One of our favourite things about being event people is getting to hear about the latest and greatest trends in the business. Whether it’s a decor trend (remember when balloon arches were popular), a new restaurant opening in an old space, or a cool piece of event technology, we love being in the know. Over the past few months, we’ve been hearing ALOT about a new team building or corporate activity trend called 5D immersive experiences in the form of an Escape or Adventure Room. While the concept has been around for almost a decade now, it’s recently had a resurgence and has caused quite a stir with two locations opening up within blocks of each other in downtown Vancouver at the beginning of this year. Based on ‘escape the room’ video games, where players find themselves locked in a virtual room and have to explore the room and use critical thinking skills to find a way out, the real-life Escape or Adventure Room concept is rumoured to have began in 2006 in Silicon Valley as a challenge between system programmers to out smart one another. The premise is rather simple but very effective. Groups are engaged in a themed storyline, given a challenge associated with the storyline and then given a time, usually 45 minutes, to complete the challenge using logic, determination and creative problem solving skills. The result is a fast-paced, somewhat spooky, and often humourous event for all ages.
One of the new Vancouver Escape Room concepts is Smarty Pantz, as in you have to be one to escape. A second is called GUESS HQ and while their concept is similar, they’ve coined themselves an “adventure” room rather than an “escape” room. They happen to be fellow Gastown neighbours, so having never experienced anything like it before, and wanting to get to the bottom of the differences between the two, the Eventsage team took some time away from the office this week to test our wits. Here is what we learned…
Location: 289 Abbott Street, Suite 100, Vancouver BC, V6B 2K7
The Smarty Pantz experience begins with a booking confirmation email that includes a secret phrase you need to say into an intercom to be buzzed into the building. A nice touch that sets the stage for what’s to come. Upon arrival, we were met by an outfitted stewardess who ushered us into the waiting room. Not your typical waiting room, this quirky lounge had an eclectic vintage decor scheme with hair salon blowdryer chairs, a giant jenga game as well as tons of other puzzles, games and brain teezers to keep us occupied while waiting to enter our assigned escape room. When the time came to leave the lounge, I must admit I was a little disappointed because I was having so much fun. Our room host Robin, who was perfectly in character dressed as a representative from a paranormal transcendental agency, told us the storyline for our escape room with a strong southern drawl. Our mission for the ‘Morning Never Comes’ room was to help the ghost of a murder victim become whole again in order to escape the room. Smarty Pantz offers four other themed rooms including ‘Dreamscape’, ‘Doomed Submarine’, ‘Spies and Lies’ and ‘Thirst for Murder’. Having multiple rooms is an important strategic aspect of their business that encourages repeat customers. Each room is built to be an analog experience, meaning all clues and puzzles are tangible objects as opposed to electronic devices. The only electronic devices in the room, were our locked up cellphones (hello step 1 of the technology cleanse we talked about earlier this week) and a walkie-talkie we were given to communicate with Robin for guidance and clues. A nice life line to the outside world without him giving too much away. I won’t say anything else about the room experience for fear of ruining the surprises that delight along the way, but I will say this, we were very impressed by all of the little details. The Smarty Pantz creators clearly have an attention for detail and put a lot of effort into the smaller touch points in combination with the larger concept and storylines to create a truly immersive experience. As event types, we’re crazy for details, so appreciated how costumes, a secret entry code, movie set designs, and props were used to enhance the experience. In the end, we were able to solve our room with only 4 minutes remaining so walked away feeling really good about ourselves and the whole experience. Definitely a must try team building activity!
According to Chris Ricard, one of the founders and Chief Fun Organizers, Smarty Pantz has had 5000 people come through the doors since opening. Chris says, “The reception by corporate customers for this new team building option has been amazing!” A quick search on Yelp or Trip Advisor yields tons of positive comments from corporate groups. A group of up to 48 can be booked at once with four of their rooms accommodating six to eight people at a time and their signature room accommodating up to 16. If larger groups are interested, the lounge can be used as a pre/post area or the group can be split up, with half enjoying a neighbouring restaurant while the other half tackles the rooms.
Location: 150 West Hastings Street, Vancouver BC, V6B 1G8
In case you’re wondering GUESS HQ stands for Gastown Underground Elite Secret Society Headquarters. With a rather incognito entrance, patrons are told to look out for the blue lantern behind the lion. We passed this first mission with flying colours and made our way into the entrance lobby, which looked like an abandoned warehouse with graffiti tags adorning the walls. While waiting to enter the room, we could hear an alarm going off. We were all dying to know what the alarm was for so anticipation built while we waited. Nick, our friendly and informative host engaged us with the storyline, challenge and objectives before asking us to watch a video containing more specifics about the storyline. That video was followed by a witty safety video which was then followed by a briefing video inside the room. Apparently, we didn’t pay close enough attention, because we missed the part about following an objectives road map on the back of a sheet we were given. Thankfully, we figured out our omission early on and were able to get back on track without losing too much time. We were assigned ‘The Heist’ room which is their original room. Since opening, the ‘Into the Depths’ room has been added and another currently in the works called ‘The Temple of Light’ is slated to open this summer. Rather than being a single escape room, these rooms are designed to be multi-space adventures, where patrons are invited to play the part of a hero in a live action, reality gaming experience. Technology permeated the room in the form of security panels, motion cameras, laser beams and a tv screen counting down our remaining time which significantly increased the intensity and pressure of the challenge. Intercom panels on the wall gave us access to Nick when help was needed and walkie-talkies helped us communicate between spaces. The overarching storyline for all rooms is about saving the world from an evil corporation called the Umbra group that has been stealing artifacts of power and using them to experiment on human beings through cloning. Anyone who’s seen the movie or played the game Resident Evil may recall the Umbrella Corporation and their top-secret operations utilizing genetic engineering and biological weaponry. Sound familiar? Hey, all creative inspiration has to come from somewhere! We loved how active this experience was. Moving between multiple spaces each with their own objectives, crawling under laser beams, and shimmying along walls made for some hilarious group memories. When the experience was over, we had worked up a bit of a sweat and enjoyed every minute of it. Unfortunately, we didn’t complete the challenge in time. A frustrating outcome but also a calling to visit again soon.
Owned by Adrian Duke, GUESS HQ has seen 500 groups through the space since it’s opening. A maximum of 8 people can play each room so the current group capacity is 16 with space for an additional 8 when their new room opens. Accustomed to accommodating larger groups, Adrian says they have a number of different strategies for getting larger groups through, like having the event take place over multiple days with a closing celebration to gather everyone together or a group split similar to what I mentioned above.
Botton line: both experiences were awesome and thoroughly enjoyed by our team. A preference for one over the other would be impossible to determine so best to try both!
Plan your next team building event at either of these venues and you’ll look like an ultra-creative, in-the-know, planning rockstar. Plus, your colleagues will thank you for not making them do yet another amazing race scavenger hunt around the city. I’m yawning just thinking about it.