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Escape Rooms: Experiential Entertainment

Dec 01, 2016 08:30AM ● Published by Jason Huddle

Imagine being locked in a room with a group of your friends, family members or total strangers and the only way to get out is to locate the clues that lead you to a key.

That’s the concept behind escape room games. However, instead of the experience being part of a video game system – where this latest trend stems from – it’s reality.

Escape rooms originated in Japan in 2007, gaining real popularity here in the U.S. between 2012 and 2014. Now Cabarrus County has become home to two locations just since August, with Escape Artist on Union Street in downtown Concord and Escape Scene on North Cannon Boulevard in Kannapolis.

The concept involves a group of participants working together to sort through clues, hidden objects, codes, riddles and puzzles within the room. Each room has its own theme, like Sherlock Holmes or Mission Impossible. The décor reflects the room’s theme, down to the smallest accents.

With about 600 escape rooms estimated to be open for business in the U.S. today, marketwatch.com describes it as, “part game, part theater, part team-building exercise. The number of permanent rooms worldwide has gone from zero at the outset of 2010 to at least 2,800 today.”

One thought behind the success of these enterprises is that people no longer want to sit “watching” on their living room couch – they want to be a part of the experience, whether it be escape rooms, music festivals or comic-cons.

Sam Roberts of USC’s School of Cinematic Arts says, “There is a growing consumer demand for social play experiences that are live and unique and can’t be repeated. You can charge premium prices for it.”

Here in Cabarrus County, that’s about $25 to $30 per person.

Vinny Ragone and Chris Heafner are co-owners of Escape Artist, which opened on August 8. “I’ve

known Chris for several years now,” Ragone says. “We went to Orlando so Chris could go to a pay-per-view professional wrestling match in February; I went to play golf. But it torrentially rained so we went to some escape rooms there; we probably went through nine to 10 rooms. I thought, ‘We could totally do this.’

“So we started looking for properties. There are escape rooms in south Charlotte; a really good one is on Clanton Road. I live in Huntersville so we were looking in that area, but kept getting turned down when we said, ‘We’re going to rent your space and put in escape rooms.’ We wanted to find a location north, in the university area or Northlake. We never thought we’d end up in downtown Concord.

“Then Chris found this space. The floor plan was perfect; we went down the hallway and the rooms were already broken up. The landlord was great, the fire marshal came through; we had no headaches. We were able to move our stuff right in.”

Escape Artist currently has three escape rooms. The Hangover is Las Vegas-themed. The participants can’t remember what happened at a big party the night before, except that they had a good time. They’re supposed to be someplace important but can’t find their phone to confirm where.

Da Vinci’s Office reflects the life and times of the inventor, artist and sculptor. He left behind baffling riddles that team members have to decipher to get out.

Area 51 is based around Roswell, NM, and the supposed extraterrestrial activity that took place there. Area 51 is the top-secret military installation

where the government is hiding information about a possible invasion. The team has to find the answers and save the world.

“Our rooms are designed for a capacity of eight players per room, except for the Yin and Yang room, which has a maximum of four players,” Ragone explains.

The Yin and Yang room is in the design stages and will be all black and white. In general, they expect to change out room themes every 10 to 11 months with it taking five to six weeks to re-design one.

Escape Scene is managed by Dan Collison, who describes his business as, “A living novel on a deadline with healthy doses of situational awareness, problem solving, teamwork and brain teasers.

Escape Scene was born over my kitchen table last spring when my sister was visiting from Seattle. We’ve both got an entrepreneurial edge but we have never done a project together. The conversation turned to escape rooms and it turned out to be a mutual enjoyment. It didn’t take long for us to realize we complemented each other’s strengths for a joint business venture and, after diving into the research, we just got more excited about opening our own business.”

Like Escape Artist, Collison looked for an untapped location north of Charlotte. “I came across the good folks of Franklin Heights Baptist Church who own a strip mall in an area that could benefit from some new businesses and where there are few entertainment options,” he shares. “In general, escape room fans seem willing to drive about 30 minutes to get to a location, and where we are puts us in pretty easy access to people from Huntersville to Harrisburg, north Charlotte to Salisbury.”

When asked to describe the experience from a participant’s point of view, Collison says, “It can be a little overwhelming at first – so much to take in and process all at once! The challenge is to identify what you need to do in order to make it to the next step and then sift through what has been

discovered so far, trying to find the missing pieces. That’s where enjoying the experience as a team is a lot of fun: each person usually sees things a bit differently from everyone else, so everyone contributing their part helps the whole group succeed. That’s why businesses are turning to escape rooms to provide team-building experiences.”

Indeed. Both locations offer corporate groups the chance to participate in what some call an unconventional training tool. Some go so far as to play live “extras” in the escape room, watch how the group conducts itself, then provide a review of the group’s strengths and weaknesses, and how they can be applied to their jobs. And, don’t worry. Under fire laws, the rooms cannot actually be locked.

Ragone says Escape Artist has had about a dozen or so office groups come through thus far, from the likes of Wells Fargo, Windstream and ACN. Its website says, “In order to be successful in the escape room games at Escape Artist you and your team must work as a cohesive unit. You must communicate, use teamwork, brainpower and decision-making skills to escape our rooms. You must use all of the same skills that will help you excel in business.”

Collison describes his escape rooms as chapters. Chapter 1 is called Deadwood – 1876. Teams are taken back in time to the Black Hills Gold Rush, but find themselves as outlaws.

Chapter 2 is called Antiquities Museum, Cairo – 1930. “Howard Carter has already discovered King Tut’s tomb, but can you discover the key to foil a madman’s plot,” its website asks.

Collison is currently working on adding two more rooms: Chapter 3: Munich – 1945 in which post-World War II code-breakers must stop the villain, and Chapter 4: SIA HQ – Present Day, where “all of the fragments of the device have finally been recovered, but you aren’t the only one who knows that. Can you prevent a break-in and save the fate of mankind?”

He anticipates opening both rooms in March 2017.

While escape room challenges draw in the technology-driven millennials – those between 18 and 34 years of age – Ragone says that, “Everybody can enjoy this, no matter what age or walk of life.”

As for whether they return if they don’t succeed in escaping the first time, Collison says, “A lot of that depends on the person’s age. In general, younger people are more likely to keep trying, even after they complete a game – maybe something to do with the experience being quite a bit different with a variety of people. Our older fans seem to be more likely to want to move on to a different experience, whether or not they completed the first one.

“I love figuring things out! I have always been a really curious person, asking lots of questions and trying to make sense of my environment, especially as it relates to the future. Working under pressure is when I am sharpest, and I have always enjoyed a new challenge. Providing people an immersive entertainment experience through escape rooms brings all of this together,” he adds.

“People stop in and thank us for bringing our business here; everyone has been lovely,” Ragone says. “We’ve had a ton of new business. About 85 percent of visitors have never done it before. On the weekend when Hurricane Matthew came through, a girl was supposed to have a hayride for her birthday, but it was cancelled. The party came here; we had nine 13-year-old girls. They had a blast.”

That’s the lasting impression. Regardless of whether a team makes it out of a room the first time, they walk away knowing how much fun they had, how energized it made them feel and what a unique experience it was.

Escape Room photos courtesy: Michael A. Anderson Photography

Escape Scene photos courtesy: Escape Scene

Story By: Kim Cassell

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