I’m wanting to open an escape room and am looking to learn everything I can!
This is an actual email we received in December of 2017. That was the full text of the email. I’d like to say that this was an anomaly, but we receive a lot of emails just like one.
Emailer, this blog post is just for you. Good luck!
1: Play Escape Rooms Everywhere
If you want to open an escape room business, you first need to play a LOT of escape rooms.
Visit some of the top markets in North America. These include New York City, Los Angeles, and southern Louisiana.
Figure out where to travel.
Visit the most highly recommended escape rooms in these markets. Visit the ones with terrible reviews too. Consider the differences and learn from both.
Travel might seem like a huge expense, but it’s a much lower investment than blindly starting a business.
2: Play Escape Rooms Locally
Know what games already exist in your market. Use that knowledge to find your niche.
By playing local escape rooms, you’ll learn the regional trends. These include website design, hint systems, intro speeches, and even escape room themes. If you know the trends, you can decide which to latch onto and which to avoid.
When an owner tell us, “all my designs are completely unique because I’ve never played an escape room”… it’s always a bad sign.
Your neighbors might have come up with the same idea. They might even have executed it better. You can’t assume your ideas are unique just because you came up with them in a vacuum.
There are plenty of ideas that owners came up with on their own that are also escape room cliches.
Play the local games to understand the norms before you step outside the box.
3: Join the Community Online
If you’re opening an escape room today, there are tons of resources on the internet: blogs, reviews, directories, chat rooms, social media conversations, and more.
The escape room community spends a lot of time on Facebook:
- Escape Room Enthusiasts – Geared toward players, the conversations here will show you which games and concepts players are excited about.
- Escape Room Start-Ups – If you’re new to this, you’ll find information about all sorts of things, such as lighting and insurance, that you maybe hadn’t yet considered.
- Escape Room Owners – Once your business is running, this community will connect you with other established owners to help you stay up to date on trends. (Update: Here’s how to join.)
Remember that Facebook has a search function. Make sure your question hasn’t already been asked and answered 20 times. Don’t waste everyone’s time.
4: Join the Community in Real Life
At escape room conferences, you can meet owners, enthusiasts, and bloggers. We all learn from these conversations.
In the United States, TransWorld hosts an annual escape room conference. We spoke at the past two conferences in Chicago (2016) and Niagara Falls (2017). We are looking forward to returning for TransWorld’s next conference, July 28-29, 2018 in Nashville.
Europe also hosts a few escape room conferences.
Last year we spoke at Up The Game in Breda, The Netherlands. Tickets are already on sale for May 8-9, 2018.
David gave the keynote address at WroEscape in Wrocław, Poland, in October 2017. We anticipate another edition of WroEscape in 2018.
In November 2017, we hosted our first event: Escape, Immerse, Explore in New York City. Over the course of a weekend, attendees enjoyed a tailored tour of 5 escape rooms and one immersive show as well as networking and a talk about the industry.
We look forward to producing more of these events in New York City and other cities.
5: Do Math
Escape rooms are not a get-rich-quick scheme.
Set reasonable expectations when you calculate how much money each escape room will pull in.
Make sure that you’re financially able to weather a harsh start-up.
6: Hire an Attorney & an Architect*
Regulations around locking people in a room to make money differ widely from place to place. Make sure you’re following all the rules.
Attorneys can help you with incorporation and liability.
Know how to approach building codes, parking restrictions, and any other local ordinances. There is no one-size-fits-all recommendation for these types of things.
It doesn’t matter how great your games are if the city shuts you down for some unforeseen violation.
Ask the following questions:
- Is my building located in a retail zone, and will my business qualify as retail?
- Are we allowed to actually lock people in rooms in this county?
- What are the fire marshal’s inspection requirements?
- What is the legal occupancy limit of my space?
- What are the parking restrictions near my building?
- (If renting) Will my landlord be interested in housing this sort of business?
*For more information about asking these types of questions, read the comments below. Nathan (@Moriash) offers fantastic and detailed insights.
7: Determine Your Audience
One person’s favorite game is another person’s nightmare experience.
In the case of horror escape rooms, consider this literally. Fear can be an amazing tool in game design. If you build horror experiences, however, you limit your customer base. If there isn’t already a strong horror culture in your area, marketing will be harder.
If you plan to attract corporate bookings, you’ll need HR-friendly games that fit larger groups. Beyond the games, you’ll want to focus energy on your facility, including a comfortable lobby and meeting room space.
If you’re in a walking city with a late night drinking culture (New York, New Orleans, Las Vegas, etc.), you’ll need to build extra sturdy games. You’ll attract boisterous and rambunctious (sometimes under the influence) groups who will be rough with your creation. Delicate designs won’t hold up. Delicate gamemasters won’t hold up either. Consider bouncing these players if they will be a danger to you, your staff, or your game.
Consider audience from many different angles. Determine themes, facilities, ticketing models, operational hours, marketing plans, staffing, and more with your audience in mind.
From financial firm executives seeking a different lifestyle to puzzle lovers sharing their hobby with the world, escape room owners open these businesses for all different reasons.
You won’t have all the skills to open an escape room by yourself.
Your background might be in game design, software engineering, carpentry, acting, marketing… or any number of other skills.
Collaborate with folks who have complementary skills. Don’t allow your skill gaps to turn into gaping holes in your business.
9: Marketing is Necessary
Once you’ve opened, attracting customers will become your most important task.
You can have the best game in the world, but nobody will play it if they don’t know it exists.
Make it easy for your customers to help you market. Share their photos on social media. Publish content that they will want to share with their friends.
Avoid Groupon and other deal sites. They’ll bleed you to death.
Always include a call to action.
Make booking easy… and please answer your phone. You never know who’s calling.
10: Test and Iterate
Before you launch your escape room, put players through it. Observe.
- Which parts continually trip people up?
- Which parts don’t function as intended?
- Which parts are subject to frequent breakage?
- When are people having more or less fun?
Don’t just test with friends and family. They will love your escape room because they love you.
If people aren’t telling you which parts of it suck, then you need more honest people.
11: Plan for Breakage
Everything in your escape room will break.
When the premise is “figure out how to get out of this room” people will figure it out. They will try things you never conceived of. Stuff will break.
Sometimes stuff breaks for no reason. We once played an escape room where the in-game computer wouldn’t boot up. They were ready. They slid laminated paper copies of everything on the computer under the door. It wasn’t as interactive as intended, but we could still solve the puzzles, and there was nearly no delay.
Be ready to hot swap all your physical props. Have backup plans for every conceivable failure.
If something runs on batteries, replace these regularly.
12: Be Honest
Be honest with your customers.
Your customers don’t know when the game starts. They don’t know if you are trying to trick them.
If a player thinks you’re trying to deceive them and that’s confirmed in the game, everything you say becomes suspect. If they catch you in a lie, safety rules become suspect.
Help your customers feel comfortable.
13: Learn everything you can
Emailer, you know, you might very well be ahead of the pack. After all, you already know you want to learn everything you can. I hope this helps.