A second interview with Paul Bart, CEO and Founder of The Escape Hunt Experience

Escape Hunt global logoOne of the early highlights of this blog was an interview conducted very nearly six months ago with Paul Bart, the CEO and founder of The Escape Hunt Experience. At the time, the brand had three sites open in three different countries and ambitious expansion plans. In just under six months, there are now twelve sites open in seven countries, with a thirteenth site (in Brisbane, Australia) opening in just a couple of days’ time. The expansion plans roll on at a considerable rate of knots, so it’s exciting to get back in touch with Paul. The questions asked by Exit Games are tagged with EG and Paul’s responses with PB below.

  • EG: It has been nearly six months since your previous interview. When the world of escape games is moving so quickly, that’s practically a previous era. What have been the big changes for you over the last six months?
  • PB: Hi Chris, thank you for your time. Yes, it is that long but feels a lot less as this is such an exciting business that moves so fast. My days whizz past; they really do! Well, I guess the biggest change is scale. We have grown enormously and so has the market in general. We now have branches literally all over the world and everywhere we go I am pleased that people know us and now what we do. Of course, there are so many other games springing up but this is fantastic as it shows how popular the genre is.
  • EG: At the time, I believe you were talking in terms of having deals signed for 30 branches by the end of 2014 and for 100 branches by the end of 2015. Now, you have revised those estimates up to having deals signed for 75 branches by the end of 2014 and for 500 branches by the end of 2015. It’s very exciting to see those numbers having grown so quickly! What factors have you identified as being responsible for the difference?
  • PB: Quite honestly, it’s the popularity of escape games in general and specifically what we do. We receive literally hundreds of inquiries each month and we are very, very flexible as to how we work, but we also have to qualify our future partners as any business does. Nevertheless, demand outstrips the rate we can expand, hence we are up to a number we will certainly now reach of 75 branches signed by the end of this year. As I write now we have 12 branches open, 18 will be open by Christmas and by the end of January-February we will be up to 25 open branches worldwide. The lead time for some branches to open is quite slow as we do things 100% legally and properly so that is where we have the difference in the numbers but be assured we will open these other branches in due course as they are all agreed and already planned. It depends on the location.
  • EG: How many of those deals signed have actually turned into open sites? The locations list suggests nine, but looking at individual locations’ web sites, it looks like many more than that. This figure must change very regularly; it looks like the Melbourne site opened yesterday (at the time of the interview!) and the Brisbane site is opening at the end of next week.
  • PB: Yes, you are right. We keep this table pretty much up to date. As I said, we need time to open branches but we will open in all the places we list. Look forward to 18 branches open worldwide by Christmas, all with different games!
  • EG: What are the biggest challenges people have faced going between signing a deal and opening a site?
  • PB: It can be many things. We offer a very comprehensive support package but every location has local challenges. Our list of signed branches and opened branches do not correlate at all as we can open in 3 weeks as we did in one location and other branches take 9 months. It is all about getting proper planning permission mostly. Some other operators cut corners, but we don’t so it takes longer for us but we get it right as we can’t afford any mistakes with our brand presence worldwide.
  • EG: Can you be more specific at all about the deal you have signed for the US? It looks like a country begging for national chains as well as the first generation of one-offs that exist dotted around from state to state.
  • PB: Yes, this is indeed an interesting question. First of all, it is the US and Canada not just the US, so it’s all of North America, especially since we already have a Master Franchise Agreement signed in Mexico, the third of the North American countries. The US / Canada has been on our horizon for some time but there are extremely strict franchise regulations in place so we needed a very special partner to handle all this. I am delighted to announce we have that in place in the form of a team of extremely experienced business people who will cover the whole of the US and open branches very soon all across the US and Canada. It took months of careful legal work and planning but it will be worth it. We will open in New York in January and the across the US and Canada very soon after. We have a lot of fantastic surprises in these branches so stay tuned!
  • EG: Investigation suggests that the 10-room London branch of the Escape Hunt Experience was the single location with the largest number of rooms in at least the English-speaking world when it opened, and is believed still to be joint holder of the world record. How big can a centre get?
  • PB: London truly is a big branch but actually many of our branches are very big: Phuket has 8 rooms and all our other branches have around 6 rooms worldwide. We are looking at the idea of mega centres but the issue there is the space required tends to mean they will be less central and one of our core principles is to be very centrally located for access.
  • EG: How close are you to being able to make further announcements closer to home here in the UK?
  • PB: Soon! We are currently in discussion to open across the whole of the UK and Ireland. Soon!
  • EG: Are you aware of any of the sites featuring famous names who have come to play?
  • PB: I am sure we have had many famous names in many branches. As I started my life in the Bangkok branch, I can think of many celebrities but you know they like their privacy so all I can say is check Twitter. Maybe you will see some names linked to us there…
  • EG: I see that the global hub is expanding and you are offering positions so how has your daily routine changed over time?
  • PB: Yes, we now have operations offices in Bangkok and Malaysia. I spend far less time in the Bangkok branch and more in an office but it is tremendously rewarding as I am working with the best talent we can find worldwide to make games, not to mention other skill sets. Our Escape Hunt Game Design Academy based in Bangkok has really blossomed and we are working on our next generation games as we speak. It is so exciting for me to see a simple idea become so detailed and quite frankly, inspirational. I still personally check all games before we send them out and I am blown away now where we are globally with new ideas. I can’t say too much but let’s say we have developed a whole language of our own for game styles, genres, gadgets, hi-tech, sensory immersion, logic flow, game play, deliverables and so much more…
  • EG: What aspects of best practice have emerged from the various locations that you have fed to other sites?
  • PB: Great question, Chris. As we are the only truly global operator worldwide, we have learned a lot and we keep learning. I like to keep us all humble and cultural differences reinforce this. What works in London might not work in Perth, a game style in Ho Cho Minh might not be right for Brussels etc. For us now, it is all about the challenges of scale with control and local variation. We really want each branch to feel like The Escape Hunt Experience but also to feel local. We closely monitor every branch performance and learn and learn and keep learning. I am not sure if you knew or it was an accident but in my previous career I was a best practice business consultant so this comes naturally to me.
  • EG: In your previous interview, you hinted at continued growth, then diversification into new areas. The first half of the plan is going very successfully; can you reveal any more about the second half of the plan?
  • PB: Yes, we will have some great announcements soon. For obvious reasons I can’t say too much now…
  • EG: Just how large can experiential entertainment get? What other activities do you see it eventually rivalling for global popularity?
  • PB: That is another great question. I think the growth so far shows that people have an insatiable appetite for this type of entertainment. Can we even any more classify all this as “escape games”? I wonder…! For me, what we do is very particular and special. Our games are so far apart from other games as opera is from cinema. I think it’s high time to divide up the market place so customers know what they can expect. All escape games are a great addition to the entertainment arena and I respect everyone who enters this space but we are all quite different really. I have a lot of ideas here for classification as you can imagine! Just ask me some time for the new “escape game dictionary”, Chris!
  • EG: When you are in a position to have several different branches in the same country, have you been able to set up interesting interactions between those branches and their players?
  • PB: Absolutely. Thailand is a great example now of many to also come. We will shortly have our 4th branch opening here and we are planning all sorts of offers, synergies, co-branding, promotions, you name it… As I am sure you can imagine, one of the downsides of having a global brand is the constant differences it presents. It’s nice to be able to plan things in a country with the same language, currency, culture and so on and we we will make a lot more of this as time goes on…
  • EG: Is there any merit in the concept of competition between different locations of a single brand?
  • PB: We run friendly competition amongst all our branches but nothing more than that. We believe in offering great games and great service first and foremost so really we tend to compete over things like best TripAdvisor rank and reviews, mostly.
  • EG: How do you get players to move from escape games being an interesting thing to do once or twice to having escape games being one of their main hobbies and interests?
  • PB: That is one of the key tenets of our business, Chris. We are all about a place where everyone can go again and again. I hinted earlier about the new generation games. These offer huge excitement in terms of different game play, time play eras and game logic flow. When you also consider that each of our branches has different theming, different games always changed twice a year and different locally themed merchandise, it all adds to a reason to choose The Escape Hunt Experience as an activity in every place a customer finds it. We want all our customers to associate us with great games, great service and of course a new challenge every time they play!

    Thank you, Chris, for your time. It’s very kind of you to follow our progress.

Thanks so much for that, Paul! This site looks forward to more exciting announcements over time, and also to getting to talk with many of the other influential minds that have shaped the hobby.

Interview with Paul Bart, CEO and Founder of The Escape Hunt Experience

Escape Hunt global logoHere’s a perspective you won’t find elsewhere. This site has already discussed Escape Hunt, set to open in London in August. There are already three Escape Hunt sites open, in three different countries, and the locations list details the ambitious expansion plans around the world, particularly over the short-term future.

Accordingly, it’s exciting to be able to feature an interview with Paul Bart, the CEO and founder. There are very few brands with a similar global perspective and profile, so Paul’s take on the genre, and his background, will be distinctive. The questions asked by Exit Games are tagged with EG and Paul’s responses with PB below.

  • EG: How did you get into “escape games”, Paul?
  • PB: I was looking for a new business idea a while back and I noticed around a year ago that a few escape games were spring up and doing well in other cities. I decided it was worth looking at how they were being run and what the potential was to expand with them globally. Unfortunately none had a truly global vision and I decided I had to go it alone. Hence The Escape Hunt Experience was founded.
  • EG: What is your background that could possibly relate to this?
  • PB: There are many factors here and, without boring you, let’s just say I have always been fascinated and challenged by puzzles. I was the kid who would stay up late at night in bed trying to figure out how to solve a maths or word puzzle. I also have a good psychology degree specializing in several areas one of which is IQ testing and another is data analysis relating to statistics. Add in many years of corporate training, seven languages and a lot of other eclectic experience and that might tell you why I love what I do so much.
  • EG: How do you see this market now and in say 12 months time?
  • PB: Now it is growing fast and it will continue to do so. There are two main types of players now – larger companies like us of which we are the clear global leader and then local games with one or maybe a send branch only. As time goes on, this will get more blurred with regional players, more different styles and a lot of different ideas. We are clear where we will be in 12 months time – around 100 branches worldwide in our own style but maybe more advanced games as this changes monthly.
  • EG: What is your current personal contribution?
  • PB: I run the business so I have a lot of strategic responsibility. I also oversee all the global marketing and franchisee relations. Most of all I love game design so that takes a big chunk of my time leading our global game design team based here in Bangkok.
  • EG: Which puzzles, games and other artworks have influenced you most over the years in your designs?
  • PB: That is a hard one! I love art – everything from Renaissance to Modern and also sculpture. I also love languages. Add in some darker stuff like the occult and great literature and you can see its very eclectic. Most of all we try very hard to be logical and balance our games. Many game providers don’t see the need for that but it is very important especially as we operate in so many countries with so many languages.
  • EG: If you could predict the future for escape games, what would it be?
  • PB: Growth, growth and more growth! Then some diversification into new areas. We have huge plans here. Watch this space as they say…
  • EG: Do you see it appealing to different markets in different geographies?
  • PB: Of course. It’s a global phenomenon. At our Bangkok branch we have seen nearly 20,000 players and I can’t think of a country not represented. It is a fascinating anthropological study, believe me. Filipinos are so different from Thais, Brits from Americans. They all have fun in different ways. Doing as much corporate work as we do is amazing too as we see global companies bring their worldwide staff – all very different styles!
  • EG: How, in practice, do different countries vary from each other in what their players are looking for?
  • PB: They all want fun but some are more serious. It sounds like stereotyping but it is true that Europeans take it more seriously and Asians take more photos afterwards as just one example…
  • EG: Have you identified any trends as to which nationalities prefer which styles of puzzle?
  • PB: Actually Chris, it is fairly culturally neutral overall. I see no bias for different preferences actually but If you ask me about ability, that is a totally different question. Asians are renowned for their quantitative skills whereas Europeans and Western nations in general are more qualitative. This bears out in game play too but it is also about initiative. Asian players are generally better at solving puzzles once they are “shown the way” if you like whereas western races grasp the idea quicker but then don’t make such good progress in average. It all equals out in the end pretty much and then differences some done to social factors such as assertiveness, cooperation and leadership. It’s a long story; maybe I can answer next time in a specific chat on this point.
  • EG: How do you deal with language issues, particularly in countries where there are a multitude of languages spoken or where tourists are such a high proportion of visitors that you cannot reliably make assumptions about what languages they speak?
  • PB: That’s a great question, Chris. We run both multi-language games and single language depending upon the location. Our Asian branches are multi but London will be single language. It is not always obvious which language either! Phuket will run in English and…. Russian. Not Thai as you would expect. Overall, we adjust for cultural bias and language in our games so language plays a very small role in overall game play. Bangkok is another great example of this. We run in Thai and English but despite even messages in Japanese on our website to say “we do not speak Japanese. These games are only in Thai and English”, such is our popularity amongst Japanese locals in Bangkok and tourists, they still come and speak absolutely not one word of Thai or English. We still have great fun using sign language and they leave with a big smile!
  • EG: Where are you based and how does that allow you to work?
  • PB: I am based in Bangkok but travel all over the world. I am on the road a lot setting up our game centres and I install all games personally. I love that…
  • EG: What is a typical day for you, Paul?
  • PB: There is no typical day but overall it is around 30% game design, 20% franchisee support, 20% marketing, 20% technical things and 10% on Bangkok branch.
  • EG: What are the most memorable reactions that you have witnessed?
  • PB: I have to say that large groups of Filipinos are the most exuberant when they solve the puzzles and then they all get so happy in a huddle but for me it is the 3-4 occasions where an older player has personally shaken my hand and thanked me for the “best time they have ever had with their grand children”… Really makes all the hard work worthwhile!
  • EG: What has surprised you in the last 12 months?
  • PB: A lot of things but mainly for us how successful we have been and how we have adapted our proposition to all the different cultures and geographies. In Bangkok branch, we also developed a huge corporate following without a single call to a company. They all find us. Singapore has also been so successful only a short time after opening it shows the power of our global brand.
  • EG: What have your years of corporate training experience taught you about how to tailor the experience when you offer corporate events?
  • PB: Wow! OK, the short answer is always understand beforehand what the agenda is. We have hosted ExxonMobil and Shell at one end of the scale and small local travel companies at the other end. The key is to know how they want to play things. Our website has a sample corporate agenda in the FAQ section but actually it is the whole atmosphere that counts. We always keep it fun and stimulating but we can also get into some deep coaching too if needed. I try to personally host each corporate event as I have the skills but we even get into quite esoteric stuff at times like hypnosis and visualisation techniques. It is all about what the client wants and we do cater to all needs…
  • EG: What would you say to anyone who feels they want to work in this industry?
  • PB: Go for it. It’s a great and exciting place to be. Whether as a game designer, game master or even the administrator, its never a dull moment. There will be courses at universities soon on “Escape Gaming” or as we call it, “Experiential Entertainment”.
  • EG: What misconceptions about the industry would you most like to dispel?
  • PB: I think all the press and feedback is positive. The only things I would say that are unfair are the criticisms of games at number one on TripAdvisor. We have been number one in Bangkok since a month after opening and we deserve it as we offer an extremely high level of satisfaction. Sure, we are not a temple, but maybe we offer better service and satisfaction! I guess the only other point is that the industry is not only for geeks as is often assumed. We are a major international company operating in many countries so its hardly geeky anymore – no more geeky than working for Apple, I guess!

    Thank you for your time, Chris, and letting me tell my story! For all those who want to be part of our future, we still have franchise opportunities available in many locations. For those who want to work with us, send us your resume via our website. We are hiring in all sorts of areas!

Thanks so much for that, Paul! This site very much hopes to feature more interviews in future as a way to get a variety of perspectives from behind the scenes. It also considerably adds to anticipation for the London opening, just a few months away.