By Sara Hodon
At first glance, escape rooms and haunted attractions appear to have little in common. But look closer and one important common trait is clear—both provide guests with the opportunity to step out of their everyday lives and visit a completely different reality. Both attractions draw core groups of loyal fans, but owners interviewed for this article said even guests with a passing interest in solving puzzles (the basis of escape rooms) or being scared will not be disappointed. It’s the thrill of the unexpected that keeps guests coming back, which means owners have to constantly come up with new ways to thrill and delight those guests.
“This industry is always reinventing,” said Ben Armstrong, co-owner of Netherworld in Stone Mountain, Ga., a haunted attraction celebrating its 23rd season in 2019. “It seems that owners are always adding more and more things for people to do. So it’s becoming almost like a theme park model—there’s food, gift shops, and other revenue generators. At our haunt we have a midway, so people can go in one attraction, come out, walk through the midway, visit another attraction. …We have tons of monsters walking around, and lots of photo ops. People can expect several hours of fun. The haunts have gotten much more elaborate.”
Guests are more sophisticated and selective when it comes to entertainment, meaning owners and operators of any kind of attraction must keep raising the standard within their own venues. Ryan Hnat, co-owner of Electric City Escape in Scranton, Pa., said although the escape room attractions are relatively new (they burst on the scene less than a decade ago), he is already seeing some owners struggle or close their doors completely because they grew complacent. “I’ve seen many who started in the last four to six years close because the rooms were not kept up or changed,” he said. “We put many hours into our business—actually many more than we expected.”
Electric City Escape opened in May 2016, and Hnat said his team works hard to keep the rooms interesting and challenging for guests, as well as to partner with other like-minded businesses and groups within the city of Scranton to attract more visitors to the city. “Scranton is a great city to come and visit,” he said. “It’s a good day trip. Our business is tied very closely to tourism, so we’re working with the city’s tourism bureau to draw people in. We actually see the highest numbers of local customers in the winter, because people don’t want to go too far but they want to get out of the house, so they come to us.”
Rick George, managing partner of Doldrick’s Escape Room in Kissimmee, Fla., said they have stiff competition for visitors’ attention and spending dollars, and they realize the importance of offering guests an unforgettable experience. “Our guests are expecting to be wowed,” he said. “Here in the Orlando area, there’s a huge number of fantastic attractions. If we don’t keep up a certain standard, our guests won’t enjoy themselves—especially the ones who are visiting the major theme parks while they’re here. They’re expecting fully immersive experiences, and that’s what we’re giving them.” Like Hnat, George said he’s seeing companies who have only been open for a few years close their doors due to competition from larger entities; fortunately, he added, Doldrick’s is still seeing new players all the time. “Escape rooms are now commonplace in mainstream media and that has definitely helped. A huge portion of our guests are first-time players and we absolutely love seeing that. There’s a lot of talk of VR, or virtual reality. A few people are really trying to push VR in escape rooms. I see it a lot amongst owners. [My] opinion though, is that it’s really hard to beat getting away from your screen and being in the physical space with your friends. I personally have had some great VR experiences, but it’s nowhere near as satisfying as seeing the look on your friends’ faces when a secret passageway opens or some other surprise happens—something real that you can see and touch,” he adds. Brand recognition is another trend George is noticing. “Typically, guests are choosing a venue based on the game. But more and more we’re starting to see brand recognition, which is great. Escape rooms have been very brand-agnostic for awhile. Now, you have venues like ours which offer private games at no charge, and one game master per game, always.”
Chris Bailey, co-owner of Smoky Mountain Escape Games in Pigeon Forge, Tenn., said although his escape room has been open for over a year (they opened their doors at the end of May, 2018), he and his co-owner wife are still working with their team to figure out what’s next for them. “We have a lot of ideas. Right now, we’re trying to create this psycho killer clown game, and another one with a moonshine theme. Moonshining has a long history in our part of the world (Appalachia), and the state recently approved [the sale] of moonshine, which is not moonshine at all, but they slapped the name on it. But anything with moonshine is popular in this area. It brings people to this area in droves, so we’re tapping into that.” Bailey said he’s found visitors prefer a more interactive approach to the escape room experience. “We like to let the customer figure out the mystery on their own. A lot of the time we give them a tool to help them figure it out, and they seem to like that,” he said.
Hnat said he and his team are also trying to determine what’s next for Electric City Escape. “We’re working on a new room tied in to the Legend of Luna Park, which is a local legend,” he explained. “We’re also looking at other locations and considering branching out to a second location. The technology and layouts of the rooms are getting better. We just want to give our customers the best experience possible,” he said. George said he and his team are completely hands-on with the business, and they are passionate about everything they do. “We do everything in-house, from graphics, building, designing, media, voice-overs, you name it. It takes us a long time to do it, some will say too long! For us, we’re simply doing what we love: we’re designing and making great games,” he said, adding, “We have room for six fully installed games and space for a mini game. We’re about halfway through filling out our venue with games. When we finish building out, we’ll see which way the wind is blowing. We are having a blast doing what we love to do, so we’ll have to see when we get there!”
Armstrong said these “niche” attractions, particularly haunts, are a careful balance of original and new. “I think you have to give customers what they want, and what you want,” he explained. “They want to be scared. You want to keep the spirit of the original but also reinvent. I kind of compare it to a movie sequel. You have to keep it fresh, but not go too far from how it started.” With so many entertainment options available (both in- and out-of-home) and customers who are more sophisticated than ever, the challenge to catch and retain guests’ business is very real. “Customers want more,” Armstrong said. “Everyone is savvy. Just the basics aren’t good enough. They want an experience—you have to give them a full show.” And customers are not shy about sharing their experiences. Word-of-mouth advertising has always been a key driver for business; now it’s online reviews that can really set a business apart. “We have over 500 reviews on TripAdvisor, and only four are 4-star reviews,” Bailey said. “We thought we knew our customer demographic, but we get people from age 8 to 80. We thought we’d mostly see teenagers, but we see teenagers who bring in their grandparents because they’re on vacation. It doesn’t matter the age—the customers are impressed and have a great time when they’re here.”
Escape rooms and haunted attractions allow customers to suspend reality for a few hours, but a savvy customer base and competition from other attractions means owners must continue to reinvent their brands to keep customers coming back, while still remaining true to their original concept.