From the moment they first appeared in Japan almost fifteen years ago, escape rooms have exploded in popularity throughout the globe. Along with providing a fun experience, they also promote team-building, social skills, as well as mental health.
Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, escape rooms are one of many gaming businesses that were forced to close their doors and make big changes in order to survive, such as adopting virtual rooms or even implementing “outdoor escape games.”
Here’s how some of Ottawa’s escape room businesses have adapted to operate both during and after the pandemic.
Jigsaw Escape Rooms
Opened in 2015, Jigsaw Escape Rooms is a very popular escape room business and is listed by Trip Advisor as one of Ottawa’s Top 10 escape rooms. Along with their original business in Ottawa, Jigsaw has also established locations in Québec as well.
Matthew Prendergast is the co-owner and founder of Jigsaw Escape Rooms along with his brother David. He says he decided to open Jigsaw after experiencing an escape room for the first time.
“It’s basically like a live video game.”
“It’s basically like a live video game,” says Prendergast in a phone interview. “[David] was interested and then he eventually convinced me to start one up with him.”
According to Prendergast, Jigsaw’s rooms are one of the things that make their business unique.
“We have the most rooms in one location in Ottawa,” he says. Currently, the business features a total of eight different escape rooms, including “Cabin in the Woods,” which is one of the tougher rooms to escape from.
Throughout the pandemic, Jigsaw closed its doors for nine months with only brief periods of operation. According to Prendergast, the pandemic caused a 75 per cent decrease in sales until July 2021 and they had to rely on government support. It also forced them to reevaluate their booking system.
“Before COVID-19, we were on a public ticketing system. You book a room, you’re two people, but another group could book with you,” says Prendergast. “We don’t do that anymore. We run private rooms now and we have to clean in between guests.”
According to Prendergast, it takes about 30 minutes to sanitize and reset each room after each use. Along with longer reset times, Jigsaw has implemented other public health measures per Ontario guidelines, such as limiting capacity, mandating masks for guests and staff, and filling out waivers digitally. Starting Sept. 22, Jigsaw will also be asking individuals to provide proof of vaccination with COVID-19 vaccine passports.
Prendergast said that the most important lesson the pandemic taught him was that anything could happen.
“People want to get out. I think we are tired of being cooped up.”
“We definitely weren’t anticipating anything like this to ever happen and we just kind of rolled with it,” says Prendergast.
While the pandemic did have a negative impact on Jigsaw financially, Prendergast said that since July, they’ve been making great progress recovering and are positive about the future.
“I think it’s going to return to its normal state. People are going to start going back to work and we’re going to have regular bookings like we used to,” says Prendergast. “People want to get out. I think we are tired of being cooped up.”
After opening its doors in November 2014, Escape Manor has grown into one of the biggest names in the escape room business and has garnered quite the reputation in Ottawa and abroad—they’ve expanded to Toronto, Hamilton, Regina, Saskatoon, and all the way to Brisbane, Australia.
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“What we’ve done from the very onset is create an environment where from the moment you book with us, you’re brought into an immersive scenario,” says Steve Wilson, co-owner of Escape Manor. “We’re a lot more than just your traditional escape room. We are an immersive entertainment company. We evolve. We’re constantly challenging ourselves and changing.”
Escape Manor is also known for hosting the world’s largest escape room at The Diefenbunker. This space recently added a second story which features a new escape experience called Radioactive.
The arrival of the COVID-19 pandemic caused significant problems for Escape Manor. According to Wilson, they were the first to close their doors as well as one of the last to reopen.
“It was a massive hit to our business,” says Wilson, explaining that sales dropped 90 per cent lower than where they were originally. “We had to lay all of our team off including ourselves, the owners,” says Wilson. “We’re slowly rehiring and getting back to normal levels, but the pandemic was absolutely devastating to us.”
“We’re slowly rehiring and getting back to normal levels, but the pandemic was absolutely devastating to us.”
Wilson says they managed to find a silver lining within an otherwise terrible situation. “It taught us to be nimble, it taught us to be frugal,” he says. “It reinvigorated our innovative style and really got us back to the drawing board of ‘What do we do to survive this?'”
Their online escape rooms, which people can play remotely from anywhere in the world, have enjoyed success. Escape Manor also adopted an outdoor immersive film series which they plan to continue post-pandemic.
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With lockdowns now lifted, Wilson says business has been booming. As people have started coming back to enjoy the escape rooms, Wilson said he sees a positive future for Escape Manor.
“I see us continuing to evolve and innovate, continuing to bring smiles to people’s faces,” says Wilson “We are always looking for the next cool and innovative style of entertaining folks. So, we’re going to keep going.”
For more information about Jigsaw Escape Rooms and Escape Manor visit their websites or follow them on social media. Check out Apt613’s previous pieces in the Ottawa gaming business series to learn how gaming lounges and hobby shops have been doing to survive a post-pandemic world.
Did we forget to mention any of your favourite escape rooms or other gaming businesses? Let us know in the comments below.