Once I knew I was going to be part of the Escape Room community, I decided to participate actively with those who shared the same passion we did. I joined a couple of Facebook groups dedicated for owners and enthusiasts to collaborate and grow together.
I wish I would have been more bold asking questions at the beginning. For this particular post I was inspired by a member of the Escape Room Startups (Original) Facebook group I belong to. She was very smart and gave us her personal "to-do checklist". Then the awesome members of the group filled in and gave her suggestions as to what to add to the list. I have compiled my own list taking all of those points into consideration and I am happy to share it with you along with my thoughts on each subject.
Let's jump to it!
1. Business Plan
Did you make it yet? You don't have to have the full plan completely done yet but you should be well on your way. Don't underestimate your mission, vision and values statements. These will help you make decisions through the rest of the process.
2. Location, Location, Location.
One of the members suggested aspiring owners should call the cities they are interested in doing business in and ask about the zoning permits required for Escape Rooms in their territory. Each city is different and some special permits (which could be expensive) may be required in some of them. Make sure that you include these in your initial costs budget.
At this point, you should start looking into potential leasing opportunities. There is a lot to keep in mind. Will you be easy to find? Is the area safe? Is parking accesible? Do you have enough space to build out all the rooms you will be needing? Are there bathrooms in your store? There are many good posts online about what to look for in a leasing space for escape rooms.
This is what you're selling. Once you feel confident that you have chosen the right place for you to share your worlds and quests with, make sure you start looking into the games you will showcase. Your market research will come in handy here (that's part of the business plan). Who is your audience? Make sure you are VERY clear on who you will be marketing to. Not all escape rooms are created equal. For example, some communities will be turned off by zombies, others will never get enough. Some communities are made up of high tourist traffic (like International Drive in Orlando). Some communities are made up of a multitude of corporate traffic (like downtowns in large cities). Who is it that you are building your games for?
As I said in my previous post, experience is key! Games sound great on paper but they need to be field tested to work out the issues that will inevitably arise. If you are not an experienced game designer, I would suggest you at least consult with one. Our team recently met with Partly Wicked, they offer escape room review and design services. Prior to them, we consulted with IT Escape who also create and sell escape games.
Remember your room layouts will be built around your games, so you can't move forward with getting quotes from anybody until you know what you need quoted.
This particular step will be time consuming. You will be frustrated and you will second guess yourself constantly. It's ok, just remember why you chose to get into this industry in the first place. Look back at your mission, vision and values. Which games align themselves best with those three things? Which games will appeal to your target audience the most?
Once you know what games you want to purchase or create, get a written quote from the team that will be bringing these games to life. Get a detailed description of the things you will need and make note of all the components, remember that there are special permits that need to be requested for things like a fog machine (in some areas). You will also need to know where to put things like outlets, lights and secret passage doors.
Make a budget for decor. Michael from Partly Wicked very wisely said to us "magnificent art cannot make a bad game good". Decor is very important, but don't be fooled thinking that decor alone will make your establishment a top seller. Your game flow and puzzles need to be compelling.
OK, so now you know where you want to open, what the requirements for that city will be, and what each of the games you will open with will entail, add all of that information to your initial costs assessment! How's that budget looking now?
Remember budget is key, “suppose one of you wants to build a tower. Won’t you first sit down and estimate the cost to see if you have enough money to complete it? For if you lay the foundation and are not able to finish it, everyone who sees it will ridicule you, saying, ‘This person began to build and wasn’t able to finish.’ " Luke 14: 28-30. This is literally us right now! There were so many little details we didn't know about, that our budget was completely off. Now, we are slowly making our way through the hurdles that arose. I hope that this blog helps minimize the obstacles in your journey.
4. Get a Clue!
So you have your games picked out, hooray! Now think about how you're going to monitor them. You will likely need:
Intercom system (if you will want to be able to communicate verbally with your players from the control room)
Cameras (absolutely necessary to keep track of game progression and clue delivery)
Monitors for the control room
Clue Delivery System
Looking into these things is important because they cost money and their cost will need to be added to your initial cost budget.
5. Lease, Contractors and Fire Requirements: OH MY!
Have you picked your spot yet? Lease negotiation can be a lengthy process. Make sure you don't jump into a contract without understanding it thoroughly. Again, if you are new to this business owning ordeal, it is best if you get a professional in the field to look through the paperwork with you. We worked with Gremley Commercial Real Estate .
A good thing to always look for in any contract is the stipulations regarding "getting out of the contract". What happens if you "want out" after you signed? Make sure you understand the consequences.
While you're negotiating your lease (or before you even start), you should be speaking to an architect or a contractor who has an in house architect. We are working with BiMi Solutions Inc. This is a lengthy process and plans go through changes constantly. We were very confident in our first set of plans, until the contractors came back and bid twice as much as we were originally quoted a few months back. There were fire requirements that had not been taken into consideration originally which drove up our building costs severely. We went back to the drawing board and made some changes. Met with contractors again and they noticed some areas that could be improved in the plan. We have been doing this back and forth for a couple of months.
Keep in mind contractors have plenty of job opportunities these days. Construction is booming and they will take their time getting back to you. Be patient but also assertive.
Once you have plans that you are happy with, a contractor has bid your project in writing and your lease is well on its way, its time to invite the Fire Marshall into the mix.
Each building has a very specific fire sprinkler requirement and only certain companies are authorized to work in your area. You can bring your plans to the authorized company yourself or you can have your contractor do it. We decided to do it ourselves because we wanted to know what the price would be before we chose a contractor. In our particular case the company that is authorized to work in our building is CSG (Commercial Systems Group).
Meet with the City Building Department and double check that there will be no surprise fire requirements and that your place meets the standards of the Americans with Disabilities Act.
Some people even shared that they had "building and fire do a walk through" before signing a lease. Others shared that their project is indefinitely suspended because of fire requirements which rose up their cost so much that they could not move forward. We had a similar scare when we were starting out.
Again, add all of these costs to your budget and adjust accordingly.
7. Other things to consider are:
Payment Collection System
Payroll and Accounting
8. Permission to Launch
The Small Business Association is a great source of information for us: https://www.sba.com/florida/ .
There are several permits we must look into before being able to open, make sure you do the research and find out which ones are required in your area.
Business License and/or Tax Permit
Conditional Use Permit
These may apply to you as a small business owner:
Form DR-1 (Florida)
Like I said before, I am in no way an authority on this subject. The information I have shared is simply a collection of thoughts that I have gathered through this process as a new business owner. The list above is how I wish I would have handled things. Our journey has been less of a straight shot and more of a silly string of a ride. Still we are learning and pushing forward, hoping our hard work pays off. We wish you all the best in your own path!