At first glance, basing a business around locking customers in a room for an hour and having them solve riddles to escape seems risky. But game enthusiasts Ed and Debi McGaw were one of the first to open an escape room in Colorado Springs — and their love of solving riddles has paid off.
Two years ago when they launched their business, they had only one competitor in town. Now, escape rooms are appearing throughout the city and have become a trending option for entertainment and team building.
Businesses and families are more than willing to pay for the adventure game, the McGaws said, which has allowed them to move into a bigger space and add three rooms with different themes and challenges.
The McGaws first learned about escape rooms during a trip to Switzerland three years ago. They said they were immediately intrigued by the mystery, creativity and experience.
“Escape rooms have existed in Europe and Asia for 10 years, with the most now in Shanghai and Beijing,” Debi said.
“There were about 60 in the U.S. when we started and probably 1,400-1,500 today.”
The couple designed their first escape room in the basement of their home. One evening during a birthday party, they asked their friends to try it out.
It was a success.
“We said, ‘OK, we’ve got this,’ and through self-funding started a business,” Debi said.
Ed, an Air Force veteran with a background in computer engineering, designs and builds games for the business, while Debi plans the themes and handles marketing.
She said the business started out as an LLC and then changed to a PC after seven months.
“We are truly a mom-and-pop small business,” she said. “It was something we could do together and didn’t exist in Colorado Springs. Because 50 percent of all small businesses fail, it was a little scary getting started but [we] have learned a lot.”
Each room can hold eight to 10 people and takes about four to six months to construct. That effort includes designing the interior, the game theory and props, Ed said.
“The period we spend putting a room together — we don’t sleep much at night because we’ll wake up thinking, ‘How could this work as a puzzle or hiding place?’” he said.
Rather than incorporating ghosts or scary concepts, Mystery Quests Rooms eature historical themes. They have a World War II room that features the 10th Mountain Division and another room about The Lost Simpson Mine [a legendary gold mine believed to be located in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains of south-central Colorado].
Items and clues are hidden in the room — just like a scavenger hunt — and require customers to solve problems using logic and pattern recognition.
“Once you figure them out, you receive a combination to unlock something,” Ed said.
Their escape rooms contain a countdown clock, screen monitors that reveal clues, and cameras for the McGaws to watch and communicate with players. They can also pump sounds into the room; players in the WWII room hear gunshots and soldiers marching, Debi said.
“We spend a lot of time on the puzzles and clues because if you don’t invest in that kind of detail, you’re not going to stay in business,” she said. “You need to have something that is going to wow people.”
And some players are solving the riddles in the dark. In the mine, they have flashlights to find clues, but the room is completely black.
“You don’t go in there if you’re claustrophobic,” Debi said. “It’s as hard as the other rooms, and you lose your sense of sight. It’s intended to be an immersive experience, feeling like you’re in the experience.”
The McGaws have also learned to bolt down items in the rooms because players will break things while trying to find items in the game, Debi said.
“It’s worse than a hotel with the levels of damage,” she said. “People will try and take apart desks and have almost broken the maze board out of frustration.”
Quality over quantity
What the business earns for every customer is more important than mere volume, Debi said, which is why the McGaws don’t participate in coupon sites like Groupon.
“It’s been a challenging decision, but what we’re making per person is much higher,” she said. “We can spend 30 minutes with customers afterward, not have to push them out the door and rush to flip the rooms over to get ready for the next group. We want customers to get their money’s worth, and we made that decision to build the brand.”
The McGaws said their greatest challenge has been introducing a new industry.
“When you tell an insurance company you’re going to lock people in a room for an hour and they have to get out, the typical response is, ‘We’re not going to insure that.’ So our liability insurance, that’s been our biggest expense.” Debi said.
Even with the additional expense, the business is growing. The McGaws have been able to put money back into the escape rooms with technology upgrades.
“We increased 50 percent after the first calendar year,” Debi said, adding, “We’re looking at a three- to four[-year] plan before drawing a decent salary, like with any new business.”
And every month, 10 percent of the business’ gross income goes toward one of the local nonprofits.
“We’ve been able to do that every month since we’ve started, and [we] feel like it’s a good way to give back to the community,” Ed said.
The McGaws’ next goal for the business is to be able to open longer by finding people to help run the rooms.
“We want to be open more — without burning ourselves out — because that is the greatest issue with small business owners,” Debi said.
An immersive experience
Customers are the ones playing the game, but the McGaws are controlling their experience.
“Everyone needs clues, and we adjust how many clues we give to make it a good experience,” Ed said. “It’s finding that balance of not making it too easy or too hard. The ideal time for them to escape is five minutes before or after the cut-off time.”
And the experience forces teenagers to communicate, Debi said.
“They can’t bring their cell phones into the room and have to talk to friends and family to get out,” she said. “They come out of the room with an appreciation for their friends’ and family’s skill sets because everyone has something different to bring to the game.”
[su_box title=”Mystery Quests Rooms” box_color=”#005ac3″]Established: 2015
Location: 5526 N. Academy Blvd., Ste. 203
Contact: 719-822-3676, mystery-quests.com/rooms.html[/su_box]