December 2020 US Stimulus: A Breakdown By & For Escape Room Owners

  • This is a quick, no frills post for US escape room owners because time is not on anyone’s side.
  • Below you’ll find a link to a breakdown of the December 2020 COVID/ stimulus section: p. 1924-2467.
Comic book art of hands signing a document.
  • This analysis was primarily the work of Andrew Preble (Escape My Room, New Orleans, LA) and Ethan Rodriguez-Torrent (Escape New Haven, New Haven, CT), with some help from Anne Lukeman (Champaign-Urbana Adventures in Time and Space, Urbana, IL).
  • 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.

New Video: Creativity with the Bizzaro, Crystal, & Greg

It’s great working with magicians.

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.

Enjoy.

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.

The Test Subjects, 3 people's heads in jars on a table.

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!

Please subscribe to the RECON Newsletter to receive updates on RECON ’21 – we are just getting started.

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.

Escape Rooms in the Era of Pandemic & Quarantine

We aren’t escaping our home anytime soon.

Last week we began publishing content embracing self-isolation. For the foreseeable future, our publishing schedule will continue to put a greater emphasis on play-at-home games and experiences. We’re doing this because we think that it’s best for as many of us as possible to shift our mindset.

We resisted the powerful urge to suggest anything to owners or players about how to handle this crisis because it felt irresponsible to add to the cacophony. With the clarity of this week, we have a lucid message.

A lone person standing on a island in the middle of the water holding a flighlight in the darkness.

Please Stay In

We aren’t encouraging players to visit escape rooms, even though we’d love to play, and we know how badly COVID-19 is hurting escape room businesses (more on that later). The best path forward for all of us is to temporarily change our lifestyle in order to keep this outbreak from spiraling out of control.

None of us can do this individually, but collectively we can make a difference. By staying home… and in our case, puzzling.

Maybe you already agree with me or maybe you think that I’m gullible, wimpy, or dumb. For those that think less of me, let’s do a thought experiment.

Cost Benefit Analysis

Let’s look at a pair of possible scenarios.

Nothing Happens

COVID-19 is a total bust. “It’s Y2K.” “It’s a bad flu.” “Nothing happens.”

Everyone who isn’t involved in keeping the basic mechanisms of society running has shut themselves indoors for few weeks. Everyone’s really bored, the economy takes a hit from the diminished production, and a lot of people suffer from the loss of work, but in the end “it’s not that big of a deal.”

At the end of a couple of weeks life goes on. In 20 years we will all get to laugh at it when VH1 makes I Love 2020 and some washed up comedian that no one remembers cracks jokes about it.

The Threat is Real

What if it’s a legitimate threat?

What if we’re literally 2 weeks behind Italy’s trajectory?

What if we’re all staring at a historic turning point and we make the wrong decision to go get some dinner and play some games?

What if we don’t force that exponential outbreak curve to plateau?

We’re all escape room players here. We all understand limited resources. If more people need hospital beds and ventilators than we have available, people will needlessly die.

If we don’t slow that exponential growth curve, then the timeline of the crisis will spiral out of control. It will run longer. Quarantines will extend. Business shutdowns will extend. Everyone will suffer more.

If you’re still thinking that this is “just a bad flu,” let’s not forget that the Spanish Flu of 1918 killed more people than World War I. The Great War. “The war to end all wars.” “Just a bad flu.”

If you’re thinking that “this is like Y2K… and that was a total joke,” please remember that the only reason that Y2K wasn’t a calamity was that countless people worked long hard hours to manually update code and prevent the problem. Hundreds of billions of dollars were spent to keep Y2K from breaking the world, and it worked. Was it really “nothing” if it required that much effort to prevent?

Moreover, even in the COVID-19 scenario where “nothing happens,” tens of thousands of people have still died.

We must embrace quarantine.

Escape Room Owner Problems

I’ve been speaking with owners for the past few weeks about how they are going to weather this crisis and no one has a solution to match the problem.

Escape room owners are drowning in operating expenses, even though they cannot actually operate. Rent and insurance alone are profound costs.

Escape room owners with employees are bearing the burden of making painful decisions. Who can they pay? Who can’t they pay? Do they pay themselves? Will their valued, skilled, and trained employees even be around when this crisis ends, or will they have been forced by circumstance to move on? When we come out on the other side, how much spending money will the nation at large have for entertainment?

The problems are grim, the options are bleak, and every single problem will be amplified with each day that passes. The longer this crisis extends into the unknown future, the worse it becomes. We must embrace quarantine.

These problems aren’t limited to the escape room world. They touch so many small businesses.

Small Businesses

I’ve owned multiple small businesses for over 15 years. Politicians from both sides of the aisle love to speak of the value of small businesses to the American economy.

If I had a dollar for every time I’ve heard a politician utter the phrase, “small businesses are the backbone of the American economy,” I would have a lot more than government has ever done for my small businesses.

Everything that’s being done right now helps giant companies, banks, and investors. And look, in times like these, everyone needs help. But small businesses shouldn’t be forgotten as they always are. They shouldn’t be left out to languish as bills pile up. No one asked for this. No one made some foolish decision that led to this.

Landlords and insurers have two options right now. They can be parasitic in the face of a crisis or they can realize that everyone hurting means that they have to hurt as well. They can take this pain now or take it later when they strangle their tenants and customers to death and are left wondering where their revenue will come from in a strained, post-pandemic economy.

Government has similar choices. Let landlords and insurers strangle small businesses or stand around in 2021 wondering where the hell all of their tax revenue went. This isn’t just an escape room problem.

Embrace The Quarantine

COVID-19 is not going away without all of us doing our part. Some generations have been called upon to fight wars. We don’t have to take up arms. No one is asking us to give up our lives. We just have to sit at home and play games, solve puzzles, read, and watch Netflix.

Lisa and I started our self-imposed quarantine a week and a half ago when we returned home from our trip to Europe. We were obsessively careful while traveling, but upon returning home we decided for the sake of our friends, colleagues, and strangers that we would act as though we were carrying the virus.

For my part, this isn’t coming from a place of ignorance. I spent years designing software for use in humanitarian crises. I’ve been deployed by the United Nations into the field. I’ve seen things that shook me to my core. I’ll never claim that I am a humanitarian myself, but I understand that world and how to interpret the data.

We need to embrace quarantine. Flattening the curve is the only weapon that we have available to us… and it takes all of us to make it work.

We need to quarantine because for all of the policy decisions that could be made to help small businesses, none of us can donate enough money to get enough leaders to listen. To help.

We need to quarantine because the shorter this lasts, the better everyone’s chances of living and thriving are.

REA in the Era of Pandemic & Quarantine

At Room Escape Artist, we’re going to continue to publish daily content for the escape room industry. Our audience includes players, creators, owners, and the escape room curious. Regardless of your place in the escape room economy, your normalcy is temporarily upended.

On this website, we’re operating under the assumption that the era of pandemic and quarantine will be temporary. This is what we need to do now to enable our industry (and many other industries) for the future. We’ll continue to publish a lot of our normal content, which will be of value again when we emerge on the other side.

We know that many in our community are severely hurting right now. We know that you have to make hard decisions and that every day will be challenging. We will publish content for you too, but only when we have well researched, rational words to share.

In the meantime, we’re adding an emphasis on play-at-home content, as noted at the top of this post. For the most part, we’re planning to keep our content lighthearted, not out of disrespect for the severity of the situation, but as an escape.