Everyone who has ever started an escape room has learned that there was always more that he or she would have done well to know beforehand. Here are ten truisms and forethoughts on what may prove useful, in no particular order of importance.
Eventually. At Escape Rooms PHX we had a client break a four-number Master combination lock, on only the third group to visit our room! The lock may have been flawed, but we think the client may have been Superman. Anyway, it broke.
Now, one cannot keep a duplicate of everything, so analyze your room. What would shut it down if it broke? Get three of them.
Which brings me to the point about storage. You will not have enough, especially if you are renting by the square foot. You want every square foot to make money, and storage doesn’t. Find a solution, but it must be close at hand.
Which brings us to another point: if you are not good at fixing things, hire someone who is, or get good at it. “Everything breaks” is cast in concrete. Ask any room owner, they’ll say, “Yep.”
Which brings us to how incredibly clever your attendees may become. If there is an unexpected way to do a task, even in your twelfth month, someone will come up with it. Sometimes some will exasperate you. Just remember, they will be gone in an hour. Bite your tongue.
Salespeople want to sell
And they want you to buy. Best advice we had gotten about unsolicited buying opportunities was “Don’t buy anything you did not seek to buy.” (Same goes for contests that come in the mail. You can’t win a contest you did not enter.)
Everything solicitors will tell you will sound so good and so helpful, but in the long run, it will be costly, and probably will prove unnecessary. As soon as you purchase your web domain (You did purchase a web domain, right? No? Get it right now!) you will begin to receive a whole host of solicitations for creating and maintaining your web.
You will also get a hundred people promising to put you first on Facebook, Google, Peoplewillfindyou.com, whatever. This is a great opportunity to develop your lying skills. “Sorry, I already have Whackadoodle, LLC doing it for me.” If you choose not to lie, tell the raw truth. “I have no place in my budget for that right now.”
Other escape rooms owners are not your enemy
However, you can make enemies quickly if you treat them as such. Before you start, go see one. Or all. Ask them if they would be interested in some kind of referral program.
Sometimes you’re all booked, or you get a request that you cannot fill, such as a room for children under 10. Make a referral, make a friend, and maybe you’ll make a few sales you would not have otherwise had.
Besides gaining that benefit, owning an escape room is lonely. You will feel sometimes cornered, sometimes overwhelmed. Time will arrive when you have to call someone to chat, just to keep yourself sane. Make friends. They’ll become your psychologist and life coach in no time.
Yeah, some owners are your enemy
Ignore them. You are entering the hospitality business, and some owner or manager who badmouths you will eventually show their inhospitality towards the clients, which will turn their customers into yours.
If a client badmouths another room, do not agree, even with so much as a nod! In fact, make it a habit to say, “Hmm, I had not heard that.” Do not agree with them! This will require discipline and contrary motivation but just do it.
Visit the town’s building inspector
Make an appointment, take coffee with the fixings on the side. Have a chat. At Escape Rooms PHX, we learned we were required to have a second bathroom a month after we signed the lease. Very expensive lack of information there. Things to know: how many overhead fire nozzles you must have, and where; Exit signage; ADA compliance; doorway widths, fire extinguishers and their locations.
Safety is not the place to consider curbing expenses. Judge every object, puzzle, obstruction, gizmo or process with the idea in mind that it will eventually kill someone, so figure out how to prevent it. Okay, that’s a stretch. But the point remains.
Beware of sharp screw, nails, corners and lips. A scratch can become a lawsuit faster than it will become infected. Keep pathways clear, steps well lit. In fact, no steps.
Also beware of things that can fall, tumble, slide, cause a slip, or trip. And we’re not just talking about the things you put into place. If a client lacking common sense can toss something on the floor right where he or she has to walk, he or she will. Guaranteed.
Know how to market
Back in the day, like last year, aficionados of escape rooms had kept the modest few locations hopping, but those days are numbered if not over. Some markets are saturated, and there just are not enough fans of escape rooms to go around. Good news: the general population is getting into the game, literally.
But you have to reach them. YELP and Facebook are still great options, but they will not provide the fast income Groupon will. But beware: Groupon, though free, is very expensive. (A column on Groupon and the Industry is forthcoming in a later issue.)
Designate at least $400 per month for YELP and Facebook, and if you can, Google. John Wanamaker, a department-store magnate, once said, “Half the money I spend on advertising is wasted; the trouble is, I don’t know which half.” Remains true a century and a half later. BTW, no matter how savvy one of those marketers may seem, none can overcome that truism, even with algorithms and target data.
As said earlier, you ware entering the hospitality business, so be hospitable. Overwhelmingly kind. No client wants to learn he or she is a problem, or caused a problem. Treat them like puppies or kittens, whichever is your preferred.
This does not mean you should not toss a drunk or wantonly destructive fool out the door. Retain that right. Just don’t take pleasure from it. Well, not often, anyway.
Don’t sweat bad reviews
Learn from them. They often will provide exactly the solution to a problem you definitely have. (If you didn’t have a problem, they would not have said you did.) Thank the reviewer, acknowledge your intention to improve. DO NOT FIGHT THEM! They took the time to let you know something was rotten, so take the time to listen.
In the beginning, a good review feels like getting a gold mine left to you by a distant uncle. After about thirty great reviews, each will feel like finding a dollar bill on the street does. Still a good thing, but not life-altering. (Side note: A bad review will feel like somebody just blew up your baby, but the feeling will pass if you deal with it in a positive manner. And, yeah, some reviewers will just be wrong. Oh well.)
If on Yelp, respond to them in the most positive manner. Thank them for having consideration for others who may yet enjoy your facility, and assure them that, if applicable, you will address and fix whatever has been called forward.
Of course, there are always [expletive deleted]. You can ignore them, or you could respond, but if you do, refrain from belittling them. Remember, never get in a fight with a pig. You’ll only get mud on you, and the pig likes it.
Rates will come down
Presently, most sell rooms at between $28-$33 per person on average, (Another effect of Groupon to be discussed later.) In a number of discussions with other owners, the consensus is that they may fall to as little as $18-$22. Plan for that.
Understand what the Customer Acquisition Cost is, and how to calculate it.
Big, fast money was made by the early adopters who opened rooms for a song, back in the day. That is not today. The margins will shrink. That’s business.
A good rule of thumb
Room size is best at 30 square feet per person. Will you be planning to attract corporate work? They’ll want to jam as many people into a room as they can, but that means you’ll have rooms more often than not that you will have not-filled-to-capacity events.
Two choices: live with it, or just live with smaller rooms. Sometimes space dictates what you can or cannot have.
Many customers have complained, anecdotally, that they got shoved like sardines into a room. But there is a trade-off to having big rooms: you need more bookings to keep afloat. Plan for your size.
New owners sometimes fail to realize that expansion is not going to be in the cards. Almost all who started with two rooms wish they had gone for three, even four, but also discover they can’t unless they move. Option: open a second place, or move. Both are costly.
By the way, locating near a joint that can at least supply a pizza party will go a long way with corporate ventures. If they can offer a menu-driven buffet, great! Work out a collaboration. Whether you capture a percentage of the food cost will depend on your market. Might just be worthwhile to have the association.
Themes are important
Be aware, however, that people do not always cross themes, which will have an impact on your returning customer rate. For most escape rooms, comebacks are mythical.
SciFi and gizmo crowds are not often into Zombies. Puzzle masters are not into seek-and-find. This will impact your returns. However, if you have the best Zombie room, it will attract other Zombies.
Eventually, rooms will be just another hi-tech toy room for hi-tech toy junkies. They will have a place, but it need not be your place. A hunger for analog experiences will always be there. Exploit it. It’s cheaper.
By no stretch of the imagination are these all the topics to be considered. If we were to offer an eleventh piece of advice, it would be “Get a friend in the business.”
If you do not want a local mentor, drive across the state and visit at least one. Strike up a conversation with whomever you encounter, owner’s best, onsite managers second, ex-Escape Room owners not so much. (Still, they will be helpful.)
You’d be amazed at how much people want to talk about themselves. After all, most get into escape rooms because they love escape rooms, so it stands to reason they’ll want to talk more about what they love than what they don’t.
But owners are busy. Do not be a pest. You’ll soon learn that sleep is no more, that even the necessary will not get done, and that everything breaks.
Although these ideas and topics are geared for newbies, people long in the business would do well to reconsider them. Sometimes we get so wrapped up in chasing our tails, we forget why we are in business. It’s because Escape Rooms are cool!
About the Author
Charles Bechtel is at present the owner and operator of Escape Rooms PHX in Mesa, AZ. He is 65, married to Manuela Mary Bechtel, with two grown daughters and three granddaughters.
Professionally, Charles has been a published author of numerous books, both fiction and nonfiction, owned and operated his own publishing & consulting firms, and even had owned a charter fishing operation out of Cape May, New Jersey. Click here to check out some of the books authored by Charles.
During his consulting days, he specialized in developing new products for the newspaper industry and developing what had then been the industry-altering desktop publishing replacement for many composition firms.
He has years of marketing experience, wearing many hats on both the production and administrative sides of publishing.