Escape Room Management in the Time of Quarantine

For weeks we’ve been speaking to owners and monitoring conversations in the various escape room communities… and for weeks we’ve been asked to put together our thoughts, observations, and recommendations.

We didn’t want to do this unless we felt that we had something substantive to add to the dialog… so here we are.

We’re going to cover a lot of ground, starting with the basics, but I’m betting that we hit on at least something that will be new to you.

Disclaimers

Let’s make this very clear up front.

  • I’m not a lawyer. I’m not giving you legal advice.
  • Nor am I an accountant or financial analyst. I’m not giving you tax or financial advice.
  • However, I am a web designer, and you can take that $#!% to the bank.

You should seek whatever professional counsel is appropriate to set your own survival strategy. This is all here to give you vectors for attacking the many problems in your business.

CARES Act & Small Business

For those of you in the United States, Haley & Cameron Cooper of Strange Bird Immersive did a lot of research into the implications of the CARES Act for small businesses.

The benefits include loans, grants, and payroll protection programs. These are significant. They can go a long way towards relieving burdens on both your business and your employees.

They key is that you must act rapidly. Do not dawdle on this.

We worked with the Strange Birds to pull the information into a single document for you.

Comic book art of hands signing a document.

Reduce

There are two ways to improve margins. Sell more or spend less. We’re going to dive into a few ways to potentially earn more money, but I suspect that your average escape room company will benefit more from cutting costs than attempting to drive revenue.

Rent abatement

If you have no money and no means of generating any, there’s no way to pay the rent. The math is as sad as it is simple.

Your first and best option is to try to speak with your landlord. I recommend that you think about who your landlord is and what they want. The better your understanding of their personality, the more you can tailor your messaging to them.

Andy Bauch (Morty) shared this sample rent abatement letter with me and contingency plan with tips for negotiating with landlords among other things. These were written by his friend with restaurants in mind, but it’s the same idea. This might be a good starting place for you.

Contract Law & Force Majeure

If a soft approach fails, the murky swamp of contract law might be your salvation.

I may not be a lawyer, but this guy is a lawyer. He explains a wide variety of legal options specifically pertaining to contract law in the pandemic.

I’m not going to comment more on this because I’m not qualified to. Contracts are messy. Good luck.

Cancel or Freeze Nonessentials

This should go without saying, but cutting costs wherever you can might not stop the bleeding, but it can slow it.

Communicate

Communicating in a crisis is key. This does not mean that your small business needs to send a formal, “Here’s how we’re dealing with… we care,” message.

However, you do need to stay on top of your own customer communication.

Vibrant filtered image of a Polycom telephone resting on a wood and leather desk.

Email, Social Media, Phone

I’ve heard quite a few stories already from players who had bookings that they wanted to cancel or move and the company’s response was crickets:

  • no one answering the phone
  • a full voicemail box
  • a generic auto-responder on email
  • radio silence on social media

Be responsive. Encourage your customers to simply move their booking. This allows you to solve their problem and keep their money… which doesn’t solve your problems, but it doesn’t hurt.

The worst-case scenario is that you refund them and maintain your reputation.

The problem with not answering your customers’ communication or refusing to reschedule/ refund is that your customers are just going to get pissed off and flag the transaction with their credit card company. In this situation, you still don’t get their money and your credit card processor is probably going to hit you with extra fees.

Just communicate and handle things responsibly. Your business is already suffering. Don’t get hit with extra fees, bad reviews, and a diminished reputation on top of it.

Gift Cards

Gift card sales might soften the blow. It’s a nice way for your customers to effectively provide a microloan for future services.

A lot of folks have been touting gift cards as a way to save escape rooms… and we’ve been quiet on the subject. We feel that this is a kindness, but it’s far from salvation.

Unless Elon Musk wakes up tomorrow and buys a few weeks’ worth of bookings from a couple thousand escape room companies, this isn’t going to save very many businesses. Getting through the outbreak as quickly and efficiently as possible, though, can.

By the way, Elon… is it ok if I call you Elon? I’ve heard from a few owners that you like escape rooms. I know that you’re busy pumping out ventilators (and that’s truly appreciated), but if you feel like saving the escape room industry… it’s totally an option.

Improvements

While forced non-operation is wretched, there are a few things that you can do that might have been more challenging while you were busy serving customers.

Refurbish

Almost every escape room that I’ve ever set foot in can benefit from refurbishment. Sometimes this is just a coat of paint and the replacement of some locks. Other times it’s completely rebuilding something that didn’t work right.

A paintroller with white paint.

If you have the skills, it is probably a good idea to fill some of your time with this work.

Website Improvement

There are a lot of ways that an escape room business could benefit from a better website. This is my actual line of work and something that I’ll write about in more detail soon.

I highly recommend using this time to improve your website’s SEO. Improving your natural search ranking can pay massive dividends once your business is up and running again. There’s a lot of snake oil in the SEO world. If you need an SEO person (and have budget for this), contact us. I can put you in touch with some good people. There are also plenty of freely available online resources as a starting place.

Make a Play-at-Home Game

We’ve been covering tabletop and streaming escape rooms for years now.

This had always been a niche thing that didn’t necessarily appeal to the entire escape room community, but we’ve wanted to cover it, nurture it, and watch it grow. It’s another medium for play and storytelling.

As with real-life escape rooms, there are great and terrible ways to pull off a play-at-home game. If you’re thinking about making any kind of play-at-home game, I’ll urge you to give our 11 Principles of Tabletop Escape Room Design post a read. This post isn’t particularly well read in the escape room community, but it’s been shared and reposted quite a few times in tabletop game design circles.

Red/blue 3D glasses, a cipher coin, and a joker card.

If you’re going to make a play-at-home game, put your all into it, even if you don’t have a lot of resources available. Figure out a special angle that you can take. Create a moment that makes sense for the medium that you’ve selected, something that you couldn’t do in a real-life escape room.

If you’re producing something for fun and want to circulate it for free, go for it. That said, I honestly believe that everyone would be better served with you putting a little more love into it and charging a few dollars for your effort. We all want quality entertainment these days and there are a lot of folks who are willing to pay a bit for something worthy.

An Offer from Escape This Podcast

For a limited time, during this period of social distancing and quarantine, Escape This Podcast is giving permission for escape room owners to run their virtual/audio-only escape rooms commercially. They hope this will help you keep your business afloat and maintain a relationship with your customers.

They have 50+ virtual/audio escape rooms completely designed and ready to go, which can be run by a single gamemaster over the internet for groups of any size (and those players can all be remote from each other).

These escape rooms are all currently available on the internet for free, but Escape this Podcast is offering that you can have customers pay for you to run the escape room (like a professional DnD Gamemaster). They ask only that you credit Escape This Podcast, direct people to their show, and (if you have the means) make a donation to their PayPal account.

Please contact Escape This Podcast for additional information: escapethispod@gmail.com

Closing Thoughts

I’m not going to pretend that any of these ideas are a magical solution that will solve the challenges ahead.

Our hope here is to provide some ideas and direction. If anything that we’ve provided makes it even a little easier for someone to sort something out, we’ll consider that a win. It’s times like these when everyone will benefit if we help one another. To that end, please feel free to use our comment section to share anything that you’ve learned.

My only asks are:

  • Please leave politics out of it. There’s a time and place for that, and it’s neither here, nor now.
  • Read what we have already provided and make sure that it hasn’t already been covered.
  • Be confident that what you’re posting is fact-based.

Good luck.

5 thoughts on “Escape Room Management in the Time of Quarantine

  1. Merchandise is a tempting way to add revenue while closed. But unless you have a lot of fans willing to buy, it’s not going to bring in much, and could end up tying up more money than it makes you in unsold inventory. It also won’t be terribly profitable unless you’re willing to carry a bunch of inventory, since unit prices are terrible in small quantities.

    My advice is to do a presale campaign, and then only order a quantity based on demonstrated demand. That way you won’t end up with a thousand dollars worth of pogs that you think are super cool but that apparently no one wants.

  2. Trap Door (in our collective backyard!) is running their games virtually– staff play the game as players guide/instruct them. I’ve not checked this out as we’ve played most of their games already, but it seems like a cool idea in concept.

  3. Other ideas for owners during enforced downtime: if you have any learning projects you’ve been putting off, now might be a good time to learn new skills or develop existing skills.

    I’m thinking of things like Arduino, 3D printing – if you have the tech handy and interest, of course.

    There also might be business skills that you’ve wanted to brush up on that you can find online courses for.

    And, don’t forget to keep journal of any new ideas for rooms, props, designs, marketing approaches, etc that occur to you – things you maybe can’t work on during the downtime, but you might want to try after things pick up again.

  4. Oh, and by the way, that document will keep being updated as we have new info to share. I already updated it a bit yesterday afternoon with regards to how the various loans interact.

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