Having launched his successful escape room experiences business several years ago, Michael Rowland was suddenly facing an unprecedented challenge. With the impact of the pandemic forcing people to stay home, visitors were no longer able to travel and get to his company’s escape room locations in Chattanooga and Nashville, Tennessee. All event businesses in the state also had to close their doors, and suddenly weren’t able to serve their regular customers.
However, demand for virtual escapes was booming in the early part of the year, and this led Michael to switching his business over to virtual escape room experiences – transforming his fortunes. This allowed him to reach customers not just visiting the state, but around the world directly from their homes.
In our interview with Michael, discover how the virtual experiences industry is taking off, how it’s making an impact on people that have felt isolated following the pandemic, and what the future trends are for people interacting through virtual reality game experiences.
In discussion with Michael Rowland.
How did you first get into the business?
Years ago before escape rooms were a common fun activity to play everywhere you go, a group of friends and I decided to try one for the first time. I remember how skeptical we all felt about the whole concept of being locked inside a room. And when our game host took us into the room we were about to be locked up in, I remember one of us actually spoke out in disbelief saying, “Is this all there is to it!?” Although only one of us said it out loud, we were all thinking it. Five minutes into the one hour game, with each second speeding by on the large countdown clock staring down at us in the room – we were hooked for life! We all had such a great time that we came again and played another room the following week. We loved the concept so much that two of us decided it was time to stop everything we were doing and open one up in our hometown of Chattanooga, Tennessee. A year later we opened another location in Nashville, Tennessee, and the business has been growing ever since – at least up until around March of this year (2020).
What were the factors that led you to starting a virtual escape room service?
Before COVID, about 85% of our revenues came from tourists looking for something fun to do while visiting our towns. But by the end of March, no one was traveling anymore. We were on our way to going out of business really fast. I remember talking with one of my managers in the backroom about the distress we were having when the lockdowns first started to roll in. We thought, “This will only last a few more weeks and we can probably just ride it out.” Before long it became clear that the lockdowns and the lack of travelers were a problem that wasn’t going to go away anytime soon. We knew we had to do something, and fast. The virtual escape room concept with a live remote avatar operative in the room started out as an absolute joke – we didn’t seriously think we would do it, and we certainly never thought anyone would actually want to play virtually. The virtual concept was an idea born out of complete desperation to figure out a way to sell tickets, keep our staff employed, and as a business to survive the pandemic.
What has been the feedback from people that have switched to a virtual room experience?
Overwhelmingly positive. At first, people were just excited to have a fun activity to play together with friends and family online. We sent emails to all of our former in-person guests to let them know about the new services we were offering during lockdown and how they could help support our business by playing with our staff online. I think that’s why some of the first virtual customers played – they wanted to support our business. Later, it became clear as more cities across the globe became completely locked down, virtual customers were using our virtual experience for family reunions – an excuse to corral the family, the friends and the loved ones who might be scattered all over the world into a single Zoom or Google Meet, since they couldn’t physically be together in-person. People were just so happy to see each other and be able to participate in something fun together online with the people they loved. Some people started having virtual date nights with us. (This was before Zoom was such a common household name and concept.) Later, we started having lots of escape room companies playing in our virtual experience. For those that asked, we were more than happy to share with them what we had already learned about running virtual experiences and how they could transform their existing brick and mortar escape rooms into online games.
The next phase of players were remote workers and corporate clients looking for fun team-building activities to do online. Today, our virtual team-building business is actually our largest source of revenue.
Can you share some insights on how virtual clients can get connected and what they can expect?
The easiest way to book a virtual escape room experience is by using our online calendar on our website. You can easily reserve one of any of our five themed virtual escape room games. We operate experiences seven days a week, so you can probably find a time on our online booking schedule that will meet your needs. For larger groups (more than 10 people), you may want to contact us directly. One of our virtual group coordinators can help you set up a custom booking, allowing your whole team to get started in multiple virtual escape rooms at the same time.
Since the launch of your virtual escape room, the industry has been moving toward virtual experiences as a whole. Where do you see things going in the coming years?
Definitely more virtual experiences. I know we’re already working to increase our capacities and add more virtual room options. Like us, I envision that other escape room companies will start designing games with virtual play in mind first and foremost. Also, in the future, escape room stores won’t necessarily need to be located in high-cost rent areas inside major tourist destination cities. Instead, they’ll be in warehouses or similar locations. Game props won’t have to be made to be indestructible, because only the employees will be handling them. The game design process will place its first focus on the virtual experience, and in-person gaming experience, although still important, may become less of a focus.
You also specialize in team-building escape room experiences. How can people get involved who work from home?
Virtual team-building has been huge for us, and the feedback and repeat business we’ve received from our corporate clients has been awesome. At our current capacity, we can accommodate about 80-100 virtual team-building participants simultaneously inside eight different virtual experiences. We’ve hosted multi-sessioned team-building groups as large as 300+ participants, and virtual clients have ranged from small and publicly traded companies from all over the globe, to community colleges and major universities. Our virtual team-building experiences are a great way to connect remote workers and students studying from home. And since we host companies from overseas, we gladly schedule these events around the clock to accommodate the needs of our clients – even if the games start at 2:00 or 3:00AM in our time zone.
From an entrepreneur’s perspective, what is it that you most enjoy about the gaming business?
I like having fun! Who doesn’t? What I like best about owning and running an escape room game business is that all operations are centered around the idea of helping our customers have fun. For similar reasons, I also co-own another business – an interactive museum – that focuses on pinball and classic arcade games – also fun! Overall, I like that we offer services that are quite literally intended to be an “escape” from the everyday norm and in more recent times the grim reality of this pandemic and the changes it’s brought to our personal and work life. At Escape Experience, we get to immerse people from all over the world inside our exciting themed games, together, and for a brief period of time (about an hour), they can forget about whatever challenges they may be having at home and focus on working together doing something fun and exciting. We don’t just sell escape rooms, we sell fun memories and shared positive experiences, and I really like doing that.
What’s next in store for the Escape Experience?
More growth and expansion! As always we’re going to be building new brick and mortar escape rooms with new and exciting themes. We’ve learned so much about escape room game design since we started doing this in 2014. The games just keep getting better! But from now on, our new game and puzzle designs will be more centered around how they can be played virtually. We’re going to design games for the virtual world first and foremost, because the virtual world has a much larger pool of potential players – it’s a global marketplace for us now. Anyone, anywhere, can play in one of our creations, and we plan to keep on creating and growing.