COVID-19: great challenges for escape rooms

Dozens of escape arcades reopen this week in Quebec. They are weakened by months of closures and the reluctance of some customers to venture indoors. Despite everything, their operators still believe in the future of the sector, whose expansion was lightning fast before the pandemic.

“You have to find evidence of the diamond trafficking,” orders an inspector Émile Ducharme, Maïté Sierra and their friend, in a dark Montreal bar in the 1920s.

The inspector is actually Guillaume Piché, a master of the game at Échappe-toi Montréal, and the kegs are part of the decor. This Tuesday, at 4 pm, the small group of friends are the first, since 21 December 2021, to try to solve a puzzle in the premises of this former factory in the Sainte-Marie district.

In the company lobby, the next group are colleagues who finally indulge in their canceled Christmas social. “It’s nice to chat, to create friendly bonds, to take your mind off things”, rejoices Jean-François Marceau. For their part, they will meet in a hockey locker room to develop a game plan that will allow them to catch up with two goals from their team.

Échappe-toi is one of the first escape game companies to emerge in Quebec. There are currently seven arcades there and two more are in the process of being finalized. Its owner, Emmanuel de Gouvello, has seen the number of companies in this sector increase from three in 2014 to over 80 today in the province.

However, many of them find themselves in a precarious situation, estimates de Gouvello, who heads the Association des jeux d’aventure du Québec, founded in spring 2020. In the last two years they have been among the last activities to be able to reopen. They thus lost a lot of manpower. “When we reopened at the end of June 2021 we no longer had anyone,” reports the director of operations, Mathilde Lucet.

Discouraging message from the government

When the arcades reopened, traffic wasn’t always there. In less than six months since opening in 2021, Mr. de Gouvello estimates that his business has welcomed only about a third of his regular annual clientele. “Even when you have the right to be open, the government tells people to limit their social contacts. However, in essence, we are a social activity ”, explains Mr. de Gouvello.

The entrepreneur claims that the escape games are safe, the rooms are disinfected between each group, and the ventilation is adequate. Despite everything, people are reluctant to leave their homes. “Between 20% and 40% of our sales depend on the activities of the corporate teams,” he continues. However, there are hardly any customers coming from companies anymore. “

The owner of the Montreal chain A / Maze says he fears for the future of his business. “We used to have large groups. Now people come more in pairs or in small groups. When you have two people instead of six, you earn three times less ”, emphasizes Alexander Karpov.

He adds that, unlike other lines of business, their services cannot be offered online or take away. The pandemic, however, prompted him to develop an outdoor game offering, as well as improve his indoor games.

Many escape game companies are heavily in debt. A small center located in Pointe-aux-Trembles, Vizium, opened its doors in March 2020. The company therefore did not have time to build its clientele and is ineligible for the federal financial assistance program. “We have $ 90,000 in debt,” says co-owner Jonathan Hamel. He says he managed to survive thanks to his other activity, in the construction field.

Despite everything, one cannot give up at the very beginning of this adventure. He already has reservations for the reopening of Vizium on Friday and feels motivated for the future.

Innovate to move forward

Échappe-toi had to close its Laval office fairly quickly after the outbreak of the pandemic due to rental problems. In the spring of 2021, the owners of Vortex Montreal and Find the Key Montreal were so disheartened that they intended to go out of business.

“I wanted to sell everything, drop everything,” says Daniel Preda, founder of Find the Key.

Mr. de Gouvello then suggested pooling their resources. By joining, they saved overheads, cut paperwork, and leveraged each other’s strengths.

Escape room owners now look to the future with more hope. They are convinced that customers want to return to games and that it will always be possible to attract them with a more innovative offer. Games developed today include technologies, sometimes even virtual reality components, to create more and more surprises and wonder, de Gouvello points out.

Escaparium owner in Dorval and Laval, Jonathan Driscoll, says he has invested more than $ 500,000 for a single game and employs 15 full-time people to create the story, sets and special effects for its rooms.

“Our dream is to be the Disney of escape rooms,” says Driscoll.

He notes that players are increasingly demanding and that it is therefore more difficult today to enter this market with modest investments. Contrary to what has been in recent years, this industry is therefore no longer an El Dorado for small business owners, but is transforming to offer new experiences to puzzle and thrill seekers.

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