Connor & Sarah Donovan wrapped up a very challenging two years by winning a brace of international awards for their small, Clare based business. The Donovans opened Escape Rooms Ennis in 2019, and it was an instant hit with locals and tourists alike.
Escape Rooms are challenging puzzle games, played in groups, that emphasise the use of teamwork and creative thinking. Each room has a different immersive theme. For example, their ‘O’Brien’s Cottage’ game is a room designed to look like a traditional, rural Irish cottage. The story behind the game is that the cottage has been cursed by the Banshee, and the players have one hour to find a way to break that curse. The room is full of puzzles and riddles which must all be solved within the time allowed in order to win the game. The Ennis Escape Rooms were a big hit for families, groups of friends, birthday parties, and corporate team-building.
But on the first anniversary of the business, the pandemic struck and Escape Rooms Ennis spent most of 2020 closed for business. In a scramble for survival, the Donovans learned how to host their games online through Zoom, with the players directing their movements and telling them what to do within the room. Escape Room owners all over the world were using this technique (now known as live-hosted or live-video games) to stay afloat during lockdown.
Additionally, the Donovans spent the year learning how to digitalise their games into a “point-and-click” format, which people could play from home on their computers, and even connect with their friends and families online to play together in their own time without having to book an appointment. Sarah says, “This helped our games reach people in other countries and time zones who never would have been able to play our escape rooms before.
“It wasn’t easy, at our age,” she admits. “We had never even used Skype or Zoom before all this, let alone attempted any coding of any kind. It was really difficult, stressful, and it took endless hours of learning, and making mistakes, before we started getting things right.”
And in the middle of all of this, they unexpectedly had to relocate their business.
“It was a massive upheaval. It was during level 5 lockdown and there was nowhere else we could go. Once the lockdown ended, we found the perfect place in the Ballycasey Craft & Design Centre, Shannon where we had to re-build our rooms all over again from scratch. Now ‘Escape Rooms Shannon & Online Escape Rooms Ireland’, we re-opened in our new location in mid-July 2021 and to a wonderful summer of staycationers and a warm welcome from the local community.”
Things were looking up for a little while but then, in December, the Covid 19 advice from the Government caused all of their Christmas season bookings to cancel, and the in-person business went quiet yet again.
“I started hosting larger events online, mostly corporate team-building events,” explains Sarah. “Being able to enter a 360 virtual version of a real space was something unique in the online event scene, and people really loved it. Thank goodness it caught on, because it was those online events that helped keep us going through a very difficult time.”
After all of the challenges, with creativity and perseverance, the Donovans end 2021 on a high note. Escape Rooms Shannon & Online Escape Rooms Ireland were awarded two international awards for their online games: Best Live Hosted Game 2021 for ‘O’Brien’s Cottage’, and 2nd place for Best Digital Game at the annual international Bullseye Awards.
“It is incredible that such a small family business, in a town of less than 10,000 people, could be recognised as top in the whole World. It’s a really wonderful end to a very tough year, and we are looking forward to a bright future in our new location in Shannon.”