HintHunt Africa: Driving innovation, fostering fun

On the 2nd of November I was fortunate to attend the media launch of HintHunt’s new innovative and trendsetting immersive superhero-themed escape room, Marble. And what a super experience it was! Based in Cape Town’s V&A Waterfront, HintHunt was founded in 2012 to bring the Escape Room craze to the African continent. The nine Escape Rooms each offer their own unique themes and challenges, but with their Marble room they have pushed the boundaries of scale, tech and innovation to take the Escape Room concept next level.

The two ‘superheroes’ behind HintHunt are co-founders Gary Kelly and Dino Paulo. Gary Kelly’s background and career is deeply rooted in business development and entrepreneurship, having himself previously built four companies from scratch. He started out his journey with HintHunt as an investor, but in November 2019, he immersed himself fully into the venture to drive business development, the financial side and overall commercial strategy.

Dino Paulo — aka the Puzzle Master (and also the winner of Survivor South Africa in 2022) — drives the innovation and product development with his passion for adventure and exciting experiences. Dino and his team keep the Escape Room standards high, always aiming to elevate the customer experience, deliver unparalleled immersive encounters and foster fun.

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Under Gary and Dino’s leadership, HintHunt not only weathered the COVID storm, but has thrived, achieving remarkable turnaround, growth in revenue, occupancy levels and team engagement. They have built a brand that is now synonymous with exceptional customer service, innovation and enjoyment, which has also earned them the top spot of TripAdvisors’ Top Things to do in Cape Town for 3 years.

In Bizmag’s quest to learn from our fellow ‘treps, we chat to Gary Kelly: 

On Business Partnerships

Q. It was evident on our visit that you and Dino have fostered a successful partnership based on respect for each other’s roles in the business. What advice can you share about choosing and working with a business partner?

We are in the fortunate position of having different skill sets that complement each other, whilst both having an entrepreneurial spirit. Dino loves games, puzzles, challenges and his recent success as the winner of Survivor Season 9 — where he was labelled as the puzzle master — is testament to that! So, naturally Dino is responsible for the product and technical aspects of the business.

I have worked in the entrepreneurial space for the vast majority of my career and have always enjoyed the challenges of building businesses with a key focus on sales, marketing and managing finances, so that’s literally what I do at HintHunt.

When working with a partner in growing a small business into hopefully something much bigger, there are likely to be more tough times than great, so you need to be able to actually work together to guide the ship through the inevitable rough seas.  Respecting and leveraging the skills sets you have individually is key to that process.

It also goes a long way if you like each other and can have a good laugh about things: you’re going to need that!

On Innovation:

Q. Taking Marble from idea to conceptualisation to fruition was a big undertaking. Can you tell us a bit about the process and share some of your major learning curves?

Marble was the brain child of Cobus, our Creator of Experiences, and whilst he first envisioned the idea 4 years ago, when he came on board with HintHunt a little over 12 months ago, we were able to give him access to resources that would allow him to bring his dream to life. The actual building of the room started in March 2023; we then had a short delay waiting for the set designers to finish a TV production they were working on. Then it was all hands on deck from the beginning of July — quite literally until 4am on 2nd November when the media day happened.

We learned that budgets are sometimes a guide only, and it can be extremely difficult to stick to them when new creative ideas are happening whilst building the room. So always have extra budget,  because a lot of those ‘new’ ideas are what makes the magic.

We also learned how as a team we could come together under an immense amount of pressure and not crack — but get the job done!  Great signs for bigger things in the future…

On watching Trends:

Q. Do you keep a keen eye to ensure you follow the trends in your industry? Or are you all about setting your ‘own’ new trends?

Yes, we keep a very close eye on what is happening around the world. While the Escape Room industry is still in its infancy, it is proving not to be a fad, and the entertainment market is evolving into broader immersive entertainment with lots of very cool new things happening in the US, UK and Europe.

Since we were the first to bring Escape Rooms to Africa, we will continue to bring the next new exciting products to South Africa, but with our own unique local twists; we follow global trends but are certainly setting the trends locally.

On Customer Experience:

Q. With the people-centred adventures that you offer, the user experience is of utmost importance. What are your top customer experience and service tips?

User experience is incredibly important – particularly when there is a good chance that the customer has never experienced an Escape Room before. In the early days a few fly-by-night Escape Rooms emerged which gave a terrible experience for first time players. So, it is absolutely our responsibility to make sure our customers walk away being blown away, and wanting to come back for more.

It is important to keep a close eye on the customer journey; right from the first point of contact – whether it is word-of-mouth, an advert, or finding us online. Then we make sure every interaction the customer has along the way is the best it can be, so they want to come back again and again. We do that by continually checking that journey ourselves; looking to make improvements consistently.

We also have a big focus on training our team, as they are on the frontlines interacting with our customers along their journey and are key to the customer service experience.  

On Leading a team:

Q. What advice can you share about leading a team and motivating staff?

I think being in the business of fun helps. It’s hard to be unhappy in an exciting and fun environment. But of course, we focus a lot on team motivation and ensuring we have a culture where people feel like they are a part of the business, not a part in the business.

I also believe a big motivator for our team is that we constantly develop from within; not one of our senior team members have come in externally — they have all developed and grown within the business.  We actively look for unique skill sets in our team and work on developing those skills for the benefit of both.  

On Growth plans:

Q. Can you give us any hints on what the future holds for HintHunt?

HintHunt has a vision to be the go-to immersive entertainment company in South Africa and perhaps beyond. We are on an aggressive growth strategy and are determined to bring the best to South Africa, and the new Marble Escape Room is testament of that intention.  We are always exploring lots of fun ideas.

There are a few big ideas brewing of which we will be able to tell you more about early in 2024, so watch this space. 

Parting Advice:

Q. And finally, what are your Top 3 Tips for South African business owners?

  • Get the right people around you, that will support you and grow with you.
  • Reflect your businesses aspirations in everything you do.
  • Manage your cash flow — if you don’t have cash, you don’t have a business.

 

- Advertisement -

On the 2nd of November I was fortunate to attend the media launch of HintHunt’s new innovative and trendsetting immersive superhero-themed escape room, Marble. And what a super experience it was! Based in Cape Town’s V&A Waterfront, HintHunt was founded in 2012 to bring the Escape Room craze to the African continent. The nine Escape Rooms each offer their own unique themes and challenges, but with their Marble room they have pushed the boundaries of scale, tech and innovation to take the Escape Room concept next level.

The two ‘superheroes’ behind HintHunt are co-founders Gary Kelly and Dino Paulo. Gary Kelly’s background and career is deeply rooted in business development and entrepreneurship, having himself previously built four companies from scratch. He started out his journey with HintHunt as an investor, but in November 2019, he immersed himself fully into the venture to drive business development, the financial side and overall commercial strategy.

Dino Paulo — aka the Puzzle Master (and also the winner of Survivor South Africa in 2022) — drives the innovation and product development with his passion for adventure and exciting experiences. Dino and his team keep the Escape Room standards high, always aiming to elevate the customer experience, deliver unparalleled immersive encounters and foster fun.

- Advertisement -
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Under Gary and Dino’s leadership, HintHunt not only weathered the COVID storm, but has thrived, achieving remarkable turnaround, growth in revenue, occupancy levels and team engagement. They have built a brand that is now synonymous with exceptional customer service, innovation and enjoyment, which has also earned them the top spot of TripAdvisors’ Top Things to do in Cape Town for 3 years.

In Bizmag’s quest to learn from our fellow ‘treps, we chat to Gary Kelly: 

On Business Partnerships

Q. It was evident on our visit that you and Dino have fostered a successful partnership based on respect for each other’s roles in the business. What advice can you share about choosing and working with a business partner?

We are in the fortunate position of having different skill sets that complement each other, whilst both having an entrepreneurial spirit. Dino loves games, puzzles, challenges and his recent success as the winner of Survivor Season 9 — where he was labelled as the puzzle master — is testament to that! So, naturally Dino is responsible for the product and technical aspects of the business.

I have worked in the entrepreneurial space for the vast majority of my career and have always enjoyed the challenges of building businesses with a key focus on sales, marketing and managing finances, so that’s literally what I do at HintHunt.

When working with a partner in growing a small business into hopefully something much bigger, there are likely to be more tough times than great, so you need to be able to actually work together to guide the ship through the inevitable rough seas.  Respecting and leveraging the skills sets you have individually is key to that process.

It also goes a long way if you like each other and can have a good laugh about things: you’re going to need that!

On Innovation:

Q. Taking Marble from idea to conceptualisation to fruition was a big undertaking. Can you tell us a bit about the process and share some of your major learning curves?

Marble was the brain child of Cobus, our Creator of Experiences, and whilst he first envisioned the idea 4 years ago, when he came on board with HintHunt a little over 12 months ago, we were able to give him access to resources that would allow him to bring his dream to life. The actual building of the room started in March 2023; we then had a short delay waiting for the set designers to finish a TV production they were working on. Then it was all hands on deck from the beginning of July — quite literally until 4am on 2nd November when the media day happened.

We learned that budgets are sometimes a guide only, and it can be extremely difficult to stick to them when new creative ideas are happening whilst building the room. So always have extra budget,  because a lot of those ‘new’ ideas are what makes the magic.

We also learned how as a team we could come together under an immense amount of pressure and not crack — but get the job done!  Great signs for bigger things in the future…

On watching Trends:

Q. Do you keep a keen eye to ensure you follow the trends in your industry? Or are you all about setting your ‘own’ new trends?

Yes, we keep a very close eye on what is happening around the world. While the Escape Room industry is still in its infancy, it is proving not to be a fad, and the entertainment market is evolving into broader immersive entertainment with lots of very cool new things happening in the US, UK and Europe.

Since we were the first to bring Escape Rooms to Africa, we will continue to bring the next new exciting products to South Africa, but with our own unique local twists; we follow global trends but are certainly setting the trends locally.

On Customer Experience:

Q. With the people-centred adventures that you offer, the user experience is of utmost importance. What are your top customer experience and service tips?

User experience is incredibly important – particularly when there is a good chance that the customer has never experienced an Escape Room before. In the early days a few fly-by-night Escape Rooms emerged which gave a terrible experience for first time players. So, it is absolutely our responsibility to make sure our customers walk away being blown away, and wanting to come back for more.

It is important to keep a close eye on the customer journey; right from the first point of contact – whether it is word-of-mouth, an advert, or finding us online. Then we make sure every interaction the customer has along the way is the best it can be, so they want to come back again and again. We do that by continually checking that journey ourselves; looking to make improvements consistently.

We also have a big focus on training our team, as they are on the frontlines interacting with our customers along their journey and are key to the customer service experience.  

On Leading a team:

Q. What advice can you share about leading a team and motivating staff?

I think being in the business of fun helps. It’s hard to be unhappy in an exciting and fun environment. But of course, we focus a lot on team motivation and ensuring we have a culture where people feel like they are a part of the business, not a part in the business.

I also believe a big motivator for our team is that we constantly develop from within; not one of our senior team members have come in externally — they have all developed and grown within the business.  We actively look for unique skill sets in our team and work on developing those skills for the benefit of both.  

On Growth plans:

Q. Can you give us any hints on what the future holds for HintHunt?

HintHunt has a vision to be the go-to immersive entertainment company in South Africa and perhaps beyond. We are on an aggressive growth strategy and are determined to bring the best to South Africa, and the new Marble Escape Room is testament of that intention.  We are always exploring lots of fun ideas.

There are a few big ideas brewing of which we will be able to tell you more about early in 2024, so watch this space. 

Parting Advice:

Q. And finally, what are your Top 3 Tips for South African business owners?

  • Get the right people around you, that will support you and grow with you.
  • Reflect your businesses aspirations in everything you do.
  • Manage your cash flow — if you don’t have cash, you don’t have a business.

 

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Brazen Head franchise opportunity

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