“Eligible applicants may qualify for grants equal to 45% of their gross earned revenue, with the maximum amount available for a single grant award of $10 million. $2 billion is reserved for eligible applications with up to 50 full-time employees” (US SBA).
SVOG Eligibility Matrix Guide for ERGO Members
Not every escape room business meets the SVOG eligibility requirements. If you want to learn more about this program and see if you might have success in applying, ERGO Board Member J Cameron Cooper of Strange Bird Immersive wrote a guide to help escape room operators better understand this program and how to apply.
Your business may not meet the criteria, and if it does, there is no guarantee that your application will be accepted, but this information will give you a fighting chance:
This report is the result of a survey circulated from February 26 – March 31, 2021. The survey aimed to understand the impact of the past year on escape rooms, primarily within the US, but also internationally. This report is based on the 677 survey responses.
Survey respondents included escape rooms owners and escape room players. The survey included a substantial section of questions that respondents only received if they identified as a business owner. The sections below that address industry are based on escape room owner responses.
Industry Impact – International 🌐
64% of survey respondents identified as business owners. It is their answers that we are referring to when tabulating industry impact.
Of the business owner respondents, 76% operate only one facility. Thus the results in this section are primarily indicative of the impact of the pandemic on small businesses. Here’s where things stand for escape room businesses:
80% of respondents were open and operating in-person escape games as of March 2021, one year after the start of the pandemic.
14% of respondents were back to operating at full capacity. The rest were still operating at a reduced capacity.
Only 1.5% of respondents operated in-person escape games during all 12 months of 2020. The number of months a company was open during 2020 varied widely.
When asked about employees, the most popular answer (28%) was that the business had 6-10 employees at the start of the pandemic.
One year later, the number of respondents with 6-10 employees has decreased to 20%, and the number with 4-5 employees has increased to 22%.
The number of solo operators has increased. At the start of the pandemic 10% of respondents had no employees and that has increased to 16% of respondents one year later.
We see a similar trend on the high end, with 9% of respondents having more than 20 employees at the start of the pandemic, and one year later only 5% of respondents still employ more than 20 people.
Almost half of respondents (44%) did not create a new product during 2020, and they aren’t planning to create one in 2021. In the survey, a new product was defined as “not in-person escape games.”
For those who did create new products, a scheduled and hosted product (avatar-led or otherwise livestreamed game) was most popular (25%).
Some respondents (15%) created self-service, non-hosted digital products (i.e. puzzle hunt, print-and-play).
Some respondents (6%) created mailable products (i.e. tabletop escape game).
It’s interesting to note that as of March 2021, some respondents (17%) still planned to launch a new product although they had not yet.
For this question, the response “other” was popular with respondents (9%). Here’s a list of “other products” escape room owners created or invested in this year:
portable escape room
mobile boxed game (drop-off and pick-up)
self-guided outdoor escape game & scavenger hunt
outdoor team-building activity
virtual reality escape room
murder mystery dinner show
escape game book
retail, as a reseller of escape room and related board games and puzzles
split/ combined/ changed current games
game design for other companies
For those owners who created new products in 2020 (56% of all owner respondents), when asked about income from other product lines, most respondents noted that these products did not bring in the bulk of their income in 2020.
For 71% of respondents with new product lines, these products brought in less than 25% of their 2020 income.
In fact, for 20% of respondents with new product lines, these products brought in 0% of their 2020 income. However, the survey did not ask what they charged for these new products. Anecdotally, we know that many were offered for free, as marketing. Other factors that we cannot account for include the timing of these product launches and the marketing efforts behind them.
On the other extreme, 14% of respondents with new product lines noted that these products provided more than 75% of their 2020 income.
Changes as of March 2021
To reopen escape rooms, almost all respondents increased sanitization of the games (96%) and of the facility (94%).
Beyond sanitization, the majority of respondents had adjusted their schedules (71%), particularly to make sure different groups of customers would never cross paths (75%).
The majority of respondents (61%) kept pricing the same when they reopened.
When asked what changes they’d wished they’d made earlier (an open-ended question), by far the most popular response was around creating some form of online game. These responses included:
pivoted to an online game model
started operating online games sooner
created more online games
Here are the other popular responses:
increased player minimums
switched to private bookings
contactless check-in, digital waivers, and other contactless operations
pricing changes (primarily, instituting a tiered pricing structure to offset small teams)
choosing to open / choosing to close
Interestingly, there were both those respondents who wished they’d reopened sooner, and those who wished they’d closed sooner, in about equal numbers.
Escape room owners had to make a lot of challenging decisions over the past year, with little data to go on.
Pricing was especially challenging. While the majority of respondents didn’t change pricing, the shift to private bookings (across parts of the US that had previously operated with public bookings) meant smaller team sizes. The regrets around instituting player minimums and tiered pricing indicate the struggles business owners faced around pricing for smaller teams.
Creating a new product line is a huge undertaking and almost half of respondents didn’t do this. That said, it’s by the far the most common regret. Additionally, a year after online games emerged as a response to the pandemic, 17% of respondents still planned to start a new product line. The online games won’t necessarily disappear as escape room companies reopen for in-person games.
Industry Assistance – US 🇺🇸
For this section on aid, we’re focusing on aid within the US, as the structured data was set up with the US government assistance programs in mind.
More than 50% of respondents applied to the following programs:
PPP (First Draw) – Paycheck Protection Program (74%)
EIDL Advance (58%)
EIDL Loan (55%)
PPP (Second Draw) – Paycheck Protection Program (52%)
Here’s the percentage of respondents who had received aid from the following programs (as of March 2021):
PPP (First Draw) – Paycheck Protection Program (69%)
EIDL Advance (56%)
EIDL Loan (47%)
Here’s the percentage of respondents who were expecting aid from the following programs (as of March 2021):
PPP (Second Draw) – Paycheck Protection Program (54%)
SVOG – Shuttered Venue Operators Grant Program (20%)
Of note, this data shows that most businesses that applied received the funds.
Received as grants:
The majority of respondents received less than $30,000 in grants, with 24% receiving no grants. You can see the breakdown here:
Between $1 and $15,000 (35%)
Between $15,000 and $29,999 (14%)
82% of US respondents received less than $50,000 in grants.
95% of US respondents received less than $150,000 in grants.
Received as loans
Almost half of respondents (43%) received $0 in loans. You can see the breakdown here:
Between $1 and $15,000 (15%)
Between $15,000 and $29,999 (10%)
Most respondents (68%) received less than $30,000 in loans.
On the high end, 10% of respondents received more than $150,000 in loans.
In addition to these most popular programs, respondents applied to (and received funding from) many other relief programs. These primarily consisted of city, county, and state grants. Many of these grants were targeted for small businesses.
Industry Outlook – International 🌐
As of March 2021, overall, business outlook for 2021 was positive. 66% of owners rated their own outlook as “positive” or “very positive.”
Here are a few select quotes to capture this perspective:
Safe Small-Group Activity: “Small groups are looking for something safe and fun to do together. With live music and movies limited, escape rooms are a great alternative, for both the experienced and the uninitiated.”
Larger Market Opportunity: “We are doing the best we’ve ever done. By adding online, live avatar games, it has opened us up to an even larger market.”
International Business: “We only run online offerings and companies are clamoring for our games for team-building among employees in different countries. COVID or not, these employees will still be in different countries.”
New Product Line: “Business is decent in-store but online games have essentially doubled our revenue. If this keeps up, online games will be more profitable than brick and mortar.”
Growth: “We are so busy right now. People are happy to be out doing things again and we will be opening two new games.”
On the other hand, we must recognize the hardships others are facing after a challenging year:
CorporateCustomers: “We have lost all of our corporate business. They simply don’t come any more.”
Rent Challenges: “It’s difficult to say if we can come to an agreement with landlord or government to get rent forgiveness so that we can continue. If not we will most likely declare bankruptcy.”
Disposable Income: “I am not confident that the next couple years will find people with spendable income.”
Game Capacity: “Private bookings reduced our ability to constantly max out room capacity. Rent is now hard to make up.”
Government Aid: “It’s really hard to say right now. A lot depends on which government assistance programs we are ultimately eligible for (and receive) — specifically thinking of SVOG here — and how quickly the market for escape rooms bounces back.”
Debt: “My outlook changes by the day. It’s worrisome that repayment of government loans will begin this year even when business is not strong.”
Forecast: “Honestly, I just have no idea what to expect at this point.”
When I read over the 252 open-ended responses to this question, the most frequent theme is optimism that there is pent-up demand for safe entertainment, and escape rooms deliver that safe, small-group entertainment the world seeks. In March of 2021, many owners were already seeing this demand; bookings were picking up. While for some businesses the revenue loss of prolonged closures in 2020 will be insurmountable, others will be able to recover.
Player Reaction – International 🌐
Most of the survey respondents identified as players. While 36% of respondents identified primarily as players, most of those who identified primarily as owners also identified as players. Anyone who identified as a player (whether or not they identified as an owner) received a set of questions that is the basis for the results in this section.
Not surprisingly, the respondents were almost universally (96%) excited by real-life (in-person) escape rooms.
Escape Room Adjacent Products
The survey asked these escape room players their perspectives on the other types of games that have emerged over the last year. Not all adjacent product lines appeal to everyone equally:
55% of respondents are excited by puzzle hunts.
49% of respondents are excited by (shipped) tabletop escape games.
36% of respondents are excited by point-and-click escape games.
29% of respondents are excited by avatar-led (livestreamed) adaptations of real-life escape rooms.
24% of respondents are excited by print-and-play escape games.
Neutral (neither agree nor disagree) was also a popular reaction to these types of escape room adjacent products. Consistently, for every product listed above, 26%-31% of respondents were neutral towards it.
While the majority of respondents (60%) played fewer escape games in 2020 than 2019 (counting in-person, digital, and tabletop escape games), almost a quarter of respondents (22%) actually played more.
These escape room-adjacent product lines are not an exact match to real-life escape rooms, in terms of product-market fit.
A significant number of escape room players are excited about them (especially about puzzle hunts and tabletop escape games). For some players, the growth of these other styles of escape room play has afforded them more opportunity to play and support this industry.
While there is certainly an eager market for these product lines among escape room players, we would not recommend that escape room owners read the data above as a recommendation to start creating puzzle hunts. If you’re looking to diversify your product lines, choose the type of product that best fits your business and abilities as a game designer. Make a product you can make well.
These are different products for similar, but not identical markets. Point-and-click escape rooms, tabletop escape rooms, and puzzle hunts were all already thriving before 2020. There’s room for more of these products in a post-pandemic world; with their adjacent audiences, they can help reach more potential escape rooms players, and bring new opportunities to escape room businesses. That said, because of the overlapping (but not identical) audience, over the long term it may be difficult to compete within these existing markets. (There is a vibrant puzzle hunt community, for example, that has been creating a ton of their own content for many years.)
For avatar-led livestreamed games, which largely didn’t exist prior to 2020, our expectation is that only a few will thrive in a post-quarantine world. These take continual effort and space to produce, and all compete against each other globally for market share. Plus, when customers return to in-person entertainment, we expect the market for them to shrink. It’s likely that only the incredibly well-executed games, and the games whose marketing machines have captured the majority of the audience, will continue to flourish.
The distribution of responses to these product lines, including the substantial neutral response, shows that while these products are similar to escape rooms, not all escape room players are excited about them (any or all of them). They do not fully replace real-life escape rooms for many people. I have to imagine that a neutral response (indifference) is likely a negative response in this circumstance, as it doesn’t signal a motivation to spend money on that type of experience.
We can also add, anecdotally, that among the 2 dozen writers here at Room Escape Artist, interest in these different product lines has ebbed and flowed over the course of the year. At times certain writers tired of different escape room-adjacent product types.
Meanwhile, the survey results conclusively show that there is little risk of escape room players not returning to the real-life games that they love. They will return.
As analysts we see a strong future for escape rooms in a post-quarantine world. With a growing demand for in-person entertainment, escape rooms present an intimate option that can be enjoyed with small groups of friends and family. This style of play will appeal to both cautious and cavalier customers alike.
While the player audience has enjoyed the various online and play-at-home options that have emerged from the pandemic, there is no universal agreement on which forms they preferred as a community. There is near unanimous agreement that this community is excited to return to real-life escape games.
At this point, more escape room businesses have remained in operation than we were expecting at the beginning of the pandemic. It’s difficult to assess whether that should be attributed to government intervention, business decisions, or the generally smaller size and lower operating expenses of escape room businesses relative to most in-person entertainment.
Additionally, it is impossible to predict whether the survival is short-term as the businesses will have to operate with debt that was accrued to survive rather than grow.
For our part, we will continue to do our best to grow the escape room and immersive gaming community and monitor the situation in future studies and reports. We are cautiously optimistic about the near future of the escape room world.
This survey was entirely anonymous. We cannot track responses back to individuals.
The majority of respondents (84%) were from the United States.
However, the survey had representation from 28 countries including Canada (4%), United Kingdom (3%), and Germany (1.5%).
Survey representation by US state biased towards the most populous states: California (16%), Florida (8%), and Texas (7%).
Room Escape Artist has been reporting on the growth and health of the escape room industry since 2016. You can find our other 2020 reports here:
Thank you to everyone who helped us write, test, and distribute this survey. We especially want to thank the escape room owners we consulted with on how to write some of these questions: Andrew Preble (Escape My Room), Ethan Rodriguez-Torrent (Escape New Haven), and Anne Lukeman (CU Adventures in Time and Space). We are also extremely thankful for the perspectives and keen eyes of the REA Team, including our directory manager Melissa, and many of the REA Hivemind Writers, especially Brett Kuehner and Matthew Stein for their careful editing.
Support Room Escape Artist’s Mission
There are lots of ways to support Room Escape Artist, like buying from Amazon, Etsy, or Art of Play after clicking into the links included in this post or backing us on Patreon.
The money that we make from these helps us to grow the site and continue to add more value to the community that we love so much.
If you found this survey valuable, we’d really appreciate your support. It will help us provide more industry research and reporting in the future.
Time is key because if you want to apply for the EIDL Advance, you only have about a day.
They say this in their post, but I will reiterate it. They aren’t lawyers. I am not a lawyer. This breakdown is simply to try to help make things a bit easier for escape room owners. Read the law, consult your legal and financial advisors.
One day I had a conversation with Bizzaro about having him, Crystal, and Greg do a session on creativity in escape room design. The next thing I knew, a fully edited video showed up in my inbox.
Featured Talk Information
Escape the Cliché or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Design Creatively
Details: Originally presented on Monday, August 24 at 17:00 (New York)
Speakers: Bizzaro, Krystal, & Greg
Company: Test Subjects
Abstract: In experience design, creativity has monetary value. In this talk, the flippant and funny trio of Bizzaro, Krystal, & Greg help you understand where that value comes from. They share some tips for finding inspiration that will spark your own originality. If you don’t stand out, nobody will remember you.
About RECON ’20
RECON ’20 was Room Escape Artist’s digital escape room convention featuring 15 pre-recorded talks, live Q&As, and over 30 exhibitors. We had over 900 attendees from 62 countries watching and participating live.
We’re releasing each of the 15 talks for free on our YouTube channel this fall. More than half the featured talk videos are already available there!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
If you have the skills, it is probably a good idea to fill some of your time with this work.
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.
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.
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: firstname.lastname@example.org
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.