13 Tips for Opening an Escape Room

I’m wanting to open an escape room and am looking to learn everything I can!

This is an actual email we received in December of 2017. That was the full text of the email. I’d like to say that this was an anomaly, but we receive a lot of emails just like one.

Emailer, this blog post is just for you. Good luck!

Filter-painted closeup shot of key mosaic.

1: Play Escape Rooms Everywhere

If you want to open an escape room business, you first need to play a LOT of escape rooms.

Visit some of the top markets in North America. These include New York City, Los Angeles, and southern Louisiana.

Figure out where to travel.

Visit the most highly recommended escape rooms in these markets. Visit the ones with terrible reviews too. Consider the differences and learn from both.

Travel might seem like a huge expense, but it’s a much lower investment than blindly starting a business.

2: Play Escape Rooms Locally

Know what games already exist in your market. Use that knowledge to find your niche.

By playing local escape rooms, you’ll learn the regional trends. These include website design, hint systems, intro speeches, and even escape room themes. If you know the trends, you can decide which to latch onto and which to avoid.

When an owner tell us, “all my designs are completely unique because I’ve never played an escape room”… it’s always a bad sign.

Your neighbors might have come up with the same idea. They might even have executed it better. You can’t assume your ideas are unique just because you came up with them in a vacuum.

There are plenty of ideas that owners came up with on their own that are also escape room cliches.

Play the local games to understand the norms before you step outside the box.

3: Join the Community Online

If you’re opening an escape room today, there are tons of resources on the internet: blogs, reviews, directories, chat rooms, social media conversations, and more.

The escape room community spends a lot of time on Facebook:

  • Escape Room Enthusiasts – Geared toward players, the conversations here will show you which games and concepts players are excited about.
  • Escape Room Start-Ups – If you’re new to this, you’ll find information about all sorts of things, such as lighting and insurance, that you maybe hadn’t yet considered.
  • Escape Room Owners – Once your business is running, this community will connect you with other established owners to help you stay up to date on trends. (Update: Here’s how to join.)

Remember that Facebook has a search function. Make sure your question hasn’t already been asked and answered 20 times. Don’t waste everyone’s time.

4: Join the Community in Real Life

Conferences 

At escape room conferences, you can meet owners, enthusiasts, and bloggers. We all learn from these conversations.

In the United States, TransWorld hosts an annual escape room conference. We spoke at the past two conferences in Chicago (2016) and Niagara Falls (2017). We are looking forward to returning for TransWorld’s next conference, July 28-29, 2018 in Nashville.

Europe also hosts a few escape room conferences.

Last year we spoke at Up The Game in Breda, The Netherlands. Tickets are already on sale for May 8-9, 2018.

David gave the keynote address at WroEscape in Wrocław, Poland, in October 2017. We anticipate another edition of WroEscape in 2018.

Tours

In November 2017, we hosted our first event: Escape, Immerse, Explore in New York City. Over the course of a weekend, attendees enjoyed a tailored tour of 5 escape rooms and one immersive show as well as networking and a talk about the industry.

We look forward to producing more of these events in New York City and other cities.

5: Do Math

Escape rooms are not a get-rich-quick scheme.

Set reasonable expectations when you calculate how much money each escape room will pull in.

Make sure that you’re financially able to weather a harsh start-up.

6: Hire an Attorney & an Architect*

Regulations around locking people in a room to make money differ widely from place to place. Make sure you’re following all the rules.

Attorneys can help you with incorporation and liability.

Know how to approach building codes, parking restrictions, and any other local ordinances. There is no one-size-fits-all recommendation for these types of things.

It doesn’t matter how great your games are if the city shuts you down for some unforeseen violation.

Ask the following questions:

  • Is my building located in a retail zone, and will my business qualify as retail?
  • Are we allowed to actually lock people in rooms in this county?
  • What are the fire marshal’s inspection requirements?
  • What is the legal occupancy limit of my space?
  • What are the parking restrictions near my building?
  • (If renting) Will my landlord be interested in housing this sort of business?

*For more information about asking these types of questions, read the comments below. Nathan (@Moriash) offers fantastic and detailed insights.

7: Determine Your Audience

One person’s favorite game is another person’s nightmare experience.

In the case of horror escape rooms, consider this literally. Fear can be an amazing tool in game design. If you build horror experiences, however, you limit your customer base. If there isn’t already a strong horror culture in your area, marketing will be harder.

If you plan to attract corporate bookings, you’ll need HR-friendly games that fit larger groups. Beyond the games, you’ll want to focus energy on your facility, including a comfortable lobby and meeting room space.

If you’re in a walking city with a late night drinking culture (New York, New Orleans, Las Vegas, etc.), you’ll need to build extra sturdy games. You’ll attract boisterous and rambunctious (sometimes under the influence) groups who will be rough with your creation. Delicate designs won’t hold up. Delicate gamemasters won’t hold up either. Consider bouncing these players if they will be a danger to you, your staff, or your game.

Consider audience from many different angles. Determine themes, facilities, ticketing models, operational hours, marketing plans, staffing, and more with your audience in mind.

8: Collaborate

From financial firm executives seeking a different lifestyle to puzzle lovers sharing their hobby with the world, escape room owners open these businesses for all different reasons.

You won’t have all the skills to open an escape room by yourself.

Your background might be in game design, software engineering, carpentry, acting, marketing… or any number of other skills.

Collaborate with folks who have complementary skills. Don’t allow your skill gaps to turn into gaping holes in your business.

9: Marketing is Necessary

Once you’ve opened, attracting customers will become your most important task.

You can have the best game in the world, but nobody will play it if they don’t know it exists.

Make it easy for your customers to help you market. Share their photos on social media. Publish content that they will want to share with their friends.

Avoid Groupon and other deal sites. They’ll bleed you to death.

Always include a call to action.

Make booking easy… and please answer your phone. You never know who’s calling.

10: Test and Iterate

Before you launch your escape room, put players through it. Observe.

  • Which parts continually trip people up?
  • Which parts don’t function as intended?
  • Which parts are subject to frequent breakage?
  • When are people having more or less fun?

Don’t just test with friends and family. They will love your escape room because they love you.

If people aren’t telling you which parts of it suck, then you need more honest people.

11: Plan for Breakage

Everything in your escape room will break.

When the premise is “figure out how to get out of this room” people will figure it out. They will try things you never conceived of. Stuff will break.

Sometimes stuff breaks for no reason. We once played an escape room where the in-game computer wouldn’t boot up. They were ready. They slid laminated paper copies of everything on the computer under the door. It wasn’t as interactive as intended, but we could still solve the puzzles, and there was nearly no delay.

Be ready to hot swap all your physical props. Have backup plans for every conceivable failure.

If something runs on batteries, replace these regularly.

12: Be Honest

Be honest with your customers.

Your customers don’t know when the game starts. They don’t know if you are trying to trick them.

If a player thinks you’re trying to deceive them and that’s confirmed in the game, everything you say becomes suspect. If they catch you in a lie, safety rules become suspect.

Help your customers feel comfortable.

13: Learn everything you can

Emailer, you know, you might very well be ahead of the pack. After all, you already know you want to learn everything you can. I hope this helps.

11 thoughts on “13 Tips for Opening an Escape Room

  1. Excellent points, thank you! I would definitely add a “+1” to all the comments above. If you’re not keeping these things in mind, you’re failing.

    I’d suggest one correction: attorneys rarely know much about local building codes and ordinances, although they can help with contracts (such as building leases). For the rest of those items, you would probably want to talk to a local architect. A good architect will be familiar with building codes in his municipality, and will know how to find out the points you mention.

    [Consider the above paragraph the TL;DR for this essay of a comment!]

    In most cases, you’ll need to hire an architect in order to get a sealed set of building plans for permitting and construction anyway. They’ll likely recommend other consultants for the design team (MEP engineers, maybe fire alarm consultants, even structural engineers if you’re getting really wild in your room). They will also likely be familiar with the miscellaneous hoop-jumping required to get a permit, as well as setting up meetings/conference calls with building officials to discuss unusual circumstances and code interpretations.

    Finding an architect willing and able to take a job like this may be a bit of a hassle. If you have a good prospective landlord or real estate agent, they can often point you to one or two architecture firms that will do work in this general class of job. If you already have a general contractor onboard, they’ll likely have architecture firms they’ve worked with in the past, as well.

    If the architect is unsure, you may need to go a step further and hire a local code consultant. “Local” is the key word. These consultants are often architects with significant experience in design and construction in the area (and often have longtime contacts with the city). Sometimes, they’re even experienced code enforcement officials (inspectors or plan reviewers) who have left to form their own consulting firms. Local experience is important, because local code amendments, ordinances and unwritten rules can sink you just as fast as the basic building codes.

    Well, I’ve gone on too long here, so I’ll close it out. Hope this helps someone.

    1. Thank you for this correction and the additional details. I’ve made a note on #6 below to refer to your comment for more information.

  2. I’d say that’s all about right. Couple notes:

    1) the Escape Room Owners group seems to have been locked or abandoned by its owners. It’s essentially impossible to join now.

    2) the questions you have for an attorney are perhaps best directed at a code consultant, or even directly to the city code enforcement office. They do all certainly need to be answered one way or the other

    I might also add: evaluate the state of your market. Some are hungry for new games. Many (if not most) are already oversaturated. If you’re the 20th entrant it’s going to be really hard to get noticed at all, so you better be doing something special.

    1. Thank you for the notes. We really appreciate it.

      We were aware that the Escape Room Owners group had experienced these issues a few months ago. We thought that had been resolved. We’ll look into it.

      I’ve updated the post to account for #2 above. Thank you!

      We agree that saturation assessments are also important. Good point. This might be something to explore in its own right in a future post.

    2. Hi James.

      I reached out to Brian Warner, one of the admins of the Facebook Owner group and here’s what he had to say:

      “We have 3000 requests right now. The rules say to email me or Nate Shane and we approve everyone that does. If we have time, we go thru hundreds of spam requests and delete them along with approving people who are obviously an owner. The hard part is screening everyone. I’ve had people not respond to my messages for over a year.”

      “Having them email me gadget@evilusions.com or better yet, sending me a message on Facebook with proof they are an owner, will get them approved quickly. The problem is, most people don’t, so they sit in limbo forever.”

  3. I love these “Provide a new potential owner with information that will help them do what they must to open a good escape room” blog posts. You’ve had a few and they are always quite informative and provide very useful information and links!

  4. These are great tips. David and Lisa are probably the top two contributors to our industry, and offer a unique perspective from experienced players. Thank you. There are a million other nuances that only someone who has done this would think of or understand (and these might be different than a player’s perspective). As an owner, if you aren’t ready to elevate the genre, take awesome care of your customers (who will be different in your market and location), create awesome games, and be in it for the long haul, PLEASE don’t open. Cash grabs, inexperienced business owners, and undercapitalized operations cannibalize the folks doing things right, and then go get a job. It hurts everyone. Owners and customers.

  5. Thank you, Paul.

    And you’re right, as avid players and journalists of the industry, we can offer a lot of suggestions for getting started and help people with the basics. There will always be more nuance than we can cover in a blog post and experienced owners can offer additional perspectives on many of the things you only learn once you experience them.

    We agree with you that the people who enter this business for the wrong reasons without doing their research are a detriment to the industry as a whole, owners and customers.

  6. This is an awesome article. It is absolutely essential to keep a realistic calculation about earnings and be prepared for breakage and loss of props as well. Getting customer feedback is essential. It is also important to get back to the customers for every negative feedback received, so that the mistakes are not repeated in the future.

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