Escape rooms: the great escape

Property Week checks out the latest entrant to the competitive socialising market - the escape room - and asks whether it’s here to stay or just a passing fad.

In today’s fast-paced, high-stress world, people are craving experiences and activities that involve fun and social interaction. The result is a rise in ‘competitive socialising’ and it’s becoming big business.

Crazy golf, ping pong and darts clubs are among the competitive socialising trends that have taken London, and now the regions, by storm. And there’s a new craze in town: escape rooms.

Like The Crystal Maze for the masses, teams of people pay to be locked in a room and have to find and solve clues to get out within an allotted timeframe.

So how is the new phenomenon unfolding? And what are operators’ requirements?

According to market research company Mintel’s Leisure Review, published last month, 48% of UK adults have experienced or would be interested in experiencing escape rooms. And when it comes to millennials, that percentage is significantly higher.

“The boundaries between what are deemed child and adult experiences have gone,” says Helen Fricker, senior leisure analyst at Mintel. “Adults are seeking experiences that remind them of childhood.”

Mike Wimble, a partner at Knight Frank, has seen competitive socialising take off in a big way over the past two to three years. He points out that just as people consume more information than they used to, and more quickly, they have a desire to consume experiences in the same way. Part of the appeal is the promise of escapism.

Living in the moment

“Day-to-day life has become very stressful and pressurised so people are looking for ways of living more in the moment,” explains Dr Rachel Andrew, a clinical psychologist at Time Psychology. “There is something about the idea of people wanting to do things together and make memories as a group.”

Escape room operators have tapped in to these societal changes and are rolling out new concepts. Time Out magazine lists 16 escape room brands in London alone, including Hint Hunt, Mission: Breakout! and Breakin’ Escape Rooms. Each has different games, variations and levels of difficulty and they have proven hugely popular with groups of friends as well as corporate companies that use them for team building.

What makes them attractive for landlords is that escape room operators are often happy to take space in secondary locations and in units that other occupiers would deem unsuitable, including basement units.

“They don’t need much external frontage, but they do need to be close to town or city centres as a lot of trade comes from companies that use them for team building,” says Richard Thomas, associate director in the leisure team at Savills, who completed a deal on an escape room at Goodman’s Field in Aldgate last month. “They are seen as alternative leisure and something a bit different from normal activities like watching a film at the cinema. They give landlords an interesting option.”

They are seen as alternative leisure and something a bit different from normal activities like watching a film at the cinema - Richard Thomas, Savills

As escape rooms are such a new and potentially fleeting trend, signing up such operators can be a risk for landlords. However, many are willing to take a punt. In August, Escape Reading signed for a 2,000 sq ft unit at Broad Street Mall after owner Moorgarth instructed its agent to find alternative uses for the scheme’s leisure offering.

“We wanted to bring a broad range of things into the centre,” says Moorgarth Group managing director Gary Lewis. “The escape room concept is new so you’re not going to have grade-A covenant, but we’re broad-minded and we will take that broad-minded view on covenants - we are very willing to take a chance on new companies starting up.”

One of the new start-ups in the subsector is Mission: Breakout! It opened its first escape room experience in Camden in 2016. The venue is a former air raid shelter turned tube station, which had long since been abandoned when owner David Previski moved his concept in.

Previski decided to design a game based on the true story of the Second World War codebreakers as a nod to the venue’s history. So determined was Previski to create a seemingly authentic experience that all of the props and interior fittings were fully custom made.

The game is suitable for all ages and teams are made up of three to six players.

Exponential growth

Previski says the escape room market is one of “exponential growth” and he is set to further capitalise on it - he plans to open a game room at the same location at the end of the year in which teams will have to investigate what happened to a fictional character who disappeared from the tube station in 1924.

When it comes to staying relevant, he says virtual reality games are “just around the corner”, although he believes that would spawn a new concept that would be far removed from the original escape room experiences.

Clearly operators are thinking ahead. But will escape rooms disappear as quickly as they sprang up?

Alice Keown, food and beverage asset manager at British Land doesn’t think so. “I don’t think it is a fad but for operators like those of escape rooms the future is heavily weighted towards how good their technology is and making sure they keep ahead of the curve.”

Millennials expect to be entertained. Simply going to dinner isn’t enough any more - Mike Wimble, Knight Frank

As well as adopting tech, operators would be well advised to incorporate a food and drink offering, according to Wimble.

“The millennial generation expects to be entertained,” he says. “Simply going to dinner isn’t enough any more - just eating great food doesn’t tick the boxes. If [escape room operators] offer food and drink as well as the escape room game, it’s a whole evening experience - it helps the operator keep people on site.”

It seems that if operators can diversify, adapt and evolve, they could well have staying power.

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