As part of my series about the “5 Things You Need To Know To Create a Successful Service Business”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Jonathan Murrell of The Escape Game.
Jonathan Murrell grew up in the Philippines and has always had an entrepreneurial spirit, launching several business ventures alongside his brother over the years. He’s the CMO and co founder of The Escape Game, currently residing in Nashville, TN with his wife and son.
Thank you so much for joining us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
I was born and raised in Manila, Philippines as a son of two missionaries. Growing up, I traveled the world with my parents and two brothers for my parents’ work and for competitive tennis. I moved to Nashville, TN to go to Belmont University, where I majored in Entrepreneurship. My older brother James and I had been doing business together since we were kids. We started a shoe-shining stand and taught tennis lessons in our neighborhood. In college, we had a few different companies. MyDormFood.Com delivered food in bulk to college student’s dorms. Then we started Candy Galaxy and sold bulk candy and candy packages and bouquets. As you can see, we’re very passionate about snacks.
What was the “Aha Moment” that led you to think of the idea for your current company? Can you share that story with us?
Mark Flint, a family friend we’ve known for years, and his family experienced their first escape room in Europe in 2014. Mark was immediately hooked. He wondered if he could bring escape rooms to the US and take the concept to new heights. After returning to Tennessee, Mark asked me and my brother James to join him in starting The Escape Game. There were only about three escape room companies in the United States at the time. We thought it was crazy but we were selling candy so we were open to other ideas. My wife, Moriah, and I traveled with the Flint family to Europe and Asia to scope out the escape room scene. Mark and I played over 30 games and knew it would be a hit in the US.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?
Oh, I made a ton of mistakes in the beginning. When we first started with one store, I didn’t schedule our reservations that well one morning and I was the only person in the building. Games booked up, which is awesome, but I had to run three games at once. At the time, we had baby monitors to see and hear guests so I put my ear up to the door of one game and listened through the baby monitors for the other two games. That would not slide now…
It would seem that The Escape Game’s concept is easily duplicated. How do you differentiate The Escape Game from competitor’s?
First, our custom design. We build our adventures from scratch, employing our prop warehouse and an array of sophisticated robotics to bring our worlds to life. Second, our games are amazing for everyone. We make the most accessible and immersive escape games. Because we’re guest-obsessed, our adventures are more exciting, more inviting, and everyone contributes to the action. Lastly, we believe our team members are the best of the best. We hire amazing, friendly, kind people and empower them to take care of our guests.
Is it possible to brand The Escape Game? How would you build brand loyalty?
Yes, it is possible to brand The Escape Game. We build brand loyalty by making the best games and serving guests in the best way. We’re proud to say 12 out of 18 of our stores are rated in the top 30 escape rooms in the United States.
Does your advertising target the general population? Or, do you target niche audiences?
It’s actually pretty interesting that people of all ages and backgrounds love to play our games. From 7 year old birthday parties, to corporate team building, to bachelorette parties, to international tourists, our audience is a mix of all kinds of people.
Thank you for that. Let’s now pivot to the main focus of our interview. Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven business” are more successful in many areas. When you started your company what was your vision, your purpose?
A few words have changed here and there but our purpose from day one was to design and deliver epic interactive experiences for every single guest. The key is every. single. guest. Mark, James, and I decided we wouldn’t compromise anything for the guest and would never let a guest leave unhappy. We took it as a challenge to make every guest a TEG (The Escape Game) fan.
What do you do to articulate or demonstrate your company’s values to your employees and to your customers?
Our values are Excellence, Passion, Growth, Integrity, Teamwork, and Creativity. We talk about these values often to get our teams aligned. We reward and recognize people who live out these values in practical ways. When we coach our team members, we always tie it back to a value or our mission. Our mission and values aren’t just posters on a wall. They’re our strategy for success.
Do you have a “number one principle” that guides you through the ups and downs of running a business?
Yes. It’s really simple. I know I may sound like a broken record but my number one principle is to take care of the guest at all costs. It’s the right thing to do and it works. People want to be taken care of and we do that at The Escape Game.
Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey? Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard?
It got difficult between stores 5–8. We had to decide if we wanted to be a small or big company. We decided we wanted to be a big company and bring The Escape Game to more and more people.
So, how are things going today? How did your values lead to your eventual success?
We kept it simple: give every single guest an amazing experience. We hired competitive, self-motivated people who could get on board with this mission so we didn’t have to convince them to take care of our guests. What we ended up with is hundreds of team members who genuinely want to give amazing service.
Ok, here is the main question of our discussion. Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things a founder or CEO should know in order to create a Wow! Customer Experience. Please share a story or an example for each.
- Customize the experience. Every guest that walks in the door is looking for something different. We say that one-size-fits-one. For example, in our store in King of Prussia, Philadelphia, a twenty-something year old guest mentioned he was craving an Uncrustable sandwich. Our team worked some magic and after he escaped his game, he was handed a box of Uncrustables.
- Have empathy. It’s elementary but put yourself in the guests’ shoes and ask, “How would I want to be treated in this situation? How would I want to feel in this situation? What would I want someone to say to me in this situation?” From recovering a service failure to designing a new game to placing coat hooks in a room, practicing empathy is crucial to creating an intentional guest experience. For example, when a mom called in tears because the escape room that her son’s birthday party was scheduled to be at caught on fire, our team assured her we would book her son a game at The Escape Game and went above and beyond. We gifted the boy and his friends certificates to Rainforest Cafe and they had a blast.
- Own your mistakes. We are not perfect and we don’t expect our product or team members to be either. If we fail to deliver great service or if a guest perceives we failed to deliver great service, it’s our problem. We train our team members to take responsibility for the failure, apologize on behalf of the company and make it right. For example, one day we accidentally double booked a couple in Chicago and they weren’t able to play that weekend. Of course, they were upset because their date night was ruined and they were driving in a few hours to play. We apologized for our mistake, invited the couple to come back and play for free, paid for a dinner of their choice in the city, and paid for a babysitter for their kids.
- Empower your team. Every one of our team members from day one is empowered to do whatever it takes to make a guest happy. We believe that going above and beyond or taking care of a mistake is best handled by the team member who experienced it first hand. Instead of getting approval from a manager, we trust our frontline team members to make the right call. For example, one of our team members went above and beyond for a guest, Miss Mildred, who played The Heist on her 91st birthday. When our team found out that Miss Mildred loved Nancy Drew, they bought her a Nancy Drew novel, a magnifying glass that said “Detective Mildred” and one of our team members actually dressed up as Nancy Drew and played with her. Miss Mildred was thrilled to “meet” and play with a real-life Nancy Drew.
- Listen and apply guest and team feedback. We don’t need a consulting company when we have our own guests and team members to share their reality. They see things we don’t see and experience things we don’t experience. We heard from guests that the name of one of our games was a little confusing. We brainstormed some new names, surveyed our guests and rebranded it to make it more clear and exciting.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
I’m so grateful for my wife Moriah. We got married in the midst of the start of The Escape Game and she was crucial to the shaping of the team culture and philosophy on guest service. Although they’ve changed a bit in the past six years, she wrote out our first set of values. She knew it was important that even though we had a small team, we had to have shared values.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)
I’m passionate about bringing education to developing countries. I grew up in Asia and spent a lot of my childhood visiting different countries. Education can increase productivity, economic growth, quality of life, and creativity.
How can our readers follow you on social media?
I’m not on social media but you can follow @TheEscapeGame on Facebook and Instagram!