At the start of 2018, there are over a dozen mobile escape rooms in the United States.
One of the earliest entrants was Jason Garvett of Mobile Room Escape, based in Chicago, IL. We met Jason at the 2017 Niagara Falls Escape Room Show where Mobile Room Escape was a vendor.
There are a lot of different types of “mobile” escape rooms and it wasn’t until February of 2018 that we had the opportunity to play a full length trailer-based escape room at Escape Plan Nashville. It was surprisingly… not trailer-ish! In fact, it was one of the most comfortable escape room experiences we’ve ever had.
We recently connected with Jason Garvett, owner of Mobile Room Escape, about the challenges of mobile-specific escape room operations.
Jason helped Escape Plan Nashville, as well as many other mobile companies, get up and running. He’s been around the block a few times.
Here are 16 questions we never thought we’d ask an escape room:
1: Room Escape Artist: We recently played Mayday Adventure at Escape Plan Nashville. The space felt so big! How do you make trailers feel spacious?
Jason: We definitely have to give the credit to Escape Plan Nashville and their design team for this one. At the end of the day a street-legal vehicle in the US can not be wider than 102 inches (8.5 feet). The floor plan will dictate the customers’ comfort level, how big or small the trailer looks, and the overall feng shui of the room.
I personally try to leave the center of the trailer as open as possible for people to move freely. I generally put major set pieces near the walls so that I can anchor these pieces to both the floor and ceiling.
2: The airplane theme worked great for the long and narrow trailer. How does trailer shape impact theme choice and game design?
The shape of the trailer can definitely help specific game designs such as Escape Plan Nashville’s Mayday Adventure or even our own Submarine game Down Periscope, but I would never let the shape of the trailer limit any theme choice. The job of the set designer and game designer should be to work together to justify and address why the room is the shape it is rather than rule out any one theme.
3: Does the control room always take up a section of the trailer? How do you design for control room space?
We have units with and without control rooms. In Chicago we work with a lot of youth groups and have our gamemaster active in many of our games. However, we have a few games with control rooms. Some are in the front of the trailer; some are in the back of the trailer. Some are from an auxiliary location. One of our customers has their unit about 300 feet from their control room, but they can still operate, speak to, and watch their customers play the game.
4: How does climate impact your game design? Do you have to avoid any specific types of puzzles, components, or materials that might be temperature sensitive?
As you know, Chicago has the joys of both Mother Summer and nasty, old, grumpy, crotchety, angry-at-the-world, could-never-beat-an-escape-room-ever-in-her-life Grandma Winter. If you were to go out and buy a trailer and put an escape room in it you would severely suffer from extreme heat, dangerous freezing temperatures, condensation, and other elements that would severely impact your game.
It is not just a matter of sticking a few AC units in the roof or a heater in the corner of the room; proper insulation is essential. Trailers are made of metal beams to support their structure. Not only must the space between the beams be insulated but also the beams themselves. We take extra measures to make sure that our trailers are insulated well. We have built for climates in Florida, Massachusetts, Tennessee, Missouri, Georgia, Illinois, and Washington, to name a few. Each is built specifically for its climate. As a rule of thumb, I leave any water puzzles out of the room.
5: The win condition for Mayday Adventure wasn’t “escape.” It seems like the classic “escape” win condition might be challenging to facilitate for mobile games where people would rush out the trailer and down a few steps and possibly into traffic. What are the win conditions for your games?
Our first game was an “escape” win condition. All of our following games have been different outcome scenarios. This has not been because of trailer height from the ground, but mostly because we try to come up with objectives that are more interesting than simply “escaping.”
We highly recommend to any Mobile Escape Room owner that you never let your customers run out of the room. When you park a Mobile Escape Room at a location you may have no traffic or other vehicles around you. An hour later rush hour might be in full swing and daylight might have turned to darkness. Keep your customers in your vehicle until your gamemaster is physically available to check the surrounding area.
6: Are there any particular safety considerations that you need to take into account when designing and building mobile games?
Your generator (if located on your vehicle) should be installed by a professional to avoid noxious fumes leaking into the trailer. Be aware of where your wires are during the construction process. Also keep in mind that your mobile unit is your business. Spending the time to train your gamemaster in driving the trailer, laws, regulations, and maintenance is extremely important.
7: When you park it at a location for business, how do you generate power? What do you do if power fails?
We power our units with ultra-quiet and fuel-efficient Honda or Cummins Onan Generators. Just like any good escape room that doubles up on props and locks we also carry a backup generator in case of failure. This is located in our pickup truck. We also carry shore power cables where we could hook up to a 15 amp wall outlet in a real emergency.
8: Do you need a special license to drive a large trailer?
A commercial drivers license or CDL is necessary when your tractor (truck) and tow (trailer unit) is 26,001 lbs. or greater. Under that weight your regular driver’s license will suffice (always check your local rules of the road as your combined vehicle weight may require you to have a license endorsement). Be careful though, because there are certain fees, documents, and regulations that will accompany you on different weight levels. These regulations vary on a state and municipal level. When we consult with our clients we always advise on the best practices for their location.
9: What type of insurance do you need for the trailer?
You need a good commercial auto insurance along with your normal liability insurance. Most insurance companies will lump you in as a commercial truck driver, which is anywhere in excess of $10,000 per year just on auto policies. With 9 years in the mobile entertainment industry, we have been able to work with some excellent insurance brokers that have gotten us extremely good rates. We help all of our customers to achieve excellent coverage at a fraction of the rack rate price. If you decide to do everything on your own I recommend staying away from your local Geico and Allstate agent and finding a good insurance broker who truly understands your business and knows how to explain it to insurance companies.
10: I’m guessing that the answer is no… but I want to ask the question anyway. Has your escape room ever been in a traffic accident?
Traffic accident (knock on wood), no. Ticket, yes. A driver of mine was driving our 32-foot escape room in the left lane of a highway for about 5 miles. A big no-no. (Larger vehicles stay in the right lane unless passing.) This was on our way to an all-day event 75 miles from us. Luckily all of our necessary DOT paperwork was in order and our inspections up to date. We walked away with a slap on the wrist.
It is extremely important to hire a driver with the maturity to handle situations like this. That does mean more than minimum wage. All of our gamemasters/ drivers go through a minimum of 30 days training on driving, regulations, game play, and customer service.
11: Regulations for brick and mortar escape rooms vary by municipality. For example, some towns/ cities/ countries won’t let escape rooms lock players in. What different regulations impact mobile escape rooms? Are you subject to similar regulations as truckers? Are you subject to different regulations if you park the trailer in certain places?
There are so many avenues to stroll down with this question, which is why when we advise all our clients we take a significant amount of time to learn their location, ways they want to operate, and company goals. There are Federal DOT rules, State DOT rules, Regional DOT rules, Building Codes, ADA Codes, fire codes, etc . Absolutely there are different codes a mobile operation abides by, but the list is too long to put them all here. If you decide to take the plunge solo, do your research. Do not build a room in a trailer, bus, or box truck before you talk to officials. Keep in mind too that you are a mobile business. We have operated in 14 states, each one with different regulations. This is not meant to scare a mobile owner. Just be knowledgeable and prepared to educate an inspector about the business.
12: Tradeshows probably aren’t your bread and butter. Who are your typical clients?
This interview gave me an excuse to check our statistics for our Chicago clientele for everyday private escape room rentals: 40% youth birthday parties, 40% corporate events, 10% religious, camp and school, 5% university/college, and 5% social. (These numbers are rounded.)
In terms of our mobile escape room sales and inquiries, about 75% are existing escape room owners realizing the value of bringing a team-building activity to their clients, 15% are other attractions and family entertainment centers, and 10% are event planners.
13: How far will you drive it for an event? And how does pricing work for long distance delivery?
We have been fortunate enough to operate in 14 different states. We have been as far east as South Carolina and as far west as western Iowa. We have had offers to travel to Washington, California, Texas, Abu Dhabi and Australia. Sometimes it makes more sense to turn over business to partners in closer areas (both for us and our clients). When we do extended travel we must calculate miles, employee hours, hotels, parking, meals, tolls, and miscellaneous items to make sure we are not shortchanging ourselves. We had a travel program especially created for us that takes into account all of these factors.
14: Can the general public book with you? If there are escape room enthusiasts living in Chicago, how do they find you?
In Chicago we only do private events. It is a flat rate for us to come out to your location. However, we get daily requests for 2, 3, or 4 person bookings. We care about these customers as much as we do our 60-person corporate events. We gather information from these clients and work to set up times where multiple groups can be paired.
15: You’ve been in the mobile escape room business longer than most. In fact, you were the first mobile escape room we added to our Escape Room Directory. Recently, we’ve been investigating a claim to a patent on the concept of “mobile escape room.” Your business is proof of “prior art.” Considering your longevity as a mobile escape room and vendor of mobile escape rooms, what are your thoughts on patents and trademarks in mobile escape rooms?
I focus my time and effort not on patenting my product, but on unique customer service, customer experience, and my employees’ experience. To me, that is what equals a successful product that few can copy.
I do think a trademark is important to have for your business for both the business owner and safety of the customer. A person eats at Burger King because they know the product and customer experience they can expect. They would probably be upset if they went to a “Burger King” and found it was not the burger chain, but a new mom-and-pop restaurant. From Burger King’s standpoint, it stops other companies from trying to pose as them, build off of their success, and possibly tarnish their name with an inferior product. If you want to start a burger company call it something other than “Burger King” and give a better overall experience.
My own personal take on patents is they are a big waste of time when it comes to any creative venture. Whether I go to a play, an escape room, a musical concert, or stroll through an art gallery, or just walk through a state park, I am constantly inspired by what is around me. It jogs my creative juices and gives me a courage to be bold and test my limits. As an actor, I never wanted to copy the way Kenneth Branagh played Henry V, but I would watch and learn from great actors, and then find a way to make this my own. I am sure, David and Lisa, you have seen hundreds of bombs in a briefcase, circuit breaker boxes, and patch cord puzzles in your escape room journeys. What makes any one of these truly unique is how the escape room utilizes that puzzle in their game. That is not copyable.
16: Do you have any additional advice for someone who might be considering whether or not to build a mobile escape room?
I get about 3 to 5 emails/ calls weekly from potential mobile escape room owners. My biggest piece of advice is this: “do it right the first time.”
If you wanted to, you could go out and buy a 5 year old 26-foot used steel trailer and put a game in it for $20,000 dollars. I can guarantee you within your first year in business you will put $10,000 into proper insulation, heating, and cooling, and $5,000 into structural repair. Add another $5,000 for the electric, lights, and structural elements to make it an entertainment trailer. Then there will be about $10,000 to $20,000 in lost revenue from the time you will have to take it off the road for upgrades. For that same price you could have bought a brand new aluminum (will never rust) trailer with all the proper equipment to run a successful Mobile Escape Room business for many years. You would not put a brick and mortar escape room in a building with termites, shoddy electrical, and bad heating and cooling… don’t do that for a mobile unit either.
I’ve talked a lot about trailers, but it is important to note that this mobile community exists for trailers, busses, box trucks, tents and pop-up games. There are many good reasons why we recommend trailers over other vehicular forms of entertainment. However, we do not discriminate against other forms. We have many successful friends running bus operations. For any of these forms, we advise doing the research and seeing what the long term costs are for operation.
And our final piece of advise… stay out of the left lane when on the freeway.
Thank you, Lisa and David, for all you do for the escape room industry.