What makes a good host?

I’ve been asked by several people, mainly new escape room owners, what I think makes a good host, so I thought I’d write a quick blog post. I’ve been to a fair number of escape rooms now, and I’ve seen hosts ranging from the amazing to the ridiculous, and I can tell you that it makes a massive difference. A good host shapes the mindset with which you approach the game, and the thoughts you go away with. They have the best opportunity to influence whether you write a review on TripAdvisor and play a significant part in determining what that review looks like. When something goes wrong (and it will) they’re all that stands between you and a bad review.

Obviously, all that follows is my opinion, so feel free to say what you think in the comments below. I’m curious to hear from both owners and players about what they think matters.

What role is your host taking?

Before I even get started on the qualities that you’re looking for in a host, you need to think about what role they’re taking. Are they a protagonist in the game, a facilitator or an administrator? If they’re a protagonist then you need an actor, but more than that, you need someone who can ad lib. They might be able to deliver a line brilliantly, but if they can’t think up a new line on the spot then you’re in trouble. Us players can be cantankerous, and even if we’re not, we can throw them off their game by accident. If you’re expecting them to be a facilitator, then you need to think about how well they can judge people, think on their feet and keep the flow of the room going. Finally, if you’re just looking for an administrator, who can hand out clues at prescribed points and keep an eye on the players to make sure that they don’t break things, then (apart from the fact that you’re probably doing it wrong…) your requirements will be minimal.

Related to that is whether you’re going to have the owner be the games master. That vast majority of venues start out that way, and for me it’s a massive bonus, because it’s fascinating talking to the person who’s put the business together, especially if they also designed the room themselves. You’ll still need all the skills below, but your enthusiasm might make up for weaknesses in some areas.

Customer service

Above all else, it’s a customer service role and you’ll need all the usual skills you’d associate with that role. Polite, friendly, engaged, able to handle complaints, well presented and generally giving the impression that it’s a serious business and they’re a professional employee. I’m not going to attempt to give you advice here, as there’s plenty of generic advice available on the web.

This is a game

Gamesmasters aren’t your average customer service people though. They’re running a game, so you need to look at it from that angle. I’d recommend that they’ve got a good sense of humour. People are here to have fun and, for example, it’s easy to get caught up in the disclaimers and leave people feeling apprehensive. Brendan from Escape Plan Ltd was a great example of this, making the dullest part of the escape room briefing fun, by injecting humour into it. In other games, I’ve seen hosts achieve similar effects by teasing individual players, for example about them being the sort of klutz that will break something.

We want to win

Make no mistake – people can say that they’re going along for the experience, but it’s a rare player who doesn’t care whether they escape or not. Whether you have a 99% success rate or a 5% rate, you’re going to have losers and your host is going to have to help them cope with that. Most people will be able to take it well enough, but even they can be given a better experience with the right intervention by the host. For the players who are really frustrated or even angry about losing, the host is going to have to use all their people skills to help the players leave with an overall positive experience.

A great example here is Trapped in a Room with a Zombie where the host picked out something about every player – something they did that was funny or clever. To go back to Escape Plan Ltd (no – I don’t get commission!) the host picked out a particular period in the room and told us we’d really raced through it. Chances are that every team’s going to have a five minute period where things just click, so even with a below average team you’ll find something to talk about. Even in defeat there are victories, and people can go away feeling like they did well, but were unlucky. In fact, tell them they were unlucky. If they took a wrong turn, then commiserate with them and say how that mistake robbed them of a chance at victory. They go away feeling like it wasn’t a generic lack of skill but an unfortunate decision.

Storytellers

It seems harsh, for something that will probably last under a minute for each booking, but hosts need to be really good storytellers. I’ve sat through introductions where the host doesn’t seem very clear on what the story’s meant to be, let alone told it with confidence. It’s a hard line to walk, because obviously the players have to suspend belief a little. Once again, we come back to acting, but I’m a great believer in practice making perfect.

The key thing here is confidence. Most of the bad intros I’ve had are down to new hosts who lack confidence. Sadly I don’t get to see intros more than once, but I’d wager that most hosts improve significantly after a month. I’m guessing the trick is to pick the ones who can deliver reasonably well from day one and get them to practice as much as possible.

Being observant

The host is going to run many games, so they’re going to have to be the sort of person that can get through that monotony. Ideally, they’d be observant, whether that’s in spotting what clues a team have gathered, frustration levels, what triumphs players have had or whether they’re distressed. I remember one particular host, Gabriel, from Lady Chastity’s Reserve who was giving us our introduction to the room when he noticed one of the team was looking uncomfortable and he dropped in a little assurance without missing a beat. It’s that kind of eye for detail that gives great customer experiences.

The Knowledge

For the vast majority of players, it’s going to be their first experience of escape rooms. Hopefully they’re going to come out wanting more, and that’s when making sure your host has some knowledge of the local market comes into play. I’m not a businessman, and I realise you’d have to be careful with this, but if you’ve got any confidence in your game, then I think you want a host that can talk to people about other locations. At the time of writing, the biggest venue in London has a total of three distinct escape rooms and most only have one, so there may not be much scope for repeat custom. Worse still, that’s only two more chances for them to tell their friends. The more escape rooms they play, the more likely they are to get friends hooked (take me for example – I’ve dragged 50+ people to escape rooms many of whom have now gone off and organised their own adventures).

For the experienced player, it’s good too. They generally want to talk about the room afterwards, and a knowledgeable host is far more interesting to chat with. That’s probably not very important from the owner’s point of view (since aficionados are few and far between), but it can be more relevant early in a room’s history, because experienced players are more likely to play soon after a site opens and, I suspect, write some of those critical early reviews.

Research

When all’s said and done though, nothing’s going to prepare you better than going out to the market and playing other games. It never fails to amaze me that people will start an escape room and say, almost with pride, that they’ve not played in their competitors’ rooms. Playing competitors’ rooms is essential for lots of reasons, but in the context of this article: See what their hosts do. Remember what it was that made your experience positive and learn from their mistakes.

As I said at the top, all of this is just my opinion. I hope it helped, but either way, feel free to comment below. I’m interested to hear what others think.

5 Comments


  1. // Reply

    I agree with all of the above but in particular the storytelling bit. As I’ve mentioned many times before, I love getting into the story of the room. And if the introductory brief comes with the contempt of someone who seems to think it’s stupid it’s gone right away.

    The owners have a role in this too though. The amount of times I read a website brief that doesn’t make sense, or doesn’t match what actually happens, is painful. It’s a tiny part of the overall experience that can make a massive difference.


    1. // Reply

      Hah – I remember one post-nuclear disaster game, where the website said you were trying to activate the bunker but the briefing said your friend had been trapped outside so you needed to get the door open to let them in. I suspect they’d realised that there was no reason to escape without the latter story, so had changed the story, but forgotten about the website. As it happens, the story was delivered poorly enough that we were pretty confused anyway.



  2. // Reply

    So many good points. It’s incredible how much a host can help or hurt the experience.


  3. // Reply

    More than anything else, it’s amazing how much a host can help or hurt the experience and yet how some companies still don’t seem to get that.

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