Escape room businesses are trending up in cities all over the United States and elsewhere. If you’ve never been to one, you should do a search for escape rooms near you and visit one as soon as possible. Escape rooms typically offer several themed rooms into which a team of paying customers are placed for a period of an hour or so. While they are inside, they must try to escape the room by following clues, looking for hidden items, uncovering secrets, and solving puzzles. Common themes for escape rooms are prison breaks, murder mysteries, museum thefts, military bunkers, library mysteries, and insane asylums.
An escape room business can be started with a relatively low investment as all one really needs to open for business is a series of rooms and some props (depending on the themes you choose, props can range from dirt-cheap to very pricey). Escape room businesses are easy to manage and can be extremely profitable, as there is not a lot of upkeep and a small handful of employees can handle the light workload.
If you decide to open an escape room business, you’ll first need to write out a thorough business plan. This step can technically be skipped if you already have the startup capital. However, even if you already have the money, you can still benefit from a well-written business plan. If you are working with partners, a business plan can help to keep everyone involved on the same page regarding the direction of the business. There are also quite a few legalities, business registration steps, health and safety codes, etc., that can be itemized and prioritized in your business plan, making it easier to keep track of your progress without missing important steps.
While you are writing your business plan, you’ll need to consider several options for the construction of your escape rooms. There are escape room franchises available that will provide most of the materials, props, marketing paraphernalia, etc., in exchange for a percentage of your profits. Going the franchise route simplifies things greatly, but it can also be limiting. Your themes will be limited to those provided by your outsourced supplier, and the props provided may be poorly constructed. You have to ask yourself just how much work you want to put into your startup and how much profit you’re willing to exchange in order to avoid the somewhat complicated construction and engineering stages of your escape room startup.
After you’ve put your business plan together, you’ll need to select a location for your escape room. Busy, downtown areas and commercial districts tend to bring in more walk-ins and foot traffic. With escape rooms, however, it isn’t absolutely necessary to be centrally located in order to get business. With the proliferation of Internet marketing and social media, as long as your escape room is near enough to populated areas, you can bring in business via an active web presence. Also, because there are so many themes available for escape rooms, it’s not necessary to be located far away from your competitors.
As long as the escape rooms at your business are themed differently than your competitor’s rooms, you will still get business, as patrons often frequent many escape rooms in order to keep their escape-room experiences fresh and exciting. Remember, once a team completes one room, they will be unlikely to want to go through it again, as the “mystery” element will be spoiled for them.
Choose your themes wisely. You’ll need to have at least three or four rooms to be successful (and some of these rooms will encompass several separate rooms). Because your escape room business may be located near to a competitor’s, be sure to pick themes that are different and unique to your area. Follow trends in film and TV. If, for example, comic book heroes are trending in pop culture, you might want to open a superhero/supervillain-themed room.
Escape room enthusiasts will hit everyone in their area in order to experience the challenge of new rooms. Don’t forget that the more far-fetched your themes, the more expensive they will be to set up. A murder mystery in a small den or office is easy to set up simply by shopping for old furniture and bookcases at local thrift stores. But a steampunk, Victorian-themed room will obviously cost a considerable amount of money to put together. Horror, contemporary, and seasonal themes are probably the least expensive. Scientific laboratories, doctors offices, and museum themes are slightly more expensive. Fantasy, science fiction, and some period (medieval, Ancient Egypt, etc.) rooms can be quite expensive to build.
Once you’ve picked your themes, you need to come up with storylines for each room. When your guests enter the room, there needs to be something that grabs their attention. For example, in your private investigator/murder mystery-themed room, there might be a blood stain on a desk in a small office. On the desk is a diary written (we assume) by the murdered person. In that diary is a clue. You’ll need a storyline flowing through all of these clues and devices. Maybe the murdered person was an accountant who discovered that one of his clients was laundering money. He then told his brother who, in turn, tried to blackmail a mafia kingpin. The kingpin sent two mafia henchmen to kill both men, but they left behind several clues that can be used to bring the kingpin to justice. The more intricate the story, the more fun your patrons will have in your escape room.
It is extremely important to keep detailed manuals for your employees to follow, as they will be returning everything to starting positions after each team of guests completes the room. If there are consumables involved (candles, sealed packages, cut ropes, broken vases, etc.), they will need to be replaced at the end of each appointment to prepare for the next group.
If you schedule times for teams to go through your escape rooms, you will need to figure reconditioning/repair times into your scheduling process. Compared to most other kinds of businesses, escape rooms require minimal upkeep and inventory stocking. However, there will always be a series of tasks your employees need to complete before each team’s appointment: furniture will need to be moved, clues put back into their appropriate places, and disposable props replaced.
It’s a good idea (and in some places required by law) to maintain insurance for your business so that if anything is damaged by a disaster such as fire, flooding, earthquake, hurricane, or tornado, you will be protected from substantial loss.
Pay careful attention to local laws governing escape room businesses. In most places, for example, it is illegal to actually lock patrons inside a room. You may also be required to provide emergency exits in case of fire or some other, sudden emergency. The vast majority of your patrons, however, will understand the need for these legal requirements and will be happy to act as though they are locked in the room for the sake of maintaining the illusion.
Finally, once your business is open, you should devote full-time efforts to marketing your escape rooms to potential customers. Social media (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram), online directories (Yelp, Google+), banner ads, local tourist websites, and more are available to you for your marketing needs. You should also register your business with local tourist commissions and chambers of commerce.
You might want to create a small, simple-to-construct, tent-based “teaser” escape room for local festivals, concerts, fairs, and other public events. If you charge a small fee for the teaser room, you can make extra money while driving interest to your place of business.
One escape room owner made business cards which read “Who killed the curator?” He used this guerrilla marketing technique to hook potential customers everywhere he distributed the cards. Another owner also maintains an escape room app for Apple and Android mobile devices, which helps to generate interest in his brick-and-mortar locations. The marketing possibilities are endless and the more unique and ingenious they are, the more likely potential customers will be to schedule an appointment with their team at your escape room.
Escape rooms are simple and inexpensive to start. The upkeep requirements will be relatively low, making your staffing requirements much lower than those of comparable startup businesses. That said, success is by no means guaranteed, so you will need a thorough, well-written business plan, a creative team, and full-time marketing efforts. You’ll need to pick a good location and hire responsible, well-trained employees in order to keep patrons flowing through your escape rooms in an efficient, effective way. Market your escape room to families (birthdays, showers), business events, tourists, and any other demographic that would enjoy an entertaining, group challenge activity. Finally, don’t forget to change out your rooms for new themes as often as possible to prevent your business from becoming stale.