers an insight into a way of thinking that is different than my own.
Finally, I joined an Arduino Enthusiast Meetup. These folks have helped me with so many projects. Now I’m at the meetings helping other people with Arduino questions!
How has the San Diego escape room community changed since last summer? How does the community support your business?
The San Diego escape room community has grown. I believe there are now around 30 escape room companies operating in a 50 miles radius of San Diego.
Furthermore, the community is now cooperating more. After the convention in Niagara Falls last summer, a number of owners in San Diego got together to discuss cross-promotion. One of our first initiatives was to create a pamphlet advertising the various escape room companies around San Diego. Now we meet once a month in person or through video chat. We have created guidelines for the group and we work on joint initiatives such as organizing events to inform the wider San Diego community about escape rooms.
These meetings have also led to new relationships with other owners. Through this community, I’ve become friends with Edwin from Unlockables. We send each other customers and help each other with everything from puzzles to marketing.
What’s next for the growth of Steal and Escape?
We hope to have our second room completed by December.
In terms of marketing, we also are working on a commercial and we are considering adding a blog to our website.
I also want to offer a lockpicking class and incorporate lockpicking into our of our escape rooms.
I’m developing an 18-player scenario, for 3 teams of 6, geared toward team building.
What’s your current most pressing business challenge?
It’s wonderful if you can find your passion and make it your job. My wife and I have found our passion in escape rooms and we love our business. We don’t mind working until three in the morning because we love this business and we are invested in it.
However, I still have a full time job that takes me out of the state for weeks at a time. I don’t get to spend as much time as I’d like working on the business. When I’m in town, I want to do everything and I have to think carefully about how to spend my time.
We’ve come a long way since last August. We’ve hired for certain skills and we have more community resources to draw on. We aren’t on our own for everything including finance, electronics, carpentry, marketing, customer relations, creativity… the list goes on. That said, we haven’t met anyone who is as passionate about and dedicated to our business as we are. It’s still a challenge to balance our own time wisely.
Great article. Thank you for posting this. For an owner like me who went full-time on Day One, reading about passionate owners like Jason and his wife makes me feel like I’m not the only one in the world willing to make insane sacrifices for such a unique business. Thank you to Lisa for writing this, and thank you, Jason, for sharing your story. Here’s hoping you can go full-time sooner than later.
Thanks, Dominque. When we met Jason in Chicago, we were particularly struck by his passion, and we know there are so many other owners who feel the same way. We are excited to share the next chapter in his escape room story with all of you.