Productive partnerships help Escape Manor put growing market on lock

Escape Manor
From left to right, Escape Manor partners Neil Schwartz, Steve Wilson, Chris Bisson and Billy Rogers inside one of the company's rooms. Photo by Mark Holleron

For Escape Manor’s Steve Wilson, the most surreal part of building escape rooms for the past five years is captured in a video that introduces one of the company’s adventures.

It’s a special installation for the TV series Bad Blood, starring actor Kim Coates as Declan Gardiner, the right-hand man of a Montreal mob boss. The series partnered with Ottawa-based Escape Manor for a special themed room that would see participants get a real taste of the fictional crime drama by breaking out of a prison to avoid the electric chair.

Before the timer starts counting down, Coates – who also portrayed ‘Tig’ on the HBO series Sons of Anarchy – appears on camera speaking to the prison’s newest inmates about how he arranged a flood at the jail to provide a window for his partners to escape. The short introduction video is produced at the same calibre as the rest of the Bad Blood show, with Coates reading his lines on set in full character for what amounts to not just a memorable escape experience, but an immersive advertisement for the show.

“I never realized they’d go as deep as they did with it,” Wilson says. “Every time I see this, I get chills because there’s a Hollywood actor that’s reading my words.”

Over the past five years, Wilson and his partners at Escape Manor have honed their craft to create exactly these kinds of memorable experiences. The simple concept of locking up a group of friends or corporate team and putting them on the clock to break out results in a more visceral bonding experience than your typical after-work social, Wilson says.

While the business has garnered a loyal following of would-be escape artists in Ottawa and in franchises worldwide, it’s also become an attractive outlet for brands and other partners looking to use the medium’s explosive popularity to immerse their fans and patrons in a tailored experience.

“That’s what we do better than anyone else,” Wilson says.

No escaping Escape Rooms

Wilson, Neil Schwartz, Billy Rogers and Chris Bisson launched Escape Manor on Queen Street in Ottawa back in November 2014. Five years on, it has ballooned to four locations in the capital and a 15,000-square-foot site in Toronto, with additional outlets in Cornwall, Regina, Saskatoon, Hamilton and – farthest and perhaps strangest of all – Brisbane, Australia.

Wilson says the company receives inquiries to open up new franchises every month and has adopted a standard form to separate the tire-kickers from the serious contenders. The company is currently in talks to open up a new franchise in Buenos Aires, Argentina, but is waiting to see how elections in the South American country turn out before making any official announcements.

Over the course of its five years, Escape Manor has locked up roughly 700,000 visitors and now employs nearly 60 people in Ottawa and twice that number globally.

Escape Manor

Back in 2014, however, the four partners were setting out on their journey with a shoestring budget.

“In the beginning, it was myself, my three partners, a box of beer and a box of pizza, and that’s how we created rooms,” Wilson says, adding you couldn’t buy a decent sound system with the limited budget the team was using to run the company. A couple of the founders were still working full-time jobs elsewhere, and would head over to the business and quickly wash up to work evenings before heading home and starting over again.

But the Escape Manor team was well-timed in its venture – the escape room industry as a whole has seen explosive growth in the past five years. In the United States, for example, the number of escape room operators has grown from a couple dozen in 2014 to nearly 2,350 this past year, according to an August report published by industry observer Room Escape Artist.

Everybody wants a piece

But the global rise of escape-ism isn’t the only reason the Ottawa-based company has stuck around for half a decade.

Escape Manor has built much of its business on strategic partnerships that not only provide the company with a fresh audience for its particular brand of entertainment, but allow it to cash in on the intense engagement generated by its experiences – a level of engagement most other brands would pay top dollar for.

In addition to the Bad Blood escape room, which played as an interactive commercial for the show’s upcoming season, Escape Manor has partnered with organizations such as Beau’s Brewery, the Historic Cornwall Jail and, most recently, the Communications Security Establishment on custom rooms that inform participants about the partner’s brand or history.

The Beau’s room, one of Escape Manor’s first partnerships, set players in a Canadian dystopia where prohibition has come into law and tasked them with protecting the Vankleek Hill brewery’s last remaining beer recipe; the CSE partnership is a cybersecurity-themed adventure that could see the room’s top codebreakers recruited for a real-life role with the Canadian intelligence agency.

Escape Manor’s most successful partnership, though, could be its team-up with the Diefenbunker, Canada’s Cold War museum just outside of Ottawa.

Billed as the world’s largest escape room, the Diefenbunker setting has players running through a full floor of the enormous industrial complex, uncovering secrets behind Cold War espionage amid a heart-pounding soundtrack. The experience, which couldn’t be further from the sterile education some museums are known to deliver, won numerous awards back in 2017 for breaking the mould on how to combine history and tourism.

Beyond the award recognition and the chance to build a room in a unique setting, Wilson says the Diefenbunker escape room and Escape Manor’s other effective partnerships work because of the new audiences the company is exposed to. He notes that there was a perfect overlap between the Diefenbunker’s traditional demographics and his company’s regular visitors: the mostly younger crowd from Escape Manor was exactly the new blood the Diefenbunker was looking for, while those who were coming for the museum had likely not been to an escape room before that.

“These partnerships have really opened up so many different avenues for us.”

“These partnerships have really opened up so many different avenues for us,” Wilson says.

While partnerships have proven effective for Escape Manor, the firm has to be selective these days. Overhead costs to design and build a room can be high, and if the result won’t fit the Escape Manor brand, it likely won’t be worth the effort.

“We have to pick our battles now,” Wilson says.

Though the company has set its rooms on sites stripped straight from the history books, there’s still one setting Wilson has his eye on: Parliament Hill. Escape Manor had engaged in talks to install a special escape room in George-Étienne Cartier’s preserved office on the Hill, but plans never came to fruition. Wilson remains hopeful he can build momentum again to land an escape room inside Canada’s most famous tourist attraction.

Presentation is everything

The early days of escape rooms were a bit like the wild west, Wilson says, with operators keen to protect their secrets from other competitors popping up across town. Today, the industry has matured and holds regular conferences where companies in different cities share tips and tricks of the trade in a non-competitive environment.

Wilson isn’t afraid of growing competition or naysayers who call escape rooms a passing fad. He believes what gives Escape Manor longevity is not the escapes at all, but rather the full-suite experience the company provides – the kinds of stories you take back to the water cooler the next day and sell others on the concept.

In Toronto, Escape Manor’s offerings include axe throwing and a full-service bar and lounge in addition to its escape rooms. The elements that keep people coming back aren’t the clues in the rooms or the beers on tap, Wilson says – it’s creating memorable moments and giving participants a place to decompress and laugh about what they just went through.

“There are 112 different operators in the GTA. And we marched right downtown and opened up right on King West. Because we know our product is that differentiated,” Wilson says.

“We have the hospitality, we have the environment and the service. And when people walk into another one, it’s like walking into a dentist’s office.”

Whether the industry continues to bloom or faces a contraction in coming years, Wilson believes Escape Manor has the formula it needs to stand out from the crowd.

“The strong will survive … The other ones will disappear,” he says.