Escape Rooms fill a need for work and play
By Benjamin Lashar
People never really grow out of games. Adults might not be reaching for Guess Who like when they were kids, but they still play games, downloading the latest smartphone game, gathering to play poker, and pairing up with couples for game nights. Some entrepreneurs have figured out that games are not only fun, they are also profitable.
Nowhere is this more apparent than escape rooms, where a group is locked in a room and must get out through teamwork, interacting with their environment, and solving puzzles. America went from 22 escape rooms nationwide four years ago to 2,000 today. Hamilton County has developed an escape room presence good enough to challenge any metropolitan area.
The Disney of Escape Rooms
Indiana owes its escape room presence to the Escape Room USA chain. Run by two local couples, the Neals and Harbrons, The Escape Room USA has locations in Indianapolis, Fishers, and Columbus, Ohio. They are Indiana’s first escape room company and the highest reviewed escape room chain in America.
Growing to such a level was not easy. Marjorie Neal and Brendon Harbron note that many escape companies do not invest enough upfront, leading to rooms that are little more than a monotonous string of locked boxes. They instead wanted to create rooms that felt like adventures while still remaining reasonably priced. They invested in props, electric work, and a floor that allows multi-level rooms.
Puzzles begin upon entry. Customers must answer a riddle to open a secret door that leads to the lobby. The lobby itself is more of a lounge, featuring comfortable chairs, outdoor seating, a wide selection of local beer and wine, and a few brain teasers to warm up the customers.
An employee then takes players to their room, which features immersive attention to detail on a specific theme. For example, the Stalag 21 room features a scenario where players are World War 2 prisoners of war who must break into an SS commander’s office. The dimly lit wooden environments create an appropriately tense tone, and the authentic German uniforms and props (bought from Germany) sell the time period.
To object is to escape, and players must solve a variety of puzzles that require different kinds of intelligences. Some are logical, some require trial and error, and some are riddles. Each puzzle rewards players with anything from the satisfying cha-chunk of a padlock opening to the reveal of a new room behind a false wall.
The bells and whistles fit into the owners’ strategy of combining a large upfront investment with patience. Prioritizing quality first and slow, steady expansion second, the couples hope to become “the Disney of escape rooms” as Brendon Harbron puts it. The Disney comparison might be fitting; Indiana University has announced a partnership with them to create a Hoosier themed room.
Games might be fun, but many companies are discovering they can be useful as well. At a time where employee engagement is a hot topic, gamification can energize a workforce by encouraging teamwork, promoting a positive cooperate culture, teaching lessons, and creating the engaged team every boss wants. Escapes On The Run utilizes the escape room format to help develop that kind of workforce.
As opposed to traditional brick and motor operations, Escapes On The Run is completely mobile. They use a 200 square foot trailer to bring the room to customers. Escapes On The Run’s main customers are businesses who wish to use gaming to teach a lesson to employees or reward them with a fun change of pace.
Owner Rich Case says the biggest advantage to being completely mobile is customization. They can add or remove puzzles to make rooms last anywhere from fifteen minutes to a full hour. Escapes On The Run can even mold a room’s story to fit the client’s needs.
Case notes a factory that hired Escapes on the Run to create a safety-themed escape room for its workers. Escapes on The Run made it fun by writing a good story, based on a scenario that the factory purchased an experimental shrink ray to safely store equipment. The shrink ray malfunctions, so the people in the room must use OSHA procedures to save the day. It was a one-time scenario for a single client, but creating such a customized experience was a thrill for Case.
Be it for fun or lessons, Escapes On The Run has yet to offer a negatively reviewed room. Case does everything he can to create a fun experience. “The walls are decorated. The ceiling is decorated. There’s electronics. There’s props. There’s sound effects. There’s everything you’d expect at a brick and motor location, but it’s right outside your office door,” he says. Escapes on The Run is even creating a “mega escape” that will implement escape room concepts in a game for up to sixty people.
Escape rooms are fascinating new businesses, but there is still room for development in Hamilton County. Other markets have interesting variations like horror themes. “The more people who try it, the more people will love it,” says Case. “The more people that love it, the more customers we’ll have.” Both The Escape Room USA and Escapes On The Run plan to expand, so we may well see new and interesting themes here in the future.