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.
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With the end of 2020, we compiled a data-driven look at how COVID-19 has impacted the US escape room industry, based on the data we have from maintaining the Room Escape Artist Escape Room Directory since 2014.
As of February 2021, there are 2,080 escape room facilities in the United States.
In comparison, in August 2020, there were 2,250 escape room facilities in the United States. In the past 6 months, we’ve experienced a 7.5% decrease in the number of facilities.
It is critical to note that the number of facilities does not indicate the size of the industry at large. It is one indicator, and one we have the data to measure. It does not represent revenue. At this time, no one in the escape room industry has access to revenue data.
Since our report in August, we’ve removed 180 escape room facilities from our directory.
This is on par with the closure rate we saw in the first half of 2020 (also 180 facilities).
In fact, the total facility closures in 2019 (315) was slightly more than in 2020 (300).
While this industry continues to experience facility closures, many due to COVID-19 and some due to other factors, the closure rate is steady. We have not experienced an alarming closure rate.
Of note, in this report, we are not counting temporary closures as closed facilities. If the business is communicating the closure as temporary, and as far as we can tell, they plan to reopen the facility, we are counting this as an operational facility for the purpose of this report.For a more nuanced understanding of how we count escape rooms (and it’s the facilities that we’re counting), please refer to 6 Year US Escape Room Industry Report (August 2020).
The Delta Widens
Closures aren’t new, but in past years, they were eclipsed by new companies opening.
In 2017, more than 75 facilities closed, and in 2018, more than 250 facilities closed. These numbers, however, were offset by many new business entering the marketing:
In 2014 there were about 2 dozen escape room facilities in the US. This was followed by exponential growth in 2015 and 2016, which had leveled off by 2019, when the number of facilities in the US increased by just 2%.
For more details on these periods of growth, read our past industry reports.
In the last 6 months, only 25 new escape room facilities opened, while 180 closed.
Chains & Franchises
For the most part, the largest companies (in terms of number of facilities) have not experienced a substantial drop in number of facilities.
The two largest companies, Escapology and Breakout Games (46 facilities and 39 facilities, respectively, in August 2020), each closed 3 facilities.
The exception among the chains is Key Quest, which closed completely in 2020. This company was a branch of the laser tag company Laser Quest, which had 21 facilities operating escape rooms in August 2020 (and additional facilities without escape rooms), and now has 0 open facilities. The closing of a large chain certainly impacts the closure rate.
For many years now, Colorado has had the most escape room facilities per capita of any US state.
Colorado had a high per capita attrition rate in the time of COVID-19 through the publication of this report (April 2020 – February 2021). And yet, Colorado is the state with the second most escape room facilities per capita today, second only to New Hampshire.
Other states with high per capita attrition include North Dakota, Wyoming, and Delaware.
This report is just part of the story of 2020 for the US escape room industry. A count of open and closed facilities cannot tell us about the impact of the pandemic on the businesses that remain open.
This report does not unpack the financial health of these companies. Even the information on PPP Loans linked above doesn’t give us much insight into the debt assumed by the majority of these businesses – the single-location, small businesses.
We predict that the financial hardship of 2020 will affect future investment in new games. In the near future, we don’t expect to see the same volume of new games or high-budget, blockbuster games that we’ve seen in the past.
However, that doesn’t mean we have to sacrifice quality.
As in-person business reopens in 2021, we expect to see more creative escape rooms. Less investment yields more constraints, and constraints force creativity. We see this as an opportunity for creators to experiment with new ideas, and continue to push the boundaries of this medium of entertainment.
If you heard us on stage in 2019, you heard David outline the risks of high-investment games. We’ve known for some time that raising that particular bar wasn’t the long term future for most businesses. If anything this pandemic will speed us along a more sustainable path.
Because this report is just part of the story, today we are asking for your help in painting a more complete picture. We’re looking to learn more from you, the business owners and players, so that we can, in turn, share more information about how COVID-19 has and continues to impact our industry. It’s a group effort, and we’re asking everyone who is reading this report to contribute.