Times of Tunbridge Wells 8th July 2020

Page 29

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Wednesday July 8 | 2020

Arts & Culture


How one local escape room company cracked the code to its survival post Covid lockdown Clue Cracker opened last summer and ran a hugely popular escape room business but then the coronavirus hit and it saw its future on the brink. Eileen Leahy talks to co-founder Katie Thornton about how it defied the odds to survive the Covid crisis and its how its adapted


HEN the country went into lockdown on March 23 due to the Covid pandemic, businesses all over the UK feared for their future. One of those was Clue Cracker, a successful escape room venture based at The Shuffle House on St John’s Road in Tunbridge Wells. Having only opened eight months previously in July 2109 with its first game Jail Break, Clue Cracker quickly established itself as on the area’s most popular escape rooms, attracting visitors from as far flung as Dubai and Australia. It was started by husband and wife Ben and Katie Thornton, along with Shuffle House owner Ismail Refet and local theatre producer Tom Swift, in order to offer residents the chance to participate in a fun game where a team of players aims to discover clues, solve puzzles, and carry out specific tasks in a limited amount of time in order to break out of the escape room. Clue Cracker’s debut game was Jail Break and it went down so well that it soon became Number 1 on things to do in Tunbridge Wells, gaining over 150 five star reviews on Trip Advisor.

GREAT ESCAPE [Left to right] Ismail Refet, Katie, Ben and Tom Swift

Thanks to its success the Clue Cracker team soon found themselves in the fortunate position of being able to develop a second game, Diamond Dogs, and also acquire a second premises, just over the road from The Shuffle House. “The idea was to expand the new place into a real destination attraction, which would contain a further four escape rooms,” explains Katie. “We picked up the keys on March 11, proud as punch and ready to start building at the earliest opportunity – but then the country went into lockdown.” “Around the same time we were due to launch a second escape room game Diamond Dogs – an epic jewellery heist. But we suddenly found ourselves in a position where we had refunds to hand out, self-employed staff to let go, rent to pay and no foreseeable income. Not to

thinking caps on and began developing a series of online Escape Games. “We started with a not for profit, free online game called The Disappearance of DJ McDee for TW Social, an online community website created by Tunbridge Wells Borough Council to support socially isolated people during lockdown. “This was followed by three more games: ‘Escape from Extinction Island ‘Fairground Felony’ and ‘The Haunting of Harlequin House’. “At first we thought it would be a side hustle, something to keep myself and Ben sane during lockdown, especially being seven months pregnant at the time! But little did we know the online games would go down a storm - and not just in the UK. Customers from all over the world have played them including some in Australia, America, Canada and Japan.”

‘We picked up the keys on March 11, proud as punch and ready to start building at the earliest opportunity – but then the country went into lockdown’


ESCAPE ARTISTS Ben and Katie Thornton


mention a new property sitting empty: the future looked bleak.“ Yet despite all the odds stacked against them, Katie says that the Clue Cracker team did not let a worldwide pandemic and possible bankruptcy dampen their spirits. “We began applying for all of the grants released by the government including business-rates relief and rent holidays. Anything that was available we tried to get it. But sadly, like many businesses, we kept falling through the net as we hadn’t been trading for more than a year.” However Clue Cracker were determined not to become another business lost to Covid-19 so the creatives put their

Katie says that to date they have sold 700 online games in the space of three months. Clue Cracker was also chosen for the Online Escape Game Olympics, where they had 65 participants across 18 nations playing in one evening. However although the games cost £9.99 each, the team soon realised this was not going to be enough financial support to keep Clue Cracker afloat so they had to think of other means to ensure their survival. “During this time we contacted Cllrs Mark Ellis and Peter Lidstone - who is an Escape Room fan - advising them of our situation and requesting their help. Cllr Ellis kindly told us about a new top-up grant provided to assist small businesses who had missed out on previous grants. “We returned to the laptop, not feeling too hopeful, aware that this was our last chance to save our business and applied. Two weeks later, we received an email to say we had been successful applicants. This was the best day in three months,” smiles Katie. “Thanks to the wonderful work of the officers in the council who fought to get this money allocated and save local businesses, we finally had the help we needed.” And now Clue Cracker, like a number of other leisure businesses, has reopened, welcoming back its first customers last Saturday (July 4). Katie says participants will be able to enjoy both the original game Jail Break and also the new Diamond Dogs one at The Shuffle House all with the correct social distancing and safety guidelines in place. “We now have longer gaps between games to allow for a thorough deep clean, masks, gloves and sanitizer at the ready. And only group bubbles of up to six are permitted,” Katie states. And as for progress on the new premises Clue Cracker has acquired, Katie says that work has already begun on transforming the space into four exciting escape rooms. “We have begun the build in the new property and very much hope to have another game open in August. We already have the theme and let’s just say it will be a jungle exploring, temple finding, boulder dashing adventure!” For further information or to book visit www.cluecrackergames.co.uk Tickets cost from £17pp and the Clue Cracker event space is open from Wednesday – Sunday

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