Fringe Box



Guildford Escape Rooms Pull In Thousands Of Puzzle Solvers

Published on: 17 Jun, 2019
Updated on: 17 Jun, 2019

By Hugh Coakley

The bad guy is going to get off scot-free unless you find the vital piece of evidence in the office of Larry Maxwell, a 1950s New York private detective. Or Venus, the Guildford Escape Room‘s equivalent of Alexa, is going to take over the world unless you can stop the virtual, mad genius.

Find the gun in Larry Maxwells Private Investigator’s office or the bad guy goes free! It is brilliantly realistic.

You have 60 minutes with up to five of your family and friends to come up with the answer – or else?

Venus, the AI equivalent of Alexa, could take over the world unless you disarm her. It could happen!

Those are the tantalising scenarios you face at the Guildford Escape Rooms in Jeffries Passage, just off North Street.

And more than 20,000 people, that’s about 4,000 teams, have been brave enough to try since it was set up by business partners Tom Hartnett and Steven Insua-Cao less than two years ago.

It’s been a roaring success. Tom said that their first order came within a few seconds of going live. And it hasn’t stopped since with players from as far away as America and Australia dropping in. The customers are generally from within 20 miles of Guildford town centre though, with families, friends and groups all taking part.

Tom said: “There is a huge market to tap into here. All ages, the whole team including the Nan, enjoy it.

“The challenges are tough but achievable. If people struggle, they can ask for clues.”

There are always clues if you need. You only have to ask.

Both Tom and Steven have been bitten by the escape room bug and they love it. To keep the costs down and the quality high, they do everything themselves. An extraordinary partnership, they are very keen to keep in touch with all aspects of their business. even to the extent where Tom has taken an electricians qualification and Steven has been studying woodworking.

Steven Insua-Cao, Guildford Escape Rooms, looking at their handiwork in the secret room in the Venus scenario.

Showing me around the escape rooms, their enthusiasm bubbled up with the fun of it all. Like a couple of kids, they showed me their work on the design, the set construction, the electrics, sound effects – everything.

Tom said: “We love creating. This is all our own work. It is super close to our hearts.”

Tom Hartnett, Guildford Escape Rooms, in the Venus scenario explaining the concept. Tom has a degree in computer sciences and does all the programming.

Steven said that the first thing he checked when he booked his honeymoon was that there was an escape room venue close by. He said: “Luckily, my wife loves escape rooms as well.”

They have seven full-time and part-time staff now, mainly actors from the Guildford School of Acting but also a full-time teacher who fits in a few hours per month because she loves it as well.

“It is a unique industry.” Tom said. “We test each other’s escape rooms and criticize and offer tips on how it could be better. You wouldn’t get that in any other business.

“We went into this to make an amazing escape room, not just to make money. But it is an amazing product and people come.”

Steven Insua-Cao, Guildford Escape Rooms, with his maths degree is the brains behind the puzzles.

They are at about 80% capacity now and they need to expand. They want to be in the town centre and it must make sense commercially. “The high street needs people and we bring people into the town,” said Tom.

But finding the right place is difficult. “We have offered a year’s rent in advance but the landlord was not keen to change the planning use,” said Steven.

They even offered to take on Cinderellas, the defunct nightclub, and offered “85% of the £100,000 per annum rent,” said Tom. But, again, the landlord didn’t accept their offer. “We find it hard to understand why they would rather leave it empty than us in there paying rent.”

Photos of some of the competitors who have broken out of the escape rooms including the fastest teams.

They did hint that they were on the verge of clinching a deal on a venue that will give them seven more escape rooms but they weren’t letting on where.

That will mean more staff, up to 30 people in total. And getting and keeping the right staff is important to both of them.

“We pay the Real Living Wage rather than the National Living Wage. One of our staff had nine different jobs, mainly waitress work, and now she just works in the Escape Rooms,” said Tom. “She said that it is the best job she has had.”

“We took everybody to Budapest for a weekend and spent the whole time playing escape rooms,” said Steven.

Tom is 35 and Steven, 32, and, like true entrepreneurs, they have other ventures in mind as well. One idea which is brewing is to have a treasure trail which can be played on a smart phone app. “It will happen,” said Tom.

They are focussed, full of life and enjoyment, and very, very determined. I have no doubt that it will happen and that it will be good for Guildford as well.


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