Interview with Stuart Rowlands, proprietor of Clue HQ

"Clue HQ" logoOne way to measure the merit of an exit game is to look at public reviews; another is to talk to people who run exit games and see which ones they recommend apart from their own. In this regard, one site that comes up again and again as being recommended by other exit game proprietors is Clue HQ of Warrington – and it has a reputation for being fiercely difficult. Just look at the number of teams who have escaped and the much higher number of teams who haven’t! It’s been very revealing and a great deal of fun to talk with propretor Stuart Rowlands.The questions asked by Exit Games are tagged with EG and Stuart’s responses with SR below.

  • EG: What’s your background and how did that lead you up to the opening of Clue HQ?
  • SR: My background has always been in the leisure industry, with a bit of media production thrown in too. I’ve worked at a few theme parks, and more recently started to manage then create scare attractions – maybe this is why our first 2 games have a slightly creepy/dark feel! I also run another company, Ride Segway.
     
    A friend and I had heard about the idea with the London games and when it got to the top of Trip Advisor it was very hard not to go and see what was so exciting about being locked in a room! We visited Puzzlair in Bristol which has the John Monroe room, and thoroughly enjoyed it. We we’re really excited to do more and also visited Clue Quest in London. At the time the closest game we could find up north was Keyhunter in Birmingham, therefore thought we would have a go at setting up our own.
     
  • EG: What has your background taught you in terms of customer service, but also in terms of managing people’s expectations?
  • SR: My previous jobs have had me working in places where sometimes the people’s expectations would be mismanaged. Customer (or ‘Guest’ as we refer to it) service is by far the most important thing to ensure people come back. In previous jobs, it’s been about people through the door, and it’s always been a secondary thought about Guest Service. Exit Games are not always the cheapest attraction to visit (like my other company) but what’s important is that every guest feels valued and that they have had true ‘personal’ treatment and real value for money.
     
    For years now I’ve felt that good guest service hits you in the face a little bit – and it shouldn’t. That should always be the level when visiting an attraction, especially when escaping (excuse the pun) from reality for an hour or 2. These days, including myself, are ready to expect disappointment. I spend a lot of time with my team trying to ensure high levels of guest care, and I’m really proud of the team at Clue HQ.
     
  • EG: Do you think there is potential for further crossover between scare attractions and exit games? There are 66 sites in Budapest at the moment, and the first one of them to open had a name that translates to “Fear Park”.
  • SR: There is definitely opportunity for more of a crossover. We’ve got a good idea reserved for next Halloween. With TV programmes such as Release The Hounds I think ‘escaping the room’ whilst having surprises definitely could appeal to some. However, even with our Dungeon of Doom game people already come with a fear it’s going to be really scary.
     
  • EG: How has Warrington taken to its first exit game?
  • SR: Warrington seems to have taken it’s first exit game really well. Around 90% of our guests have never been to an exit game before so are a bit confused when they walk in to what it’s all about (just like we did in my first game). The feedback has been overwhelming, but brilliant. We always follow up any visits with an e-mail to see if there is anything else we could add to the game in order to improve.
     
  • EG: What techniques have worked well for you at getting the word out around Cheshire?
  • SR: I think one of the best things we’ve done is embrace Trip Advisor. Many of our guests book solely because we’re number 1 for the Cheshire area. Recently (as reported by you) Trip Advisor has reclassified all exit games which means exposure has been reduced somewhat which is disappointing, not only for us but all exit games in the UK.
     
  • EG: What are your favourite sorts of puzzles, regardless of whether they fit into an exit game or not?
  • SR: Physical puzzles are probably the things which people enjoy the most, and I’m no different. My favourite clues in both of our games are both physical clues.
     
  • EG: Which puzzles, games and other artworks have influenced you most over the years in your designs?
  • SR: The Crystal Maze is often referred to on site by guests, although I wouldn’t say it directly influenced any design within the games we’ve designed.
     
  • EG: Warrington has a lot of things going for it, not least its convenience for both Mancunians and Liverpudlians, but, with respect, it is not known as a great tourist destination. What convinced you that Warrington was the right town to set up in?
  • SR: I knew Warrington relatively well from previous work and also had access to a really good team to start the ball rolling there. We believed we could get more for our money (with our budget) by setting up in Warrington to start with, and the access to from Liverpool to Manchester has been a very good one – especially being located directly under the station. Our visitors come from as far as North Wales (especially during the summer). This enabled us to get a space with potential for at least 4 games, which we wouldn’t have been able to do at the time in Manchester. We nearly ended up opposite another exit game in Manchester after a few viewings.
     
  • EG: Do you tend to find that locals tend to visit the site at certain times in the week and tourists tend to visit at other times?
  • SR: I’d agree with that. More tourists do travel up at the weekends.
     
  • EG: How did you find your location within Warrington? What are you looking for in a good location?
  • SR: We knew our first game was going to be Bunker 38 and therefore we wanted something which lended itself well to that theme. I also wanted a building where we could control the light easily without having to board up all the windows. A slightly hidden location is also nice. Just to find Clue Quest in London can be a bit of a challenge – and I liked that. When people walk in we want to add to the mysteriousness of the games with music and with our games hosts.
     
  • EG: Your games have a reputation for being among the most challenging of them all, borne out by your very aggressive “escaped:dead” ratios. It’s wonderful that there can be a choice available of relatively accessible games and utterly ruthless games, and in an ideal world everybody would find the game and the room that’s right for them. Why did you decide to pitch your games so far up the difficulty spectrum?
  • SR: The truth is we really didn’t know how hard either of the games would be before the first test games. I’d never designed an escape game before. I think it was around 3 weeks after opening that we had our first group escape. The same with the Dungeon of Doom room when that opened in October. Obviously we know how many ‘clue points’ there are, but with Bunker 38 we were really at an unknown. I was convinced when our first test gamers entered they would be out within 30 minutes! We spend so long looking at all of the clues they look so obvious.
     
    The Dungeon of Doom had one objective from the offset, and that was to be tougher than Bunker 38 – due to people coming back and being wise to some of our tricks. All operators can tell a group from if it’s their first time, compared to if they’ve done one before. Our first test group for The Dungeon of Doom escaped within 92 minutes (we carry test games on until completion), and after which the game was modified to make it flow better and removed some of the clue stages.
     
    When escaping the John Monroe room on our first visit, we had so many clues that we didn’t really feel any accomplishment in escaping (although we enjoyed everything about it). The 2nd time at Clue Quest, 3 of us had 3 clues and got out with 1 or 2 seconds to go. We really felt like we had achieved something in order to escape. Having such a tough ‘reputation’ makes people who do escape go bananas and literally run up and down the corridor celebrating.
     
  • EG: How did you feel the first couple of times each of your rooms was cracked?
  • SR: I wasn’t actually at the site on both occasions when each room was cracked for the first time. I can, however, remember both of the ‘first games’ for each room with the public. It’s an incredibly proud but nervous moment when the first paying guests arrive to play the game for 60 minutes. We’re still learning the game ourselves (with our handy paper guide) and just hoping all the clues work as planned.
     
    I remember sitting in the booth on several occasions whilst watching the Dungeon of Doom game with people agonisingly close hoping they’ll get out. It’s like when you’re watching your football team go on the attack and your shouting at the TV from home, then they either score or miss – for me at least, the reaction is the same when watching groups!
     
  • EG: What makes an ideal exit game employee?
  • SR: Someone with enthusiasm for the game, good tech skills with a keen eye for detail. They bring the story to life, and set the scene when guests walk in. Also, we like our hosts to have a good sense of humour and they are allowed to send that over the screen. Technology can go wrong, so having a good knowledge of what can go wrong is a really good thing to have. Lastly, the eye for detail is most crucial when resetting the game – ensuring everything is perfect for the game after.
     
  • EG: What are the most memorable reactions from players that you have witnessed?
  • SR: This is a hard one to answer without giving anything away. Let say, guests think they are at the end of the game when infact their not. We’ve had some great celebration when a certain ‘thing’ has been opened only for them to realise it’s not the end of the game (or not even close). A jokeful number of ‘choice’ words are normally aimed at the poor games host. It’s a great feeling though because you know they’ve been ‘surprised’ by the game.
     
  • EG: Do you have any particularly funny stories from the time you’ve been open?
  • SR: It’s amazing seeing how people approach problems differently, this does create some funny anomalies. One group attempted to build a human pyramid in order to see high up with something. We now have to say to guests during our pre-game speech not to climb on each other. This often gets a laugh and a confused look – to which we have to explain what actually happened! If anyone is thinking of playing Bunker 38 – you don’t need to do this! We also have a suit inside one of the games which people often think they need to put on.
     
  • EG: Recently, you Tweeted that “Work has well and truly begun on our 3rd game”. It may be at an extremely early stage, but are there any teasers that you can reveal about your thinking behind it?
  • SR: At the moment we don’t want to commit as it still needs plans approving etc and if we hit a snag we’ll have to change the theme. However, it will involve another ‘twist’. The Bunker has 1 objective and that’s to escape. The Dungeon of Doom has 2, to breakout the trapped member of the team, then escape. Game 3 will have 2 objectives to, but all the team will stay together.
     
  • EG: Will your third game be at your current location?
  • SR: Yes, Game 3 will be located our Warrington location.
     
  • EG: What level of challenge do you anticipate setting for it?
  • SR: The level will be similar to Bunker 38, maybe a bit harder. The 2nd objective will also have a competitive angle which will be a big part of it.
     
  • EG: Can you suggest anything about your longer-term plans after that?
  • SR: We’re already looking at a 2nd site but cannot disclose the location as of yet unfortunately. When we build game 3, we will also be building the basis for game 4 in Warrington too. Hopefully, by April 2015 we’ll have all 4 games operational. Bunker 38 will be replaced at some point to make room for new games.
     
  • EG: You have one of the most distinctive and beautiful web sites of any exit game that this site knows. Is there anything that frustrates you about other games’ web sites?
  • SR: Not really, I think all the sites work well for their own location.
     
  • EG: Knowing what you do now about running your business, if you had your time all over again, what (if anything) might you do differently?
  • SR: There are always things that you’d do differently. During the build the design of a few walls would change, along with the layout of ClueHQ as a whole. But we tried to plan everything very carefully and this has paid off in the long term.
     
  • EG: If you could predict the future for exit games, how do you think it would look?
  • SR: I think it looks very positive. Obviously with quite a few games now open in the North West there could be a risk of there being too many. However, once the room has been done, it cannot be done again (although we’ve had a few people returning to the same room before moving onto the next). Breakout Manchester visited us shortly after opening and have said very kind things about our rooms, leading to bookings directly from guests who have visited them (we can’t thank them enough for this). We try to return the favour wherever possible as people often ask where there are other escape games. Although you’ll always be compared to other rooms and other sites – people will still want to try other nearby games which is only a positive thing for the new industry.
     
  • EG: If you could give the readers, exit game players and puzzle fans reading this one piece of advice, what would it be?
  • SR: If it doesn’t have a ‘leave’ sticker on it – it’s fair game.

Thanks so much for that, Stuart! Fingers crossed, it’s going to be a really exciting few months for Clue HQ; this site wishes them the best of luck and success with their endeavours and looks forwards to seeing just what will happen next.

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