By Maureen McEwan
At the start of 2020, Escape Manor was on track for its best year to date.
Steve Wilson, co-owner and vice president of marketing, estimates that the local company had over 200 employees across its 10 escape room locations in Canada and Australia.
But as an immersive entertainment business, one that specializes in locking people up for fun, March 2020 hit hard.
“We were amongst the first to close and amongst the last to reopen,” Wilson said. “And unlike restaurants and such, we didn’t have the ability to do takeout food so, effectively, all of our revenue streams were just halted overnight.”
The pandemic forced co-owners Wilson, Chris Bisson, Billy Rogers and Neil Schwartz to lay off the majority of their staff in Ontario and left them without paychecks as well. But, the Escape Manor team was quick to get creative.
“We are a resilient bunch, and when you give us lemons, we do make lemonade,” Wilson said.
For years, they had considered the idea of doing immersive, online escape experiences to complement their existing in-person escapes. The pandemic’s first shutdown prompted a core team of four to sit down and develop it. It took mere weeks for them to build their first full-scale online escape room in spring 2020.
And Wilson said the experience “took off like wildfire” with both leisure guests and corporate groups.
“It really, really saved the day, truthfully,” he said. “It allowed us to have a revenue stream while our brick-and-mortar was closed that will also continue on past the pandemic.”
The virtual experience has now been played in over 40 countries, Wilson added, and the team has developed four online experiences, with plans to build more.
The business was also buoyed at times by its different locations across the country and globally.
The Australia location (Brisbane) and Saskatchewan locations (Regina and Saskatoon) weren’t subjected to COVID-19 restrictions for as long during the initial waves. Wilson said they were able to help support the Ontario locations (in Ottawa, Toronto, Hamilton) through some of the shutdowns.
While it has grown to maintain an international presence, Escape Manor had local beginnings. The company launched its first two rooms on Nov. 26, 2014 on Queen Street in downtown Ottawa.
“When we started Escape Manor, the whole premise was to disrupt the entertainment industry,” Wilson said.
The team was looking for a way to introduce a new social experience beyond the pub and nightclub scene.
“Socializing was just drinking or hanging out—there was no real kinetic bond that would open people up and give them something to talk about and open up their emotions,” Wilson said. “And so that’s what really enticed us towards the escape room industry.”
“Our existence makes people smile every single day, and it creates connections and it builds bonds with families. It gels friendships—it builds teams,” he added.
And they couldn’t keep up with the demand.
The company quickly opened a second location in Hintonburg, a third in the Byward Market and then expanded across Canada and to Australia.
Wilson said when escape rooms first became popular, they were often “no frills” experiences for customers that offered puzzles but minimal hospitality.
“We went the exact, extreme opposite of that, [with] full immersive hospitality from the moment you book with us to the moment you leave,” he said.
Escape Manor’s experiences include decor, music, food and drink and sometimes even actors to create an atmosphere while customers find clues and solve puzzles to beat the challenge and escape the space.
And, after nearly seven years, they’ve seen successes with the business model.
In 2016, Escape Manor partnered with the historic Diefenbunker, the former military facility and now Cold War museum. The bunker, built from 1959-1961, is 100,000 square feet across four levels, according to its website. The partnership resulted in the creation of the world’s biggest escape room called “Escape the Diefenbunker.”
“This multi award-winning experience runs Friday through Sunday evenings and takes place over an entire floor (that’s 25,000 square feet) of this massive underground bunker,” the Diefenbunker’s website states.
In 2017, Escape Manor garnered a Guinness World Record for the world’s “largest scavenger hunt” in Ottawa. There were 2,732 participants at the Canada 150-themed event on Sept. 10, 2017, according to the Guinness World Records’ website.
And the company has won numerous awards over the years from Ontario Tourism, Ottawa Tourism, the Ontario Museum Association and others.
Even with COVID-19’s setbacks, Wilson said the business continues to evolve.
The Hintonburg location saw an expansion during the pandemic. They ended up closing the Byward Market location and “doubled down” on the Hintonburg space, Wilson said.
“We literally doubled our footprint there over the pandemic and we opened three more experiences there,” he said.
The spot at 982 Wellington St. W. now boasts five escape rooms — Hooked, Wonderland, The Recruit, The Final Viewing and Psycho — the most of any Ottawa location.
At the end of the summer, they launched a new immersive, outdoor experience.
“The newest one is something we heard was happening in Europe which is [an] immersive film series. So, basically, you take a Hollywood movie and you build a story around it,” Wilson said.
At an undisclosed location 25 minutes away from downtown Ottawa, guests are transported to another time and place with the help of a spooky setting and a cast of committed actors. Guests then have to solve challenges and puzzles associated with a well-known thriller movie.
“We do this with M. Night Shyamalan’s movie The Village, so it’s got some jumps to it,” Wilson said. “It’s a great activity for people to get out. It’s kind of like doing an escape room and a movie in the same night.”
He said the response has been “phenomenal.” The outdoor immersive experience runs until Oct. 31 and there’s some space left, even with Escape Manor approaching its high season.
“Our busiest months of the year are October through February,” he said. “People think of us when we get to Halloween because it’s the nature of our business to an extent, even though we are more cerebral than shock and awe, as I like to tell people, but we do have some scares here and there, so people start thinking of us around then.”
Fall 2021 is already busy. During the interview with Kitchissippi Times, Wilson was on his way to launch their latest escape room experience at the end of September.
To celebrate the five-year anniversary of its partnership with the Diefenbunker, Escape Manor has launched a new escape. “Radioactive” has opened: the escape runs on the base level of the bunker, four storeys underground, Wilson said.
And the company achieved another milestone recently.
“During the pandemic, we locked up our one millionth guest,” Wilson said.
He added that the company didn’t make a big announcement or host a celebration for it, because they “don’t need to flaunt it,” but the team is proud of what they’ve accomplished over seven years.
To learn more about the business, visit escapemanor.com.