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Making Escape Rooms More Inclusive

Making Escape Rooms More Inclusive

In order for your guests to succeed in your escape games, it is important to make them feel welcome, relaxed, and understood. In my capacity as the owner and manager of Chicago’s Escape Artistry, I’ve created a customer service and inclusion-forward approach that ensures guests enjoy their time with and speak highly of us even if things go wrong during their escape experience -- including them not escaping.

I’ve broken my thoughts down into two categories: a discussion of ways to make sure your guests feel welcome in your space (in paragraphs), and a list of best practices to use when interacting with guests, especially those you don’t know (in bullet points).

HOW TO MAKE YOUR GUESTS FEEL WELCOME, COMFORTABLE, AND CONFIDENT BEFORE THEIR GAME BEGINS

You are an expert in the escape rooms you design, build, own, manage, or operate. You are not an expert in what each guest wants or needs, and that is ok.

Inclusive customer service is important over the phone, in correspondence, as well as in person to person conversation.

Knowing that, how do you go about making sure that every individual guest has the best possible experience with your games? I find that the time you spend in the lobby with your guests is critical. The way that you approach people before their game begins -- both what you discuss and how you discuss it -- establishes a relationship and sets the tone for their entire experience.

First, think about how you want yourself and your staff to appear to your guests. Above all, you want them to understand that they’re in a comfortable and safe environment. Many of your guests are about to do something they have never done before. They may be nervous, excited, scared, worried they will look foolish or stupid. As they have purchased tickets in advance, they want to know that their money has been well spent. In my experience, the best way to counteract these negative feelings is to lead with confidence. If guests see that you have confidence in yourself, your games, and your guests, it will make everyone feel at ease.  

If confidence is something you personally struggle with, try to model your behavior on a character or individual you feel is confident in a way you would like to be.  Confident people aren’t debilitated or defensive about mistakes. It doesn’t crumble their sense of worth. Sometimes stuff goes wrong.

Be careful -- confidence is NOT pretending to know everything or having the right answer all the time. A large part of confidence (or appearing confident) is knowing your own limitations, and being able to gracefully handle any issues that come up...since they will come up. Be a polite and calm leader; someone who acknowledges their mistakes and tries to address any problems head-on. Like the most successful guests in your escape rooms, when confronted with a problem the best host will try an intelligent or logical resolution to an issue. If it doesn’t work, they accept it and continue to move forward.

What does this mean practically?

A common example would be mispronouncing a guest’s last name. Rather than trying to cover for it by joking that their name is hard to spell, or telling them that in the future they should explain how to say their name in advance, or asking where they’re from, I say to them, “Well, I certainly butchered the pronunciation of your last name didn’t I?  My mistake”. By owning my mistake (rather than putting responsibility on the guest) I have given the guest the opportunity to forgive me and choose to look past it. If I had tried to flip it around on them or maintain that I was “right” and justify my actions, they will likely feel put on the spot. From their perspective it leaves the issue open, and there is a chance they will dwell on it throughout their experience (or write it in a review later).

Next, think about the frame of mind your guests may have when they come into your business.

Your guests have paid for an experience.  While they may be inconsiderate about how their behavior impacts you and your business, 95% of the time it’s not personal. It is also important to remember that Escape Rooms are a niche industry, and guests may have no idea at all about your day-to-day operations.  

For example, a guest calls and wants to reschedule their escape session two hours before it’s supposed to start. For many other businesses, particularly in the entertainment sector, this wouldn’t be an issue. A restaurant will continue to operate if a reservation cancels, and a movie will screen whether or not their are forty or fourteen people in the audience. Your guest probably isn’t considering that most escape room operators are paid and scheduled by the show, and many can’t afford to have staff on site unless there are games being played.

The belief that “the customer is always right,” which is often held up as the foundation of good customer service, doesn’t mean that a customer can do whatever they want without consequence. Their cancellation will have a negative impact on your business and you need to take care of your business and staff first. My escape rooms, like most escape rooms (likely including yours) has a transfer fee to cover situations such as this. That way, our operator can still be paid for their time -- particularly if they have made it onsite -- and we can move the guest’s session without hurting our business.

What does this have to do with inclusivity?

Making sure that your policies are clearly explained and easy to find will help avoid misunderstandings and confusion between you and your guests. Both of those things tend to be at the core of what make people feel frustrated or unwelcome in an environment.

Do make sure that all of your policies are available on your website and that all your staff members are well-informed so guests get the same information no matter who they speak to.  Let’s say you have a transfer fee if guests want to change their tickets with less than 24 hours notice.

Explaining “Hey, we are a small business, and your transfer fee covers the cost of the staff we already paid to be on site to run the session for your group. We understand that life happens, and we have these policies to make sure that we can offer you flexibility while keeping our costs covered. If you want a full rundown of our ticketing policies, they’re available on our website at [whatever your website is].”

By explaining it this way you give the guest the tools necessary to understand why you’re doing what you’re doing, and again give them a clear framework for the interaction.

You can't enjoy a space if you don't feel safe.

THINGS TO KEEP IN MIND WHEN INTERACTING WITH GUESTS

Here are some other ideas of ways to make guests feel as welcome as possible.
While someone could write an essay about each of these points, I have chosen present them in an outline that can serve as a quick customer service diagnostic. By looking through these points, you should be able to assess where your business is, what you aren’t yet doing, and start to incorporate better practices into your own work.  These are also great talking points to go over with your staff!

Beware of Assumptions

  • Greet people in a neutral way
    • Use phrases like “Hello Friends”, “Hello Escape Artists”, “Welcome Cadets”, “Greetings Time Travelers” etc.  All these phrases are non specific to gender, personage, race and work great
    • Not ladies and gents
      • If you need a pronoun for someone, ask what their used pronoun is - don’t assume.
    • Not hello ‘guest with reservations last name’ family
      • They might look alike but all be work colleagues
  • Don’t assume relationships
    • An easy way to avoid making someone feel uncomfortable is just ask “how do you all know one another?”
    • People with the same last name could be siblings or married
      • Though calling the Smith siblings “Mr. and Mrs./Ms. Smith” may technically be correct, it will likely make them uncomfortable
    • Kids can have parents with different last name
    • Families come in all shapes and sizes and sometimes when we make assumptions we get some very real truth and sometimes uncomfortable truths.
      • Asking a child “Where is your mommy/daddy? Why didn’t they come?”, while seeming innocent, becomes difficult if a child has a deceased or absent parent
  • Don’t assume guests’ skill level
    • Even if they have played (and escaped!) from a lot of other rooms, their experiences at other businesses may not translate to yours.
      • “Do not touch” indicators may look different
      • Cell phone policies can vary widely
    • Your first-timer rules and tips should be great reminders for ALL guests.
      • If you share these tips with all groups nothing will be left out, and all guests will go into the room prepared to have a great time in the specific world that you have created. 
  • Industry relationships
    • On a personal note, don’t assume anything of other escape room owners.
      • Often when my husband and I play, other owners will notice my e-mail address.  They know I’m industry but they assume my husband is the owner. My husband doesn’t work in the industry. My design partner and I are both female and under thirty two years old, which (while being easily accessible on our website) can cause people to assume that we aren’t the owners or managers of the business.
    • In the spirit of honesty: I’m not an exceptionally skilled escape room player.  I feel a little embarrassed if people know I’m an owner and expect me to break records.  I’d prefer to be treated like any other guest.
      • If I’m going to send you referral business I want to know how a ‘regular’ customer will be treated.
      • Most owners are interested in experiencing other people’s rooms in a real way, not in an opportunity to prove that they’re smart.

Be Prepared

  • Have emergency supplies for staff and guests
    • Tissues, paper towels, plastic bags small and large, complete First Aid Kit, Tampons and Pads.
      • Guests will rarely ask for these things but if they do they probably REALLY need them.
      • They will be able to be more comfortable if they don’t have to worry about: needing a tampon, what to do with their child’s dirty diaper, having to deal with a sticky drink someone just spilled on their lap.
      • Make sure to check inventory regularly, and order more when they run out.
    • When you can remove accidental or physical barriers to enjoyment (i.e. making guests quick trash bag raincoats if it’s raining) they will not only be grateful, but they will be more inclined to spread the word knowing that you went out of your way for them.    
  • Make sure each of your staff knows how your escape room experience should be adjusted to accommodate guests who are:
    • Deaf
    • Blind
    • In wheelchairs
    • Claustrophobic
    • Frightened
    • Pregnant
    • On a team where everyone is 5 foot and under
    • Elderly or Easily Fatigued
    • Developmentally or cognitively delayed

 

Low light can be an issue for guests who don't have good eyesight.  Many have thought about ways around this. Have you also thought about how to make your experience accessible to the blind?

 

  • Accidents can and do happen. Though there’s no guarantee you’ll ever have to deal with these things, it’s best to game scenarios out in advance.
    Does your team know what to do if:

    • Someone faints during game play?
    • A blind guest asked for a touch tour before they play?
    • A child goes into the room, and becomes too scared to enjoy the room, and is crying uncontrollably?
    • If someone starts bleeding in the room?
    • A deaf guest is playing and the clues are given via audio?
    • Someone needs to excuse themselves from the room during game play to vomit?
    • Your guests are in wheelchairs?   

 

A child is in the escape room with their parent.  The child is screaming. The parent is not ignoring them or telling the child to toughen up.  The child continues to scream. The other guests in the room are obviously uncomfortable and/or annoyed.  They didn't knowingly sign up to be locked in a room with a screaming child.

 

Possible solution.

 

Be Conscious of Physical Touch and Body Language

  • Always ask permission before touching someone.
    • Is it ok if I tuck your shirt tag back in?
    • I’m going to take your hand for a moment to illustrate this example
  • If you don’t have time to do so, at the very least, let the people know verbally before you touch them
    • “I’m going to run past you on your right”.
  • Don’t assume others are comfortable touching you.
    • There are cultures where being touched by someone who isn’t your family or spouse is viewed an inappropriate.        
      • For example: As a female, if I extend my hand to shake hands with an Orthodox Jewish man I’ve put him in an awkward position. While his culture dictates that he should refuse to touch my hand, he may feel uncomfortable and worried that he has offended me by rejecting a handshake. Or he can shake my hand and feels uncomfortable for shaking the hand of a woman he isn’t married to.
      • It’s always best to let guests take the lead when it comes to physical touch.  
      • If you feel like a guest wants to hug you, or make physical contact with you, and it’s ok with you, you can verbally que them that it’s ok to do so “We can bring this in for a hug if you want”. “Shall we shake hands on it?”  
  • Body language is the message your body is communicating while you speak. Unlike gestures (e.g. thumbs-up, shushing), body language is something we don’t often think about but people easily pick up on.

    It’s not always about what you say, but how you say it.

    • If you welcome with arms folded across the chest and minimal eye contact, guests may feel uneasy. Your words say “Welcome to my escape room,” but your body language says “I don’t want to talk to you.”
    • Shifting body weight from foot to foot while relaying important information to guests, while feeling natural, communicates to them that you’re uncertain about what you’re saying.

 

Language Barriers

  • Don’t ask guests names if you are going to make no effort to learn them or to pronounce them correctly.
    • Don’t just give people nicknames, ask first “is it ok if I call you _________?”
    • Or just refer to everyone as ‘escape artists’, ‘time travelers’, ‘secret agents’
    • Names aren’t always pronounced how they are spelled in English
  • If you have an English as a Second Language (ESL) group
    • Speak clearly (not louder)
    • Speak slowly (not louder), pause to check for understanding
    • Smiling and nodding doesn’t mean people understand
    • If understanding seems to be an issue, ask if someone in the group feels comfortable translating
      • Children are often happy and proud to be the “official” translator for their families
    • It can be helpful to keep sheets of your introduction information already written down. Even if it’s just in English, some will appreciate being able to read along and not just rely on their ability to listen to spoken directions. This will also come in handy if you have guests who are hard of hearing or deaf and unable to read lips.   
    • Make sure guests know when it’s ok to ask questions. In some cultures it’s impolite or shameful to ask questions.  You want them asking questions before rather then not understanding your safety rules or game mechanics
    • If you want to make sure, ask them to prove their language, For example point to your do not touch symbol and ask “what does this symbol mean?” If they say “do not touch” you know they understand, and if they ignore it in the room you can confirm that they knew what it meant and are willfully disregarding it.
    • Avoid using slang, jargon and colloquialisms that don’t translate literally
      • “If you get stuck, don’t get discouraged, keep your chin up”
        • Rather say: Never give up.  
      • “Sorry everyone, I’m under the weather, give me a sec and I’ll be right with you”
        • Rather say: I am moving slowly today.  Please wait, we will start very soon.

 

Remember not all your guests are the same height.  Do you have tools in the room for short guests to reach things up high? Do you have ceiling that very tall guests will not hit their head on?

 

Be polite - don’t introduce social issues (race, politics, religion, etc.) unless you’re prepared to discuss them

  • Keep room religiously and politically neutral unless its theme calls for it
    • For example, consider whether or not to put a Cross in your escape room
      • A Medieval monastery? Definitely! It is necessary for the theme
      • Grandma’s house? Doesn’t need it! You understand the theme and decor of the room without it.
    • If you do include politics or history in your room everyone on the team should be prepared to talk about it.
      • A.I. Escape in London has a great room that discusses mental illness. The Owner had run a marathon wearing a giant lock cosutme as a way to raise funds for mental illness, and was prepared to discuss the issue in a detailed and meaningful way after we played.  
    • If you make a Cold War-era fallout shelter and aren’t prepared to discuss the history, then choose something you do know about.
  • Establish rapport but always keep it professional
    • One night I was playing a room with a diverse group of friends, most of whom were people of color. The white game master greeted me (a white women) with “good evening”.  A few minutes later, one of my non-white friends walked in and the same show operator greeted her with “hey girl”. If everyone got “good evening” or everyone got “hey girl” that would be fine. Be aware that people will notice if you treat them differently, and it will make them uncomfortable.
  • Be thoughtful of the negative stereotypes associated with people’s identities that you may accidentally reinforce with your characters
    • Russian Spies – Black Prisoners – White Male Politicians – Latino Drug Smugglers – Arab Terrorists
    • Likewise, be conscious of appropriation, and don’t turn cultures into costumes.
      • While some are obviously inappropriate, like “escape the Holocaust” rooms (believe me, they exist), make sure you avoid appropriating the cultures of others. If you have an Egyptian themed room with an all White or Asian cast, people will notice the discrepancy and some guests will feel uncomfortable.
    • Even if these things seem innocent to you (or if you don’t notice them), they do make people uncomfortable.

 

What do you do if someone Hulks out in the room?

 

Running through this list is a great way to keep you, your business, and your team actively thinking about how to be as inclusive and welcoming as possible to each and every guest who may walk into your Escape Room. That said, this is a general list: make sure that you’re also thinking about specific touches unique to your market that your guests will appreciate. While the Chicago escape rooms might want to make sure they offer socks to guests wearing wet snow boots so they don’t track wet salty water around the facility, an Austin, Texas business would have very different specific needs.  

Make sure you talk about about specific inclusion issues facing the city or township you serve.  Are you near a military base or university? Is there a large population in your community that speaks a language other than English? How can you make these specific communities feel welcome?  Have an idea? Great! Does it make any other groups feel excluded? No. Go for it!

You still won’t be able to make everyone happy all the time. You can still always strive to make every single guest feel as welcome and included as possible. And if you’re a welcoming place for customers and staff already, you should feel good and celebrate that! But we can always, always do a better job with what we do.

 

Maren Rosenberg

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