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No escape - the rise of experiences in the on-premise - consumer trends

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This month, consumer trends observer Lucy Britner explores the global popularity of escape rooms as consumers continue to hunt for new experiences.

Here I am, sober, GBP30 (US$39) down and locked in a room with an hour to break out, via a series of puzzles.

It turns out I'm not the only one who has been captivated by the immersive experience that is the escape room. Last year, 96 elite escape room players from 23 countries took part in the 'Red Bull Escape Room World Championships' at the company's Gaming Sphere in the UK. To get to the final, the players had to become the fastest teams in their countries, no doubt completing hundreds of escape rooms in preparation.

According to industry commentator Room Escape Artist, which has been tracking escape rooms in the US since 2014, there were 2,350 of them in the country last year - up from around 24 in 2014. The concept has become so popular that last year, Sony released Escape Room, the movie.

As the concept continues to gain popularity, the escape room experience - along with other group activities - is changing the way people socialise. 

There are several wider trends impacting the so-called 'experience economy', including the rise of social media, technology-driven convenience and the desire to share experiences with the online world. 

According to Deloitte's report 'Experience is Everything' last year in the UK: "Experiences have become a new 'currency' in social interactions, a way for consumers to distinguish themselves and obtain a higher status."

Additionally, consumers are looking for more ways to spend their leisure time, as vertical drinking continues to lose its appeal, especially among younger legal drinking age consumers. 

Evolving experiences 

The type of experience we have come to expect has also moved on. In a 2020 'Events Trends' report, booking company EventBrite asserted that immersive experiences have to be more meaningful. "The days of the quiet observer at the dry business lecture are long gone," the report says. "Today, audiences want to deeply engage with subject matter via fully immersive experiences."

Looking back at last year's Red Bull escape rooms competition, creator Dr Scott Nicholson said in an interview that his rooms were "designed to challenge the participants in six problem-solving skills: creativity, logic, visual thinking, musicality, memory and strategy". Moreover, some escape rooms present their participants with moral dilemmas alongside puzzles.

Escape room software company Buzzshot provides software for check-in, team photos and automatic follow-ups, allowing companies to email images of escapees quickly, giving consumers the option to upload them straight to social media.

"We've seen the strong growth in escape rooms continue in 2019 and into 2020, both in the US, the UK and the rest of the world," says Buzzshot founder Thomas Parslow. "The industry is developing new and exciting experiences," he adds, explaining that more rooms are licensing intellectual property from popular fiction, such as Sherlock Holmes and Dr Who. "I believe there's still a lot of room to grow, with many consumers only just becoming aware of the amazing experiences available.

"It's also been a strong 12 months for us, our business more than doubled." 

Aside from the Red Bull tie-up, there are more immediate opportunities for the drinks industry. Parslow mentions that several escape rooms have moved to incorporate drinking experiences, including escape room company The Game is Now's 'Sherlock' game, with its hidden speakeasy. The bar, called 'The Mind Palace', is described as a "private cocktail club for drinking detectives - for Sherlock-inspired cocktails, themed puzzles and delicious bar food".

Elsewhere, immersive events organiser Lollipop this month opened escape room pop-up 'The Grid', which includes two "futuristic sci-fi potions" (cocktails) per player. The company has form, having operated 'The Bletchley' - a World War II-themed immersive cocktail bar in London - since 2017.

In the UK, escape rooms often occupy otherwise redundant rooms in pubs and their popularity has made them destinations in their own right. In the US, 'Room Escape Artist' talks about venues being adjacent to restaurants or bowling alleys as they become an increasingly relevant part of the 'night out' repertoire. 

Immersive experiences

Beyond the escape room, savvy leisure operators have reinvented old favourites, including darts and crazy golf. 'Social darts' company FlightClub now operates in four UK cities as well as two in the US. Unlike the dartboards of old, FlightClub's use of technology makes the experience more immersive as players can record their efforts and use technology to save and share their experience.

"We've reinvented darts for the 21st Century," the company says, "developing a range of fast and exciting multi-player games, built to bring people together and designed to keep you unexpectedly hooked, insatiably entertained and full of joy". An hour of darts for 12 people will set you back GBP40 - and the venues offer everything from brunch to cocktails and pizzas.

In a similar vein, Puttshack - which operates in the US and the UK - claims to have reimagined mini-golf, creating a social setting with an experience to boot. The company prides itself on its use of technology, complete with interactive leaderboards that allow consumers to win food and drink prizes.

According to EventBrite, using tech invites guests to "more deeply invest in the experience". 

Just as the lines between channels continue to blur, so too does the definition of 'experience'. Drinks companies will have to find new ways to engage with consumers - whether they're wielding a golf club or locked in a room.


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