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Euphoria, dread and hard work. Backstage of running escape rooms

Euphoria, dread and hard work. Backstage of running escape rooms

Anna Kryśkow |

Have you ever wondered what working in an escape room looks like? Probably a lot of people think - owners build the room, and then sell tickets, let groups in and give hints if necessary. However, this is just the tip of the iceberg. Running an escape room involves many other aspects that players often don't know about.

Hard work or effortless profit?

Remember that owners want to show groups the company at its best - a nicely decorated lobby, a friendly atmosphere, friendly staff and, of course, a polished room. But that takes a lot of effort and often working much longer than 8 hours a day, 4-5 times a week. What don't players know about running an escape room business? What drives owners and employees crazy, what makes them uncomfortable, and what do they love about their job? I asked 4 companies from different countries about it and much more:

Team of Lockhill (Greece)
Wyjście Awaryjne (Poland) - Kamila Gutkowska, manager
The Maze (Israel) - Or Matoki, owner
Crime Runners (Austria) - Lukas Rauscher, owner

and here are their stories.

Anna: What do you think players visiting your company don't know about running escape rooms?

The Maze: I think most of the players coming to play in our escape rooms don't know how much time and effort we put into each and every detail in our room. People often think that one can build an escape room and it will generate money for ages without having to work on it. It is pretty sad because my team and I are working DAILY to keep everything working just like the first day of business.

Lockhill: Lockhill currently has 4 rooms that are interconnected storywise. Each room is a chapter in an ongoing story that connects all rooms together. You can play them individually if you wish but you can also follow the general story by playing them in order. Also, all our rooms can be adjusted to each team to some extent. For example, our "scary" rooms can become less scary if a team wishes so.

Lockhill team

I'm a chicken-hearted person and I don't like to be scared, although there are some rooms that I really want to visit because of the subject matter. The solution? A conversation! Often I take the game master aside to not spoil the rest of the team and ask about the course of the game to mentally prepare myself, talk about my claustrophobia and ask for gentle treatment. As the Lockhill team said - it's often enough to talk about our concerns. The staff will make sure we are comfortable.

Wyjście Awaryjne: Game masters care about players' fun. If we send a hint, it's only because there's a risk of not being able to complete the game. Sometimes we kick ourselves when we send a hint and then the players speed up and finish faster than scheduled. The timing is sometimes very difficult. Not remembering how to put together a given scenario is the hardest part of the job, but just the right timing and the ability to lead the conversation so that players feel like they're having it with a buddy.

Escape room once and today

Anna: Has running an escape room changed over the years? Can you say it's better now? Or was it easier in the beginning?

Wyjście Awaryjne: It has changed dramatically on many levels. On the one hand, new rooms are becoming more technologically advanced, and as a result, it makes it easier for Game Masters to run them (introducing proprietary room programs in Wyjście Awaryjne, for example). Is this better? It certainly eliminates the possibility of mistakes done by the Game Masters and allows them to work more smoothly. Scenarios in which padlocks dominate are definitely less perishable - less chance that electronics will fail, but quid pro quo - it usually takes definitely more time to assemble after a game. However, the more projects behind us, the easier it is to prevent possible failures in these more mechanized escape rooms.

Lockhill: As years go by, escape rooms get more complicated and thus require much better coordination to run a game. I've been in the industry for 8 years now, and I've witnessed the changes over the years. A few years back, things were much simpler but also less awe inspiring. Games now (at least in Greece) are closer to cinematic experiences with special effects, actors and amazing sets and thus offer much more to the players in comparison to 5 years ago.

The Maze: I think it is harder to run an escape room today. I can't say about other countries in the world but right here in Israel, we saw a lot of prices go up on everyday products: Juice bottles, toilet paper, candies, and even plastic cups for the customers to drink from. Also, there was a big decline in players looking for escape rooms over the years. I think 2017 was the best time to open an escape room, Israel had more than 400! But now there are about 200 left, which tells you a lot about the difficulty of owning one today.

Crime Runners: Difficult to see. We’ve been starting in 2015 and most of everyone in this industry was like “Maybe I can do this better and try to do this better” and then of course you realize how much work escape room is. Since we opened we are constantly in a company crysis. It’s crisis after crisis, after crisis for us. It was never easy for us. Couple of months in the last 7 years were like “Oh, cool!”. But it was never a chill moment when we thought “Ok, we can rest”. You know - pandemic, inflation, war. These are not the best things for an industry. I was at a conference a few weeks ago and everyone agreed it’s not easy for them. I think the escape room industry has a lot of future but it changes. It changed in the last years and has to continue changing.

Going Underground escape room. Crime Runners. Credits: Thomas Peintinger

Anna: What impact has the pandemic had on your business? Did the two-year period change anything in running an escape room?

Crime Runners: We were 11 months closed because of lockdowns. Pandemic and inflation changed a lot for us. It was constant to find new channels in marketing. We built two online escape games. We had a real problem to manage to not lose employees and game masters because of covid. Covid affects us - we faced cancellation because customers were getting sick.  What changed? We are much more flexible and we focus on online games. We also don’t plan our future, because the pandemic has taught us not to make plans. We are just doing things. 

Day schedule

Now something that many of you - readers, may be interested in - what does an escape room owner's day look like? I asked the owners if they hire people to help them to run the business, to whom they can delegate some of the responsibilities - game masters, maintenance workers, marketing/advertising specialists, others? What can't they delegate to employees?

Lockhill: Usually, I begin my day by arriving a few hours before opening, in order to fix broken things or improve some mechanisms/puzzles. After that I spend my day creating my new room, which will open in autumn, while my employees run the games. Every escape room runs differently but the common thing in all escape rooms is that they require a vast number of skills. Often it is difficult to find someone who can manage all these skills. Running a game is usually the same over and over again, unless something unexpected happens and depending on what that is, it might be impossible for a game master to handle alone. In my company, I handle the marketing, the maintenance and I do the designing and building of new rooms. When a room is ready, I run it for a few months to check that it runs smoothly, and then assign it to a game master/actors, as I start creating a new room.

Anna: Is it a classic 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., 5 days a week job, or does the owner have to be available at all times?

The Maze: As the owner, I can clearly say this is not a classic day job. I have to be available most of the time in case something goes wrong. It's funny because you never know when something will happen. One time I went to an engagement party for one of my friends, I was all dressed up nice and tidy. About an hour into the party I got a call from one of my employees, he told me that there is a major issue with a very important part of the escape room, and there is a group of players waiting in the lobby to get inside, I had to leave the party and rushed to the place to fix it ASAP. The look on their faces when they saw me get inside with an electric screwdriver and in formal wear was priceless. Luckily I do have a great team that takes very good care of a lot of the problems that may occur, so most of the time I can rest assured that things will be OK or at the very least can wait for the next morning.

Heist Battles escape room, The Maze

Crime Runners: Every day is different for me. I’m not the only escape room worker, and I manage to delegate a lot of work. But some jobs I have to do on my own, like meetings with business partners. When you manage basically you don’t have to do everything. But it was time I worked 90 hours a week. It was really much to do, to get time to work creatively, to build new games, and do new projects. But finding employees is most important and hard work, find people you can trust and you know the company is in safe hands. We had a harsh time in the escape room industry, but now everything is on track so we are not afraid of survival anymore. The company is stable and begins to slowly crawl again. And times come to build our new games.

Anna: Do you think sometimes about normal, regular 9 to 5 work?

Crime Runners: Sometimes I think maybe I should slow down a little bit but on the other hand I like it. I love to create things, I love to do new stuff. I love challenges. 

Expectations vs. reality 

We all know very well that often expectations are quite different than reality turns out to be. Sometimes this means disappointment, but not always! Sometimes life positively surprises.

Anna: Before you set up your business and opened your first room, did you expect what it would be like? Have your expectations turned out to be different from reality?

Lockhill: When I first opened, the escape room industry was very new, and most people didn't know about escape rooms. I was always a gamer, and it was always a dream for me to convert my hobby to my main job and so I was extremely happy when the opportunity presented itself. As it was a whole new industry, there wasn't much info on what exactly to expect but I hoped for the best and I tried to incorporate things in Lockhill, that didn't exist until then, and as years have gone by, people have truly shown their appreciation to us, and that keeps me trying to create new things.

Wyjście Awaryjne: When Wyjście Awaryjne was created, there were not that many escape rooms on the market. Our Cell No. 4, where players are still having fun, was created thanks to inspiration after visiting another scenario. At the time, certainly no one expected what we would be able to experience in a few years - back then a simple UV flashlight was a phenomenal gadget [laugh]. It was certainly a surprise that more complicated solutions did not mean better fun at all, and players did not enjoy padlocks, to which entering the code was another challenge after finding the code. Did expectations fall short of reality? After so much time, I suppose it exceeded expectations!

Nautilus: Podmorska Przygoda escape room, Wyjście Awaryjne

The Maze: My very first escape room was the CUBE, I actually was full of confidence about it because I knew there was no other escape room like it in Israel. And I was right, people loved it so much, it is my oldest room and to this day it is the one that is most familiar with our escape rooms. It keeps getting compliments each and every day and I keep getting happy with every review coming.

What makes me angry is…

We left the unpleasant things to an end. What annoys owners and makes them disappointed? There is a saying “Customer is always right” (in Poland even more cruel - “Our customer - or lord”), which, after many years of working with customers, I honestly dislike and find hurtful. A professional approach to the customer is one thing, but allowing the customer to ignore and disregard the work of many people - is something that everyone should think about.  

Anna: Often people are not aware of their behavior and how it affects others. Is there something about your customers' behavior that is repetitive and upset you? I suspect that booking a room and canceling at the last minute or not coming at all is high on the list of undesirable behavior.

Wyjście Awaryjne: Definitely! In addition, it is worth mentioning the lack of respect for the game masters. Sometimes we are treated only as an obstacle in the way of starting a game. Players do not listen to the rules, after all, everyone always says the same thing... The sad thing is that you often do not see even a shred of interest in what we have to say. If we ask not to use flashlights, it is only because they can crush the fun, for example, by activating one of the puzzles. If we ask not to climb, it's because it might damage the scenery. Unfortunately, sometimes players disregard our requests and hold a grudge when we ask them to comply with our rules.

Going Underground escape room, Crime Runners. Credits: Thomas Peintinger

The Maze: It's funny you asked about bailing at the last minute because it's a very upsetting behavior that somehow we keep seeing again and again. We ask for the player's credit card number when booking a game and if he/she cancels less than 24 hours before the date we charge him/her a cancellation fee. It is not a big amount of money and it is only meant to cover the amount that was lost because of the last-minute cancellation but people can't seem to understand that and often we find ourselves arguing with a customer about it, which makes the whole thing very unpleasant. We even suggest giving them their money back if someone else will come at the same time that they booked instead and this won't always work. But! The bright side is that some of the people can see the problem with their behavior and are very grateful for us trying to find another solution for the problem. To sum it all up, we are here to make people happy, the look on their faces when they get out on time. The cheerfulness with kids that solved a pretty hard puzzle, and the parents that thank us for making their son/daughter's birthday so perfect. I think it's all worth it just for the satisfaction of making them all so happy.

Lockhill: I must admit that it is extremely annoying when people cancel at the last minute, because the game masters and the actors end up waiting for the time to pass without doing anything, until the next game. Also, we should all remember that actors and game masters try their best so that players have the best time and it is quite disappointing when players don't acknowledge that and disrespect them, or are not careful and might hurt them by mistake during the game. On the other hand, when a team shows that they have a good time, during the game, the actors and game masters will also enjoy the game, and try to go beyond to offer even more fun.

W Cieniu Piramid escape room, Wyjście Awaryjne

What is this article for?

Contrary to appearances, the article was written not only to satisfy the curiosity of Escape Buzz readers, but to show that there are people behind every escape room. People who work hard for their success and the satisfaction of the players. The next time you know you can't make it to a scheduled game, call and reschedule or cancel your reservation. If the game master asks you to listen to some rules or warnings, do it - minimize the risk of damaging something in the room. If you don't manage to get out of the room, don't blame the game master - maybe you chose too difficult a room. Escape rooms are great entertainment, but they are also the hard work of many people, which is worth knowing about and appreciating.

Anna Kryśkow

Anna Kryśkow

Editor-in-chief, Writer

Journalist and indologist by profession. Writer, marketer, tarantulas keeper and urbex explorer by heart. In the meantime I’m playing escape rooms and board games, and I wonder how I find time to sleep (still dunno). I was born to write - my favorite forms of expression are extensive articles preceded by a long research, and horror stories (for some it’s the same).

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