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There’s no escape: what brands can learn from the escape room experience

Disclaimer: I’ve never been to an escape room, but just about everyone else I know has. And I’m hard pressed to find a typical escape room customer.

Traditional gamers go to escape rooms, but they are not the only ones addicted to the adrenaline rush of solving a puzzle under a time crunch. Parents bring their kids. Millennials are addicted. Corporate teams attempt to break out of escape rooms alongside couples on date night. Old people go, young people go, and so does everyone else in-between.

But why?

The experiences are endless

Initially based on popular video games, escape rooms are interactive live experiences combining theater and gameplay. They’re a convergence between economic value progression and the appetite for new and increasingly immersive technology. Escape rooms are one of the latest iterations of “experiences,” where consumers prefer to spend money on creating memories, rather than passively consuming products.

"The appetite for experiences has grown beyond just going traveling," said Sheena Patel, a producer for Time Run in London, in a CNBC interview. "People do take pleasure in sharing something new with their friends that perhaps they haven't experienced as yet and I think memories are being given a lot more value."

Patel is on to something. Escape rooms give people an opportunity to experience something new, with both loved ones and strangers, in a completely foreign environment, yet still in the safety of their own city or neighborhood. It’s an experience without inconvenience.

Escape rooms give people an opportunity to experience something new, with both loved ones and strangers, in a completely foreign environment, yet still in the safety of their own city or neighborhood.

The development of economics and customer expectations

Back in 1998, the Harvard Business Review (HBR) predicted the quick-coming importance of the experience economy. The progression of economic value demanded that “From now on, leading-edge companies—whether they sell to consumers or businesses—will find that the next competitive battleground lies in staging experiences.” While HBR’s soothsaying was correct, it’s unlikely they could have imaged how technology would aid in building experiences. The boom of technology companies and the birth of Silicon Valley alongside developments in virtual reality and live gaming created a perfect storm of opportunities for businesses to engage with customers on another level. Or many levels as the case or game may be.

Escape into the perfect experience

Japan, which is often on the forefront of new tech developments, is credited with having the first escape room—“Real Escape Game.” SCRAP Entertainment created the room in 2007, but it took five years for the phenomenon to come to the U.S. While initially marketed to the gaming community, escape rooms quickly developed into a seriously profitable business enticing the gamut of customers.

How? Well, not all escape rooms descend from Japanese entertainment culture, or even from video games. Many are based on different communities and widespread interests—live-action role-playing (think Dungeons and Dragons), adventure game shows, movies, interactive theater, and haunted houses. Regardless of theme, every one of these stages shares the elements of reality, interactivity, and impressiveness. Escape rooms are simply the next step in interactivity. People don’t want to watch the excitement happen around them; they want a piece of it for themselves. And like board games, video games, and interactive theater, there is a flavor out there for everyone.

Escape rooms are simply the next step in interactivity. People don’t want to watch the excitement happen around them; they want a piece of it for themselves.

Delivering on customer value across the board

Nate Martin, the owner of Puzzle Break in Seattle and a renowned expert on escape rooms, began with one room in 2013, and now has four in Seattle, one in Long Island, and rooms on several Royal Caribbean cruises.

When asked about his target audience, Martin said, “There's no average Escaper customer. They range from the very young to the very old, from the very tech-savvy to the very tech-unsavvy. People who love games, people who don't know that they love games. It's really all over the place."

Martin's company, like many others in the industry, develops each room with a different theme. And Puzzle Break, as its name suggests, is all about puzzles.

How can other industries How can retail, travel, tech, or service find the sweet spot of a great experience?

Make it memorable. Is it something that your customers are talking about and sharing with their friends after it happened. How long after?

Pick a theme. Otherwise, you'll lose your customers in what you're trying to accomplish. While not everyone is a fan, restaurants like Hard Rock Café have nailed their theme (and arguably the memorable factor).

Choose active or passive participation. Escape rooms are active customer involvement, but some brands might do better to design an environment that focuses more on eliciting certain emotions and behaviors. For example, sitting in a spa waiting room requires passive participation, but building fountains, using soft lighting, these are all ways of creating a brand experience.

Eliminate negative cues. Eliminate anything that diminishes, contradicts, or distracts from the theme.

Engage as many senses as you can. The more senses that are pulled into the moment, the more likely customers will remember your brand and have more to call on when they review and discuss their experience later on. You want to give them an experience to tweet about.

When one experience is not like the other

There is one fundamental challenge with the escape room experience: no two experiences are identical. “… no two people can have the same experience,” says the HBR article. “Because each experience derives from the interaction between the staged event (like a theatrical play) and the individual's state of mind.”

There is one fundamental challenge with the escape room experience: no two experiences are identical.

If every guest's experience of an escape room is subjective, how are customer satisfaction and value measured? The answer lies in not banking on your customers having a specific experience, but rather that whatever their experience they come away with a particular idea or emotional response to the room. This applies to brands, services, and products as well.

"It requires some amount of knowledge around what you are trying to be, or your target audience,” says Martin. “There are companies out there that focus exclusively on tourists. And while it's helpful to get very, very experienced puzzle enthusiast player feedback, you also have to have a certain lens through which to view that feedback."

There’s no escape

The immediacy of feedback is another element that Martin highlights as majorly helpful. It’s something that’s more common among experienced-based businesses. Whether it’s good or bad, customers want to talk about it right after it ends, which is something companies can capitalize on for design development.

Martin notes that customers can barely keep their thoughts in after completing a room. And there’s much to be gleaned from the seemingly casual conversation. "Oh, remember when you solved that, and we figured that out?" Customer comments can provide valuable insights into the enjoyment and flow of a player experience.

Escape rooms are also a valuable landscape for team-building. Corporate clients make up a significant segment of Puzzle Break’s customer base, and Martin and his colleagues are working on ways to make their rooms even more beneficial to these customers. Company leaders and CEOs receive reports and analyses—completion time, skill, comprehension, team dynamics—to show how a team performs. Escape rooms can be an alternative snapshot of team strength, providing a much more entertaining (and firsthand)

Rachel Henry is a freelance writer and editor based in Chicago. She's a firm believer in having chocolate every day and is an avid reader of just about anything. Find her on LinkedIn.