Pamela Gordon left her home country of Canada in 2005 to pursue a career in disaster management. She worked around the world, including the UK, Liberia, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Haiti.
And then in 2012, she relocated to Kenya to work for the Canadian Red Cross. Three years later, she gave birth to a son and decided to take a break from the demanding work she was doing.
But she wasn’t quite ready to stay home full-time, so she started looking around for something to keep her occupied even as she raised her son.
In the course of listing interesting business ideas, she recalled an entertainment concept she’d experienced in Canada: An escape room.
“Escape rooms are quite popular in Canada, though they were only invented in 2006, I think. The concept originally started as a video game and then someone said, ‘Let’s do this in real life’, and the concept just took off,” she says.
The escape room is a game that’s part scavenger hunt and part puzzle. Participants are ‘locked’ in a themed room for 60 minutes, with the objective of the game being for the players to find clues hidden around the room and solve them to figure out how to make their way out.
One of the themed rooms that Pamela, who’s in her 30s, has set up is called Jail House. Here, players are expected to work out how to escape from prison.
“It’s a fun, interactive way for people to awaken their inner Sherlock Holmes, their inner detective,” says Pamela.
She discussed the idea with her partner, Rob.
“We were passionate about the concept and we knew that Kenya was the perfect place to start. The time that I have spent here has taught me that there are people with disposable income looking for entertainment. We knew that there was an appetite both for new businesses and discovering new things.”
To get this type of business going, one typically gets in touch with an international franchise owner.
Most of them will give you two options: Either buy into their brand, which means opening a location with their name hanging above your door; or order their theme-room designs and introduce them in your location.
Using this approach, however, costs a gaming centre anywhere from Sh5 million to Sh10 million.
But Pamela and Rob were not satisfied with what was available for the mass market. They decided to go in a different direction.
“A lot of escape rooms are franchises. If it’s a franchise, it’s a product in a box. They will tell you ‘here is what you need, buy these items, this is your clue sequence’, but I love the designing process,” Pamela says.
“Having experienced a number of escape rooms, I got a feel for what works and what doesn’t.”
Further, Pamela had been in escape rooms that were based on franchises, and says there was something a bit off about them.
“If you have a cookie-cutter product that you apply everywhere, it doesn’t necessarily fit with the space you have been given.”
And when they finally found the right spot for their business after a three-month search, they appreciated having the artistic freedom to design it as they saw fit. Pamela’s business, Escape Room Kenya, is located in a house in the Nairobi suburb of Karen that comes with a garden.
Their business has three rooms. In addition to the Jail House, there’s the Secret Gallery and the newly added Inventor’s Workshop.
“We were excited to find this house because only after we had found it could we say, ‘that room would be perfect for a jail house and that one could be a gallery’. The jail house has no windows while the gallery has all these windows,” Pamela says.
Their overriding mission was to find a space that would allow them to design a room that could be used by children or corporate clients on a team building.
The other advantage of adapting their escape room to their own specifications rather than to a franchise model was that it ended up being much cheaper.
“There were some unexpected costs that we incurred, like for some of the furniture and all that, but generally it didn’t cost us as much as we’d set out thinking it would.”
The pair spent just shy of Sh1 million, and opened for business in November last year.
Aside from Pamela, Escape Room Kenya has a team of three others: Tracy King’e, Chris Kinyua and Kelvin Njuguna.
“We have built this team from the ground up. They came with their skillsets, but hadn’t ever worked in a formal job before. I try to give them a voice as much as possible. We’re a small team, so it’s more like a family than some large corporate structure,” says Pamela.
Tracy is the face of the business and the game master.
“She is outgoing, personable and has this performer personality. Chris and Kelvin have skills that I don’t have, for example, in electronics and in carpentry. They have ideas of how to do things better. I will tell them, ‘this is the end product that I am looking for. How do we create it?’
“Chris has great attention to detail and loves watching people in the room. He notices things that even Tracy and I don’t notice and that’s why we promoted him to assistant game master. Kelvin is more of an artist and helps with the designs.”
To experience the escape a room, participants are charged Sh2,000 per hour per room.
Once they pick a room, players are required to work together to find clues that would get them out in 60 minutes.
However, once you play, you can’t go back to the escape room since you’ll know where all the clues are. Therefore, to get repeat customers, Pamela and her team recreate the rooms every few months.
So what does the future of Escape Room Kenya look like from Pamela’s perspective? Would she consider setting up branches outside Nairobi?
“I don’t see myself doing that, but I would love to be an advisor, helping others design their own escape rooms,” she says.
“The great thing about this business is that it shouldn’t be a competition between different escape rooms because once you have done one room you can’t do it again. We should, therefore, be this great referral system for the next escape room.”
Pamela would also like to expand into offering a mobile escape room service.
“It’s a whole other concept and I have to take some time to figure out that design, but we have had requests for that and I have realised that that too could probably work for us.”