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THE PIVOT: Entrepreneur battles pandemic from Debert bunker

The Enter the Bunker tourism operation is located in a former Cold War nuclear bunker in Debert.
Contributed
The Enter the Bunker tourism operation is located in a former Cold War nuclear bunker in Debert. Contributed - Contributed

The Players:

Jonathan Baha’i is president of Data Security Node, a web hosting company, and the Enter the Bunker operation located in a former Cold War facility, the “Debert Diefenbunker.”

The Problem:

A tourism operation, Enter the Bunker shut its doors as soon as lockdowns began.

The Pivot:

Drawing on the ex-military installation’s communications room, Baha’i began to produce podcasts and videos – often live – and hosting Fortnite challenges in a bid to boost Enter the Bunker’s social media presence and up the company’s marketing.


Hunkered down in a former Cold War bunker, an entrepreneur is fighting for the survival of his business with live video shows, podcasts and Fortnite challenges.

Jonathan Baha’i owns the “Diefenbunker,” a circa-1964 nuclear fallout facility.

He picked up the former military installation at a tax auction for about $37,000 eight years ago and has since invested $265,000 into his Enter the Bunker business, a tourism attraction on the edge of Debert.

It opened to tourists two years ago.

“We had only officially opened with authentic, historical experiences in late 2018 with our Demon Bunker event for Halloween,” says Baha’i.

Last year, the operation added laser tag and escape rooms built on a United States-Soviet Union theme.

“You had to get out before the other side hit you with a nuke,” says Baha’i.

“It was the United States versus the U.S.S.R. So, you had a chance to learn something.”

The privately-held company does not divulge revenues or profits, but Baha’i says things were looking up for Enter the Bunker by the end of last year.

“We were just getting momentum and people were starting to know about us and that we were there. The bunker had been a secret for years but 2020 was the year we were hoping to break into the tourism channels, with bus operators and the magazines,” he says.

“This was the year we were really going to take off.”

Jonathan Baha’i and Kelly Caddell host live-stream events from the former military bunker in Debert. - SaltWire Network
Jonathan Baha’i and Kelly Caddell host live-stream events from the former military bunker in Debert. - SaltWire Network

Then, the pandemic hit.

Enter the Bunker closed. Baha’i laid off his seven employees. With the restrictions on businesses, he decided in May that Enter the Bunker would not be able to hold any in-person events for at least a year.

He racked his brain for an idea to keep the business going.

Late last year, Enter the Bunker started offering multi-player video game competitions.

“We had all the equipment for e-sports,” Baha’i says.

“We were staging these events online and we had learnt a lot from that. . . . I started to wonder how we could create an online presence for ourselves.”

Baha’i rehired three employees in June. Together, they started to produce a series of live-streamed video shows that can also be heard as podcasts. They pushed the e-sports side of the business.

Those videos can be viewed on enterthebunker.com, as well as its YouTube and TikTok channels. The business also tweets teasers and posts on Facebook to create a buzz.

“We filmed the first YouTube show and it was really awkward but as it progressed and we saw the metrics, we responded and went from there,” says Baha’i.

“We’re now at about half a million followers on YouTube and TikTok.

“When we get close to one million followers on TikTok, we will be close to 15,000 to 20,000 subscribers on YouTube and we will be able to get more sponsors to pay attention,” he says.

“That’s going to be our primary source of revenue.”

Baha’i, who also owns the three-person Data Security Node web hosting company in the same facility, is working on an app expected to launch by the end of the year to help draw in viewers.

“We want to incorporate a software tool into the show . . . to increase engagement and create more subscribers and increase revenues,” he says.

“Enter the Bunker is going to become the case study that other (content providers) can follow.”

Keeping the bunker open

Baha’i expects to be able to sell the app to others and have it bring in regular licensing fees.

During the pandemic, revenues are all but non-existent. They fell by 98 per cent this past tourism season, compared to 2019.

“The entire tourism space was destroyed this year,” says Baha’i.

“Nobody did well.”

Throughout the pandemic, Baha’i has kept Enter the Bunker operating with the help of a $40,000, interest-free Canada Emergency Business Account loan. It allows businesses to pay back only 75 per cent of the loan, provided that’s done by the end of 2022.

“We got the $40,000 and I’ve heard we can get another $20,000,” says Baha’i.

Enter the Bunker has also been paying its employees’ wages with the help of the Canada Emergency Wage Subsidy provided by Ottawa. That program had helped 3.7 million workers as of mid-October.

Data Security Node is doing better. It is profitable and holding steady, says Baha’i.

So far, Baha’i has only upgraded the top floor of the massive two-storey bunker. Escape rooms and area for laser tag take up about a third of the renovated space. There’s also a cafeteria from which Baha’i streams the live shows, and a small broadcasting studio for audio programs.

“We are allowed 120 people into the bunker at any given time,” says Baha’i.

The bottom half, though, is not being used. Although it contains a lot of the infrastructure for the bunker, renovating could add additional space. The snag is the cost.

“We would have to add another entrance to the bunker. That’s going to cost hundreds of thousands of dollars,” says Baha’i.

“The rents that we would have to charge would be much higher than for typical office space.”

In the United States, companies cater to a desire by some of the super rich to have a safe place to ride out disaster. These luxury bunkers contain apartments that, in at least one offering, sell for up to US$3 million and contain all the comforts of home deep in an abandoned military silo.

“I have joked that I would let (the super rich) have a room in our bunker for 10 Bitcoins,” says Baha’i.

“The problem would be making it legit and complying with the building codes.”

The Pivot is a regular feature about an Atlantic Canadian company adapting to new market realities with innovative products, services or strategies. To suggest a business, email: [email protected]

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