unLTD’s Phil Turner meets Great Escape owners Hannah Duraid and Peter Lacole and takes a look inside one of the companies behind the rise and rise of the escape game industry
Your blindfold comes off and you quickly realise you’re trapped in a locked room, chained to your team mates. Words, numbers and pictures are scrawled on the walls, while in the background, a fuzzy TV picture replays a coded message. A voice announces you’ve just 50 minutes to escape.
No, this isn’t the stuff of nightmares…it’s just one of the many ways people get their kicks these days.
Part game, part immersive theatre, part team-building exercise, escape rooms are a modern phenomenon, with more than 1,000 now operating around the UK where there were none just five years ago.
A Sheffield company, The Great Escape is at the forefront of that growth. Founded three years ago as a way of helping trained carpenter and co-owner Pete Lacole ‘keep busy’, it’s become one of the most innovative escape room operators in the market.
With three sites already running (two in Sheffield and one in Leeds) and at least two more set to open this year, we spoke to co-founder Hannah Duraid and discovered that the growth in this market is far from finished.
So tell us how you got started?
I met Peter while I was travelling and we had played a similar kind of concept in Asia which we absolutely loved, but at the time, I didn’t realise there were any others elsewhere in the world let alone the UK. When I got back home, I’d been raving about them and so I took my friend to one in Leeds. She loved it but compared to what we’d experienced before, I thought it was really disappointing.
I was doing my PGCE at the time and Peter had moved here from his home in Brisbane. It was winter, so it was cold, snowing and we had just come off a year travelling… so you can imagine what he was thinking! He’s a carpenter by trade and because UK and Australian regulations are different he had to wait six weeks to get his health and safety card. He’d ended up with a job in a call centre but hated it.
So I was feeling really bad. I was getting up at 6am and leaving the house and then not finishing working on my teacher training til late… I hadn’t shown him around or introduced him to anyone. So almost as a side project, we decided maybe there was an opportunity in Sheffield to create our own escape game.
There were none here at that time and if I’m honest, it was probably a bit of a whim project to keep Peter busy. Never in our wildest dreams did we expect it to grow like this.
So how quickly did you realise it was going to be more than a ‘pet’ project?
Within a few days of setting up we had bookings and within four weeks we needed another member of staff, so pretty much straight away. I was still doing my PGCE and although I’d work evenings and weekends, Pete just couldn’t cope. A month later we’d opened a second room, Homicide.
And we’d never run a business before so we didn’t know how to manage staff, interview people or basically run a business. We were very fortunate in that we had help from the University who really went above and beyond. They had mentors, PR training, web developers, marketing advice – and they put us in front of people such as Jill White and Andy Hanselman who run leadership courses. It gave us a bit of a safety net and the confidence we could make it work.
We’re not afraid of hard work either. In the past I had five jobs…
Five jobs? All at once? What were those?
I was a waitress at Bramall Lane and another café. I worked in my mum and dad’s post office, taught Zumba three times a week and was also a receptionist at school where I did some part time teaching too. So I like being busy. I must have had a big gut feeling it was going to work.
I put all my savings into it and I don’t do anything without being confident. And the first room we opened (in January 2015), Mad Scientist, wasn’t a big financial risk.
So what was it that made it work?
Hard work and passion. Once I’d finished my PGCE we pretty much worked 13 hour days, every day. Our accountant told us we’d done three years work in a year! I don’t know how we did it but without that it wouldn’t have worked. We just didn’t stop going, none of us did.
It helps that we didn’t have any responsibilities; no house, no kids, we weren’t married so we could throw ourselves into it completely, we had nothing to lose. And it’s working, we have three venues now and more in the pipeline, 46 staff and we’re just about to have an area manager joining us.
The size of the market has grown hugely since you launched. Do you worry it’s reached a peak?
Well there were 48 escape games in the UK when we first started, now there are over 1000, every town or city you can think of has one. There’s five here in Sheffield now, so yes, it’s exploded. But we’ve created a generation two concept and most others go in at generation one level, expand quickly and the problem is the quality’s not there.
What’s the difference between generation one and two?
Technology, theming, immersiveness… the whole experience is more like a Hollywood theatre set with sounds, flashing lights and that kind of thing. In some games you can even shoot each other. People want more from their entertainment these days, they have high expectations, no doubt. We’re strong compared to other escape rooms in the UK. We’ve played hundreds and we know we are among the best.
Last year you had a difficult episode after you launched a game called Asylum which some said stigmatised mental health. What happened there?
When we launched it in Leeds we had considered the connotations but in all honesty, didn’t expect them to offend anybody. It all started with an article in The Yorkshire Post which misrepresented the game a bit and we had people trolling us on social media as well as healthcare professionals criticising us.
And what was their logic behind it?
They were saying that we were causing a barrier for mentally ill people to go into hospital because we were almost demonising mental health and the doctors that treated it. They thought that potentially they would be scared off going and seeking help.
So we listened, met with the council and mental health professionals. It wasn’t our intention to upset anyone so we resolved it quickly. A lot of people thought the reaction was over the top but we didn’t want to offend anyone so we dealt with it quickly by changing the name to Abducted as well as some of the wording.
As a business owner, it’s inevitable you’ll have to go through challenges. What did you take out of this one?
I think to act quickly. We worked with an amazing guy called Nick Britten who used to work for the Daily Telegraph and now deals with crisis management. He talked us through everything and totally understood our point of view. He actually felt people were bullying us to be honest, but gave us great advice and really re-assured us. I mean it’s scary, you don’t know what some of these people are going to do. They knew our names, where we lived, that kind of stuff. The staff were really stressed, in fact they were angry some of them, but it actually meant we pulled together as a team.
So you have to take the positives out of it. Westfield Health came on the back of it because they said we dealt with it well and wanted to experience the game.I always take the positives; not everything happens as you want it to, you’ve got to learn, manage it and not let it get to you. And we gelled as a team and I saw people’s strengths and weaknesses and learned about them in a way I wouldn’t have otherwise.
You and Peter are a couple. How have you found running a business together?
Interesting. I’m operations and he’s strategy so we try not to cross over. It’s not always been easy but it’s really good now.
Things definitely get heightened but we’ve learned to compromise and communicate. Where in the past, we’d stick to our opinions a bit too much, we’ve learned how to work together.
I think we’re both open and honest anyway, we’ve always said what we think to each other so I think that’s helped inside and outside of work. As things have progressed, we’ve learned to give each other a lot more space. We need it.
I know people who run businesses and really struggle when they want to share their issues with their partners because they just don’t get it. I’m guessing that’s not an issue in your house?
No. It’s good because of course we understand exactly what each other is going through. I think if you were to go home with someone who does a 9 to 5 job and talk about the stresses of running a business they just wouldn’t get it. We’re both equally passionate. It’s hard not to talk about work at home though. Sometimes we have to discipline ourselves and just put on a film or whatever to stop from talking about it.
The Great Escape is a great place for a company away day. They provide a meeting room and food and drink as well as the escape room experience. Information and prices are at www. thegreatescapegame.co.uk or call 07391 651072.
FIVE MINUTES WITH … Peter Lacole
Peter is Hannah’s business partner and co-founder of The Great Escape.
Coming from Brisbane to Sheffield in winter, that must have been fun. How did you find the move?
Ha. Cold. I’d been to the UK on holidays a couple of times so it was fine, really. I knew what to expect. It took a bit of time to settle, I guess. I had a job at a call centre at first, which I hated, but once we started this, it’s been great.
And have you been surprised by your success?
Yeah, I guess so. It took a bit of time to get bookings… we tried everything; flyers, newspapers, anything we could think of and then we got a feel for what worked. We’ve slowly expanded and its doing well. We’d like two more this year but we’re not saying where!
Hannah mentioned that there are now over 1,000 escape games in the UK. Are you concerned the market is becoming flooded?
Not really, if I’m honest. We think our product is better than most. Some operators that are coming into it late at a lower level might struggle but I think there’s plenty of room for growth for us. There have been some big players coming in but I think we have played our cards well and we’ll be alright.