By Brandon Gillet
The Gazette caught up with Telfer School of Management graduate Chris Bisson, co-founder of Escape Manor, an escape and games room. He is one of 12 uOttawa alumni on the 2017 Forty Under 40 list compiled by the Ottawa Chamber of Commerce and the Ottawa Business Journal.
How did Escape Manor come to be?
My co-founder, Billy Rogers, and I have been dreaming up businesses for almost 20 years. We had a couple of tries and fails along the way. But then, in 2014, a friend mentioned that playing an escape room in Bangkok had been the highlight of his sister’s vacation in Thailand. Billy and I did some research and it looked like a viable business.
We brought in two partners, Steve Wilson and Neil Schwartz. All four of us had full-time jobs — I was working with the Ottawa Sports and Entertainment Group. We thought this could be a huge success, but also thought we should hold onto our jobs for a while. But within a month or two, Billy and I jumped into the business full time, with Steve and Neil following later on. We were still reeling from past failures, but they provided lessons we took forward into the new venture. I tell other budding entrepreneurs: be sure to record some of the learning when things go wrong!
So your background is in entrepreneurship?
I took business administration at Telfer and also had entrepreneurship in the back of my mind. My time at uOttawa was invaluable, and I had a really awesome mentor, the late Peter Koppel. I was his TA, and I look on his guidance and friendship as critical to my success. When I had opportunities to travel and work, I consulted him about whether taking time off school was the right move. He said you could have straight A’s but if you haven’t developed a real-world skill set and truly understand what your passions are, then education is only half the battle. So get out there, figure out who you are and what you want.
Why do you think Escape Manor has succeeded?
Firstly, my three partners. We all have different skill sets, but collectively are a well-rounded team. We also have a common vision, to deliver an unparalleled experience from the moment you book to when you leave our doors. Three of us have worked on cruise ships, three for Fairmont Hotels and one for Disney, so all that experience equipped us to know what people want from a hospitality and entertainment perspective. We're not in the business of selling commodities or services — we’re creating experiences people will remember.
How do you feel about being named to the Forty Under 40 list?
This accolade belongs to a team. My name is on it but we have a company of almost 50 people working behind the scenes to make this happen. It’s both recognition for all the hard work that went into creating the company and a tool to leverage our position and create more opportunities in the future.
What’s next for the business?
We’re pretty ambitious at Escape Manor and have big plans to expand over the next couple of years. With eight locations now, we’re almost halfway to our target of opening 20 locations by 2020.
Creepy fun in the Cornwall Jail
Brandon Gillet and his team took the Cornwall Jail challenge as guests of Escape Manor.
In May, two weeks after it became available for bookings, I took Escape Manor’s “Escape the Cornwall Jail” challenge. As my group arrived, another was leaving the old jail cheering and laughing. It seems we were in for some entertainment.
First, we were placed in a holding cell and asked to pick a team name. (In the spirit of my purpose there, we couldn’t decide between Team Burgundy and the Channel 4 News Team, an homage to Will Ferrell’s character in Anchorman.) Next, an eccentric, cackling bailiff arrived to take us to our sentencing hearing. As we had already been found guilty of treason, a judge swiftly sentenced us to hang.
The game then took us to various sections of the prison, which operated from 1833 to 2002 and has a reputation for being haunted. We had to call on our logical skills and cunning to solve a series of clues and escape with our exoneration papers.
Sadly, my group was “hanged” at the end of the evening, but not until we had had a completely immersive experience and immense fun.
Related story: Twelve uOttawa alumni make Forty Under 40 list