It has been a bumpy couple of years for Escape Manor.
At the outset, 2020 promised to be a banner year for the Ottawa-founded company. Instead, real-world lockdowns dealt a major blow to its traditional business of locking up small groups of people for fun.
In April 2020, Escape Manor was forced to lay off roughly 180 workers in Ontario and the owners themselves stopped drawing paycheques. The blows were blunted somewhat by the company’s locations in Australia (Brisbane) and Saskatchewan (Regina and Saskatoon), which were less impacted by lockdowns, as well as by a quick pivot to virtual escapes.
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Co-owner and vice-president of marketing, Steve Wilson, tells OBJ that Escape Manor is ready to get back to in-person business in a big way, thanks to a new “epic downtown location,” which will help the business chart a fresh direction.
“Our traditional locations were just escape rooms in a bar, whereas this is the evolution of our brand, the evolution of our company; this is a holistic, immersive, entertainment mecca,” Wilson says of the new 11,600 square foot location on Elgin Street. The space will accommodate up to 600 guests and feature seven unique escape experiences, as well as an entire floor dedicated to food, drink and games, including a bocce ball court, gamified darts and giant Jenga.
“All games to get people off their phones and get them active, reconnecting with their friends and peers and reclaiming their social lives,” Wilson explains.
The new location will open mid- to late November. Earlier this month, Escape Manor received $100,000 from Ottawa Tourism to “support the development of a new entertainment attraction in the heart of Ottawa’s downtown core.” The funding originates from the federal Tourism Relief Fund.
Wilson says it’s been a natural evolution of the business. The four co-owners — Wilson, Chris Bisson, Billy Rogers and Neil Schwartz — launched Escape Manor in 2014 with a goal of disrupting the traditional entertainment scene. At the same time, they always knew their approach would need to evolve.
“What we learned is that our guests were often making a night or a day of it and going off to separate venues to have dinner,” Wilson says. “Or for our team-building groups they were going off to another venue for a debrief or for coaching.” A full soundstage, 100-person patio, lounge, restaurant and meeting rooms now make those options available in-house.
In many ways, the pandemic merely delayed an evolution that was already underway. In 2018, Escape Manor opened a 15,000-square-foot location on tony King Street West in downtown Toronto.
“That’s where we took our first crack at a full restaurant,” Wilson says. “As well as a lounge, DJs, axe-throwing arena, bocce ball court, patio, murder mysteries; all under one roof.” He says they always planned to build on that Toronto success with a more immersive venue here in Ottawa.
“The pandemic has set us back but we’ve now found our perfect address after a lengthy search and overcoming some hurdles,” Wilson says. “And now Ottawa is finally going to get a flagship location that will be the testing kitchen for locations across Ontario and Saskatchewan.”
Wilson says Escape Manor’s short-term goals in Ottawa include capturing as much corporate and holiday business as possible at the new location, especially since November through January are traditionally the busiest months for the company.
More broadly, the owners hope to open five to 10 locations over the same number of years, with the goal of having locations in most major Canadian cities and parts of the eastern U.S.