Pivoting During a Pandemic: Escaping the Crowds
July 9, 2020

When the Ontario government announced their order to close all non-essential businesses for 14 days on March 23rd, 2020 many businesses had to change their business operations to accommodate a new "normal." Restaurants were now "take-out only" and retail stores had moved their inventory "online", but for those businesses who could not easily transition to an online selling strategy, what did they do?

I interviewed* two local Kingston businesses that were forced to changed their method of service delivery, Improbable Escapes and Sherlock's Escapes. These two companies usually deliver in-person escape room experiences with typical games lasting 1 hr and being in small spaces with possible strangers. Obviously, this type of business operation would have to change under the Ontario government's order.

When Ontario paused non-essential business operations, Sherlock's Escapes Director of Games, Matt Rothwell, recalled having no idea how to operate a physical business when the physical location is closed. Director of Business Development at Improbable Escapes, Melissa Eapen, remembered feeling a lot of apprehension and stress leading up to the provincial announcement. Improbable Escapes made an in-house call to shut down earlier than the province had mandated to ensure the safety of their customers. Eapen knew that they would have to lay off staff and start working to deliver an escape room experience from the comforts of their customer's home.

If You Build It, They Will Come

It was evident that a new type of escape room experience had to be created with a end goal to make it profitable enough to continue the business. Rothwell contemplated using the Canadian Emergency Response Benefit, temporarily closing the doors and hoping that Sherlock's Escapes could survive this pandemic. He had created a "mail order" game, albeit not revolutionary for seasoned escape room players it is a type of gameplay that many Canadians have not experienced yet. 'Escape This Podcast' (which Rothwell is an avid listener) offered to share their virtually simulated escape rooms to escape room owners to adapt or use. Rothwell celebrates the online community of escape room owners, which allowed the business to pivot quickly. Rothwell and his team have previously developed escape rooms abroad for corporate retreats and this client wanted them to develop a virtual murder mystery for other corporate clients. Seredipitously, Rothwell's operations managers runs a local production company (6AM Productions). Equipped with all the necessary talent to make this happen, LOVE IN THE FIRST DEGREE was created in 3 and a half weeks! Rothwell is extremely grateful that this opportunity presented itself and proud of how it's execution was performed.

Eapen and her team were developing their own escape room experiences parallel with industry innovations. In fact, Improbable Escapes was the first company in Canada to offer digital escape rooms and worked tirelessly over 3 weeks to adapt their in-person games to an online format that would be enjoyable for players. They continue to adapt their games to an online format, so stay tuned to their social media for beta testing sessions!

Even though Eapen and Rothwell worked hard to create these virtual/online experiences for players, would seasoned or new players want to experience this type of escape room? Rothwell recognized two major shifts in the escape room business

  1. He had found clarity about the escape room business. While some customers really enjoy the puzzles and escape, what Rothwell is really selling is a shared experience. Providing a consistent theme of Sherlock throughout every game provides a total experience for customers.
  2. He also has gained a new appreciation for customer expectation. The general public did not know what to expect from escape rooms, so it was important for any customers new to this type of experience to not have a negative experience.

Eapen was equally worried about players not willing to try this new experience. Fortunately, the exact opposite happened and the virtual escape room experiences created by Improbable Escapes have been played by people all over the world (with raving reviews and many awards)!

Although some businesses will revert to their normal operation once this pandemic is over, there is an opportunity for escape rooms to continue this virtual/online type of escape room experience. Rothwell has contemplated keeping the virtual escape rooms open since it allows customers who do not live in downtown Kingston (or the greater Kingston area) to experience Sherlock's Escapes without any travel time. Rothwell confirms that two experiences created from this pivoting process will be here to stay long after the pandemic: the mail order game and the Virtual Murder Mystery! Improbable Escapes also operates another escape room and board game cafe, Wonderland! This business has expanded its retail section and offered same day delivery of many board games. Eapen confirms that once the pandemic is over, Improbable Escapes will offer two types of experience to book - online or in-person! Improbable Escapes has also created and outdoor escape room experience (Kingston Conspiracy) and it starts tomorrow!

As a new member of the Kingston community I am immensely impressed by how these businesses innovated during a time that is unlike anything we have experienced! I am looking forward to playing these escape room experiences with a group of friends soon!

* = interviewed over e-mail

Nathan Holwell ©