Escape rooms blossom, but need to evolve beyond a fad to stay alive.

What happened

  • Escape rooms—curated sets where visitors are trapped and must solve puzzles to chart their “escape”—grew from about 24 locations in the U.S. in 2014 to more than 2,300 in 2018. Attracting anyone from teenagers and puzzle aficionados to corporate teams, escape rooms often charge $30 a head.
  • Though the trend began in Japan and Hungary, escape rooms have since come to the U.S. What began as a small business opportunity has since morphed into companies like Puzzle Break, which operates four locations in three cities, as well as escape rooms on Royal Caribbean cruise liners.

Why it matters

  • Back in 2015, when escape room growth peaked, media painted the phenomenon as a scrappy way to “get rich quick”—in truth, some entrepreneurs created their own escape rooms with investments as low as $7,000. But this picture ignores the fact that establishing an escape room—a hybrid of entertainment, theme parks, mental games, team-building activities and retail—requires expertise. When done correctly, these aspects make escape rooms a solid investment in the experience economy—like a stage set, they are designed and decorated to immerse visitors in a foreign environment.
  • For entrepreneurs, escape rooms are a way to sweep up cheap real estate—from former insurance agencies to malls and hospitals—and convert these spaces into anything from a fantastical dungeon to a futuristic laser maze. While there is a huge value proposition in infusing vacant real estate with attractive new opportunities for consumers, turning the escape room phenomenon from a passing fad to a regular retail experience, requires finding ways to evolve the narratives at each location—once a visitor solves the puzzle, what will make her come back again? How can entrepreneurs redesign their space over time? How can they provide a different experience for kids versus corporate teams? What special expertise can they bring to make their escape room stand out? Finding answers to these questions will cement the phenomenon as a long-term destination rather than just a one-time experience.