Published: 12:00, 16 January 2017
With seismic political shocks and some of the world’s most beloved personalities leaving us behind, plenty will look back on 2016 without a great deal of affection.
Yet for all the doom and gloom, the year saw an absolutely stellar rise to prominence for a booming business in Gravesend.
From the stuff of dreams to a fantastic reality in just 12 months, it’s been some story for The Panic Room.
Opened by couple Monique and Alex Souter at Gravesend’s Old Town Hall in January, the experience puts groups to the test by giving them a mystery to solve in 60 minutes.
Those who take part are asked to keep the details a secret, and people are loving it.
It soon outgrew its home and moved into nearby Berkley Crescent, where it now runs six of the testing rooms at once.
The fan favourite is The Gilman Hotel, which casts players as a private investigator looking into the disappearance of a young lad in a derelict coastal town.
Also on offer are horror escapade The Dollhouse, unique two-player room The Lab, bomb defusal trial Urgency, mafia drama The Don and a reworked take on the original Panic Room.
“It’s absolutely ridiculous how much we’ve done in a year,” mused Alex. “The Dollhouse opened in September and that’s when it went absolutely ridiculously crazy. We were sold out for weeks.
“We relaunched the new version of the original Panic Room in November and The Gilman Hotel is our most recent room, and it’s been really well received.”
Despite how popular the current slate of rooms is, much of the Souters’ success has come from a willingness to rip them up and start again, constantly offering fresh experiences to customers new and old.
Most escape rooms are designed to accommodate groups so that friends, family and colleagues can get together, but The Lab is unique in that it is the only two-player escape room in the UK. It will be replaced by a new experience designed for couples in February or March, dubbed Million Dollar Date Night, with another new room targeted at families to follow in April.
Alex said: “It’s our first room that will allow younger ages to play. It’s aimed at being more family friendly while still being a challenge, but we wanted something with a lighter touch than our other rooms.
“It’s really awesome for families to come together and do something, so if we can help then that’s great.”
The Souters are also proud to be helping other businesses in Gravesend, which has become something of a target for cynics over its perceived lack of tourist attractions. With thousands of five star reviews and a number one ranking on TripAdvisor for fun things to do in Kent, The Panic Room has become a huge draw for people visiting the town.
“When we went into this it was really a leap of faith, but it was the greatest leap of faith we could have taken,” said Alex.
“Quite quickly after our first two rooms opened we started to get quite a bit of traction. It doesn’t show any sign of stopping. We want to push and put Gravesend on the map.
“We were a bit miffed by reviews that said The Panic Room was an incredible experience, just a shame it’s in Gravesend. I am a firm believer that a town is what you make of it and people get stuck in a mindset that their town is rubbish.
“It’s a shame that Gravesend gets such a bad rap but we’re hoping to help change that.”
You can forgive the Souters taking Christmas Day and New Year’s Day off, but 2017 promises to be another great year for their burgeoning company. Watch this space.
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