So you want to start an escape room business. But where the heck to do you begin?
As a leading provider of online booking software for hundreds of U.S.-based escape rooms, we're fascinated by this booming industry, and strive to stay abreast of best practices and new trends. For that, we stay in touch with our go-to gurus—Room Escape Artist founders David and Lisa Spira—who publish regular escape room reviews, news, design advice and player tips on their website. This puzzle-loving duo divulged their top tips on how to prepare before taking the plunge into what can be a highly rewarding, challenging, and potentially lucrative industry.
Without further ado, here are nine helpful things to know before starting an escape room business, taken straight from the bountiful brains of two international escape room experts:
1. Escape All Over The Place
Together, the Spiras have attempted almost 300 escape rooms across the world. Their first tip may seem like a no-brainer, but they say it's the most important thing on this list: If you want to open an escape room business, you first need to play a LOT of escape rooms.
Fly to some of the top markets in North America, like New York City or Los Angeles (use the Spira's handy room finder map above), and play as many games as you can. Seem like a drastic measure?
"Taking that trip and playing those games [before you open your escape room] is a much lower investment than going into it blindly and figuring it out as you go along," David explains.
TIP: When you travel, make a point to visit the rooms with the best reviews, and the worst reviews, too—then note of what's different about them.
Write a summary after each game you play, taking note of the following:
Customer service: How were the hosts? Were the instructions helpful or misleading? Did they make you feel excited/encouraged/worried/disappointed?
Strategy: Were the games fun/different/difficult/easy? Did they match your expectations? Was there variety in the types of puzzles/riddles/games? Did you feel challenged? Were there too many/too few people in the room?
Quality: Did the storyline make sense? Did the physical props hold up/break? Was it clean? Did it look real?
2. Get to Know Your Local Market, and Find a Way to Differentiate
Knowing what the big leagues are up to is key for crafting a successful escape room business—but you'll need to know what's happenin' in your own hood too! Individual escape rooms tend to follow practices set by other nearby businesses, creating regional differences from market to market.
"Around Chicago, almost everyone gave us Smarties on the way out," David recalls. "And in Orlando, the trend was to hand out bottled water afterwards."
"If there are already five zombie games nearby, maybe do a spaceship game instead," Lisa adds.
By learning your own market's standards, you can know which patterns to follow, and which to toss in the trash to help your room stand out. Plus, there's nothing more embarrassing than thinking you've invented the wheel when everyone's outside riding around in fancy covered wagons.
"It’s always a bad sign when we walk in and the owner says all the games are completely unique," David says.
The unfortunate reality is this: Coming up with an idea on your own doesn't mean someone else hasn't thought of it already—or done it better.
3. Join The Community
The Internet is a bottomless well of knowledge and nonsense—and you can't be a fully engaged member of the escape room community until you embrace it. There are escape room lists, chatrooms, blogs and reviews galore at your fingertips to help guide you when starting your business.
The Spiras list three Facebook communities worth joining:
Escape Room Enthusiast - This is a vibrant community that's geared more towards players. It's a great spot to see what games people are excited about, share ideas and connect with escape room lovers.
Escape Room Start-Ups - Come here when you're in the midst of starting your business. You'll find tips and information on anything from lighting, insurance companies, legal matters, and designers.
Escape Room Owners - Use this page once your business is up and running. It's a great way to connect with more experienced escape room owners and stay up-to-date on trends.
TIP: Remember—Facebook has a search function within groups. These groups contain serious business owners who don't want to waste time, so search for your question before you ask it! Chances are, it's already been covered somewhere in past threads.
Next, join the community in real life at an escape room conference. TransWorld's Room Escape Conference and Tour is the nation's largest conference for the room escape industry, and they've got interactive exhibits, on-site demos, networking opportunities and educational seminars—this year's is May 1-5 in Niagara Falls.
4. Hire An Attorney
The worst possible scenario when starting an escape room business isn't building a room that's too easy—it's building one that gets shut down a week later due to fire codes you neglected to properly abide by.
The Spiras caution that building codes, parking restrictions and regulations regarding "locking people in a room to make money" can differ widely from place to place. They know a number of perfectly good businesses that had to shut down because the owners weren't aware of certain local laws, and therefore weren't adhering to them. The location you choose and the design of your room will all be subject to various city, county and state regulations, so hire an attorney before making any moves.
Here are a few questions to ask your lawyer to make sure you're on the right (and legal) track:
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?
5. Know Yourself, Know Your Audience
You don't need to be a special "type" of person to open an escape room, according to the Spiras.
"We’ve played in eight or nine countries, and we meet incredibly different people in each room we play," Lisa says.
From financial firm CEOs seeking a different lifestyle, to puzzle lovers sharing their hobby with the world, people have all sorts of reasons for why they go into the business. But the duo noted a common thread in great escape rooms: they're built by people who collaborate.
"You'll have someone who says, 'I’m a software engineer, wife is lawyer and my brother-in-law is a contractor,' and they all team up," David pointed out.
TIP: If there's a skill you're lacking, find a reliable partner who can help.
Consider the following character traits when designing your room:
Skills: Are you a software engineer? A carpenter? A puzzler? An actor? Build your room using your strengths.
Audience: Is your room best suited for adults? Families? Companies? Or a combination? Make sure your room is appropriate for your audience, in theme and difficulty.
Style: Are you a theater nerd? A puzzle lover? A horror buff? Know the vibe of your room, and stick with it throughout the whole experience.
6. Marketing - Don't Put it on the Back Burner
Ah, marketing. That looming task that always gets pushed down on the to-do list—especially when you're a small and scrappy business owner just getting into the swing of things. But in order to find success, David and Lisa urge escape room owners to make it a priority.
You can have the best game in the world—and no one will know it if you don't spend time thinking of creative ways to market it.
"There are some fabulous games out there that suffer and are in danger of closing because the people behind the scenes haven’t figured out how to crack the marketing nut," David says.
Social media is a great place to kick off your marketing efforts. Set up Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat accounts for your business. Post fun photos of each group who comes through, before and after. Tell customers you'll tag them and post it on your page, so they know to look for it. Make it easy for people to book online directly from your Facebook page by setting up the call to action button. In terms of paid advertising, one easy place to start is sponsored content, which allows you to "boost" your posts and deliver them to the feeds of your target audience.
7. Get Some Honest Opinions
No one likes being told their masterpiece has a massive hole in it...but wouldn't you rather know now before you open your escape room, than later, when a customer calls you out?
When you get ready to start building, test everything. And don't just test it on your friends and family—they might be too nice to you.
"If people aren’t telling you it sucks, then you need more honest people," David said.
The more you test, the better your room will be.
8. Backups Are Your New Best Friend
By nature, escape rooms can make people frightened, nervous, uncertain, frustrated, rushed—and sometimes straight-up rowdy.
"These games are going to take far more of a beating than you can ever imagine," Lisa warned.
In fact, the Spiras say it's safe to assume every single prop you build for your escape room will get utterly destroyed at some point: They know some escape room owners who keep five copies of every prop on hand at all times. And we're not just talking about physical objects. If you've got music, TV, video, or lights, have a plan B, C and D for technical failure. Extra extra batteries, cords and chargers are also key.
TIP: Encountering guests who are under the influence comes with the territory of this business—especially on the weekends if you're open late. Be prepared to send intoxicated players packing with a refund if they pose a danger to themselves, your staff or the game. Better safe than sorry!
9. Speak Nothing But The Truth
Some escape room hosts get a little too cryptic before players even enter the room. David and Lisa advise against this.
"Once one player thinks they’re being deceived by a host and it gets confirmed, everything you say is now suspect. Safety rules are suspect," David explained.
Be straightforward with your customers when they arrive, and state your safety rules explicitly, so that everyone understands—after all, there are plenty of things for customers to question once they enter the bewildering room you've built.
Now that you've read up, go forth and escape—there is reconnaissance to be done! Rooms to be built! And once you do, who knows? David and Lisa might pay you a visit.
With such a young industry, new businesses are bound to run into a few challenges as they try to handle the rapid influx of customers. Here's a closer look at challenges Escape Room business owners may be facing, and suggestions for overcoming these obstacles: