Escape Reality : Bhakti Khubchandani

Bhakti Khubchandani, twenty-two-year-old founder of Escape Reality realised at a very young age that she wanted to create something of her own. It comes as no surprise then that this clear vision and high level of self-awareness has today translated into a dream that is almost unfathomable for most people her age.
Bhakti completed her formal education from New York University, College of Arts and Science, and the American University in Dubai, where she was an overachiever (she was placed on Dean’s List every semester). She pursued marketingrelated internships and worked on side ventures throughout her time at university, which held her in good stead when she decided to establish Escape Reality – an interactive and immersive real-life escape game experience. Realising the growing potential for this nascent market in the UAE, she decided to combine her business skills with a long-standing love for logical puzzles, movies and adventures and come up with the concept for Escape Reality.

Tell us about yourself?
I am Indian by origin, my family moved out here to the U.A.E when I was two years old so this is the place that I grew up and consider home. I completed my high school here, then went to America to pursue my bachelor’s degree from New York University where I took up Psychology and Economics. I chose Economics because I love the business side of things and Psychology because I am fascinated by human behaviour. At my current job, I am lucky to combine both of my passions. After being in New York for some time, I came back to Dubai to complete my university at the American University in Dubai and I was also helping out with my dad’s family business. Honestly having that work experience at Indigo Properties was more beneficial than anything that I could have learned from a textbook. That was when I could truly put into practice everything that I have learned from college. It is safe to say that I am still learning and every day brings a new challenge and teaches me something that I never knew before.

“Take the leap of faith, know that you are taking a calculated risk”

How did you get your idea or concept for the business?
Sometime in December 2015 I went to play and experience an escape room for the first time, I had no idea what it was and my friends convinced me to go try it out. When I was playing the game, I experienced such an adrenaline rush racing against time to escape in 60 minutes. I remember being super happy unravelling clues with my team, and ecstatic that it combined my love for playing games, solving puzzles (being the girl who does the Sudoku every morning) and taking on adventures, in such a creative way! I was amazed at how simple yet genius this idea was, to convert a virtual escape game into a real-life escape room. I remember going back to my dad, later on, telling him how much fun I had and how I would love to do something like an escape room. And all he said was, “Why don’t you?” and that got me thinking about all of this. I was awake the entire night researching different escape rooms, how they work, and the next morning I felt like a new person with an open mindset unlike ever before.

What was your mission at the outset?
My main mission was to directly contribute to the happiness of someone else. All the internships I have taken up, all the positions that I have worked at have all been amazing from a business standpoint but I didn’t really feel like I was directly contributing to someone where I could see them with that big smile on their faces. That is what I really felt was lacking and what I really wanted to tap into. So my mission with Escape Reality was just to see that smile on people’s faces and knowing that I have made a difference to someone’s life. And now courtesy of my new venture I get to do just that.
What did you do exactly to set up the business?
In terms of setting up the business, it had far more steps than I had initially anticipated, every day brought in a new journey and challenges and all I knew was that all these separate journeys would eventually lead back to the one objective that I have. Being so new to the industry, it was key to find someone that had experience in this field, who could take this forward with me. I was lucky enough to meet just the right person – now my mentor, business partner and friend – where we joined hands to start Escape Reality. We first started off by creating the company, set up our office, then find a team of architects who would actually pose as game designers to design our portfolio of rooms. So my business partner specialises in the research and development and the game design, and I am focusing on operations, business development, and expansion plans. My business partner and I have tied in together pretty well to make this dream into our reality, as we tap into both of our strengths in carrying out all aspects of the business, from daily operations to steps taken for business development and global expansion.In the case of the Dubai store, as an example, we had to first secure a prime location with 6000 square feet that would be ideal to create a premium escape room. We are so grateful to have our perfect spot on Sheikh Zayed Road, right at the FGB metro station! We then had to get all of the necessary approvals from the authorities, in order to execute our construction plans and build our designs into reality. Then, various elements came into play, from constructing the store to creating customised props, and carrying out automation works, for which we had the support of a passionate team of individuals that considered the store as their own. The one thing that was very exciting was hiring the staff, as you know I am twenty-two and when I started setting up the business I was still studying in college, and I am hiring people who are older than me and more experienced than me. It is safe to say that from the initial interviews that I carried out I was probably more nervous than the people coming into the interview.

What is unique about your business, since there is so much competition?
Most escape rooms are usually done up in a specific theme and hints are given to players via a TV screen or a walkie-talkie, sometimes the game master comes into the room to give clues. However, that takes away from letting it be a completely immersive experience which is why we have created our own app which uses emerging technology like augmented reality (spoiler alert) and through this app you can ask for a solution if you need it, otherwise you’re off on your own adventure with your friends. Of course, we are watching via a CCTV camera to ensure that you are comfortable and on the right track. Beside this, we have also integrated a lot of high tech gadgets, props, puzzles in our eight unique escape rooms within our Dubai branch.

“My main mission was to directly contribute to the happiness of someone else”

What was the largest obstacle you faced when you were starting out with Escape Reality?
The hardest part is definitely the real estate game, we have opened four stores in the UK, one in Dubai, two stores in the States which open up in April 2017. What we really underestimated was how long it would take to get the right property. The first thing you need to do is make sure that it is big enough in terms of size, then the location has to be ideal, so there has to be a lot of heavy footfall where there are restaurants. Once you have found the place and are happy with it, you then have to pitch to the landlord, after which the landlord needs to be happy with it as well, then you move on to negotiating the terms, once that is handled you then go to meet the right authorities and get all the necessary approvals and statuses. This process in itself takes anywhere from three to six months and it has been the biggest challenge but it has also been fun.

If you had one piece of advice to someone just starting out, what would it be?
Take the leap of faith, know that you are taking a calculated risk. If the financials make sense and the only thing stopping you is your fear then just take the leap of faith anyway. If you believe in what you are working towards with no doubt in your mind, then the right people come into your life and join you in your journey to make it happen.
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