Time Escape weaves a puzzling business model

Skills: Writing

Written for the Alberta School of Business
December 1, 2016

When most entrepreneurs think positive customer relations, they’re probably focused on service, experience and comfort. But Marko Chong’s (BCom ‘17) approach is a little different — he locks his customers in a small, dark room and frustrates them for 45 minutes. It’s all part of the business model when you run an escape room, and as one of the masterminds behind Time Escape, it’s been a winning strategy so far.

Time Escape is one of Edmonton’s newest escape rooms, an entertainment venue focused on interactive puzzle solving. Groups of 2–8 people are locked in a small room that’s typically dressed around a fictional narrative and challenged to work together to gather clues and unravel mysteries, unlocking a sequence of puzzles to advance and escape the room within a set time limit. It’s a platform that’s exploded in popularity in North American cities in the last two years, with Edmonton now hosting nearly 20 different venues.

Chong and his business partner and fellow UAlberta Business student Tony Tran were inspired to create their own when they realized the lack of variety in Edmonton entertainment venues. With a tough job market, Chong was struggling to find employment through co-op listings and instead decided to create his own opportunities. Since then, it’s been a rush to keep up and stand out, which he says has provided an inspiring challenge.

“When we first started, there was only five or six escape rooms [in Edmonton]. By the time we opened, there’s probably about 16 right now,” Chong says.

Time Escape is located in the Marv Holland Plaza between the downtown airport and cemetery, an old industrial manufacturing site that’s been fully renovated to house commercial tenants. The space is now home to several local businesses — including The Local Omnivore restaurant, Modern Gravity Float Therapy and Duchess Provisions bake shop — that have been working together to transform the area into a one-stop haven for families and corporate retreats.

In doing so, Chong hopes to set Time Escape apart from other venues around the city. Their space has been designed with a large lobby and social space that can be opened for birthday and business parties, allowing large groups to book the venue for an evening and take turns playing the rooms. Time Escape even offers a competitive mode of play, where teams earn points for completing rooms and go head-to-head for puzzle-solving supremacy.

“One of our slogans is ‘The Next Generation of Escape Rooms’ so we’re always trying to stay innovative,” says Chong. “

We’re trying to stay away from padlocks and keys. We do have some, but we have a lot of technology incorporated into our games. That means we have to have an evolving business model, so we can adapt to our surroundings and our competitors.”

Time Escape also has the advantage of being one of the few franchised escape rooms in Edmonton, with a headquarters in Vancouver and a sister location in Hong Kong. This means that Chong and his partners were able to launch their business with an existing business model, branding, and — most importantly — puzzles. Their franchise fee included many of the props used in the rooms, which can often cost escape rooms tens of thousands of dollars to source and produce in-house, and are subject to breakage.

“We had our beta testing and someone broke one of our props. Someone else broke a shelf. We try to make our things as durable as can be, but people can find a way to break something,” Chong says. They’ve also tried to mitigate these issues by hiring dedicated, well-trained staff who can explain the parameters of the room to players beforehand so they know what they can and can’t interact with. Those staff are also responsible for providing effective hints to players over the course of the game, nudging them in the right direction without giving the solution away.

While Chong is focused on making Time Escape stand out, he’s not necessarily concerned about the breadth of competition in the local market. Instead, he says that the escape room model lends itself towards cooperation among competitors who rely on one another’s customer base to spread awareness by networking and word-of-mouth.

“We only have five rooms. Once someone plays all five rooms, they’re going to have to go somewhere else. It’s not your typical ‘red ocean’ business environment. It’s more ‘blue ocean,’ where we’re not competing against each other for business, but we can facilitate and recommend other businesses.”

It’s an approach that’s paying dividends. Time Escape was named Edmonton’s Best Escape Room by Vue Weekly this fall and Chong is optimistic that the success will help them continue to innovate and lead the interactive entertainment market.

“It’s really important for us to create that sense of what an escape room is so people can fully enjoy. Because essentially, people are paying you money to be trapped in a room and be frustrated — so how do you make that fun and get them to come back and play again?”