Escaping the Everyday
The Changing Escape Room Business

It’s a brave new world for escape rooms, with new approaches and new challenges due to the pandemic. For this article, owners and staff members from five businesses provided a look at the current escape experience.
At Alaska Escape Rooms in Anchorage, Alaska, Owner Graeme Deishl said both the escape room business in general and his own venue have experienced quite a few changes due to the pandemic. However, he feels somewhat sanguine about them, personally. “The escape room market in general always has to reinvent itself, and constantly push the envelope of creativity to create new experiences to engage all guests. The pandemic has been a catalyst for that and allowed us to think about things we had never considered before,” he enthused. “Those ways now include thinking about the escape room experience not just within the walls of the venue, but citywide for us, using video overlays, taking the experience to them on different platforms and interactive web assemblies. There are many different ways to spread out the adventure and help everyone, we’ve found. So, we are looking past our four walls.”

Guests Soon Jung and Bradie Armstrong looking at escape room props that will help them solve a puzzle at a Swell Spark location. With headquarters in Kansas City, Mo., the company operates escape rooms in Nebraska, Kansas City and Hawaii. In response to the pandemic, in March, 2020, the company shifted its location experiences to private bookings.

According to Deishl, larger escape rooms are a good idea for social distancing, but not every venue can create them. “Larger rooms are important for distancing, but also for the experience. Ours are among the biggest in the state which is a good thing because it is more of an immersive experience, allowing guests to have a deeper experience as they try to unravel all the clues, and letting move more freely.”
As to masks and cleaning procedures, Deishl related, “We have talked a lot about that, about what is America going to look like, what will we look like, and I am not sure. One thing I hadn’t thought about before the pandemic were things like UVC cleaning lights which we are now invested in, as well as lots of longer-term cleaning agents that we can now include in our process. In general, we put a lot of time and research and investment in that has helped us come up with more cleaning methods, which are going to be permanent for us certainly. UVC lights are wonderful, especially for us because it allows us to effectively sterilize three dimensional objects.”
In Conway, Ark., Cheryl Atkinson, owner of Escape Mystery Rooms, explained that the main pandemic change she sees in the escape room business is smaller groups of participants. “For me, we are getting more couples and smaller family groups coming in versus before the pandemic, when we could get say a group of six couples coming in together to play. We don’t see that anymore.” She feels strongly that the trend toward smaller groups will continue.

Blackbirds are central to this escape room element at Alaska Escape Rooms. UVC lights allow the attraction to sanitize three-dimensional objects. Photo by Adam Blaum.

As to room size, she noted, “We don’t have the luxury or space to build bigger rooms. In fact, we are in the process of building one smaller room that is actually designed for just two people to play. Some of our rooms are rather large for just two or three people to work the clues, because they were designed originally for larger groups.”
Atkinson noted that while masks are required now, “If the CDC and our local government will release us from that, we won’t continue.” Cleaning on the other hand will stay as is – but then it has always been a part of the operations for the venue. “My husband is a bit OCD on germs, so we have always had a massive cleaning ritual in place even before the pandemic, using Lysol and Clorox wipes. So, when the cleaning guidelines came in, that was nothing new for us. We didn’t need to change much there, and we won’t in the future.”

Of Alaska Escape Rooms in Anchorage, Alaska, from left to right: Alyna Deishl, manager; John Will, operations engineer; Vaughn Brazil, head volunteer; and Aimie Morgan, electrical engineer. Longer-term cleaning agents are now being used at the center. Photo by Adam Blaum.

Elsewhere in Arkansas, at Mastermind Escape the Room Game in Little Rock, Manager Alex Elkins said the increased sanitation has been the biggest change for her escape room and industry-wide. “We have doubled down on our sanitation policy since the pandemic. We sanitize after every game, the players have hand sanitizer going in, and we adhere to more social distancing. None of that is so drastic a change, really.” There is one other change that she said she sees throughout the industry: less players are coming in overall.

A view of a room at Alaska Escape Rooms. The business has been named among the top 100 escape rooms in the United States. Photo by Adam Blaum.

Elkins said that while the venue is somewhat limited as to adding more space, instead of expanding a room size, they are limiting the number of people allowed in the escape rooms. “We will not allow any group over 10, but we suggest that a group be less than that.” Masking is required in the Mastermind Escape the Room lobby, but once players are in their own room, it’s encouraged but optional, she said. “I can’t speak for the entire company, but I think we should continue masks in the future. They do more good than bad.” As to cleaning protocols, Elkins described them as “very thorough. Anything a guest could potentially touch we disinfect thoroughly. It’s always better to be safe than sorry.”

Alaska Escape Rooms Actor Eddie Parker. The attraction’s rooms are among the largest in the state, and allow guests an immersive experience. Photo by Adam Blaum.

Maggie Jones, owner of Isolvu Escape Room in Evanston, Wyo., said online-escape-room play is the largest addition to the game room experience. “The need for social distancing, and so many people staying at home, encouraged a move to an online platform,” she reported. “The idea arose from restaurants having the ability to do take out or delivery. We are a very physical activity, so you have to be here to play, but some facilities found a way to convert to playing online. So, we did, too.” She explained how the system works: “Our game masters became an avatar for players at home. We Zoom the game, and it is almost as if they were playing in person but from the safety of their homes. The players at home guide their avatars and ask them to search for things or try a combination on the lock just like they would in person – except it is virtual.”
As to whether rooms will be built larger to accommodate social distancing, Jones said she thinks not. “In the escape room world, we have an advantage in that we work by appointment, so we can control the flow of people, limiting any interaction with a different group of players. And I think live streaming opens up the market to the entire world. We have had customers recently from Finland, the U.K., and Germany. They might not have traveled here to play but now they come here while still being at home. It’s great, and for the players, too, it’s pretty neat to say they played a game here in Wyoming when they are in, say, Denmark.”

Manager Alyna Deishl photographed with an escape room element at Alaska Escape Rooms. Technology is enabling the attraction to look beyond its walls in delivering an experience to guests, said Graeme Deishl, the business’ owner. Photo by Adam Blaum.

And in regard to masks, she said in-person players should continue to exercise caution, “since the vaccine isn’t 100% effective, and receiving it is optional, not everyone is getting it. So yes, we would continue masks and social distancing measures. We live in an area where winters are long and that extends regular flu season. We always sanitize as much as we can between groups. We will continue doing that as well as masks, because we don’t want people getting sick when they go to have fun, and just to give our guests that sense of security that we are doing our part to keep them safe.”
With headquarters in Kansas City, Kan., Swell Spark operates four different escape room locations: Get Out in Omaha, Neb., two Break Out Kansas City locations, and Breakout Waikiki in Honolulu, Hawaii. Owner Jessie Poole said the pandemic created changes for the company. “The first thing we did back when the pandemic first started last March was that we shifted our location experiences to private bookings. We used to let people come in and book into another group for a savings or larger group game experiences, but now you have to pick who you want to hang out with before you come in. Our cleaning and sanitizing procedures have also been enhanced,” she noted. “This means a longer duration between games to re-set everything and clean and sanitize. I think a lot of those cleaning steps will be here to stay after pandemic. It never hurts, given what we have learned in the last year.” Poole added, “With masks, we do require them currently and are strict about enforcing the policy, but a post-vaccine world is hard to picture. If mask mandates are loosening, we will look at the best practices for businesses in regard to masks. In the private rooms we’ve shifted to, those individuals who come in together are allowed to wear or not wear masks. But it will be a very long time I imagine before we go back to shared game rooms for people outside their personal group of players.”

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