Costs and closures

The start of a new year offers a good excuse to take a look at the escape room industry in Singapore. Maybe it’s just leftover pessimism from 2016, but things don’t look great…

Unravel’s closure

In late 2014, we lost the gem of Singapore’s escape room scene, Phantom Joker; in mid-2015, the struggling Mystery Escape closed down (perhaps before news of its Nomis Piy-designed rooms had a chance to turn its fortunes around); last year, we lost Unravel, a great escape room outfit with local-themed rooms.

It’s always a shame to lose lovingly-crafted rooms run by true enthusiasts. High rents probably contributed to Phantom Joker’s closure, while Mystery Escape just never really made a name for itself, but given Unravel’s decent online presence and its location in a minor mall, I have to say that I didn’t see its closure coming. Which also raises the question: are more closures in store?

Signs of struggle?

I take it as a bad sign when an established escape room company goes back to Groupon or starts offering hefty discounts. Worryingly, several companies are starting their 2017 on that note. There have also been several branch closures, some of them done more quietly (Lockdown) than others (BreakOut).

Could it be that the escape room craze has died down? Perhaps the true enthusiasts have played all the rooms there are, and the casual players have satisfied their curiosity without getting hooked…

The danger of TripAdvisor

And then there are other pressures. Besides high rentals (which may have forced one or two branch closures), there’s the old problem of shoddy outfits siphoning away business from more deserving rooms. I’m talking, of course, about U Escape. It is currently ranked #4 in its category on TripAdvisor, ahead of some much better escape room companies.

What can be done? Perhaps I’m part of the problem, in that I haven’t left them a bad review to warn away potential customers (if an escape room company has many rooms, then I try not to leave a TripAdvisor review on the basis of a single room — and for obvious reasons I haven’t wanted to try a second U Escape room).

I have no conclusion

But perhaps U Escape is also an easy scapegoat. Maybe the market is just proving too tough; or maybe it has always been tough, and for the past few years, escape room companies were running half on optimism alone.

Then again, there might be reasons to be optimistic. Existing companies are staying busy. Xcape’s Funtasy and Haunted rooms are good additions to the escape room landscape, and the continued expansion suggests that they’re not doing too badly. The Escape Artist opened a new branch with some very extensive rooms at Sentosa Gateway. We have BreakOut’s new rooms, LOST SG is finally changing out one of theirs, and even Escape Hunt showed that it can improve.

I still suspect that we will see at least one closure in 2017, and I fear that — as with Phantom Joker and Unravel — it will be the closure of an escape room company that deserved to survive. What can be done? I go back to what I’ve always believed in, I guess: if you enjoy escape rooms and want them to survive, then help them do so. Give the company a good review on Facebook, and — crucially — on TripAdvisor. Tell your friends. Spam your Facebook feed. Suggest it to HR the next time they’re planning some team building exercise. If you’ve never even tried to get someone else to play an escape room, then there’s no use mourning when your favourite company closes down.

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