It’s no secret that escape games – as a business – operate under the hospitality industry umbrella. Just like a theme park or a restaurant, guest service should always come first, and can on its own drive repeat business. The difference here is where nearly everything else in the hospitality industry can handle massive influxes of crowds, an escape game will, by its very nature, always be a very limited capacity event. It really should go without saying that when your attendance is inherently locked at a much lower number, your service standards should be consistently high for each of those guests to really ensure they not only return for your next game, but help grow your social presence through their word of mouth.
It really should go without saying that. But yet, here we are.
I’d like to draw attention to a disservice many venues create for their guests on a daily basis. The thing is, frankly, most won’t have even recognized what they’re doing is a disservice until seeing it pointed out here. Let’s talk about clues in games.
I suppose we should start with the definition of what a clue is – though you probably already know. Escape games are still a new genre to in the United States. On a daily basis, people experience their very first taste of the industry we all share such a passion for. Try to think back to the first game that you played – or, perhaps more specifically to before the first game that you played. Think about when you heard about your first game; maybe it was from a friend, or maybe you saw it on Yelp – or maybe you even just happened upon one somewhere in your travels. Remember what went through your head? I bet it was something like this:
“That sounds like so much fun! I should check it out! Ohhh, but what if I’m not smart enough to do it? What if I can’t solve the puzzles? What if I can’t get out? But I really want to see how this works! But I don’t want to make myself look silly if I’m not smart enough.“
Sound familiar? I bet it does. I think that’s probably what went through all of our heads when we first contemplated taking that leap into the proverbial unknown, right before becoming completely hooked. So what soothed those concerns? I’ll bet it was finding out that if you get stuck, you can always just ask for a clue.
Clues are the lifeblood of this industry. They’re the defining sense of confidence in a newer player. They’re the guiding hand that makes a novice an enthusiast. They’re the direct connection to guest service within a game, and to many guests they literally define the gameplay experience. Unfortunately more often than not, they can define it more negatively than positively.
I want to pause for a moment and be clear – this is not to say that all escape game venues are bad at guest service; in fact it’s not even to say most are bad at guest service. To the contrary, the point we’re making is that most don’t even realize some of the things they do with innocent intentions every day can be perceived as bad guest service.
Let’s start with the obvious points. Sometimes an employee is just bad. No one will dispute that a lobby host should greet each guest with a smile and check them in efficiently with a pleasant demeanor. I think we can all agree that if you walk into a venue and find the host texting their friends or engaged in personal conversation with a co-worker rather than greeting you, that is a disciplinary issue that needs to be addressed by the manager / owner as soon as possible. But not every guest service issue will always be so black and white.
In a world where your guests are literally paying you by the minute, each and every second counts.
There’s nothing worse than asking for a hint and then standing around waiting for the next ninety seconds while the game master types it out to display on the monitor. Think about how quickly that time can add up over the course of a few hints. That’s vital minutes of a game your guests paid for that they literally just threw away. And to that guest – those minutes feel like small infinities. We’ve all been there. We all know how impossibly frustrating it can be.
“Are they going to answer me? Do they know I need help? Are they even paying attention?”
This problem has an easy solution: microphones and speakers. If your room isn’t mic’d, do it tomorrow. It’s vital to the success of your business. That’s step one. Step two is moving completely away from typed hints, forever. A game master is as much a concierge as a monitor. Take advantage of your in-room mic and speakers and have every interaction be a live interaction that further enforces the guest is the most important thing going on. It allows instant, real time conversations that also instantly eliminate that “are they paying attention?” concern – while also making for an easier and more comfortable clue experience for the guests.
Do you like talking to a computer when you need tech support? No? Well neither do your guests.
“Are they even paying attention?” is a theme that comes up often when bad service is afoot – and provides the perfect segue into our next point. Obviously as a venue owner, you expect your game masters to be paying attention to the monitors at all times; that’s no trade secret. But here’s the thing – that only fully works when your game master never looks away from that monitor. All it takes is a second – a blink – to miss a guest finding a hidden object or unlocking a given padlock. Miss something like that and you don’t even know what step they might need help on should they ask – and let me tell you, from a guest perspective there’s few things more obnoxious in a game than asking for a hint and having the game master reply “Did you do this?” or “What step are you on?” Now your paying guest has to use vital minutes of their time – and by proxy – their money – to catch your employee up to speed. Essentially, it creates a scenario where for a brief moment, you’re actually asking your guest to do your employee’s job for them, and that’s never, ever ok.
On a similar note, if a game master starts monitoring a group of guests, they need to stay with those guests until the end of that game. Do not allow breaks or rotations to occur mid-game, ever. It creates a situation where the new game master cannot possibly know everything those guests have accomplished prior, and almost always ends with a sense of disservice for those guests.
But this isn’t always a situation of nefarious action; Sure, sometimes there will be those occasions where the game master misses a moment because they’re perhaps texting their friends, or eating a snack, or (one of the worst cardinal escape game sins) left the monitor for a quick rest room break, etc.. Sometimes, that guest service is not at its core the fault of the game master, but entirely possible the fault of you, the owner.
Is your game master answering the business phone while watching games? That’s a distraction. Are they greeting guests to double as lobby host while monitoring games? That’s a distraction. Are they watching more than one game at once? Well – that’s the most unacceptable and avoidable distraction of all.
Here’s the thing – I get it – this is a business, and sometimes you have to make smart decisions with how you budget your money. But here’s the harsh reality – if you cannot afford to staff your venue appropriately to ensure each and every paying guest gets equal quality treatment for their money, you should not be running that business at all. There is simply no scenario where it is appropriate to expect your game master to watch more than one game at the same time – and to be clear, I’m speaking from personal experience. You’re providing a disservice to both parties of guests, and frankly to your employee, for whom you’re basically no longer providing the tools needed for he or she to do their job to the best of their ability.
And just to be clear – that goes for venues that have identical pairs of games. It doesn’t matter that the puzzles between the rooms are the same. No two guests will ever solve those puzzles at the same pace, nor will they ever have the same questions or need the same help.
Every guest that enters your venue is unique. Value them that way.
Now here’s where things really get interesting. I think for the most part, everything I’ve said up until this point is either obvious or at least something we can all agree on. It’s fairly black or white guest service standards. But there’s something that even the very best venues across the country do wrong on a regular basis without even realizing it. And frankly, it’s the most important thing of all. Clues.
We’ve seen literally hundreds of different games by this point, and as such it goes without saying that we’ve seen quite a few different ways of handling clues themselves. Some venues offer as many clues as you ask for. Other venues give you clues whenever they think you need them. But there is unquestionably this wide spread magic number that appears quite often in our industry: three.
And remember! You get three free clues!” No.
Some venues are firm at three. Use them wisely, because you simply cannot ask for a fourth. Others add imaginary penalties; after your third clue, each adds a certain number of minutes onto your overall escape time. Others still will literally take time away from you for each additional clue you request past three – meaning if you need a lot of help, your 60 minute game – that you paid for 60 minutes of – could actually only last 30 minutes before you’re asked to leave. And then there are those who simply and utterly refuse to give you any clues at all.
Let’s explore each type, for better or worse – but first and foremost let’s remember at its core, every single thing that happens once a guest steps foot in your venue should be about hospitality and service. They are paying you to have an enjoyable experience; not to be frustrated or disregarded. It is your role to ensure they have a positive time, and walk out your door knowing they should recommend this game to their friends and family members.
First and foremost, we’ll start with a (dis)honorable mention – one that doesn’t officially make our list, but is absolutely unacceptable: making your guests jump through hoops. It’s the classic “first you have to do something for me” philosophy. I once had a venue offer me a free hint if I, and this is a direct quote, mind you, “answer a riddle, or do a dance in front of the camera.” Do not ever ask a paying guest in a hospitality venue to do something for you. You do everything for them.
I think that already pretty much disqualifies the “we don’t give clues” philosophy. That’s just flat out bad guest service and there’s simply no excuse for it. No guest is going to feel good if they ask you for help and you simply tell them “no.” To a similar point, the rigid “You only get three and cannot ask for more” concept provides a nearly equal level of disservice.
But here’s the thing – there’s a branching path to this one that might go unnoticed: actors in games. Now that’s a topic we’ve discussed at length in the past, and it’s no secret that we’re big fans of actors when they’re used appropriately. However, at their core, that actor is still an employee and as such still to be held to the very same guest service standards as your lobby host or game master would be. Let’s take for example The Basement – a venue who is no secret happens to be Escape Authority’s personal favorite. In a testament to “nobody is perfect,” The Basement and The Study are prime examples of actors sometimes using their character as justification to not provide service to a guest. Now, generally speaking they are quite good – and I don’t want to give the impression that any of their staff are rude to the guests; much to the contrary. However, we’ve personally witnessed times where characters either don’t give clues or give hints that are so convoluted in an attempt to stay within their storyworld that they only serve to further hinder and confuse the guests more than they already are. You’ll find no bigger proponent of staying in character than me – but sometimes it’s more important to answer the guest’s question.
As bad as saying “no” is in a guest service based role, I’d argue the worst example of clue philosophy comes from those venues who actually take time away from their paying customers as a penalty for requesting additional hints.
Again, there is just no scenario where this concept is ok. It’s insulting to the guests – and creates a situation where that guest might actually even call into question the integrity of the business. This isn’t a Carny Cash Grab-type situation here; This isn’t something that just dishonorable venues do. In fact some of our favorite venues here in the Orlando market operate this way; great venues, with great staff and great owners who honestly don’t recognize the disservice they’re creating with such a policy. To an average guest who buys a ticket with the reasonable right to expect they’ll receive decent hospitality, this can actually feel like time is being stolen from them more than a guest service. We implore all venues to never, ever go this route.
That brings us to the more docile version of that policy: after your three free clues, requesting additional hints will cause a certain number of minutes will be added to your escape time at the end. Outwardly, this doesn’t directly have a negative impact on a player. They are still given a fair full hour’s shot at completing the game, and really, they are given an unlimited number of clues. If, for example, the venue adds three minutes to your time for each additional clue, and you escape the game with thirty seconds to spare but used four hints to do it, your official escape time will then become 62:30, not 59:30. Psychologically, however, there can be an unseen negative impact.
The very notion that there is a penalty, even if it doesn’t actually matter in the real world, is likely to make many players more hesitant to ask for hints, for fear of wasting, quote, “one of their three free ones.”
Many players are much more likely to focus on the penalty itself than recognize they in actuality have a truly unlimited number of hints at their disposal, and as such, feel reluctant, or even flat out refuse to use any until it’s too late. What results is a guest who is frustrated – in part because they’ve frustrated themselves, for sure, but almost also equally in part because of a meaningless imaginary restriction your venue’s policy has imposed upon them.
It becomes clear that the only right answer is to simply and openly allow an unlimited number of hints to every group – however even that comes with an asterisk. Venues that spoon-feed clue after clue to guests without prompting is providing as much a disservice as one that refuses to give hints at all, albeit it for entirely different reasons. Giving your guests a clue they did not request instantly robs them of their opportunity to try to solve that given puzzle on their own. Think about it – once you know the answer, there’s no turning back. They’ll literally never be able to solve that puzzle again, because your game master was a bit too trigger happy with their helping hand. And while unquestionably that game master’s intentions were pure, the end result creates a negative impact on the guests. To a novice, that may go unnoticed, or maybe even appreciated, but to an experienced player, you run the risk of a truly unhappy customer walking out your front door in the end.
So, what’s the balance? Well, here’s how I train staff each time I personally hand over a game: talk to your guests. It’s simple, really. You’re going to great them prior to starting the game regardless. Every game starts with the ground rules and lay of the land, so to speak. Before leaving, touch on hints, and offer your guests this:
You have two options for how you’d like to play – one is that I will give you hints when I think you need them, based on how quickly average groups achieve each task to help move you along, or the other is I will not give you any hints unless you ask for them. With either option, you’re welcome to use as many hints as you’d like, free of charge.
I found with The Legend of Atlantis – which generally speaking is a rather difficult game – that most guests would initially opt for the “only when we ask route,” at which point I would smile and joke with them that “once they realized that was a mistake, all you have to do is ask and we can change methods at any point.” Not only would that always get a laugh, but it also made the guests feel welcome and showed they that they are fully in control, easing their tension and making the game itself feel far more achievable to them, regardless of their skill sets.
I once had a (bad) client rant to me that “these guests are asking for too many hints! It’s cheating.” I looked him in the eye and told him these guests are paying you for a service, and it is your role to provide them that service. If a group wants 2,000 clues, you give them 2,000 clues. You’re here for them, not vice versa. If a guest’s idea of a fun time in an escape game is being handheld from start to finish, and being spoon fed each answer, so be it. Guess what? That guest will in turn go home and tell all of their friends about how much fun they had, and how helpful and accommodating the staff at the venue was.
And in the bigger picture, we cannot lose site of this critically important constant:
Escape games carry no cash prize. Leader boards are meaningless. It doesn’t matter what the record time is as long as every group that played the game walks out with a smile.
Don’t create false justifications to limit or hinder the clue-giving process under the guise of “making it fair” or “honoring the leader board.” And if you’re truly that concerned about the leader board – you know what? This one is very simple:
“You’re welcome to an unlimited number of clues, but only teams who use three or less are allowed onto our leader board.”
Boom. Happy guests on every level.
Here’s the thing about guest service: it’s the one thing in your venue that will never cost you a dime. Your employees are getting paid regardless – but if they provide the highest levels of service across the board, your venue will ultimately reap the rewards tenfold. So to circle back to the start – sure, some of this stuff is obvious, but every bit of it is equally important. Take this free clue and evaluate the way you and your team are handling hints to your paying guests. Never lose sight of the fact that the level of guest service you provide will literally define you as a brand.
And never, ever lose sight of the fact that the one and only reason your brand exists in the first place is to serve those guests.