The irrepressible human urge for adventure and escapism has manifested into a lucrative new sub-sector of the events industry. Like a real-life adventure video game, Escape Rooms offer a part-game/part-team building exercise themed around puzzles and perilous scenarios.
From prison breakouts to bomb dismantling, the popularity of Escape Rooms partly explains Channel 4’s decision to reboot the classic 90s TV show, the Crystal Maze. And, as ever, inspirational entrepreneurs are blazing the trail.
David Middleton and David Staffell are the brainchildren behind Bewilder Box, a puzzle-solving experience based in Brighton. We caught up with both of the Davids to find out what’s involved in setting up and running a successful Escape Room business.
How would you sum up Bewilder Box in a sentence?
David Staffell: An immersive puzzle solving activity like you’ve never seen before.
Can you briefly summarise your backgrounds and what you did before?
DM: My background is almost exclusively business to business sales, mainly tech-based, IT networks, that kind of thing. I learned so much about the nature of business working in that industry. Everything from high-end document/proposal writing to creating profit and cash flow forecasts and managing projects.
Eventually, I thought to myself….hang on, I’ve got pretty good at all this stuff, perhaps it’s time to start using these skills for my own projects, to make some cash for myself rather than other people. I think I’ve always had an itch to be my own boss and run my own business one day.
As a side to that I also (as more of a hobby) set myself little creative projects, usually for fun more than cash reward. I had a Superhero themed band for a while that had its own comic book, I’ve put on gigs and film quizzes, anything I fancied trying my hand at really. Bewilder Box for me was really a marriage of these two worlds.
DS: I’ve been running my own mobile personal training business for the last 8 or so years, which is obviously quite removed from what I’m doing now! My intense love of puzzles and games of all types is what really motivated me to get involved in the Escape Room industry, and I couldn’t be happier to be here.
I have also worked on and off as a freelance graphic designer over the years – which has helped out immeasurably.
What was the inspiration behind Bewilder Box? Was there a lightbulb moment when it came to you?
DS: We had gone away for DM’s stag do in Budapest at the end of 2015 and the Best Man had organised for us to do a couple of rooms out there. We were so impressed with the concept that we spent a good portion of that evening – and indeed the rest of the trip – talking about how exciting it must be to dream up puzzles and scenarios like the ones we had just done.
At the time of discussion, Brighton – our town – didn’t have any rooms, so we just made the decision to create one ourselves, and the rest is history.
What has been particularly wonderful about the whole journey is that not once did we ever doubt we could do this – and I believe that is down to the absolute love of the creative aspects of the project. I don’t think either of us could be more suited to a career than this one, and that is an amazing feeling.
DM: Yeah, that first room gave us the bug, we’ve done so many Escape Room games since, it’s become a bit of a hobby! As Dave said we were so buzzed after Budapest and yet still couldn’t shake the feeling that the experience could have been better, more immersive. The idea was that we would create our own Escape Room, but also weave in a story, a set, and multiple characters. Puzzling meets immersive theatre.
What were the challenges around launching the business? Where did you find your time being spent?
DS: Like all startups, money was one of our initial worries; particularly as we had no idea as to how much it would end up costing us to set-up. Estimates from a couple of thousand to hundreds of thousands of pounds had us tearing our hair out in the budget process. We decided that we were going to try and enlist the help of as many of our friends as possible to cut down costs and on reflection, this helped more than we could have imagined – but I digress.
To try and gain a bit of capital, as well as some traction with advertising, we ran a Kickstarter, which ended up being a roaring success (we raised £5,216 of our £3,000 target).
Dave and I both have a heightened attention to detail when it comes to the look and feel of our work – verging on perfectionism – and one of the main things that helped us cause such a splash with the KS was with the design and the amount of time we put into making sure it looked good – and that still holds today.
DM: The tough part about starting in a new industry… is it’s new! It’s not like you can go on an Escape Room design course (though perhaps there’s another business there somewhere). A lot of the time we were figuring things out as we went along and just hoping our ideas would work.
Thankfully the UK Escape Room community (all the owners) are incredibly supportive of each other. The more good games there are out there, the better it is for everyone. We asked so many questions and got so much help from them in the early days and we’re incredibly grateful for that.
What are the most effective marketing tools for a business like yours?
DM: It’s a strange beast selling an Escape Room. Essentially you’re asking people to part with money for a product that remains almost totally secret until they arrive for their booking. For that reason, we rely heavily on word of mouth and sites like TripAdvisor to bring in customers.
For totally new customers Facebook/Instagram’s targeted advertising is invaluable. The ability to run a campaign based around, say the TV show Knightmare or Red Dwarf (Bewilder Box features both Hugo Myatt and Norman Lovett) and target fans of those shows who are a certain age and live within a certain radius of us is an incredibly efficient way of reaching potential customers.
DS: We also have a video trailer which we use to promote our business (which we are particularly proud of – shout out to Wild Stag Studio in Brighton for making it). We’ve found that video content is a fantastic way to communicate a big message in a succinct way.
On top of direct advertising, we have enjoyed success from simply just engaging with our followers using silly or entertaining content relating to our industry/theme (games, puzzles, sci-fi, the Bewilder Box story itself).
How do you mark yourself from the competition both online and offline?
DM: We try as hard as we can to be innovative in what we do. The Escape Room industry is a relatively young one (in the UK it’s only started kicking off in the last few years) and we want to be at the front of that, driving and shaping it.
There are some levels which we can’t compete on (budgets for example!) so we concentrate on the things that we are good at, like being creative. When we design and make a puzzle for one of our games we’re always asking ourselves:
“Have we seen this before?”
“How can we make this different?”
“How can we add a twist to this that is going to make peoples jaws drop?”
It’s that process of thought that makes Bewilder Box so unique… that and enlisting some cult TV icons to star in our games of course.
DS: From a business perspective, having both worked in sales-like positions previously, one of the things we are also quite big on is customer service and our general customer-facing presence – both as a company, but also as individuals. You simply can’t beat the ‘above and beyond’ attitude when it comes to dealing with customers in a business. We have seen some absolutely dreadful practices when it comes to dealing with customers in the escape room industry.
Creatively, DM covered most of it – I just wanted to add that we also have a secret weapon up our sleeve in how we communicate with players – which is quite unique to the industry.