March 2018 //

Escape Room Retail Becomes a Player in the Experience Economy

By Peter Stocker

MG2 anticipates that in the near future a new level of sophistication and professional buildouts will warrant a more commanding presence for this intriguing and inclusive type of experiential retail.

When is the last time you had your family in the same room together with everyone concentrating on a single task – focused, thinking, moving, having fun – without their phones? If it has been awhile, it’s time to embark on a multi-generational, hands-on, low-tech meets high-tech experience that lasts beyond its one hour time limit. It’s memorable; it’s the source of conversation hours after you are done…it’s an Escape Room!

The first Escape Room opened in Tokyo in 2007. In 2014, there were 22 U.S. locations, and the last count I saw in 2017 boasted more than 1,800 rooms. Those who track the growth of Escape Room retail estimate that worldwide there is only 10 percent of the general population that know what the concept is; however, that is changing rapidly.

Still in its infancy, Escape Rooms are tucked away in Class C spaces with cheap rents and locations cloaking the creativity and bootstrap culture hidden within. Most are lightly signed on purpose, and the lobby experience is not much of an experience at all. It is all about the rooms and what lies ahead.

Typically an Escape Room is played by three to seven people as a team. The team is set loose in a room, “locked in” for usually an hour and tasked with solving a theme-based series of puzzles that will help them escape before time runs out. The rooms are most often the invention of the owners who might be a small chain, local and making it work with their own sweat equity. A typical room (you need at least a few) per location can run from several thousand dollars to build up to as much as $50K. These early days of Escape Room retail vary from vintage Doctor Who-level set design to the extraordinary like Steampunk and The Airship room in Moscow.

Looking at Escape Rooms from a retail perspective, there are interesting and sustainable dynamics to consider. The nature of an Escape Room experience is that you will attempt each room only once. This behavior is the reason why each location offers at least two to three rooms per location to extend the visits, extending even further with unique rooms in several locations in the same market. Like a theatre production, the business model calls for newness and planned obsolescence, both of which are consistent with restless consumer behavior. Retailers need to keep bringing newness and creating reasons to visit again and again. This model may seem to be problematic from a cost standpoint but successful Escape Room chains are seeing their build investments returned in months, not years.

From a consumer POV, these decidedly analog experiences speak to a surprising wide demographic, from teens and seniors to heaps of college-aged consumers. The gameplay is fun, fast and involves an array of tasks that allow for different thinkers and problem solvers to be heroic. The best rooms also deploy hidden technology to open doors, trigger new clues from across the room and add to the sense of mystery and unexpected detail in these hour-long adventures.

As the industry matures and expands, the consumer experience is getting more sophisticated. For instance, a new Escape Room opened in Las Vegas based on the SAW movies. The outside is dressed as the original meat packing facility and the interior features a collection of rooms experienced as a series, allowing you to escape the factory itself. Rooms in Europe, and to a small degree here in the U.S., are beginning to channel movie releases and other fan favorites as licensed themes or brand extensions of cinematic properties. As AR and VR gain more traction and applications, the Escape Room industry still sees technology as a utensil, not the experience.

For mall owners, mixed-use and industrial landlords, the Escape Room is an interesting, albeit, low-profile option for the odd and off-traffic leases in the short term. As experiential designers, MG2 anticipates that in the near future a new level of sophistication and professional buildouts will warrant a more commanding presence for this intriguing and inclusive type of experiential retail.

It is a burgeoning industry that is charming and affordable. The real sense of love and care that goes into rooms make them delightful in unexpected ways and, as retail professionals, it’s hard not to appreciate the details and ingenuity that resound in a simple game made thoughtful and fun.

My own experience in an Escape Room earlier this year has opened my eyes to the possibilities of how design can play a role in creating these unique experiences, and I’d love to be able to design my own one day!

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