Update: The following sections were added, or added to, a few hours after publication: Masks, Smarter Cancellation Policies, Gameplay Adaptations
As different regions slowly attempt to reopen, I’ve been putting together a collection of guidelines to help escape room owners think through their reopening strategies.
I honestly believe that escape rooms are well positioned as premium entertainment in this pre-vaccine era. Movie theaters, theaters, bowling, skating rinks, amusement parks, bars, and restaurants generally require large crowds to turn a profit. Escape rooms are intimate, small-group entertainment.
If our industry establishes a strong reputation for safety, fun, and low headcounts, I truly believe that we will bounce back faster and reemerge stronger than before.
I have done my very best to approach this apolitically.
My overarching advice to you is to pay attention to your community and its shifting needs as this pandemic continues to evolve. Smart escape room companies will ratchet up or down the intensity of their policies to meet their regional needs, which will likely change over time.
Adhere to Local Laws
Before we dive in, I want to make it clear that I am not a lawyer or epidemiologist. I’m not claiming that I am.
Before opening, consult with your lawyer and insurance provider. Make sure that you’re following whatever regulations your business is subject to.
Whom Are You Protecting?
When thinking about safety in this pre-vaccine era, there are two groups of people that escape room owners must consider:
Many of the measures that we will discuss apply to both. However, employees may face additional challenges and risks that your customers should not encounter.
You’ll be able to type your questions (and comments) in the chat to direct the Q&A part of the livestream. Feel free to send us a message in advance if there is anything you’d especially like us to cover.
This is a personal story of how I have been able to find hope in the shape of an empty suitcase.
Several years ago, while browsing through an online message board, I happened upon an inspiring post: A retired psychiatrist by the internet handle of “DrHelen” described her method for dealing with the melancholy she felt after she had finished working.
She identified something that brought her joy and excitement and figured out a way to get herself a steady supply of it. She had always enjoyed traveling. The anticipation of a trip was almost as wonderful as the trip itself. She loved planning and thinking about where she was going and what she was going to do.
She decided she would take one trip each month. Some months it could be a trip to the Florida beaches. Some months it would have to be a simple weekend at a B&B out in the suburbs. It could be just a Saturday night at the fancy hotel downtown or two weeks in Southeast Asia. The anticipation and planning for each trip would be just what she needed to lift her spirits.
Her Suitcase Was the Key
Her post explained another important component of her plan: since she would be using her suitcase each month, it didn’t make sense to store it away in the closet after each trip. She placed it in plain view just inside her bedroom door. That made all the difference. It energized her to see that suitcase each night as she went to bed and each morning as she awoke. The suitcase kick-started that feeling of excitement and anticipation each day.
A couple of years ago, I tried out DrHelen’s trick. Although I didn’t take a trip each month, I placed my suitcase next to my bedroom door. I decided to consider many different kinds of outings as my “trips.” These included weekends out of town, dinner dates, and, of course, escape room outings.
It worked. Seeing that suitcase every night and every morning reminded me of the fun things I had coming up. It made a difference in my outlook on the daily grind. Just reminding myself that we had an escape room booked for next Saturday and that we had 6 escape games booked in Chicago for a weekend next month….thoughts like that would help me start each day with a smile.
During the month of March 2020, as COVID-19 forced me to cancel multiple trips and many escape rooms bookings, I grew resentful of my suitcase. It was sitting there reminding me of where I wouldn’t be going and of escape games that I wouldn’t be playing. My suitcase tormented and mocked me.
Hope in the Time of Corona
Then I realized that DrHelen’s trick could still work, even in the face of a pandemic and quarantine. I now see that suitcase as a sign of hope that someday this will all be over. That suitcase reminds me of the trips that I will take and the escape rooms that I will play.
The suitcase teases me to anticipate that feeling of walking into the lobby of an escape room company knowing that there is an award-winning or world-renowned game in the building. I anticipate sitting through escape game introductions again. I think about that feeling right after the door closes when my 60 minutes begin. I imagine chatting with the owners after playing a room and then reliving it with my friends over dinner. It’s all there in that empty suitcase.
If this idea sounds like it is something you’d enjoy, give it a try. Place your suitcase by your bedroom door. Look at it every night and every morning and think about what represents for you for when the world starts turning again. Think about the places you will go and the escape rooms you will play. And give a thought to DrHelen, whoever she is, and the fact that her idea is helping people get through something she never imagined all those years ago.
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.
On Thursday night I hopped into the HERE Discord and recorded an episode of the No Proscenium Podcast with an interesting rotating cast of characters.
We talked about immersive entertainment in the era of quarantine. There was a discussion about porn-tech, which apparently required some homework that I hadn’t completed. We got a little heavy talking about the long-term impact of enforced social distancing on the immersive entertainment industries.