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Posted Date: 01/11/2016

No Escaping the Escape Room Craze

A concept which started in Japan has become a full-blown craze here in the States. Escape room challenges have been gaining momentum since their first appearance in America in 2012. These immersive attractions require individuals – grouped together either by choice or randomly – to solve a series of problems or clues in order to ea the key that will let them out of a locked room.

“People are looking for a new type of experience,” Doc Preuss, a producer for Real Escape Games, told MarketWatch in July of 2015. Real Escape Games has rooms in San Francisco, New York and, soon, Los Angeles and is run by SCRAP Entertainment Inc., which opened the first escape-game event in Japan in 2007. “It’s cerebral, it’s exciting. The way we design the games, there are these emotional highs. It’s like a roller coaster. It’s addicting.”

By December of 2015, the Escape Room Directory listed 367 registered escape rooms in the U.S. alone (2815 rooms worldwide). There is little question that haunt owners have taken note of the success of these interactive challenges that can take many forms as a simple game, a team-building exercise, or perhaps something more sinister with a darker more frightening theme. “I think a lot of haunts will be tinkering with the escape room,” Sean Norman Wells, owner of Wells Township Haunted House, noted in the Selling Halloween 2015 Industry Report. Wells revealed that he planned on adding a 3D escape zombie challenge to his haunt in 2015.

“Escape games have become so popular the website Tripadvisor was forced to change their search algorithm and create a separate sub-category for the games to allow the city’s more traditional tourist sites and museums a fighting chance,” Leonard Pickel, a themed attraction designer in Orlando, FL, says. Pickel’s company Hauntrepreneurs ( provides consulting and concepts for all kinds of dark attractions including escape rooms.  

Pickel contends that part of the reason for the popularity of escape rooms is the challenge of solving puzzles. “The element of being actively, personally involved in solving the puzzle is crucial,” he says. “Escape rooms allow you to be a protagonist in your own real-life Indiana Jones, James Bond, or MacGyver adventure and give players the opportunity to be the hero of their own story. It’s surprisingly appealing to millennials, who are putting down their smartphones for the interaction of escape rooms.”

While each game has a themed storyline overlay, the experience is not as much about role-playing as it is problem-solving. “We say, ‘We’ll lock you in a room and you hold the key to get out — good luck,’” says CJ  Thomsen of Escape the Place, Colorado Springs’ first escape room, “I think it’s more about that challenge, that they can maybe outsmart someone and escape our puzzle.”

People like to compete, and interact with their environment, explains psychologist Paul Bart, founder of Escape Hunt, a Malaysian company with 21 locations around the world and another 55 planned for this year. “ People got bored with the sedentary and want to interact. This interaction is what makes [escaping a room] extremely addictive.”

The upcoming TransWorld Halloween & Attractions Show (HAAShow; taking place March 17-20 at the America Center in St. Louis, will offer attendees a hub for escape room owners – and prospective owners. “We have seen an explosion of escape rooms opening up in haunted houses, haunted attractions and family fun centers, across the world in the last few years,” Jen Braverman, president, states. “TransWorld plans to open a 15,000 square-foot interactive escape room zone dedicated to the escape room industry.”

Braverman goes on to describe that the show floor will feature live displays, puzzle tech, “off the shelf” games, on-site escape room games that attendees can play, plus educational seminars that teach attendees everything they need to know about escape games.

“There’s a natural connection between haunted houses and escape room games,” says Rich Bianco, vice president of TransWorld. “Our goal over the next few years is to offer a central point for escape game owners to gain knowledge, and find resources and products and for potential escape room owners to lea the industry essentials.”

So what are escape room enthusiasts looking for? “They need practical industry information — things like insurance and booking and how to open a room escape game that will last,” says Elisabeth Garson, founder of Steel Owl LLC, and one of the speakers at the 2016 conference. “Until now, this huge industry has been overlooked.” Garson’s seminar focuses on how to build a top-selling room escape game, with information on developing storylines, integrating user experience, and creating interactive puzzle tech. 

Escape 101: Things to Consider
Leonard Pickel, owner of Hauntrepreneurs, offers some key points for prospective escape room owners.  

Franchising. If you’re thinking of opening a room escape game in your city you may want to consider licensing or franchising the business though an existing escape room company. Each company is different, and the level of support varies greatly, so read the fine print to make sure you are getting the assistance you need at a comparable price.

Advertising. One advantage of an escape room business is that people will search you out. So advertising can be inexpensive. Start by adding your location to the escape room directories. From there you’ll want to list on travel websites and encourage every player to review your game online (plus whatever app is popular in your area). Social media is a great way to share player photos and announce new games to players who have already escaped from your games.

Target Businesses. One opportunity for weekday business is targeting corporate events and team building. Escape room play teaches leadership, teamwork and out-of-the-box thinking and many corporations are keen to develop these characteristics in their employees and management. It can even be used in evaluation of potential hires or to uncover problems in a department.

Be Aware of Challenges. “Today’s escape rooms are about quality of experience,” explains Josh Ford, director of Time Run, “teams go through in small groups and so your business has to run for longer hours at a low capacity to make money.”

The biggest challenge of operating an escape room is “everything breaks,” says Adam Clare who teaches game design at George Brown College and OCADU. He suggests making sure you have a duplicate or triplicates of every prop, clue or item. Forgo extremely unique or expensive set pieces for something that is easy and cheap to replace. “Red herring” props (items placed in the room that have no value to the game, used to complicate the solution) are less of a conce but you’ll still want backups to replace anything that breaks or gets lost. Limit the number of small items. If it is small enough to fit in a pocket, it will disappear, either by accident or for a souvenir.

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