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NTU Sustainability in Enterprise

A Keymaster in Notts

6 October 18 illustrations: Alex McDougall

"Escape rooms have been labeled as the biggest entertainment trend since cinema. Is it going to slow down? Who knows?"

I love escape rooms. Since I first started doing them in 2014, I’ve never had a bad experience, but I have played bad rooms. There was just something missing from the whole experience. You could be told that you’re heading into a sunken galleon to find Blackbeard’s treasure, only to find yourself in a derelict office with lackluster Halloween decorations, cheap pirate costumes and Wilko’s padlocks. It broke the immersive nature of the experience. If I’m going to promise you something, it’s got to feel like your own personal adventure and it has to be believable.

I used to create team-building exercises for corporate events, so I’ve always been very creative in coming up with games and ideas. My mum always says I’m Peter Pan; the boy who never grew up. I’m 44 now. I got sick of going out for dinner and seeing people on their phones; it made me realise that there’s nothing tangible in the world anymore. That shaped my ethos, so I tend not to get too techy. Technology will always let you down, whereas old-school theatrical-style magic never gets old. Our rooms are very tangible; I want you to feel like you’re in your own little movie for an hour.

I come up with all of the room concepts. It can happen when I’m playing with my kids, watching the news or looking at my chickens out the window; something will just pop into my head. I regularly wake up in the night with an answer to a puzzle that I’ve been trying to work out. It never stops. Even when I go on holiday, I’m constantly seeing things that inspire me; I’ll just grab a napkin and start scribbling. It makes my brain tired, and it can be impossible to step away.

When I was creating one of our rooms, the fictional character the story is about, Curio, was in my peripheral vision all the time. One night I couldn’t sleep because he just wouldn’t stop rambling on. It was his home, and he was trying to tell me exactly where things should be. That room just won a Golden Key award, where it was named one of the twenty best escape rooms in Europe.  

I like to push the boundaries. There are ideas I’ve tried over the years that I just haven’t been able to get done. I wanted to electrify a gate, but I was told I wasn’t allowed. I also want to create a room that fills with water, so people are literally gasping for air at the top. That’s proving very difficult, but never say never.

There’s no such thing as a normal day, or “that Monday-morning feeling”. People always ask me if it’s boring watching people do the same rooms over and over again, eight times a day, seven days a week, but every group is different. One of our biggest fans is 86 years old. She’s played every single room, she’s wrestled a serial killer, retrieved a chemical sample from an earthquake, been in an eighteenth-century crypt, all while wearing her slippers. We have one room in particular, Butcher, that one in five people quit. It’s scary, and they don’t know what they’re getting themselves in for. As soon as we shut that door, we hear them shouting their safe word.

The Nottingham scene is thriving, and I’d say it’s the escape-room capital of the UK

We get people who don’t understand the concept at all. When we first opened, 95% of people had no idea what they were. People freak out and think they’re going to get locked in, or they’ll become claustrophobic. We get a bad review every now and again, but so does the Eiffel Tower and Disney Land. We had one bad review from a guy who played a room that was set in a chemical research centre during the aftermath of a massive earthquake. Everything in there is broken, and the object is to fix things in order to retrieve chemical samples and save humanity. His review said: “It was rubbish, I just sat on a filing cabinet the whole time, and everything was broken.” Well yeah, that’s the point; you’re in the aftermath of an earthquake, you idiot.  

Some customers have told us that they get a weird vibe in our rooms. I contacted a medium and asked for a quote to come check us out. I’m on the fence with that whole thing, but when he said it was £250, I thought “Why not?” The moment I opened the door, he told me that there was so much energy present, he was happy to do it for free. He saw the spirit of a guy in our corridor that hated me, and wouldn’t stop shouting and swearing. One of our staff members found it hilarious, and started trying to rile this spirit up. As he was doing it, he literally tripped over nothing and faceplanted the wall. He said he couldn’t put his hands up because something was stopping him, and ended up scraping his face quite badly.

The medium also told me that there was the spirit of a murdered sex worker called Jo in one of our rooms, and even pointed to a spot on the floor where she’d been buried. He let me know that his presence would have likely stirred up these spirits, and that I should expect some activity as a result. For that entire weekend, our camera took nothing but blank, black photos, and on the Monday morning I got a call saying that on the exact spot Jo was buried, a perfectly square hole opened in the ground. It was all very bizarre.  

Escape rooms have been labeled as the biggest entertainment trend since cinema. Is it going to slow down? Who knows? When we opened in May 2015, there were only 25 in the UK, now there’s over 1000. The Nottingham scene is thriving, and I’d say it’s the escape-room capital of the UK, so I’m not going to stop just yet. “If you build it they will come” doesn’t always apply, but if people want more, I’m going to deliver.

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