Escape rooms are a pastime so young that if it were human, it wouldn't be able to have a beer in an American bar. Despite this, it is an increasingly popular entertainment that hardly anyone has heard of yet.
The world's first escape room is considered by many to be the Real Escape Room, built in 2007 in Japan by Takao Kato, although an earlier room - the True Dungeon, created in 2003 in Indianapolis, USA - is sometimes pointed to as the prototype of this now popular game. Either way, this computer game-inspired escape game has grown in less than two decades from a single room to tens or perhaps hundreds of thousands of rooms around the world.
One escape room company of global stature is Exit19, a Polish company founded by two escape room enthusiasts. The company has grown over the years, both in terms of the number of partners (Krzysztof Świątkowski and Grzegorz Cholewa were joined by Kacper Adamczyk in 2019) and the rooms in the offer. Exit19 are winners of numerous awards, their Abandoned Hotel ranks high in world rankings, including being ranked #9 on the 2021 TERPECA - Top Escape Rooms Project list, an annual contest of the best escape rooms in the world. Previously, another of the company's rooms, Asylum, also made the TERPECA list, ranking in the top 50 in 2019 and 2020.
About building escape rooms, the challenges involved, and running a company in this industry and many more, I spoke with Grzegorz Cholewa and Kacper Adamczyk, longtime business partners and co-owners of Exit19.
Anna: First of all I would like to congratulate you on the last award - Abandoned Hotel took 2nd place in the Spanish Escape Room Awards contest. After experiencing the Hotel I can say that the awards are absolutely deserved. I don't want to reveal too much to readers who haven't had the chance to experience the Hotel yet, but because of it, no room will give me so much satisfaction and excitement for a long time! Where did the idea for this room come from?
Grzegorz: It's a long story, because the idea of arranging escape room in hotel or motel style was in our heads since the very beginning of our company. It was one of those ideas that we knew we wanted to realize, but at different stages we kept putting it off. The closest we came to realization was during the creation of King Arthur's Dungeons, but the idea of a medieval adventure game won. We shelved the hotel again, as it turned out, it was a good decision at the time. It happened when we joined forces with the House of Crime - escape room company from Wrocław, and managed to find the perfect space for what we wanted to create. It was an important moment when many factors came together - the idea and also the fact that we started cooperation with our wonderful partner Kacper, who brought the competences we needed to this project. Kacper is an architect, so the very process of preparing this room looked completely different than we did before. A 3D concept was created, it was possible to move around the room in a digital way and all its spatial shortcomings could be verified at the design stage.
Anna: So this process was very complicated and technologically advanced.
Grzegorz: Yes. Never before have we approached the idea of creating a room in such a meticulous and precise way. There were situations along the way that could be called inconveniences, but eventually - like a pandemic, for example - they turned out to be our allies.
Anna: This phenomenon is still unknown in Poland, but extremely popular in the West. I mean a combination of an escape room with an immersive experience - so that the escape room is no longer just a game with puzzles, but a kind of experience. The hotel is extremely immersive, and it seems to me that thanks to it you blaze the trail to this world which is still unknown in our country.
Grzegorz: Yes, that was our assumption. The immersion in the Hotel was deliberately done.
Kacper: The very process of creating the hotel was like making a movie, but real. We were creating a film set that has to live, in which we are participants. A world that the participants have to immerse themselves in.
Anna: Do you plan to go in this direction? Or do you want to be faithful to escape rooms in the classic sense?
Grzegorz: We have traveled around the world a lot and get inspired by things we see elsewhere, where budgets for escape rooms are bigger, where ideas are different. And we use those inspirations. However it is important how we play in escape rooms. We call it a live experience - suspension in the space between escape room and movie experience. We think that this is a good and interesting direction. Of course, it can't always be done - it's hard in a room of 30m2 to hang around with actors and create a huge stage for such interactions to take place. We want to develop in this direction, because it seems to us to be the future. We want people to be able to enter for an hour or more a world that they don't experience in reality. And this is, in our opinion, the most beautiful thing - when we are absorbed by the plot, the interior, the music, the intrigue, that we are able to break away from this everyday life. We are already planning another big production which will continue in this direction. Of course we still pay a lot of attention to the puzzles, to keep the balance. After all, it is an escape room.
Anna: How many people worked on the Hotel altogether?
Grzegorz: A lot [laugh]. It is best to count by teams, because there are tens of people. The team of stucco artists, construction workers, welders, our full-time employees, companies producing puzzles, artists from Puppet Theater, visual effects specialists who work for example with TVN television, people responsible for animation and films for companies such as TVN or ATM. Our dream is to introduce pyrotechnics into the rooms, but for some reasons this is currently impossible. That is why substitutes appear. And in this matter, at the stage of building the hotel, we consulted with a specialist who is responsible for special effects in the Rammstein band. What we also said in public, in the Abandoned Hotel you can hear the voice of Janusz Chabior, a Polish actor. There were really a lot of people.
Anna: Looking at the level of detail and refinement of the Hotel you can see how much time and work was put into this escape room. How long does it take to build such a room from scratch? I suspect that it is not a matter of 2-3 months.
Kacper: We started work on February 2nd 2020, a month and a half later there was already a full pandemic lockdown. We used this time to fully devote ourselves to building the hotel. The pandemic slowed down all sorts of work in the construction market, so we were able to use contractors from different trades outside of the deadlines - stucco workers, people who do steel work and more. That allowed the process to move forward quickly. However, it was such a large process given the interior, logistics, and planned interactions that it ultimately took us 18 months of continuous hard work with no downtime. We made the most of that time by taking some risks - we didn't know how it would all turn out.
Grzegorz: What's important in all that risk is that the budget of the Abandoned Hotel is a record for our company. It used to be said that a good escape room was a mid-range passenger car from a showroom; now it's four good cars and even more so an apartment. When the company had downtime and was not generating profits, we invested in this project.
Kacper: The current times are not easy either - war, inflation, these are not in our favor either. But we try to do what we do best and we see that clients appreciate it and come back to us.
Anna: I would like to ask what is the recipe for success, what does it take to be among the best in the world, but you have already answered this question - you have to aim high and not give up.
Grzegorz: It's like with everything, the higher you set the bar, the better. Even if you don't jump over it, you will get closer to your goal. A critical approach to yourself, taking care of your development, treating your company as an investment all the time - these are our assumptions we agree on.
Kacper: What you see is the tip of the iceberg. What is under it is a the daily hard work of a whole team of people, it is weeks and months of conceptual work, implementation, testing, revisions. Never in our history have we had such a tested room as the Abandoned Hotel. We could have opened it half a year earlier, but we wanted to have everything ready to go. It's a huge undertaking and hundreds of hours of work, but you can see the results.
Anna: I also have a general question, because I'm very curious about it. How is it like to run an escape room company? As a former game master and escape room enthusiast I only know those two aspects, but I've never asked anyone how it feels to be at the helm. Was it easier in the beginning, or is it now when you have much more experience?
Grzegorz: It is changing. We opened our first escape rooms being completely fascinated with them. We thought we can start something, which will be as interesting as what is already on the market. We came up with an idea and then made a decision that we need a place to build an escape room. And so it began. For 7 years the size of problems and momentum has changed. At the moment we have a few dozen people working for us on a daily basis. There are also some problems and faults. We used to solve them with a screwdriver, now we need a five-person technical team. We have dozens of game masters. In order to manage these people, managers are needed - it is becoming a structure that brings us closer to corporations in terms of solutions and procedures, but this is unavoidable. Because of the multitude of problems and responsibilities we have to share them, delegate many things. Many things are handled for us by deputies, managers and department leaders.
Kacper: There are various periods of time. Sometimes there are sleepless nights because there is no time during the day. There are so many important company issues. That's why we have to sit down to discuss at night. We lock ourselves in the room we are making, we fire up the special effects, no one calls or writes - we can focus on our work as much as possible.
Anna: It must be extremely fascinating work, something different than 8 hours behind a desk and filing in Excel sheets.
Kacper: We also fill in Excel [laugh]. There were many adventures. Unfortunately, things don't always go your way, sometimes we wonder if we should do what we do or not. But so far we have always chosen to fight.
Grzegorz: We are very strict with ourselves, more so than with other companies we visit, whose rooms we play in. We are hard on our shortcomings, the things that don't work, the details that everything is made of. Details like the fact that when a player walks into our company, they're supposed to feel comfortable right away, they're supposed to hear the music, they're supposed to get into the vibe right away before the actual game even starts. We have a maintenance department that makes sure every day that all puzzles are fixed, refreshed. We have procedures that tell us how often puzzle elements should be checked. We've moved away from a model where you fix things that break, we just try to prevent defects. We started at a very different point, but we're still growing, we're professionalizing.
The worst assumption when running a company like this is stagnation. Running forward and constantly growing should be a goal in itself.
Anna: Grzegorz, you said that several dozen people are associated with your company. How many?
Grzegorz: If you count the game masters, service technicians, electronics engineers and managers, it's between 50 and 60 people. We have more than 30 game masters.
Anna: Over 30 game masters is quite a lot! But with 11 rooms it's obvious that there must be that many.
Kacper: Yes, we have 11 rooms, we are opening a 12th room soon. They are in 3 locations. So there must be quite a few service members.
Anna: I have to ask - where did you get all the beautiful furniture and set pieces? Especially that amazing desk. You are lucky that it was heavy because I fel in love with it!
Kacper: When we were building the hotel, we had 4 big truckloads of stucco. We practically bought the entire stucco studio. The decorations came from different places. Each of us used our contacts and we joined forces. Even one of our employees brought in a rug from his allotment.
Grzegorz: The thing that is worth and should be mentioned is that Exit19 in 2019 bought the rooms from Escapers company in Warsaw, which are Freakshow, Leonardo Da Vinci, Dragon's Tomb and Abandoned Hotel. We already said that we had the idea for our Hotel in our heads from the beginning, but since there was already such an escape room established in Warsaw, so we named our Motel24. And how we bought the Warsaw Abandoned Hotel. But while Time Machine - the secret of Leonardo has about 60-70% in common with the Warsaw original, Abandoned Hotel has nothing in common with the original. In terms of decor - the desk you're talking about came from Warsaw, an armchair, a bed and maybe 2 more things.
Thank you for your time! I wish you that Exit19 continues to grow and that, as Kacper said, you always choose to fight. I keep my fingers crossed for more successes. I can't wait for the premieres of your next rooms, especially the already announced - Dragon's Tomb.
Journalist and indologist by profession. Writer, marketer, tarantulas keeper and urbex explorer by heart.
In the meantime I’m playing escape rooms and board games, and I wonder how I find time to sleep (still dunno). I was born to write - my favorite forms of expression are extensive articles preceded by a long research, and horror stories (for some it’s the same).
Congratulations for duch big achievements,you arę the best of the best I'm your fan and the abondoned hotel room makes na amazing impression.
Greetings from Traverse City, MI! Now that we have had a week to recuperate, we’re ready to give you a recap of our twelve state, thirty-five escape room marathon that we completed in just sixteen days!