An escape room is a fun new game that locks players in a room for approximately an hour, and the player’s job is to search for clues and try to escape within that hour. So many people are playing these games and then tell themselves, I can open an escape room, and I can open an even BETTER escape room.
That’s exactly what I did. My name is Janell and I own Exit Strategy Games in Elk Grove, CA. We are an Escape Room business that opened in March 2016. While I do actually love this business I can assure you, I didn’t know what I was signing up for when I started it.
1.) COMPETITION: When I opened in March 2016, a whopping nine and a half months ago, there were a total of 2 other escape room businesses open in and around Sacramento, and 1 known one on the way. Since then, in a short time span of nine and a half months, at least 4 more have opened up, and I know of at least 3 more coming within the next four months. Meaning in a little over a year the landscape of escape rooms will have grown from 3 total escape rooms to at the very least 10 escape room businesses and those are ONLY the ones that are known to me. I’ve had approximately 3-4 different customers tell me that they were going to open one themselves but didn’t give me any information on where or when they were opening. Competition can be great and can drive you to do better things, but beware, by the time you open you’ll be facing a lot of competition.
EDIT: As of July 1, 2017 there are 11 escape rooms open with 3 that are known and on their way by the end of summer, so that will be 14 escape rooms in 1 1/2 years of us opening.
2.) FIRE CODE AND OTHER REGULATORY LAW MIGHT RUIN YOUR VISION: I put my escape room in an old warehouse with 20 foot ceilings. I was going to make my rooms exciting and different. The more rooms I built the crazier it was going to get. I wanted a slide, crawl spaces, maybe even a total immersion experience where players crawled through water, got shocked, ran around in the dark etc. I had big dreams. Except my huge warehouse was not zoned properly. It takes months to get the right permits and the city and fire department are terrified of my vision (well, maybe you are too). That means I have to fight an expensive time consuming uphill battle every time I want to do something out of the norm. Heck, it’s an uphill battle every time I want to do something basic. Therefore, my desire to do something crazy and different has not panned out yet, and I’m limited on differentiating myself among all that competition we spoke about earlier.
3.) EXPENSIVE: I really thought this would be a relatively cheap business to get into. I took out a small credit line against my house and threw together my escape room with blood sweat and tears. The city didn’t like that too much (my fault, I know you won’t do that!). But suddenly I’m paying high permit fees, architect fees, and being told no around every corner of what I could and couldn’t do. I have one employee that works on the weekends in a very non dangerous job, workers comp insurance should be low. Nope, workers comp insurance does not see it that way. Bam, very expensive policy. Oh, you want to lock someone in a room. Bam, very expensive liablity insurance policy. Don’t forget your tax liability on your employee. The costs to continually fix things and reinforce things that people break starts to get high too. That cheap commercial warehouse space I picked out, yeah, it’s not ADA compliant and the AC unit barely works. The landlord will fix it right? Think again. Commercial leasing is 100% opposite from residential leasing. Even though it’s not my building, I have to pay for maintenance like it was. Yes, you’ll be able to avoid some of these pitfalls, but you may have some of your own that you don’t even see coming.
4.) IT’S A REAL BUSINESS WITH REAL BUSINESS ISSUES: This is an Escape Game Business. That means it’s going to be all flowers and puppies right? Happy customers looking to escape your room. Yup, we see that a lot and enjoy it. But don’t forget, if you have an employee you will have to manage that employee. Deal with scheduling and pick up the slack if your staff can’t. If you are doing everything yourself, be prepared to spend long hours working on your business. If you have a business partner, you will be subject to disagreements and possibly legal battles if you can’t see eye to eye (that didn’t happen to me, but it happens in businesses all the time). There’s contracting disputes, tech that breaks, unhappy customers who will leave bad Yelp reviews because they didn’t like the other players in the game (Wait! That’s not my fault) or something else that might not be your fault. The competition can leave you false reviews (yup, got that one removed), and all the time you’ve got to develop a thick skin if people complain about your “baby” you’ve slaved away over. If you can’t pay your rent, what do you do? Personal guarantees on certain leases mean they could come after your house. If you have business partners, who is going to pay for the lawyer to draft the business documents because doing it yourself always causes litigation and heartbreak down the line if things go south. The heaviest hours are usually on the weekends. Are you ready to give up every weekend you have to make this business work? So yes, this is a fun business. But it’s not all flowers and puppies, it’s a legit business that costs money and takes time.
5.) TIME CONSUMING: There’s that infomercial about set it and forget it. You can do that with an escape room, right? Just build it out, have someone run it and sit back and watch the money roll in. Well think again. Don’t forget you need to manage your website, fix all the things that break in your escape room, build out new rooms, negotiate leases, field phone calls on a daily basis about what an escape room is and what it entails, you’ve got to be on top of advertising and SEO at all times. Trying to figure out the best advertising mix and what does and does not work for you. Managing employees. Book phone appointments for people who don’t/can’t do it online. The list goes on and on and on. I never thought I’d spend this much time on this business. Yet I’m still obsessed and I do love it. It’s just not what I expected.
Am I telling you that you shouldn’t open an escape room and you’ll hate every second of it? Of course not! I love this business. But me and several other escape room owners have all said they really don’t know if they’d do it all again if they knew then what they know now. At the end of the day, it’s just not what I expected and it has so many challenges that I’m honestly not sure I can even overcome. For now though, I’m still in love, fighting the good fight and going to keep on trucking until I can truck no more.