Vincent Rubino, owner of a prominent Chicago Escape Room – Fox in a Box, was at the Transworld Room Escape Conference & Tour 2019. Amidst his very busy schedule, he agreed to sit down with me for a chat on his experience. Here are the key takeaways.
Escape room tour and chances to play some of the best escape rooms in San Antonio, TX and Austin, TX? Check.
A chance to take part in a wide variety of seminars on critical industry topics like game design, how to best market your escape room and even staff management? Check.
Networking night out? Check.
By most measures, the Transworld Room Escape Conference & Tour 2019 was a success.
And the issues that were discussed were of vital importance to our industry – the escape room industry.
So important that the Conference merits its own ‘takeaways from the event’ blog post. Which is what this blog is all about (surprise, surprise!).
Now, a lot of topics were discussed and it is incumbent on me to bring some order to it all.
Which is why I have subdivided all the topics discussed into 4 categories
- The day to day operation of escape rooms
- Staff management of escape rooms
- Marketing escape room businesses
- Corporate team building
Under marketing, two kinds of topics were discussed
- The nature of the escape room market
- Marketing strategies
Unfortunately, there were far more seminars which I missed featuring topics such as puzzle design, set design and story writing. However, since we are part of the Fox in a Box chain, those best in market capabilities are provided to us by the franchise. So I didn’t need to focus on those topics.
Let’s jump right in.
The day to day operations
The base of an escape room business is the daily running of it.
The day begins. You set up all your missions and do a check to see whether everything’s working properly or not.
Each team will have to be signed in, their phones and valuables stored somewhere (as per your policy), briefed on the game and led into the room. Game masters need to keep an eye on the players inside the rooms.
When the game is over, debriefing and resetting await.
Clearly, a lot of careful planning has to go into all this. A lot of processes go on simultaneously.
Out of these, 3 topics got a lot of attention at the Conference. They are
- Safety (and accessibility)
- Customer service
Safety (and accessibility)
Let’s start with safety.
When I say safety, I mean of both the players and the staff.
Dealing with inebriated players
Even though I think every escape room clearly mentions on its website that players who arrive in an inebriated state will not be allowed to play, it does happen now and then.
One speaker from Canada advised that DNE – Do Not Engage – is the best policy.
- Players who’re inebriated must be asked to leave. Staff must remain calm but polite on this.
- Players who’re in a belligerent state can pose a risk. And if you feel the situation is getting out of hand, it is appropriate to call the cops.
There are programs like Learn2Serve (US) or SmartServe (Canada) which teach you to recognize signs of intoxication and how to deal with the situation.
They are mainly meant for places with a liquor license…but you can consider signing up a few of your workers or ask an instructor from those programs to give some training at your escape room.
We discussed in particular how one escape room has an innovative policy to ensure staff safety if faced with inebriated people turning belligerent.
They allow those players to enter a room, kill the lights (via some circuit breaker) and then call the cops.
Presumably, this contains the inebriated individuals within one room so they can’t hurt anyone. On the other hand, they may damage a lot of your stuff, and even maybe hurt themselves which could invite legal trouble.
But as the speaker wisely said, “people can’t be replaced.”
Escape room staff should be trained and equipped in providing first aid.
While we all, as responsible escape room owners, strive to provide a safe experience, sometimes things do come unstuck.
We just now discussed players arriving inebriated, they could turn violent and hurt other teams or your people.
Even apart from that, players may get hurt. They could feel dizzy or sick.
With the escape room staff trained and equipped in first aid, they can attend to minor cuts and bruises. If the case is more serious, they can provide some relief until paramedics arrive.
Legal safety requirement
Escape rooms need to be aware of all legal safety provisions applying in their particular jurisdiction right at the time of construction otherwise in the case of accidents they could face legal action by the state or local authorities.
In particular, building codes relevant to ‘amusement building’-s, ‘amusement center’-s and engineering codes are highly relevant.
Maybe it will turn out to be mostly legal jargon with not very many practical steps you need to take but all the same you need to be aware of that.
Another thing escape room owners need to keep an eye on is the Life Safety Code brought out by the National Fire Protection Association. The possibility of a new code coming out pretty soon was discussed.
You can also think of working with a fire inspector or fire marshal.
Exit signs, emergency lights are a bare minimum and an alarm and strobe system would be welcome additions to your escape room.
Special attention was paid to our obligations under the Americans with Disabilities Act.
In particular, we discussed the need to
- Add specific visual and oral cues to ensure ADA-mandated safety
- Ensure wheelchair accessibility even within an escape mission. One 2-level escape game provided an innovative solution of a drawbridge to allow access where stairs were otherwise provided.
Lighting is a pretty big part of the immersion that all escape rooms try to create.
And ‘lighting’ in this context does not mean just good quality illumination, but lighting that can easily be controlled for theatrical effect.
Having a good dimming system or a dimmer is very important.
You can make the entire process computer-driven via a DMX (Digital Multiplex) system.
Essentially, you plug the dimmers into a DMX system and feed inputs into the DMX system via a USB plugged into a computer.
There’s a ton of software out there that can be used in DMX dimming protocols. We even heard about a guy who created his own Linux-based software.
A ton of stuff on this is available at the Open Lighting Project.
In particular, Phillips Hue Color and Ambience bulbs were recommended as particularly useful, since they have built-in dimming capability.
LED’s are good for flashing and for getting a spotlight effect (via ‘pinspot’ lights).
- Parabolized Aluminium Reflector (PAR) lights. You may have seen these at music shows. It can create a highly directional and strong beam of light.
- If you’re looking for a highly dramatic effect (like that in a ‘divine intervention’ scene) you can go for an Ellipsoidal spotlight. They are not cheap but they do create a very powerful effect and are generally known to be long-lasting.
- For a softer and more sweeping effect, you can go for a Fresnel lantern, which is used a lot in theatres.
Other lighting aspects
Other aspects related to lighting, like reflector and bulged reflector arrangement, LED strips, moving lights and electroluminescent wiring were also discussed – all of which shows how important this aspect of escape rooms is to escape room owners.
Your handling of players and your escape room management must be such that people feel that they can trust you.
This was nicely expressed as the ‘two values’
Escape rooms must always be very clear in all the communication they engage in with players.
No assumptions and no evasion. Whatever needs to be communicated needs to be communicated politely but directly.
Engage with reviews
We all know the power of a bad review, right? And we always do our best to avoid those, by ensuring a no-hitch escape experience for the players.
However, sometimes even the best-planned things can go wrong. *it happens.
And in such a case, simply being nice can make up for the less-than-enjoyable escape experience and earn you a better-than-expected review!
A brief reference was made to Narrative Therapy which tries to help people in distress create a new narrative about themselves, one that eliminates the source of distress.
It may sound a little dramatic, some of the communication principles involved in such therapy may help escape rooms engage with dissatisfied players.
Ensure a fun experience
While the leaderboard, i.e. ‘winning’ is very important to players, your focus, when interacting with players, especially during the debriefing, must be on the ‘fun’ element.
- That is, did they have fun?
- What was the bit they most enjoyed?
- Did they think any part of the game to be too convoluted to be enjoyable?
Don’t badmouth other escape rooms
And, finally, very important. Do not badmouth other escape rooms. We ERO’s (Escape Room Owners) gotta stick together!
That’s not the only reason, though. You badmouthing other escape rooms may put the players off. Plus remember you don’t know a lot about them. They could be fans of the very escape room you’re criticizing.
- You must make sure to cater to your players. Know your location and, if possible, your player base to serve them well.
A smoothly running operation, whether in an escape room or at an oil refinery, requires skillful staff management.
Staff management software
Now, most businesses use management software for staff and operations management.
And there are a lot of choices out there – Slack, Flock, Trello etc.
The opinion at Transworld was that Trello is the best suited for staff and operations management in an escape room. (Fox in Box Chicago uses Slack)
Uncovering talents on your team
One of the key parts of staff management in uncovering the hidden talents among your team so you can award them with responsibilities that match their talents.
You can adopt a process for reviewing ideas put forward by your team.
- All ideas must be submitted in a formal request
- Ideas must be concrete suggestions, not whims. For example, a suggestion for an event must include a detailed prep plan.
- Accountability system – weekly checking. They pick a day and they send an email with recap and planning.
- Finally, since you’re ultimately responsible for most things, including financing, you must only give them realistic expectations of budget and execution.
Hiring and outsourcing best practices
We all know the value of digital marketing. But the question is, how do we implement this digital marketing?
Do it ourselves? Get someone from Fiverr?
The Transworld Conference suggested hiring a dedicated service like Credo to find the digital agency that’s right for you.
If you do want to get people from Upwork or Fiverr, that’s up to you. But it was suggested that you hire more than one person/agency for the initial project and compare their work.
For any outsourced work, critical parameters like a success benchmark must be defined clearly and at the very outset.
Finally, we come to marketing and promotion.
A lot of time was spent on various features of marketing an escape – a lot more so than on daily operations and staff management – perhaps because there simply are so many aspects to marketing.
Like I said before, the discussion on marketing was centered on two main things
- The nature of the escape room market
- Marketing strategies for escape rooms
The nature of the escape room market
In exploring the nature of the escape room market, the Transworld conferences touched on 4 key topics
- Market evolution
- Value addition
- Big city markets
The escape room market seems to be constantly evolving, with different demographics coming in and gaining prominence in different aspects of escape rooms.
Women book escape rooms more
It was revealed that as per statistics, most group bookings come from women.
That is something that we all need to consider when planning our ad campaigns and mission choices and facilities.
As an example, cleanliness and hygiene will become even more important.
Washrooms need to be clean and more amenities may need to be included in some escape rooms.
Women share images online more than men
You know those player photos you take and feature on your website and social media. You’re hoping they’re going to be shared as widely as possible, right?
Turns out, it’s the women who do most of the sharing.
To push things along, you can try to ensure that the women look really good in player photos.
As far as targeting, goes
- Try to target single dads for Saturdays and Sundays
- Target birthday moms with a full package
- To get the tourist crowd, you can target people looking to hotels in your city, which can be done on Google.
Escape rooms as socializing opportunities
We bill escape rooms as socializing experiences – you gather with a team and share a thrilling experience with them.
That’s one of the USP’s of escape rooms.
It was pointed out at Transworld that this niche – socialized experience – is getting intensely competitive.
Ax throwing, for example, is gaining in popularity.
If you’ve been paying attention, ‘value’ may sound familiar.
Remember how earlier Vincent had talked about how players must feel that they’re getting some value from your escape room?
Here however, ‘value’ refers to how you can add some relevant facilities to your entire setup to add value to people who become your players.
Value addition can be in the form of some extra features
- One place sells escape room board games with the pitch ‘continue the adventure at home!’ Very enticing.
- Corporate bookings are critical. If a corporate client asks for something reasonable, say yes. Do not lose the corporate deal. If necessary, buy it.
Of course, if it’s something outrageous, you’ll need to say ‘no’. The thing is, you shouldn’t dismiss a corporate request on the spot.
Innovation can go a long way here. If, for example, some of your corporate clients want a conference room but you don’t have space for an extra room, you can have a dual-purpose room that can be converted into a game room after the corporate client has finished with it.
Value addition can also be in the form of how you’re pitching/advertising your escape room to prospective players.
- “If you get your boss to book with us we’ll give you a free room.”
For many people, the tech-free environment is one of the things they most look forward to. Stress this concept of a ‘digital detox’ in your marketing.
Even a one night per month VIP night was discussed.
Big city markets
Big city markets, which have the double feature of high foot traffic (and thereby more potential players) and high costs (rent, utilities and so on) are important for escape rooms, which need a constant stream of players to keep the cash flowing in.
So, it should come as no surprise that big city markets occupied a prominent place in the Transworld Room Escape Conference discussions on the escape room market.
There was a general consensus that prices may drop although some did suggest that there is space for prices to rise. So, there is an urgent need for escape rooms to adapt to a cost-conscious and lower price future.
- Differential pricing was discussed – older rooms with lower price tags or lower prices on less busy days.
- Opening in family entertainment centers and theaters and adjuncts to other businesses was also discussed.
- Another option would be to drop off business cards at universities because student groups are an important escape room demographic.
- Innovative and aggressive guerrilla marketing can be a solution to this impending issue.
Logically, the thing to discuss after the state of the escape room market would be actual marketing strategies for escape rooms, since we know what we’re dealing with.
Under ‘marketing strategies’, Vincent discussed the insight he gained under the following heads
- Data and insight
- Using the data to create an action plan
- Social media marketing
Data and insight
An overall view of the escape room market was discussed at the Transworld Conference. However, the actual picture of the market will vary from escape room to escape room.
This is where data collection and insight come in.
To run a marketing campaign that works for your escape room, you need to glean data on your player base continuously and gain insight from it.
- The first thing you need to know is how many bookings you need to remain profitable.
This may become difficult if you have different prices for different rooms but you still need to make an estimate.
- Next, you need an idea of which of your rooms are the most popular ones.
Remember, the choice of room is determined by the market. So, you will need to gather data on player demographics.
For example, you may be able to get some statistics on the age and gender of your players from the waivers they sign to participate in your escape room.
In all your interactions with players, try to include a question or two that reveals some aspect of the demographic or market to you.
- Where did they hear about your escape room?
- Did they like the concept and theme? Would they have preferred anything else?
- How old are they?
- How far did they travel to visit your escape room?
Don’t ask too many. And always stop if the player(s) seem uncomfortable answering.
Other sources of escape room data and insight
- How much of the website traffic is converting into bookings?
- When do you normally get phone calls? What is discussed during these phone calls? What value do phone calls generate for your escape room?
Using the data to create an action plan
When you have an idea of the specific player demographics at your escape rooms, you can use that to create a marketing plan.
If, for example, a lot of players tell you that they heard about your escape room from an advertisement somewhere, that tells you that you’ll need a large marketing budget.
On the other hand, if a lot of players tell you that they were referred to you by a friend, it may be a signal to invest more in the escape game and customer service, since your escape room is being marketed by the experience players have.
As an aside, at the actual Transworld Conference seminar on this, one escape room owner mentioned that up to 7% of his revenue goes into his marketing budget.
How you reach out to new players depends on the player data, once again. Some of the player outreach methods that were discussed at Transworld are
Reclaiming abandoned carts
Sometimes, players are impressed by your rooms and are eager at the time to return. Unfortunately, they may forget.
If your data shows a lot of interest among players in returning but comparatively fewer repeat visits, you can incentivize repeat visits by offering a discount code valid for 2 weeks from the date of the first visit.
Keeping players interested in your escape room
Apart from repeat visits, you also need to keep players’ interest in your escape room alive, so they will keep checking your website for new missions.
People need a reason to keep returning to your escape room.
At Transworld the idea of lockins, say Thursday Night Lockin, featuring food and games was discussed.
- Tie-ups with online travel agencies and global distribution systems like Expedia and Groupon can yield rich dividends in outreach and bookings.
- Services like QuickGifts can give a nice booster shot to your gift card programs.
Appearing in trade shows
Sometimes, opening a booth at a tradeshow or tradeshows can help in outreach to potential players.
This could be a tradeshow of escape enthusiasts or an event planner tradeshow or even one of professionals (corporate team building bookings).
You may even share a booth with someone (maybe a nearby business with whom you have a relationship) to share costs.
However, opening such a booth will incur costs so you need to look at your data and insights to decide on this.
Chad McLain from Exodus Escape Rooms said that he’s created a 15-minute popup that he takes to a lot of tradeshows. It creates a lot of excitement and helps him reach out to more people.
Ø Organizations like the Edward Lowe Foundation and Business Network International, which help companies grow and network, were discussed.
Social media marketing
We know how important social media marketing is…to any business in whichever industry and however small or large.
And accordingly, social media marketing, with a particular focus on creating visual content (especially videos) for sites like Instagram and Snapchat were extensively discussed at Transworld.
Ø Kayden Ressel from The Basement (in LA) said that boosting posts on social media had proved ineffective for him.
It may be better to create great content (which happens to be the stock excuse from all those Google ‘experts’ when they are clueless why your SEO isn’t working) that people will keep sharing them forward on their own.
We did touch upon this earlier in ‘Market Evolution’ where we discussed how women are more likely to share their pictures so in player pictures it’s always suggested to ensure that the women look good.
Ø It’s critical to have pictures and video with a lot of ‘Wow!’ and ‘Aha!’ moments for your social media feed.
Such content becomes advertisements on their own – without appearing as such.
Ø Specific to videos, the following points were thought to be very important
- It’s critical to have a dedicated director of photography to ensure that your promotional (and other) videos are of a high quality.
- A good camera like the Sony FS7 or the Sony a7S should be used.
- Lighting tech/grip, sound, and editing should all be done professionally and appropriate budgets allocated towards them. You can feature your employees in the videos or hire actors. Get everyone involved to sign releases.
- According to the Small Business Administration, 8% of your revenue should go towards advertisements and marketing. That should give you an idea of how much you should budget for the videos.
- The director of photography should be in charge, but you should try to ensure that there are closeup shots on the hands and on facial expressions (reactions of ‘Wow!’)
- Don’t only make scary videos. A lot of players don’t like scary missions.
- Try to budget for 2-3 days for shoots.
- Don’t copy competitor videos.
- You can refer to sites like videohive and audiojungle for stock audio, video and some special effects.
Every social media website has its own video format. It’s always better to know and communicate this to the director before planning begins.
1. Facebook – horizontal videos. 15s, 30s, 90s 1920 width
2. Instagram – square or vertical videos. 10s or 15s
3. Snapchat – vertical videos. 10sec, 30 (cut into 10s) 90 (cut into 10s)
Ø Obviously, with all these expenses you’re incurring, you’d want to know what kind of return you can expect, right?
- Videos view ads are cheaper but may not be the best option for brand building.
- Conversion ads are more expensive. So you should aim them at people who are likely to purchase. Try to create a ‘lookalike’ audience to mirror the demographics of the people who book your rooms to target conversion ads.
Ø Here’s an SOP for Facebook video ads
- Create a pixel on Facebook
- Create an ad campaign on Facebook.
- Create an ad set for each video
- Set geo-targeting (can set for people who are traveling and a radius for your city — don’t go too big)
- Pick your ages and demographics for buyers. Add 2-3 years on both sides.
- Can add interests
Create 10 ads for each ad set with multiple titles and or headlines. You’ll want to optimize these every 2 weeks. Kill the bad 5 and create 5 new variations. Optimize and repeat.
Ø Escape room merchandise can include shirts, fridge magnets, board games
- Have room/mission-specific shirts.
- I won/escaped etc items do especially well when you will only allow people to buy right after the win.
- You can go for seasonal shirts or unique design to create ‘limited edition’ merchandise.
Ø You can even monetize some aspects of your escape missions. For example, you can create a comic strip based on the backstories of your rooms.
Such marketing kills two birds – bring in revenue and become your non-obvious/implicit advertisements – with one stone.
Ø One good strategy discussed was that people can reserve merch on your website but they need to visit you to collect.
More Marketings Tips and Magic Tricks from the Conference
- Try to get sponsored content published on quality websites.
- Keep your Google My Business posts active. You can try to publish fresh content weekly.
- When creating content, remember to cover all kinds of information that players would find useful, including weather and traffic information.
- Make ample use of Google Beacon.
- Look up competition that has closed and buy their keywords. And check whether the closure has been notified to escape room reviewers like David and Lisa Spira of Room Escape Artist.
- One guy even mentioned hiring an escape room owner in another market to set up Google ads.
- You should redo your website periodically, say every 3 years, to keep things fresh.
Corporate team building
Corporate bookings being a key driver of revenue for escape rooms, a lot of time was devoted to discussing its various aspects.
- Benito Suppa from Durham Escape Rooms mentioned handling 70 at a time.
- You can consider having different spaces for corporate events and for parties.
- To get corporate bookings you can go to the relevant chamber of commerce and comb LinkedIn to get in contact with the right people.
- Endorsements matter a lot on LinkedIn. Try to get a few!
- You can consider having dedicated salespeople to attend relevant social events.
- Your sales pitch for corporate bookings can be something like ‘get your boss to pay for your next game!’
And we have finally reached the end of this blog post.
There were a lot of seminars so a lot of topics were discussed, and no doubt you’ll find some of it not relevant for you or old news or just not interesting.
However, the Transworld Room Escape Conference & Tour 2019 did feature a lot of well-known speakers so I think it would be worth your while to skim through the post. You’re sure to find some nuggets of value.