Simon Davison has made dozens of career pivots in his life, becoming, among other things, a U.K. rally car champion and owner of a recycling company. His current job, founder and CEO of Escapology, an Orlando, Florida-based escape room business with franchises around the world, may be his most unusual, if only for one reason: the 57-year-old Davison suffers from claustrophobia.

"I could think of nothing worse," Davison says of the first time, in 2012, he was invited by a friend to try an escape room, which involves people working in teams to figure out how to escape a presumably locked room. "I wasn't going to go anywhere near one!" After being reassured that the rooms weren't actually locked--"the fire marshals quite rightly won't allow that," he says--Davison gave it a try and found himself hooked. "It was quite a rush," he says. 

He's not the only who's hooked on the concept. The popularity of escape rooms has risen among casual players, companies seeking creative team-building exercises, and families desperate for wholesome screen-free activities. While the market size is hard to quantify as few, if any, research firms follow the industry, the number of locations hints at the activity's growing prominence. A July 2019 overview from Regiondo, a German booking and ticketing company that keeps tabs on travel and entertainment businesses, found that there are 14,000 escape rooms worldwide

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Davison's business also has been on the upswing. The six-year-old company--which has 74 locations in the U.S., Canada, Mexico, Chile, Spain, the Dominican Republic, and more on the way--booked $3.9 million in 2018 revenue, helping it land at No. 111 on this year's Inc. 5000 Series: Florida list, a regional ranking for top businesses in the state. The decision to open its headquarters in Orlando was a natural one with so many entertainment attractions nearby. Another plus, according to Davison: "It's sunnier than the U.K."

Among Escapology's offerings: an officially licensed Scooby-Doo Haunted Castle room, a suddenly topical viral outbreak room, a game set on Air Force One, and one about the theft of the Mona Lisa set in the Louvre. The appeal of many of these games can be found in the combination of storytelling, stagecraft, and the demands they make on players' ingenuity and teamwork. For a generation that interacts largely through screens and problem solves mostly via casual gaming, escape rooms can create a sense of connection.

"The business itself just brings people together," says Davison. Ticket prices begin at $30 and games gather between six and eight players. "Escape rooms, if they're designed well, appeal to every [player's] nature... Everybody kind of likes puzzles."

Of course, in the current climate with many "non-essential" businesses temporarily closed to allow for social distancing amid the coronavirus outbreak, escape rooms, like movie theaters, theme parks, and other entertainment venues, are being hit hard.

"This is a dire time for the escape room world or any business that requires you to enter their space at all," says David Spira, an enthusiast, who runs the reviews and industry news website Room Escape Artist with his wife and partner, Lisa. "The owners are now drowned in high rent and insurance costs. There's no relief in sight," he says. While some of these businesses are better positioned than others to weather this storm, notes Spira, even the better-prepared ones will face tough decisions.

Escapology's Davison has noted that some locations have had to close temporarily, but that, in general, escape rooms are pretty good activities during a time of social distancing since customers book online, have very limited contact with staff, and play with their own friends and family--people they presumably know are safe to be around. His staff also thoroughly disinfects rooms between games and offers players the option to use disposable gloves. 

Playing catch-up

As Escapology has built its business by creating engaging challenges for its customers, Davison has had to solve more than a few of his own along the way. One is balancing the relationship between Escapology's four owned and operated locations and its growing franchises. Franchisees pay around $37,000 to launch a branch, plus an annual fee on their gross sales after local sales tax. While Davison admits scale is a good thing to have, it's not always easy to manage. Each location opening under the Escapology name must feature well-designed games and sets and have knowledgeable, well-trained staff.

"We signed up, I think, 20-odd franchises in the first eight to 10 months and the systems weren't quite ready," he says. The company added to its core team and expanded its training to ensure that with growth, quality didn't suffer. Having patience helped, too: "It takes a while to get those systems in place," Davison says.

"The shackles are off as far as the creativity is concerned," Davison says. "The theming is going to improve, the puzzles will improve."

"It's fun, but you kind of feel like you're in a race and need to stay ahead of the curve all the time," he says.