It would sound so much more impressive if I said that our company had methodically staked out Australia as a potential export market, did copious amounts of market research, then went after it with the tenacity of a Tasmanian devil. But that’s not the case. In all candour, we never set out to export our brand of hospitality to Australia—or anywhere else, for that matter—but then opportunity came knocking from the other side of the world, and we opened the door. One short year later, our Brisbane location in Australia is poised to post the highest numbers of all our venues: a happy accident to be sure.
Being different makes all the difference
Although we might not have set out to be exporters, it’s been our goal from the start to be the absolute best in the escape-room entertainment space. By creating a thoroughly engaging, immersive experience, we’ve been able to position ourselves as leaders in our industry. In marketing terms, it’s what’s commonly referred to as one’s unique value proposition. More simply put, it’s what makes you different from the competition. This is a significant requirement when selling abroad, since it’s no longer just about competing on your own turf, but rather, setting yourself apart on the global playing field.
Timing is everything
We opened our first venue in Ottawa back in 2014. Being one of the original escape-room entertainment businesses in Ontario at the time ensured we generated plenty of buzz. Of course, we had plans to expand elsewhere in Canada eventually, but in those early days, we were primarily focused on building our brand and providing our customers with a truly amazing experience. That quickly changed when a businessman from Western Canada brought his family to Escape Manor while on holidays in Ottawa. He was so impressed, he proposed we take our concept to his hometown of Regina. After doing the appropriate due diligence, we forged our western partnership and now have venues in Regina and Saskatoon.
This geographical leap of faith effectively opened our business minds to other markets and additional opportunities. So, when we were approached by a couple from Brisbane to bring our model of escape-room entertainment to their city, you could say the exporting die had been cast. If we could make the jump westward from Ottawa to Regina, why not keep going?
We explored a number of options as our company expanded. We could have easily licensed our intellectual property and business model. Franchising was another potential route, but we felt that option served a company with a simpler, more solid core of systems already in place. That wasn’t us: Not then and not now. We were a young company still in the process of developing those systems, and more than a little reluctant to package it up and ship it off, as if everything had already been perfected. Our service is far more complicated. A considerable amount of time goes into the conceptualizing and staging of an escape room’s design. There’s a lot of theatrical training required to fully prepare front-line staff. We knew that we’d have to adopt a more hands-on approach, so we opted for a partnership/joint venture in Australia.
Navigating the challenging terrain
While Brisbane is hardly in the Australian Outback, doing business there or in any other international market comes with its own set of hurdles along the way.
- Geography. In the case of Australia, there’s a time difference of 14 hours, so even setting up conference calls can be a challenge, let alone air travel, which requires a full 24 hours.
- Culture. Yes, we share a language and culture, but they’re far from identical, as any “sheila” or “bloke” will tell you. In marketing, using the wrong idiom makes idiots of us all.
- Currency. As a Canadian company used to operating in Canadian funds, the prospect of covering startup expenses in Australian dollars, and the accompanying currency fluctuations, added a risk wrinkle to our operational expenses.
- Financing. We’re a cashflow-based service provider, not the asset-based business that most banks prefer dealing with. Borrowing for us has always led to interesting conversations, which were made even more so in the context of undertaking an Australian expansion. Fortunately, RBC and EDC were in our corner and worked together to provide the financing we needed to accommodate our growth. This backing also helped shape the relationship we now have with the National Australia Bank.
- Legalities. Even though I’m a corporate lawyer by training, I recognized the need to engage the full spectrum of legal assistance overseas, from incorporating, to trademarking our brand, to developing employment contracts.
You need Blundstones on the ground
In our particular partnership model, it was hardly the case of seal the deal and off they go. We brought our Brisbane partners to Canada for a full month at the onset, where they were trained in our venues and learned about all aspects of our procedures. It was like providing a full corporate download of Escape Manor, which they were then able to take back to Australia. They’ve been incredibly successful in carrying though our vision and mission in terms of customer service and immersive entertainment, not to mention revenue.
We were intimately involved in the development of the Brisbane venue itself throughout the leasehold improvements stage. We had a Canadian representative in-market for the entire first month after their opening. We also have a presence there for at least one week in each quarter to ensure our standards are maintained and to work through any operational issues. It’s also critical that our partners in Australia feel supported every step of the way, so we hold weekly conference calls and have other forms of ongoing communications in place.
While our exporting journey may have started out accidentally, we’re now looking very deliberately to branch out to other locations in Australia and beyond. With the right partners in place, there’s no destination too far or obstacle too great, as our own humble journey illustrates.