Are you wondering how to open an escape room business? Interested in getting real insight from owners who’ve been there and done that?
You’ve come to the right place!
Welcome to part 2 of Escape Room Owners Speak Out: “What I Wish I’d Known Before Starting My Escape Room Business“!
If you haven’t had a chance to read part 1 yet, you’re in for a treat.
To recap, we asked over 400 owners what they wish they’d known before starting their escape room business. In total, we received over 70 responses and loads of insight we’re excited to pass along to you!
Whether you have a mobile escape room, a franchise, are focused on corporate team building, or children’s birthday parties, we hope there are at least a few golden nuggets of knowledge here to draw from.
When you’re done reading, join our Facebook group to share some of your biggest challenges and get answers from our growing community of escape room owners.
Advertising, Marketing & Branding
Celeste from Nick of Time Escapes (Swain, NY)
We’re still relatively new. The only thing I could say for sure is that we should have started advertising long before we opened.
Cathy from Escape Rooms Jamestown (Jamestown, NY)
I wish I had known just how many people in our small city didn’t have any clue what an Escape Room was!
Kristen from Enter Exit Escape (Mount Airy, MD)
I guess one surprise for us is how much follow up and sales effort is needed to get business groups in for a teambuilding event. Of course, WE know how awesome an escape room experience can be and how it naturally lends itself to teamwork goals like effective communication, drawing on varying skills of participants, working together toward a common goal. We figured when we put this in front of people through various marketing efforts, they’d immediately recognize the benefits and uniqueness and get right in. But even groups that have contacted us about bringing in their group for corporate team building have needed lots of nudging and pushing and convincing.
Team from Escape Hour Room (Bolingbrook, IL)
The one thing I wished I knew before opening was what are truly the best ways for an escape room to market themselves. Since opening, I’ve gotten several calls per day from companies claiming that they can increase my business.
I wish I knew the tried and true ways so that I’m not wasting time and money on resources that won’t make a difference.
Team from Puzzle Room Pittsburgh (Verona, PA)
One thing that we wished we knew before we opened our escape room was how important that advertising was going to be to our business. We never had an official grand opening; but, instead just opened our doors and started accepting bookings. This certainly led to a few slow months in the beginning! In the ongoing months, our advertising is really what has kept our business busy, our customer acquisition steady and continuing to bring back repeat customers to do the rooms that they have not yet done. However, everything comes with a price! Budgeting for advertising, especially when starting out, is very important!
Shuai from Gr8er Good Games (San Francisco, CA)
My main challenge is marketing. It’s very much a chicken or egg problem. Do I spend a lot of money to get really nice marketing collateral created or do I make some graphics on Canva that aren’t so great? On the one hand, I don’t want to spend money that I don’t have, but on the other hand, a nicer set of marketing collateral will result in more bookings, which should pay for itself. Do I spend money to hire a social media marketing consultant or do I waste time learning how to do it all myself? Is social media the way to go? Or should I do a big Google ad campaign? Or should I focus on getting TripAdvisor/Yelp reviews? Or should I try partnering with local businesses to refer each other? Or should I do a little of everything?
Matt from Southernmost Escape (Key West, FL)
Marketing an Escape Room has been challenging. As a new owner, I pursued, radio, television, social media, concierge services etc. However, there is not a good way to track which marketing source is actually worth the money. I decided to begin polling my clients as to where they heard about my escape room. Here is what I found out. 60% read it on social media or found it by being friends on Facebook with a previous customer. 20% found us on Google or TripAdvisor. 10% stated either radio, TV, or newspaper. Although unique to a geographical location, a research study on marketing for escape rooms would be of great benefit. This is a relatively new concept for the United States and many have not heard about escape rooms. It is time that we in this industry come together to educate our populace.
Anonymous escape room owner
Don’t spend all of your money to make your games safe, hi-tech, fun, engaging, easy to reset, not full of red herrings, decorated to fit the theme, etcetera. The vast majority of Americans have been symmetrically engineered to not appreciate quality. They will assume everything they spend money on will be mediocre at best. When they see a price point that exceeds their expectation of mediocracy without being able to see the product (escape rooms are secret after all), they will demand a lower price, or worse yet, go to an escape room that copies ideas and themes. There is nothing worse than pouring a lot of money, time, and effort into something exciting, just to see your customers visit a thrift shop escape room instead of your amazing product.
Eventually, an owner will have to bite the bullet and sign up for the death of the escape room community, Groupon. Now I understand that Groupon is an advertising tool that we can use to generate a flow of customers. The devil really is in the small print though. Groupon will keep 70% of the money earned after their ridiculous discount. 20% of that will be paid back after several months, so after 4 months you will see 50% after their discounts. Basically, if you charge a fair amount for an excellent product $28, you will end up making around $12 instead of $54. Not bad if you have a thrift shop escape room, awful if you have a great product. Guess who also won’t come back to your other rooms without a heavy discount either?
There is also another thing about Groupon that one must be made aware of. Remember how the majority of Americans don’t value quality? Groupon customers can be the worst of your groups. I tend to keep amazing details of each group that visits my establishment. You can’t grow and do better without finding deficiencies, right? 1 out of 3 Groupon groups will break something, show up under the influence, refuse to get engaged in the experience (bad when it’s a mixed group), or steal from you. So, with that amazing $12 that you earned, you will end up spending more money to repair the stuff they steal or destroy. Groupon customers are also more likely to demand more for less, and leave nasty reviews if they don’t get their way. Non-Groupon customers will do the same, but it is far less likely, 1 out of 30 groups. It may seem that I am painting all Groupon customers with the same brush, but again it’s 1 out of 3 groups, numbers don’t lie.
Perspective & The Escape Room Industry as a Whole
Brian and Jamie from Just Escape Room (La Grange, IL)
Competition is a good thing for Escape room owners. We all benefit when a new room opens. Each new room brings new hype which grows awareness of Escape rooms and in turn gets new players to try it out. A group of those players will get hooked and look for new rooms to conquer growing the market overall. Reach out to other owners and ask for help and give help to grow your business and the market overall. Everyone wins.
Click here to read our interview with Brian, where he discusses how he builds engaging puzzles.
Roy from Red Lantern Escape Rooms (Brea, CA)
Honestly, the one thing I wish I’d known before we started was just how amazing the whole experience would be–from learning set creation through trial and error and mild electrocution (you can read about Bayou’s build comedy of errors here), to working closely with my family and realizing just how amazingly talented they all are, to meet the other SoCal owners who are all kind and welcoming and just as dedicated to the craft as we are. But the best part has been the players. They constantly surprise me with their creativity and raw energy and enthusiasm. I don’t think I’ll ever get tired of watching them thrill in their victories and find the confidence they didn’t know they had.
Follow this link to check out Red Lantern’s blog
Vanya from Questhouse (Sofia, Bulgaria)
I’ve been an entrepreneur for quite a while and have owned many successful businesses. When I opened my escape room, I felt very prepared and supported. Looking back, there really isn’t anything I wish I had known. The support I received from the escape room business association in Sofia also gave me all the tools I needed to be successful.
Mark from Outerlife Studios – Escape Room St Pete (St. Petersburg, FL)
Success follows sweaty passion. Too much time was spent WORRYING if we were sweating our asses off and spending so much time away from family and friends for nothing. If we didn’t succeed it would have all been a waste. I know now that if we continue to work hard and passionately on creating a great experience for our players, we will never need to worry again.
Vince from Pursue the Clues (Torrington, CT)
I guess the one thing I wish I knew before I began is how many people looked at this industry as a low-cost way to create their own business, thus driving down the quality of the individual games. The quality between one business to the next can vary greatly, and for those of us that have top-tier quality games, it is really hurting the industry to have people setting up a bunch of locks and furniture in the room and charge the same as someone who’s invested much more into their games. In the next year or two, we’ll see the number of Escape Rooms decrease dramatically, and hopefully the term “escape room” will die, but I wish I knew how much naivety would exist in the industry even still.
Lynn from Escape Zone 60 (Destin, FL)
I wish I would have known how many inexperienced operators were going to enter the market and believe that cutting their price in half would increase business.
Aleksander from Dextrophobia (Sofia, Bulgaria)
I wish I knew that it would require more attention than just a hobby. It’s a full-time job and it’s important to treat it as such.
Kathryn from Escape Hays (Hays, KS)
- I wish I had known more about local zoning regulations. There were only a few open in our state when we opened, and we had to work with local authorities to classify and assign a sector to escape rooms. They initially tried to classify us as a circus which means we couldn’t operate inside the town! (TBH not completely wrong) They were worried about the noise affecting other businesses. We convinced them to classify us as an arcade, which meant we were limited, but still able to operate in town.
- People can be EXTREMELY competitive, in a very destructive way. We provide everyone with rules, but they aren’t always followed. For example, in one game you have to unlock a door and get to a different room. You can see the other room through a small grate for our a/c system. One 5’2″ woman decided that finding the key would take too long, and she wanted first place. She ripped the grate off with her bare hands and climbed through. All of my staff just sat there dumbfounded.
- People come prepared. I had spoken with other owners before we opened ours and had heard stories of people bringing flashlights and screwdrivers. I foolishly assumed it was because they were in a big city. That is until I had a customer pull out drywall saw to “check behind the wall” I don’t think I have ever run faster in my whole life.
- It changes the way you play. We opened our room because we love the game, and we wanted to share escape rooms with our community. Now we own an escape room, we never have time to play. The closest room is 1 1/2 hours away. When we do play, we do very well. After designing several games for our location and our mobile unit, it has become very easy to “see” the path the designer is taking, and it is hard to surprise or stump us anymore. It is still a lot of fun though!
Bill from Xphobia (Olean, NY)
Radio doesn’t work and will cost you a fortune! At least in my rural area, radio produced zero results and cost more than any other advertising I have done thus far.
The second thing I wish I knew, double or triple your original timeline for new game releases. If your making quality games that your customers will love it will take about 2-3 times longer than you think it will.
Sami from The Greatest Escape (Sioux City, IA)
I wish I would have done more research in marketing because you can have the greatest business in the world but if no one knows about it, what good is that?
I wish I would have known how hard people would be on the items in the room. People will find ways to break everything so when you plan a room have that in mind.
Jay from Escape Hatch Bixby (Bixby, OK)
The one thing I wish I’d known before I began was how time-consuming it would be.
However, we have really enjoyed the results. We opened in May and have done okay. I was motivated to get something going in our growing suburb and not necessarily expecting to retire with this business. I have a CPA practice that I work with during the day and this is my hobby or side business. I used my old CPA office that I was renting out to other companies and it became vacant in January of last year. I decided to try opening an escape room because I enjoyed starting my CPA practice from scratch over 20 years ago and I wanted to try to revisit that experience with something new. Also, accounting is frankly a boring business and this is my outlet. I have always wanted to create some form of art and this is what seems to fit my personality best! I love popular culture, books and movies and jigsaw puzzles. The idea of fitting a short storyline into some scenario where people need to solve puzzles to get out is right up my alley. I could never get friends or family to help me with my jigsaw puzzles in the past, but now we have plenty of interest in these rooms. This week, a local television show called “Explore Tulsa” is running the Escape Hatch – Bixby as their weekly show. Also, our local Chamber of Commerce has an annual awards gala and we have been nominated for Best New Business and I am have been nominated for Entrepreneur of the Year.
Other regrets that I have before starting is I wish I was more of a fixer upper and handyman. I am dependent on a local carpenter and tech guy when things break down and they are always breaking down. I am better at fixing things than I once was, but as you probably know, things are always breaking in an escape room.
Have something to add? Leave a comment below or head over to our the EscapeFront Facebook community to share your thoughts!