Escape from Delaware: the rise of puzzle rooms

By Dan Linehan
Special to Delaware Business Times

Escape rooms — timed games in which players work together to solve puzzles and find the key to a locked room — have obvious business advantages: little inventory, simple accounting and scalable start-up costs.
But reputation is everything in group entertainment, and a good experience can make the difference between a glowing review and a vocal critic.

The proprietors of Delaware’s two largest escape room companies combine a love for the game with a commitment to user experience and getting happy customers to spread the word.

Fan to owner

Bill Wright first experienced an escape room in Toronto during a business trip in early 2015, he said, when there were only about a dozen such businesses in the United States.

His company, Axxiom Escape Rooms, opened its first location in Newark later that year, but not without some growing pains.

“We were the first in Delaware, so people didn’t understand us,” Wright said.

The first location was accidentally allowed to open in a building zoned for office uses. The forced move to a nearby location was a setback — though Wright doesn’t blame regulators trying to grapple with something new.

Alex Nasser, who owns Great Escape Delaware, took a similar path from fan to owner.

“We did some research and noticed that more were popping up but they hadn’t quite hit the smaller markets yet,” he said. He found space in a Newark shopping center in early 2016 and started designing the rooms.

Cultivating an experience

Positive and numerous online reviews are critical, and Wright said his staff will sometimes ask customers to review their experience. But there’s a fine line, he added, between asking for a review and pestering a customer.

“Sure, we’d always like more reviews, but we’re not going to have our people focus on that,” he said.

Austin Reed, a Wilmington resident and escape room fan who’s played about 25 in the Delaware Valley, said a creative puzzle is important but “half of the experience comes from customer service.”

Unlike many other escape rooms, Great Escape and Axxiom only book private groups. Mixing strangers together can lead to more revenue for a business but at the potential tradeoff of a worse experience.

“Maybe one of the people in the room is a Debbie downer, and ruins it for everyone else,” Nasser said.

At other times, squeezing more people in a room than the puzzles can reasonably entertain is a recipe for boredom.

“The public model will always make more money over the private model,” he said, but squeezing all the revenue out of a room in the short term can be at odds with long-term growth.

Wendy Johns, assistant principal at Carrcroft Elementary School, has gone through a few escape rooms as team-building exercises. She said not being mixed in with strangers helps the team communicate more effectively.

“The true qualities of a person come out,” she said. “You’ll quickly see who the Type A personalities are. They want to quickly take charge and they tend to only see what’s in front of them.”

Misconceptions and mishaps

As might be expected for a new concept, some misconceptions keep potential players away from escape rooms. First, it’s not a horror show.

“Everybody thinks it’s super-duper scary like ‘Saw,’” the survival horror movie franchise, Nasser said.

Some rooms, like “Walkers” at Great Escape Delaware, do have a survival horror theme. In this room, one person begins locked in a cage and the other person handcuffed to a pipe. Job No. 1 is to find a code to free the caged person and then a key to release the cuffs.

Regardless of the setting, some players go too far in the pursuit of a clue.

“We’ve had people rip wires, and one person punched a hole in the ceiling tiles,” Nasser said. “He thought something was up there, even though we specifically told them there wasn’t.”

Innovating to survive

Just as players feel the need to be creative solving puzzles, escape room owners are also thinking up new ways to attract new customers and repeat business.

It’s worth asking if escape rooms are just a fad, destined to fade away in favor of the next trend in group entertainment.

One way to break the mold is to have short-term, or “pop-up,” escape rooms. Nasser has nearly finished building a temporary escape room in Christiana Mall that will be up for about a year.

After trying most of the escape rooms in this region, Reed decided to create of his own. His mobile pop-up room is now housed in an Arden antique store called the Oddporium.

But while it’s important to keep games fresh, Reed wonders if escape rooms will need to constantly change. Maybe they’ll have staying power just the way they are.

“While a company that opens a dumb escape room won’t survive, the ones who stick around will have a unique theme, good service and will seek to improve their experience.”

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