Definition of enthusiast
a : one who is ardently attached to a cause, object, or pursuit
b : one who tends to become ardently absorbed in an interest
How many escape rooms must one have played to be an “enthusiast”? That’s a chicken or the egg situation and we’ll never agree on that. Let’s call it an experienced player… oh great, now we have to define experienced with a number. Let's get away from putting a number on it and see if it even matters.
If you are already an owner, you have most likely seen a group come in as newbies, fight to get through a room, come back and play another room and be significantly better. You have seen this happen right? We’ve seen it quite a bit and it’s one of my favorite things to watch, it’s like teaching your baby bird to fly. You kick em out of the nest and…
Not too long ago I happened to get locked in a room with 11 other owners from all over the country. It took about 10 minutes to figure out that apparently only four of us knew how to play an escape room. Now I’m not talking about some super secret advanced level of escape room playing. I’m talking about making very basic connections, A goes with B, this is what you do to figure the code for that etc. It really blew my mind. It was like we were playing a zombie room and we were outnumbered by zombies. Now maybe one or two of them just hung back because they don’t have that jump into a group of strangers and get to work trait. Maybe it was because they are newer owners and this room had mind blowing scenic. I mean I was distracted for the first five minutes of the game just checking out the set design, a 12 out of 10 for sure. If that was the deal, at best, or worst depending on you perspective, at least half the owners had no clue what to do. Did I mention this kind of thing shocks me?
Having many discussions with other owners and “enthusiasts” one thing that I continually find shocking is the owner of Escape Room ABC isn’t an enthusiast. Even more shocking to me, is that number of owners who aren't "enthusiasts" seems to be around half?
A few of the things I’ve encountered recently include:
The owner of Escape XYZ, when asked by guests about escape room experiences at other places, tells customers, “I don’t play escape rooms cause I prefer to run them.” Are you serious? I don’t even know what to say to that. What’s the point of even sharing that information with your guests? Why are you in this business? Aside from those questions, running a room can be quite fun but after you’ve done it a few hundred times it can become a bit monotonous. There’s the occasional group who is super high energy and does a few things that crack you up but come on! A good escape room is ten times more fun to play than it is to run.
Standing in the lobby of Escape 123 chatting with the owners, we end up on the subject of how many games they’ve played… wait for it… eight! Yes, those owners have played eight escape rooms in their life, the best part, three of them were the games at their escape room! So really they’ve played five, you can’t play your own game!
I have quite a few stories just like these and if I had to guess, based on my discussions, I would put the average number of games played by escape room owners at less than ten!
Who cares? I do and I think you should to. Here’s why.
Over the past year or so I’ve come to the realization that there are two types of owners. “Enthusiasts” and “Others”. If you’re in this game and it’s not because you love this game, why are you here having people play this game? The almighty dollar that’s why. Now who doesn’t like President Jackson, I know I do and believe me I thought I would have met more of his twins than I have but that’s not the reason we opened Escape FLA in Largo. We love escape rooms, we design and build our rooms, in the limited free time we have, we go play escape rooms. If we were only in it for the money, we would have done left already.
As we don’t fall into the “Others” group I can only assume their major motivation is money and as I said, nothing wrong with money. Here’s what I’ve observed of the “Others”.
They have no idea what’s going on in our business so they buy game designs. Is this all bad, no it’s not. Are a lot of them bad, oh yes they are. Now if you’re a huge escape room fan maybe you buy a design to get a baseline and you learn from there. The next room you design yourself, and make it better, no problem. Maybe you’re opening with X number of rooms and you just don’t have the time or the ideas to get that final room designed in time, fine. It’s not you I’m thinking of.
Are there good room designs out there to be bought, of course. Is the market flooded with designs that are total garbage, oh yes it is. Are many of them the same as they were five years ago before ER’s began evolving, you betcha. Some of those were really good five years ago, some were terrible back then, only a handful would still be considered good today.
To those of you who thought, Oh I’m gonna open an escape room and they will have to back the armored car up to my door to deliver all my money. What website can I go to and blindly buy room designs? That truck won’t be coming any time soon, for the majority of the “Others” at least.
Having a great escape room requires a real passion and not a passion for money, a passion for escape rooms. If you don’t have that, you don’t have any business being in this business. You’ll be added to the long list of ER’s that sold/closed as soon as their lease was up.
How does that affect me you ask. You might even be thinking this is great for me, I have passion and our rooms are awesome. If their rooms suck, I will get all the customers. Think about this, if you haven’t already, it kills your/our customer base. It devalues your/our product. It hurts you/us in the long term.
If the owner doesn’t have their finger on the pulse of this industry, they are going to be left behind and the rest of us will get screwed in the process. The only way to really know what is going on in ER World is to be out in ER World. That doesn’t mean reading every post on the Start Up Group or the Tech Group or the Owners Group. You have to be out there to see what’s out there. To see how trends are changing. To see the evolution that’s rapidly occurring.
So what is it that occurs at the “Others” businesses, well not much, and that’s the problem. They hit the thrift store, use whatever is available to “build” the designs they have purchased and wait for the money truck. The truck does come but it’s off load is much smaller than they anticipated so now costs have to be cut. They jump on Groupon cause the rep said they’d make a bunch of money and get loyal customers… bahahahah! They can’t afford enough staff to have one game master per room so they have one minimum wage teenager run front of house and GM multiple rooms at once! They now don’t care any longer so they don’t have the resources and/or desire to keep their rooms operating correctly or do general upkeep. All the while, a whole crop of virgin escape room players have been subjected to terrible customer service, a junk game design, things that don’t work and puzzles that don’t make any sense. Thanks a lot “Others”, a decent percentage of the people who’ve walked through your door will most likely never play again.
Our escape rooms in Largo at Escape FLA, they were designed and built by us. It may seem like I’m beating up on those who buy game designs and that’s not totally true. As I said, if you do your homework, there are a few good ones to be found. I would hope that if you do buy a design or two, you make them your own. Then you use the experience gained to design your next room from scratch. However the common thread here is the “Others” and their extremely limited knowledge of our industry all seem to buy their games because, well, they seem to have no choice. I would argue they do have a choice. Choose to open a business in something you actually have a passion for, whatever that is.
One last thing to you “Others” out there. If you buy your rooms, fine. But be honest about the fact that you buy your rooms. Don’t change the names just a little bit so customers wouldn’t know you had the same room as a place 100 miles away. There is a new escape in our area and on their website it’s very obvious to those who know escape rooms that they have purchased the rooms designs. That design companies logo is right on the teaser poster for each room so kudos to them for being honest. That's the way it should be.
And the greatest of all sins, in this realm at least. Don’t explicitly lie to other owners when they ask you if you design and build your own rooms and if you’re going to lie, you best make very certain that the company who sold you the design and came and did the build out for you doesn’t use photos taken at your location on their design website...
If you're about to get into this business, please take this into account. It's no longer a "quick buck" business. If that's what you're doing it for, do something else...
Ryan and Jen,
Escape FLA Escape Rooms