Some time after visiting The Enigma Room Sydney, I received an email from Matt – one of the business operators behind the company. He mentioned answering any questions I had about escape rooms and so I asked a few, curious to hear about the escape room business in Australia from the perspective of a business owner. Enjoy, I’ve left the answers as received and a huge thanks to Matt and The Enigma Room.
Q&A with Matt from The Enigma Room Sydney
Q. What was the inspiration to start Enigma Room and where did you play your first escape room game?
I played my first escape room at HintHunt in London. I was travelling there at the time, and saw that it was highly ranked on TripAdvisor as something fun to do, and having never heard of the concept, thought it was highly unusual that a nerdy indoor activity was more highly ranked than other typical London attractions. So I grabbed some friends who had moved to London recently and a group of us tried it out, and of course we all loved it. That was about 3 years ago.
So after coming back to Australia I thought it was just a matter of time before someone would open one locally. And I waited, and waited, but nothing really came of it, so after another trip overseas last year (this time to Singapore) where I played a few more escape rooms (Breakout, Freeing SG and Xcape) I started developing my own ideas, and told myself that if no one else was going to do it then I would do it myself.
Of course, as soon as I committed to the project a bunch of venues started opening up all around Australia, but hey, that’s totally fair enough, and in fact pretty exciting 🙂
So doing the designs for a few months on and off, I also managed to get my business partners Barry and Piyush on board. We were all mates from uni, doing university comedy revues together and hanging around with the same bunch of friends. We also enlisted plenty of other friends to help out in different capacities to help build the venue, construct some of the high-tech and low-tech puzzles and props, and plenty of other things too. At the end of the day, we’re a small independent operation that’s run by friends, and we want to be friends with all our players too 🙂
Q. Best and worst challenge you had to face when starting an escape room business?
The worst challenge starting an escape room business in Australia is probably the amount of red tape that we faced. We were hoping to open at the end of last year, but we found it exceedingly difficult to both lock down an appropriate venue and then get the relevant approvals to fitout the rooms. The particular laws and regulations in Australia heavily restrict the things you can do, from simple but fundamental concepts such as locking people in rooms, to providing sufficient ventilation and fire sprinkler coverage, to more mundane things like the type of door handles that we are required to install. All of these laws help to ensure that venues are safe, but they often take away from the immersion of any room and certainly giving people the impression that they’re ‘trapped’ in a room that they need to escape from. So navigating that took time, as well as the fact that the wheels of government turned quite slowly for us, so even when we had our plans locked in getting the final stamps of approval took an excruciatingly long time.
But the best challenge? From my personal point of view as a designer it’s making something unique and fun. Without quite knowing exactly how the Sydney market was going to react, I set about trying to design rooms which were going to be first and foremost fun to play, and that if you were having so much fun as a player you would lose track of the hour time limit and you’d come out with a big grin on your face. And coming up with different things from the puzzle design, the flow of the puzzles and how the rooms should look and feel was also an enjoyable challenge for us because we were always keeping in mind how the players would react to each element. We’re happy with the way things have turned out, but of course the process never truly ends, and we still always look at ways to keep upping the ante and improving our rooms as we go along. But in all honesty knowing that we get genuinely happy reactions keeps us chugging along as well 🙂
Q. What’s your view on the escape room market in Australia?
It’s an interesting mix at the moment. We’re an independent operator and I know of a few other independent homegrown operators (such as the highly successful Escape Room Melbourne). However, there’s a lot of players coming in from overseas, such as Paniq Room and Parapark opening up venues in Sydney, and there are also other established companies expanding into the market such as Strike Bowling with their Escapism rooms. That said, the unique thing about escape rooms is that we aren’t at all like other industries such as the hospitality industry. You can go to a cafe and love the coffee there so much so you’ll never go to the cafe next door. But with escape rooms, once you play one room, you’re done, and so you’re off to the next room or the next venue if you want more. And so the ‘competition’ isn’t really competition after all, because we hope that if people have a good experience at a venue they’ll shop around for more.
In that sense, we don’t see the market as cluttered or crowded at the moment, and in fact we’d welcome new operators with open arms. The only thing that we’re wary of is shoddy operators coming into the market, because we’re all in this together. If people end up having bad experiences, that’ll hurt the entire industry as a whole. Thankfully I think there are more operators on the “light” side rather than the “dark” side.
One other point that I’ll make which relates to your post about escape room venues around Australia. Australia presents its own set of issues because of it’s relatively low population, but also with the density of each city. Although originally a Sydneysider, I’m a Canberran now, and as much as I’d love to open up a venue in Canberra (it’s still on the cards!) it’s challenging because of the much smaller population there as well as the significantly smaller tourist market. I imagine other cities around Australia would have the same problem too, such as Hobart, Adelaide and Darwin. Obviously I hope this situation changes, but the reality is that escape rooms have a maximum earning capacity based on how many people you can get though per day, and opening up a room can require a reasonable initial investment. So although it’s not impossible, I can see that it would be a challenge to make businesses in these areas viable.
Even if you look at Sydney itself there are similar geographical issues. At the moment the majority of venues are found in the CBD or surrounds, with only Parapark (that I know of) located further out west at Macquarie Park. Yet the population of Sydney is spread far and wide in every direction, meaning the CBD isn’t necessarily the easiest place to get to for a lot of people. I wonder if we’ll see more venues opening up in further flung places such as Parramatta, Penrith, Hornsby or Cambelltown one day.
Q. Finally, any advice for potential escape room players?
* Be as hands on as you possibly can. Unless you’ve been told not to touch/hold/interact with something, then do it.
* Search search search! You can solve a puzzle unless you have all the pieces in front of you, so look high and low for anything that looks relevant.
* Think about what your objectives are. Got a padlock? You’re after a key. If you see a 4 digit combination lock, then you’ll somehow need to find or generate some numbers. So keep in mind what you should be after.
* Finally, keep talking! If you find something, tell everyone in your team about it. And if you think of a solution, tell everyone about it and try it out. There are no dumb ideas until you find out it doesn’t work, but better that than discounting a crazy idea which ends up being the correct solution!
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