We live in an amazing time when classic literature, movies, folklore, and even video games can be brought to life through new and exciting entertainment attractions.
One of the most recent attractions to hit the out-of-home entertainment market is the intellectual-leaning, adrenaline-fueled quest room, also known as an escape room, puzzle room, or escape game.
Locked in darkened rooms, usually, small groups of players must work together to answer riddles, follow clues, and solve puzzles, for example, to find a key that unlocks the exit door before a certain amount of time runs out.
As the clock ticks down, tension builds and each participant may experience an array of emotions including stress, anxiety, frustration, satisfaction, rejection, acceptance, exhilaration, confidence, and triumph–hopefully. Few teams are smart enough to escape the first time, and the success rate averages less than 20 percent, but this encourages repeat visits.
The concept originated in Japan but it quickly spread throughout Asia. It first arrived in the U.S. in 2012. Currently, the Escape Room Directory lists approximately 400 escape rooms at 150 different facilities in the U.S. It is estimated that there are more than 3,500 escape rooms worldwide.
Escape rooms can be categorized into six basic genres: exit the room; quest; performance; action; Morpheus; and angers.
Exit the room: Today, exit the room is the classic and most recognized genre. Teams of up to 12 people are locked in a room with an allotted time to attempt an escape. Along the way, the teams search for clues and solve puzzles through ingenuity and teamwork.
Especially popular are the horror-themed rooms, which can be based on Voodoo, folklore, and classic monsters. Prominent representatives of this genre also include horror movies like the ‘Saw’ franchise and computer games like ‘Silent Hill’. It’s worth noting that this game is not for children, nervous individuals, or those prone to epileptic seizures.
Quest: In this case, the task is not always to leave the room. The team is offered the opportunity to follow a certain storyline and solve the main task, such as saving the life of a character, make a super-drug, or prevent a worldwide catastrophe.
Performance: Actors are mixed into the storyline and are able to influence the gameplay. A good example of a large-scale performance comes from the cult film ‘The Game’ with Michael Douglas. Spoiler: Douglas’ character believes he is in danger throughout most of the film, but the conclusion reveals that everything he experienced was part of an elaborate game, including falling for a beautiful woman.
Action: In addition to solving puzzles, this genre involves physical activity. A popular representative is ninja rooms or laser mazes. Players sometimes have to steal a piece of art from a museum or a well-guarded mansion. A good example is the Vincent Cassel character from ‘Ocean’s Twelve.’
Morpheus: This kind of quest is developed by the imaginations of the players. A Master plays the main role while other players are blindfolded. Special effects using water, air, and aromas can be used to help create the necessary mood or environment. The film ‘Philosophers’ is a good example. Characters in the film are participants in a thought-experiment and must live in a bunker as if the outside world is inhabitable.
Angers: Players are allowed and encouraged to let off steam by destroying home furnishings, office equipment, electronics, or kitchenware. Of course, this type of fun does not come cheap.
Puzzles used during these quests also come in different variations: mechanical (Rubik’s Cube); puzzle (decipher a code or fragments of words or photographs); false evidence (leads players on the wrong track); search and gather (collect items to reveal a clue or secret).
WHAT WORKS BEST?
The escape room and quest genres are best suited for family entertainment centers and other entertainment and shopping complexes, especially in tourist areas and large city downtown districts. These do not require a large area and can be easily implemented starting from 200 square feet. The average escape room size is 500 square feet.
Only one operator, usually known as the Gamemaster, is required. This person prepares the room and informs the players of their mission. The Gamemaster can also manage the room’s social media networks. He or she is also responsible for the safety of the players–the number one priority. A pair of eyes must constantly watch each player in case a player has a heart attack or an epileptic fit, or is injured and immediate medical assistance is required. Healthcare workers must be able to get into the room within seconds. Or, in the case of a fire, players need to get out within seconds.
Promotion and advertising for escape rooms are a necessity. In many ways, the approach to advertising depends on the room location and the types of quests. This may be a shopping center, a rented apartment, an old warehouse, or an FEC. The main participants of escape rooms are usually students and young professionals between ages 20 and 30. The greatest marketing coverage of these players can be achieved by using contextual advertising on Facebook and articles on entertainment portals. Well-proven marketing outlets also include student organizations and college campus promotions especially those having dormitories.
I spoke with the Franchise Development Director of Escapology, Eric Wigginton, during the recent Bowl Expo in Las Vegas to get the real scoop on escape rooms.
“The main reason is that escape rooms do very well in bowling centers, especially in upscale centers,” Wigginton said about why Escapology exhibited at the Bowl Expo. “Escape rooms attract a totally different crowd–individuals who are willing to spend an average of $30 for a 60-minute special experience.”
However, FEC owners and operators should know that the most successful escape rooms are treated as separate attractions from other typical FEC attractions. Revenues per escape room are averaging around $80,000 a year ($1600/week). Most upscale centers have a minimum of two rooms, which also offer more options for repeat play. Standalone escape rooms with four to eight rooms make up about 90 percent of Escapology’s current market.
Most operations require waivers similar to those used in trampoline parks. These waivers help reduce insurance costs.
The average escape room cost $55,000 including the software system, which is a must. There are currently four different companies that specialize in escape room software, which can be more than 50 percent of the cost.
Rooms need to be changed out at least once a year due to player boredom, but also because the props get worn. Change out cost is about $25,000-$30,000, but there is now a market dedicated to used props. “Chances are you can get 50 percent of your original investment back after one year,” said Wigginton.
My 47 years of experience in the leisure entertainment industry have taught me that watching average per capita spending is a critical element of creating repeat customers. FECs and bowling centers (not counting the hybrids) generally cater to customers that spend an average of $15-$20 for a two and half-hour visit.
The escape room time is about one hour at a cost of $30. That means guests will not have money left to spend on the typical FEC and bowling attractions, but may come back and partake at another time. This is a good thing. On the other hand, those who are at the FEC or bowling center and in the process of spending their allotted $15-$20 per person will see the escape room and perhaps make a mental note to come back to enjoy that experience. This is also a good thing.
My point is that the escape room and FEC venues are actually two separate businesses. The trick is to combine the two into one high-perceived value discount package to attract a wider audience and encourage repeat visitation. This could be the most difficult puzzle of all to solve.