Interview with Akos Gabossy CEO and Co-Founder of PanIQ
Akos Gabossy is the CEO and co-founder of the PanIQ Escape Room Franchise. PanIQ Escape Rooms is one of the fastest-growing escape room franchise in the country, with locations in Hollywood, Chicago, New York City, and many more cities. He began his career in entertainment at age 18, and now 15 years later, he has made himself into one of the biggest names in the industry.
Business Today (Charlie Bagin): When you were younger, going through high school and university, what did you think you might want to do in life, and what were your aspirations?
Akos Gabossy: When I was a high school student, I wanted to be a basketball player. When I finished high school, that was the point I stopped playing basketball and went to university, and I had to focus on my studies. After the second semester, I started to work in a bank and that really changed me. That was the moment when I knew I wanted to get involved in business. The only question for me was whether I wanted to be an entrepreneur or stay on the other side and work at the bank.
BT: I’ve seen that you’ve referenced Chuck E. Cheese’s as an inspiration for you. What about Chuck E. Cheese’s led you to want to then start these escape rooms? How did those two connect?
Akos: When I was seventeen, I went to high school in Los Angeles in Burbank. I’m originally from Hungary, Europe, but I was a foreign exchange student there. I went to Chuck E Cheese’s with the family I lived with, and that was the first time I was met with this entertainment concept. When I got back to Hungary and was working in the bank, I was practicing business modeling and business planning, and I needed to come up with a project. It was very convenient to try and work with Chuck E. Cheese’s and their business opp and learn how to do a business plan. It turned out to actually be a business, and after 4 years I reached out to investors and we pretty much started Hungary’s #1 kids’ entertainment facility, A little while later I opened another one, so it was huge experience for me in the amusement industry, which brings us to escape rooms which is also a very new form of entertainment. It originated from Hungary, Europe so it was pretty obvious to me to bring this form of innovation to the US and open one of the first European escape rooms in the states.
BT: I know escape rooms originated in Hungary, in Budapest. Have you noticed anything different about escape rooms or the culture that surrounds them in Hungary where they originated vs. in the US, and any challenges that might present when you start to formulate your rooms here in the states?
Akos: Yes, so we opened the first location in Hollywood in 2014. Back then, based on our knowledge, there was only one concept. It was called a Zombie Escape Room concept, that was on market. The biggest difference was, and still probably is the biggest difference, that traditional European escape rooms offer a private experience plus less people are locked in a room. We don’t like to put more than 7 people in the room, while American escape rooms put sometimes even more than 12 people.
BT: How do you manage to go about coming up with new escape room themes and implementing them?
Akos: So we try to follow the Hollywood Blockbuster movies. We see what people like in the movies and those are the kind of themes that will be popular in the escape room business. Plus, I have a whole bunch of designers in Hungary. We are considered as “creative people.” Sometimes we have to come up with very cool puzzles and creative ideas from a smaller budget, and that makes, probably, our rooms very enjoyable.
BT: Do you have a favorite escape room theme of your own?
Akos: We are creating one now for our Las Vegas venue that’s going to open next year and it’s going to be a Steampunk room. It’s going to be pretty much a time travel room based on a story of a professor. We are creating this experience now, and I really like that and think it’s going to be very cool.
BT: Could you tell me about your daily life managing locations across the US and Hungary across many time zones?
Akos: Yeah, so it’s a challenge, but I have great people around me who help me to do that. Plus my position is getting to be more and more like a CEO position where I don’t have to deal with daily operations, I just have to deal with expansion and liquidity of the company.
BT: What would you say differentiates PanIQ rooms from other escape rooms?
Akos: Right now what we are trying to do is bring as many Generation 3 escape rooms to the US as possible. So what this means is a bigger budget, more immersive puzzles, very high-tech technology. The other thing is we try to spend a lot of focus on is our back-end system - we have our special hint kiosk system. We develop all these kinds of tools for our franchises so they can run their businesses smoothly. Plus, again, in Las Vegas we are trying to add a bar to our location which is going to be a very big challenge. Since we have 8 different themes at one location that means we are going to have at least 50-60 people there at one time, which obviously makes sense to serve them food and beverage. So we are trying to create a movie theater experience at these mega locations, which have multiple themes, normally more than 5, plus there’s food and beverage and the location of these venues are prime. We are trying to be in locations where people like to hang out, and get involved in good neighborhoods.
BT: Are there any laws, regulations, or other difficulties you have to consider when trying to incorporate food and drink into your locations?
Akos: I’m very experienced in food and beverage in Hungary but obviously the challenge for us to do it in the US - it doesn’t seem that difficult. What seems difficult is to open a new escape room right now in the US because the city permitting offices are getting some unfamiliar activity and there’s no regulation of it, so sometimes it’s a challenge to describe to the inspectors what we do and how we do it and try to explain to them what we do is extremely peaceful and it’s really no different from operating an office or retail store.
BT: You mentioned that PanIQ rooms use cool technological pieces in your escape rooms, could you give an example of this tech?
Akos: The Generation 3 rooms are technologically advanced which means there are no keys and locks in the room. There’s a central computer and every puzzle is connected to that piece so we can remotely open any magnetic lock in the room. Plus, if a player is doing something in one corner of the room, something else can happen in the other one. For example, we are doing a ghost room also in Las Vegas. There will be a funny prop on the wall which is a fish, and if players walk in front of the fish it will spit water on them.
BT: In your opinion, what makes for a good escape room? What are people looking for in an escape room experience?
Akos: It’s a very tough task to design an escape room, since, especially in the US, still, there are a lot of people who are first-timers, but there are very experienced people - we call them enthusiasts - who have played more than 50-60 escape rooms in their life, so it’s very hard to find the right difficulty level.
You also have to put a lot of focus into when they get stuck...if you have these moments in the game plot you’re gonna have a lot of fun. I really like for example, when you have the final key or final solution in front of them the entire time, but they only get to that point at the end, and they say “oh my God, the final solution was in front of us for 60 minutes and we couldn’t find it.” Plus, the way we design the game plot is we try to make every team come out in 60 minutes, so we are mainstream escape rooms, where obviously puzzles are difficult but we try to make it so they can solve it.
BT: What are your plans for PanIQ from here. You’ve mentioned Las Vegas, but how much more expansion do you see, and do you plan on trying to expand into more countries?
Akos: What we see, is the market is consolidating now, so bigger brands like PanIQ room, we are going to dominate for the next few years. What we also see is smaller venues, which are considered as hobby facilities, they’ll probably close down. It’s just like in every industry when more professional stakeholders and companies with more capital expand. Globally, we are trying to hit every market, wherever it makes sense to go to. However, if you don’t have local knowledge, it’s better to hire a local person or cooperate with a local company. But in the US we are quite confident, and we already have a plan which we will focus on in the next few years.