By Abby Weingarten
Alexis Santos ’08 is a prime example of a resourceful entrepreneur who pivoted in business during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Where did the CEO/co-founder of The Bureau Adventure Games in Orlando learn these enterprising skills? New College of Florida.
“New College offered me a tremendous amount of flexibility and amplified my ability to explore the intersection of my interests. I had to learn to be creative, to figure out ‘How am I going to make this project work? What can I make of these skills I have?,’” Santos said. “New College makes you be creative because you have so much latitude. That has served me well in business.”
It certainly has.
Santos’ latest venture, which he describes as “an escape room venue where guests become secret agents and embark on missions to save the multiverse,” opened in February.
In a city like Orlando, where theme parks uphold the economy, Santos (and co-founder Alan Scammell) took a unique approach to amusement by offering an indoor attraction with interactive electronic props. But, when the virus caused shutdowns statewide in the spring, The Bureau was forced to temporarily close less than a month after its launch.
“After about a week of initial gloom and doom, we began to realize that we’re a very different model than theme parks, which are predicated upon having a lot of people together. Escape rooms, by their nature, are VIP experiences; you’re not meant to be in the throngs of people,” said Santos, who generated funds from investors for The Bureau. “We have had to modify a lot since the pandemic but we’re figuring out how to survive. It has not been a cakewalk.”
In late May, The Bureau reopened to the public with safety protocols, social distancing measures, and recommended guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in place.
For example, the rooms now host private one-hour games for a minimum of two players and a maximum of eight. Guests are no longer paired up with strangers, the space is vacated for 30 minutes after every use, and all high-touch points (handles, screens, etc.) are wiped down with food-grade sanitizing solution. An unmanned antechamber ushers guests into the experience, and video directives narrate what to expect.
“You might have an idea of what an escape room is but that’s not what The Bureau is. We’re more like a real-life video game,” Santos said. “You lose yourself in an experience. That’s the dragon I’ve been chasing—to be able to really lose yourself in that flow state.”
Sinking into a “flow state” and finding an escape from reality is exactly what high-stress people crave in the midst of pandemic madness.
The Bureau is the anxiety antidote.
Housed in a 12,423-square-foot space with two open rooms (and a third likely to be made available in September), there are about 10 full-time staffers who keep the operations smooth. The introductory game invites guests to enter a laboratory where a Loch Ness Monster is hatching eggs, and teams cooperatively use video projection mapping to complete the story. Dr. Braingood is another exercise involving puzzles and laser beams.
Santos, who taught himself to be a programmer, designed all of the automated effects, and he is now modifying the model to fit the modern climate. He is in the process of building two remote games that will allow users to control the virtual experiences via a web panel from the comfort of their own homes. The Bureau building itself has the capacity for 10 physical rooms so, however it shakes out in terms of how much (or how little) the business can expand, Santos is ready. He has already endured enough to know he can adapt and evolve.
Santos has never really opted for the easiest career path anyway; he thrives on new challenges. That was one of the aspects of his personality that drew him to New College.
Santos earned a bachelor’s degree in anthropology and archaeology in 2012, and was the online editor of the student-run newspaper, The Catalyst. His thesis was about using video mapping and augmented reality to make archaeological sites come alive (excellent practice for his current endeavor).
“I built a rough prototype of what augmented reality could do for an archaeological site (near Rye Preserve in Manatee County),” Santos said. “With augmented reality, you could whip out your phone and see what used to stand there. And, with projection mapping, you could digitally restore an object without having to modify the actual artifact.”
Santos is fascinated by “marrying the interactive with what’s not natively interactive,” he said, and he almost continued down the archaeology path.
“I would love to make interactive museum exhibits, but funding for that is very tough to find,” Santos said.
With this in mind, Santos shifted once again, and strategized how to use his passions in a more feasible, lucrative way. He credits some of that inventiveness to what he learned as a reporter for The Catalyst.
“Writing articles for The Catalyst and, honestly, writing anthropology papers, helped me with the fundraising aspect of this venture—being able to paint a picture of what the business was going to look like, make a well-reasoned argument and present it, and have it make sense and be compelling,” Santos said. “When I was on staff, I was writing about local businesses who were struggling during the 2008 recession and how they were coping. It was a way to explore my business interests and also interrogate them about how they were surviving.”
Those interviews are echoing in Santos’ ears now.
Even before he graduated from New College, Santos landed a job at Engadget (he wrote stories for the technology blog right from his dorm room). He got that gig by networking during a New College Independent Study Project (ISP), in which he did on-the ground reporting at E3, a video game expo/convention in Los Angeles, California. Santos then went on to work in human-centered design projects at Gobee Group before spearheading The Bureau.
Cultivating this career ingenuity has been (and continues to be) a growth experience, and New College gave Santos the tools to navigate it.
“New College really amplifies your ability to explore the intersection of your interests. You have the opportunity, through ISPs and supportive professors, to really further your skills. Then you graduate with all these skills and the confidence that you can really do this,” Santos said. “But you’ve got to meet New College where it’s at in terms of the flexibility it allows. You have to think, ‘What do I do with all this freedom?’ and use it your advantage. And I did.”
For more information on The Bureau, visit thebureauorlando.com
Abby Weingarten is the writer/editor in the Office of Communications & Marketing.