Operations

Breaking Into The Experience Economy With Escape Rooms

Lexi Tucker
Posted on August 16, 2019

A team of people try to break out of an escape room (Photo by Flickr user David Hofmann)

A team of people try to break out of an escape room (Photo by Flickr user David Hofmann)

If you’ve been paying attention, you know the “experience economy” drives Millennial spending. A study by Harris Group found 72% of Millennials would rather open their wallets based on experiences than on material items.

This is great news for you — if you know how to take advantage of their desire for Instagramable moments. However, it’s not just of interest to young people wanting something different to do on the weekend. Many corporations use them as a chance to build trust and teamwork among coworkers as well.

While there are many examples one could give, perhaps the fastest growing among both retail and corporate groups today is the escape room. Essentially, an escape room is a 60-minute puzzle adventure game. The Escape Game, a franchise that can be found across multiple cities, describes them like so:

“You and a team will assemble in a themed room and have one hour to complete your mission to ‘escape’ the room. A successful escape will require you to find hidden clues and solve challenging puzzles. Search underneath the rug, sift through the books on the shelves, and take a closer look at all those paintings on the wall. You may find a string of numbers you need for a combination lock, or a good old-fashioned key for a padlock. Everywhere you look is a potential clue to get out of a room or riddle waiting to be solved.”

Sounds fun, right? Apparently, many people think so. An Economist article states in 2014, there were just 22 escape-room venues open in America. Now, there are over 2,300 in the U.S. alone according to a recent survey by Room Escape Artist, a website about the industry. It’s estimated there are probably more than 10,000 escape rooms around the world now in business.

It costs about $25 to $30 per person for a one-hour game with up to 12 participants per hour depending on the location. Xola’s 2018 Escape Room Industry Report states the average US-based escape room location generated $256,860 in bookings in 2017.

These are group activities, and luxury transportation operators specialize in getting groups where they want to be. The only remaining question is how do you snag a piece of their client base?

Birth Of An Idea

Ken Carter of AAdvanced Limousines in Indianapolis, Ind.

Ken Carter of AAdvanced Limousines in Indianapolis, Ind.

Ken Carter of AAdvanced Limousines in Indianapolis, Ind. first brought up the concept of partnering with escape rooms at the 2018 LCT East Show in Atlantic City during his roundtable session on developing retail packages. He started these packages because they allowed him to provide a unique experience that also helped his company fill valleys of vehicle usage during the week.

“I wanted to create an experience out of the norm of just hiring a car service. Escape rooms are very popular, and they are building their own industry,” he says. Carter also runs a haunted house attraction during the Fall, and the two business models are a mirror image of each other. Both have a design aspect, a similar audience, particular marketing, tech behind the scenes to make the games/scenes work, and scheduling time slots in common.

“I began thinking escape rooms are like limo service on the retail side where they have a lot of peaks and valleys. Fridays and Saturdays are busy, but a Wednesday afternoon is probably not so much. I wanted to provide an experience our clients had not yet seen or had.”

After hearing Carter speak at the Show, Mike and Marlo Denning of Elegant Limousines in Daytona Beach, Fla. immediately jumped on the idea. They took a page from Limo University's Bill Faeth’s playbook by searching LinkedIn for companies in their area and found the owners of a local establishment called Daytona Escape Room.

(L to R) Mike and Marlo Denning of Elegant Limousines in Daytona Beach, Fla.

(L to R) Mike and Marlo Denning of Elegant Limousines in Daytona Beach, Fla.

Marlo says it was a perfect way for them to fill a void during the week. “We all know limos run on the weekends — that’s a given. But the stretches and some of your other vehicles will sit during the week.” After also speaking to operator Michael Barreto, the couple took his advice of creating a package and selling seats...not just to escape rooms, but to restaurants and other destinations as well.

For example, for one package, they can pick clients up from the resort they are staying at, drop them off at an escape room, bring them to an Italian restaurant, and finally take them for a tour of the Daytona International Speedway. The number of pick-ups and drop-offs would depend on the type of package the clients purchase. For $50 a person, they could opt for a simple two-hour package to the escape room and back, or for $175 a person, it can turn into a six- or seven-hour day trip.

Josh Roman of Heaven on Wheels in Dallas, Texas

Josh Roman of Heaven on Wheels in Dallas, Texas

Josh Roman of Heaven on Wheels in Dallas, Texas had also spoken to Carter and learned of the potential benefits of advertising escape room trips. “It’s a great way to get weekday work if you’re looking to get better use out of your vehicles during non-peak hours.”

Ruben Schultz and Amir Ghorbani of Swoop in Los Angeles, say although one might not immediately think there’d be a corporate market for escape rooms, it’s actually becoming a more popular outing for many reasons. “It’s neutral. There are no food requirements, so you don’t have to worry if someone can’t eat gluten or is a vegan. You can’t always do things like Korean BBQ or go on brewery or wine tours, as it may be against someone’s religion. Activities like escape rooms help with diversity; there’s nothing that doesn’t allow people to come along,” Schultz says.

What You’ll Need

(L to R) Amir Ghorbani and Ruben Schultz of Swoop in Los Angeles

(L to R) Amir Ghorbani and Ruben Schultz of Swoop in Los Angeles

Perhaps the best advantage of doing escape room runs is they are simple. They are typically hourly trips and make use of vehicles like 10-passenger limo or executive style vans which are versatile in handling different types of clients. This also aligns the group size with what the average escape room can handle, which is anywhere from 6-12 people.

When partnering with an escape room company, it’s important to understand if you are including the escape room experience within your price, or if the customer is paying two different vendors. “We have both situations with different vendors. There are some where we include admission for up to eight, and some where we have negotiated a pre-arranged price and the customer is taking advantage of that discount because they are being delivered by our service,” Carter says.

Roman says most escape rooms will give a flat rate, but they usually have flexibility with regular pricing if they know you’ll be bringing regular business. “The ones that change up the rooms every now and then are better for us to market to returning clients. The bigger ones can often have up to nine different rooms and change every two to three months.”

You also want to make sure the escape room you plan to work with is reputable, Marlo says. “It must add value to your customers’ experience. Some are just thrown together; we went and visited the one we are currently partnered with and were blown away. We saw their rooms and the passion they have for what they do. They are so into it, they go visit other escape rooms on their days off.”

“It’s just like how limo companies aren’t all the same,” Mike adds. “Do your homework. Don’t just Google and find the first one in town. You must make sure it’s someone you can make a personal connection with. Build the relationship first."

Carter agrees and says you need to understand the culture, impact, and experience they will deliver to your clients. “You are now referring them, so if the client has a poor experience, it’s a direct reflection on you if they don’t deliver.”

Participants use various tools in the room to solve puzzles, get keys, and find their way out (Photo by Pixabay user Clockedindk)

Participants use various tools in the room to solve puzzles, get keys, and find their way out (Photo by Pixabay user Clockedindk)

Chris Moschella, founder of escape room review website Escape Authority, notes nearly everything else under the hospitality umbrella is fundamentally built around repeat visitors. The tricky thing about escape rooms is guests can really only play each offering one time. “While of course venues want their guests to return to play each of their games, the reality is most have three or four or five tops — and a given game may operate for multiple years before ticket sales begin to dwindle indicating it's time to switch it out for something new,” he explains.

That being the case, it may be a good idea to find a few companies in your area so you can provide a variety of options for your returning clients.

Will It Be Worth It?

Carter believes the escape room industry is evolving and gaining traction overall. “Markets that see one will soon see three to five, and those with three to five will see six to 10. That growth will happen over the next 18 to 24 months. When you look at society, people are looking for a unique experience. Airbnb is now offering experiences as well, and that’s a testament as to how people are looking for a tailored, unique one-off setting.”

 Roman notes companies are always looking for ways to get their employees to work together better, so it’s been steady work for his business. Mike and Marlo Denning say since rooms can fit 10, corporate groups will often split up and make it a competition. On the retail side, it gives families something fun to do that’s a little out of the ordinary. “Going to the movies is getting kind of old,” Mike says.

Schultz and Ghorbani handle a lot of group transportation in the retail and corporate markets, and note while escape rooms are becoming more prevalent for corporate team-building exercises, they are also popular choices for birthday parties or outings with friends.

“It’s an alternative experience,” Ghorbani says. “We are witnessing the movement of the experience economy. It’s a huge concept among millennials. We are seeing more money being spent on experiences rather than goods. We need to start thinking about how we can adapt the industry to these consumer desires.”

Players solve a puzzle in the original 5 Wits adventure, Tomb, in downtown Boston circa 2006. (Photo via Wikimedia Commons user Zgoza)

Players solve a puzzle in the original 5 Wits adventure, Tomb, in downtown Boston circa 2006. (Photo via Wikimedia Commons user Zgoza)

The ‘escape’ aspect of these games is not just about getting out of a room by solving puzzles. When done properly, these attractions offer an escape from reality in a way few theme park rides could ever match, Moschella says.

“For the first time in the amusement industry, guests are given control. No longer are they locked under a lap bar and made to look here or thereby turning the ride's cart. No longer can one design ‘what the guest is supposed to see.’ Escape games have introduced genuine guest control, allowing them to look, touch, go, and perhaps most importantly, do what they want. It instantly casts guests as the hero of their very own cinematic-quality adventure — but this time, they're not sitting in a theater or on a ride — they are in this world, living it, and its success or failure is entirely up to them.

Escape games are popular because they alone hold the ability to both energize and inspire, all while sharing that experience with a small group of your closest family and friends.”

Schultz says as more corporations start thinking about group outings like these, you’ll want to be the one to take them there. “Businesses will always require transportation. We have to think about how we as an industry can be more prevalent in these spaces. Many times, they just take Ubers because they aren’t aware of the industry as an option. Limos evoke the image of prom, but most companies now have vehicles that can accommodate any kind of trip. In something like a Sprinter van, everyone can go together and that’s the draw. Corporate clients love it — they just aren’t aware of it as a possibility.”

Moschella says the time you invest trying to partner with an escape room company will be fruitful…if the business you decide to work with is as passionate about what they do as you are about providing unparalleled customer service.

A player tries to solve a clue (Photo via Wikimedia Commons user Airman 1st Class Tryphena Mayhugh)
“To question the future of escape games is a bit of a double-edged sword. The success of an individual game or venue will be determined by the design effort put into it. The great games will keep getting better. The mediocre games, sadly for their owners, will fail. There's perhaps no form of entertainment that sees more wildly varying investment budgets than escape games do,” he says.

Some venues may invest less than $1,000 total in their set up. Moschella has a client who has opened four escape games of his own design — and each has a budget near or exceeding $200,000. “While that may not seem like a huge number when talking design in the ‘theme park’ world where things often rank well into the multi-millions, remember this: Many escape games occupy nothing more than a 300 to 400 square foot area. Moreover, they're not being built by major theme park companies, but rather much more modest operations teams, where frankly that type of investment was previously unheard of. But the results of that initial investment often speak for themselves.”

Why It Matters

On trips like these, all you have to do is nail the basics. “You’re not really doing anything out of the ordinary that shouldn’t already be part of your standard service practices. It makes it a very accessible market to pursue,” Ghorbani says.

“In this day and age, especially with the amount of competition, you can’t just sit there and wait for the phone to ring,” Mike Denning says. The Dennings have never been one to put all their eggs in one basket, and warn others against doing so. Outside the box ideas for excursions give people options. All-in-one packages take the stress out of anyone's trip, especially when they are looking for something new to do.

However, if you think this is just a quick and easy way to make money, think again. Just as with any client, you must do your research. "Find out what businesses are in the area you want to work with, make connections, have meetings...build a network first,” Marlo Denning says. These alliances take time and patience to set up. “It doesn’t just happen overnight.”

The Dennings are looking to push their escape room packages at resorts, which are frequented by retail and corporate clients alike. “We want the concierge team to act as our sales team. We are in the vacation capital of the world, and business people and families often go to the concierge desk and say, ‘I’m here, what is there to do?’ Essentially, we want them to suggest us,” Mike says.

They plan to comp some rides to the sales team so they can experience it for themselves, which will in turn enable them to sell the experience to their guests. “As soon as we start mentioning what we are doing, their eyes pop out of their heads. They are constantly bombarded with people asking them what is there to do, and we believe this will be a great new option,” Marlo says.

Carter echoes this idea of not just escape rooms, but anything that can be considered an “experience.” “I think operators should think about similar experiences or opportunities in their own markets. You can spin them and make it attractive to multiple client types. This could become a girl's night out on what we call Wine Wednesday, or a team-building event on Team Tuesday. It appeals to not only the corporate type, but also the retail type. It all depends on how you position pitch and market it.”

Industry Insider: Mike Babic of Dayton Escape Room in Daytona Beach, Fla.

Babic opened Daytona Escape Room Experience in June 2016 because he saw an opportunity to bring another attraction-based venue to the area. His family and a few friends played an escape room in another city and were hooked immediately. From that point on, he knew he wanted to start his own.

“I felt other people would feel the same as I did as they accomplished challenges and solved puzzles. Additionally, we have an extensive mechanical and creative background that needed to be exposed,” he says.

He believes escape rooms have surged in popularity because people are always looking for something new and innovative to do. “Going to the movies or playing putt-putt golf is ‘something’ to do, but experiencing a real-life game of Clue touches all of your senses,” he explains. “The immersion in a well-designed escape room takes you away from the real world and gives you the ability to step into another world and play a game with your peers.”

Escape rooms have become such a great team-building tool that he says he has several clients in an HR department who bring their new-hires, or different departments, in to “see” how they work together through the CCTV surveillance system.

He believes escape rooms aren’t going anywhere. “As long as people have disposable income and are looking to spend quality time together, we feel people enjoy their experiences and make memories.”

If operators are interested in partnering up with escape rooms, Babic has a few suggestions. Escape rooms allow players a set time to accomplish the challenges within the room — usually 60 minutes. Before they allow players to enter a room, an employee will typically spend a few minutes briefing them on the room, going over a few rules/tips about the game they chose, and allow for a brief Q&A session to prepare them. Therefore, being timely in your pick up and drop off is everything. “Being responsible enough to get the guests to the venue on time is essential.”

Most importantly, check out the venue. There are many escape rooms popping up around the country. Are they reputable? Are they clean? Do they have good reviews (especially on Google)? Check out their websites and social media pages to see what people are saying about them. Are they as passionate about their business as you are? Will they reciprocate business and refer back to you? Do they, or will they, exceed their guests’ expectations? Is their team dressed professionally? Remember, their experience can be a direct impression of yours.

“We strive to always exceed the competition and partnering with Elegant Limousines is taking our experiences to the next level. We’re so excited to bring this level of service to our guests.”

For a taste of a few of the possible games:

  • Escape the Black Jewel pirate ship, where you begin the game shackled to the brig in a dimly lit room, before Captain Blackerby returns to make you walk the plank.
  • Become thieves hired by a retired art hustler to acquire a priceless item in an exhibit.
  • Stop the infamous Dalton gang from robbing the banks in Coffeyville, Kansas in a western saloon as lawmen
  • Become local townspeople investigating the disturbances occurring within a cemetery-themed room

Related Topics: business partnerships, corporate business, customer service, group transportation, LCTFast40, luxury vans, Millennials, retail markets, shuttle vans, Sprinter

Lexi Tucker Senior Editor
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