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Escape Rooms Open In Smaller Towns As Industry Booms

A group playing The Detective room at Great Xscape in Rolla. The four month old business is trying to cash in on the escape room craze in a smaller city.
Jonathan Ahl | St. Louis Public Radio
A group playing The Detective room at Great Xscape in Rolla. The four month old business is trying to cash in on the escape room craze in a smaller city.

The escape room experience sounds a lot like putting yourself in a stressful situation for the sake of fun. These are games in which a group of people are put in a room. A clock counts down. The players have to find clues and solve puzzles hidden in the room before time runs out.

The popularity of escape rooms has increased dramatically, with just a handful in existence in 2015 to more than 2,300 nationwide operating today. There are national chains that operate rooms in dozens of big cities across the country, including St. Louis. But they are so popular that they are opening in smaller cities, usually run by individuals and families.

Great Xscape in Rolla is one of those rooms. Recently retired, Donald and Cynthia Brookshire were looking to move back home to Rolla and open a business.

"We played some escape rooms, and we loved it," said Donald Brookshire. "Then we started the long process of research to see if we could run one successfully and if this community would support it."

That led to the opening of Great Xscape in a small warehouse building in Rolla in December.

The business has two escape rooms, one themed as a 1920s New York detective's office where participants are trying to thwart a murder. The other is a hunter's cabin where the goal is to leave as a full-fledged monster hunter.

Great Xscape in Rolla is typical of small-market escape rooms. The room is sparsely appointed with drywall and a concrete floor. The furniture is from thrift stores, and the clues and props are homemade.

That is in stark contrast to big-city escape rooms that often feature Hollywood-level sets, special effects and technology.

But Cynthia Brookshire said her four-month-old business is already doing well and introducing people in the Rolla area to escape games.

"The puzzles are very basic. They are just locks and keys and puzzles and clues and not really any gadgets," Brookshire said. "As a business, as we get into it, when we change things out and add things, we will advance up the line and have more gadgets and more tech."

Brookshire said the technology and production values of her escape rooms will grow along with the customers in Rolla that learn more about escape rooms.

Big City Escape

There are seven escape room businesses operating in St. Louis. And they look a lot different than the rooms in Rolla. Escape The Room is a national company with 19 locations across the country, including one in St. Louis.

The "Western Bank Heist" room at Escape The Room in St. Louis features a Hollywood-style set, detailed props and sophisticated technology.
Credit Jonathan Ahl | St. Louis Public Radio
The "Western Bank Heist" room at Escape The Room in St. Louis features a Hollywood-style set, detailed props and sophisticated technology.

One of Escape the Room's games is Western Bank Heist, where players try to rob a bank and escape without detection. And the room looks, feels and smells like an Old West bank, from the aged woodwork to the massive, old-timey safe. Jay Kays, general manager of the St. Louis location, said the company spends what it needs to spend to make every room feel realistic.

"Like the safe we have in here is a really expensive safe. We chose that safe because it's the best safe that looks for this room," Kays said. "So we’re not really limited by cost; it's more the right thing for the right room."

He said each one of the four rooms at his location can cost up to $100,000 to build and maintain.

Kays said he doesn’t have a problem with what he calls "mom-and-pop" escape rooms. And he said he enjoys when people who have played those kind of rooms come to his location.

"When they see our production values, it really blows people away, in terms of what an escape room can, and, in our opinion, should be," Kays said.

Not The Minor Leagues

Big-city escape rooms will always have bigger budgets, because there are more potential customers nearby. That also means they can leave a room in place for years and still get new players, while small-market rooms have to change out more often.

But small-market escape rooms can be more than just starter experiences to lead people to bigger city rooms. That's according to David and Lisa Spira, who run the blog Room Escape Artist. They have played more than 700 rooms around the country, write reviews and study the industry.

David Spira said they have played small-market locations that have been innovative and fun.

"An immersive adventure, you can produce all sorts of different environments. Maybe you won't produce a crazy elaborate ancient Egyptian tomb, maybe you'll make something that is a little bit more modern and a little bit more attainable if you're serving a smaller audience," Spira said. "But you can still make an immersive adventure nonetheless."

Lisa Spira said more important than the production value is the quality of the puzzles and excitement of trying to finish the room.

"The gameplay has to work. And that comes first," Spira said. "If the gameplay works, it's going to be really fun, even if it may not be impressive in those other aspects."

The Spiras have played rooms with very good production values that weren't very fun because the puzzles, clues and gameplay weren't very challenging. That includes one they would not identify that they escaped in just a few minutes, instead of the hour it was intended to take.

The Future In Small Markets

The meteoric rise in popularity of escape rooms has raised the question of whether escape rooms are a fad, and if small-market rooms will be the first to go if the bubble bursts. Tyler Frump opened Behind Locked Doors in Quincy, Illinois, about two years ago. She said her escape room is like any other small business: If there is an involved owner who cares about what they do, the business will survive, even if escape room appeal wanes.

"The people who are not in it for its longevity are going to end up closing," Frump said. "And those of us who are going to continue to push through and want people to continue to have that escape room experience will continue to stay open as long as it is financially feasible."

While the number of escape rooms continues to grow, there is a sign it may slow down. Google Trends shows searches for escape rooms are down about 30% compared to a year ago.

Follow Jonathan on Twitter: @Jonathan Ahl

Send questions and comments about this story to feedback@stlpublicradio.org

Jonathan is the Rolla correspondent for St. Louis Public Radio.