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Loriahn McLean

Of the 207 escape rooms that Loriahn McLean has attempted, she’s escaped 202 of them. For those keeping score, that’s over a 97 percent success rate. 

“I mean, I have had fails,” said McLean, “but I just love the game. I love the rush of energy, I love being able to figure anything out.”

McLean is a manager and senior gamemaster at Locked In Escapes, the largest escape room center in Colorado Springs. Born in Chicago, McLean spent her youth in Wyoming and Washington before moving to Boulder in 1998 and joining the Army in 1999. Today, she’s a U.S. Army Reservist who calls Colorado Springs home. 

A relatively new attraction, escape rooms continue to gain popularity. The first one in America opened in San Francisco in 2012; there are now over 2,200 escape room locations across all 50 states. 

A typical game consists of various puzzles that players must solve within a time limit to “escape” a room. The most elaborate rooms use a complex system of clues, locks, puzzles, electronics and even unseen weighted plates to deliver the most challenging experience possible. Locked In Escape’s three immersive, meticulously designed escape rooms include a rock concert venue, a hunting cabin deep in the mountains, and a zombie-infested Steampunk London.

“When you walk into an escape room, you really have to realize that you need to look at everything,” McLean said. “Don’t count anything out. Anything can be a clue, anything can be part of the game... .”

With her team of six employees, McLean is in the midst of building a fourth room, with plans to build six more by the end of this year.

McLean spoke with the Business Journal about team building, surviving the pandemic, and why more businesses should book escape rooms for their employees. 

How does a soldier become an escape room senior gamemaster?

I joined the Army in February of 1999 and was stationed all over; I did a total of 12 active duty years. Then I was a military spouse for a while and was stationed all over again, but when I joined the Reserves in 2016, we moved back here to Colorado Springs. I was a stay-at-home mom at first, then when my husband at the time was in Honduras, we decided to amicably divorce. So I had all sorts of different customer service jobs in the summer of 2018, and I was always gone [across 11 states], but then there was this incident where ... I had to give up my job to take care of my kids. So I went back to school to get my master’s in electrical engineering while working odds-and-ends jobs.

Then for my birthday in October of 2018, I came to [Locked In Escapes] to play a game with some friends — I’d done escape rooms before — and I loved their room. I came back and played all three of the games they had open at the time within a month. Dawn [Lingold, the owner] saw that and offered me a part-time job. 

That job fueled your passion for escape rooms even more?

Well, at first, I was very part-time — on call when they needed somebody last minute. I worked my way up through the years and became senior gamemaster, started working more. Then two summers ago, in August of 2019, Dawn took me to the Escape Room Owner’s Convention in San Antonio, Texas, and I learned so much about the escape room community and how the business works. I met so many people, and that just grew my passion. Right? That’s my people! 

It’s a way I can use my engineering degree because most engineers are not very outgoing. I am very, very much the opposite. I love customer service, I love people, but I also love engineering and the way things work en masse. Escape rooms give me the opportunity to meld those things together, and working here has given me the artistic freedom I need to grow myself.

What is it about escape rooms specifically that melds those things so well for you?

You know when you go to the gym, you feel all the endorphins when you get out? That’s how I feel about escape rooms, only for your brain. Your brain is just firing, and you are just going ... It’s a really good feeling when you’re solving these puzzles, and there’s that interaction with other people when you’re figuring out together how things work. 

Now, I do tend to overthink a lot of things because of my engineer brain, but that’s why I bring other friends that aren’t engineers to do this with. ... It’s like looking into the unknown, and just sharing it with people — sharing that passion, sharing that exhilarating feeling when you get out. 

Between the theatrics, the engineering, the customer service, everything that goes into an escape room, that is all who I am as a person. It’s all encompassing. It’s a pretty awesome job.

About that Escape Room Owner’s Convention — what did that look like?

Dawn and I split up on classes, so the ones I took had more to do with the rooms. I learned about how to build rooms on a budget, customer service and immersion, incorporating electronics into rooms, how to handle angry customers, topics like that. All those classes really helped me grow as a person. We went to several dinners, we did a bunch of escape rooms, and just talking to people and hearing ideas — it was almost overwhelming. I learned so much. 

What kind of team have you built here?

We are absolutely, 100 percent like a family. It’s really just getting to know each and every person and what they’re like on the outside, what they do. ... I’m the mom here. I’m the oldest one, and so they call me their “work mom.” They’re good kids, and to help them grow their passion for escape rooms and fall in love with them; watch them learn about customer service and the different [components of the industry] ... it’s just really an amazing opportunity. 

From what you’ve seen, what kind of person wants to work here?

People with a theater background, people with a customer service background, and people who love escape rooms. And then you get some random people who think they know what this is and think it’d be a cool job. It really just depends, but Dawn and [co-owner] Ken [Lingold] do a really good job of interviewing and finding good fits for the team, because we really, really are a team here. We have some crazy nights. ... If we didn’t have the team that we do, we wouldn’t be able to do it.

Just working with them, watching them grow, become bigger, better people ... like, we had this one girl who started out very timid. She would not give anybody eye contact, she was very quiet, they didn’t know if she would make it. But now she’s one of the full-time girls here, and just to watch her grow up and become that more assertive person that she is, it’s been awesome. It’s a really cool job in a really cool industry, but it’s very different, it’s very niche. I would say about 90 percent of our employees play Dungeons & Dragons — me included. 

How did Locked In Escapes handle the pandemic?

When they first did the initial shutdown in March, we completely shut down. And of course that hurt us — that hurt a lot of small family businesses. Then in May, we started bringing things back. During that time, people started doing what’s called ‘virtual escape rooms’ — taking 360 degree camera views, with one live actor in the room with a GoPro harness on — and that became huge. We actually ended up converting two of our rooms to be virtual, and we did a lot of virtual games back when it was still shut down. 

When things started reopening in May, Dawn and Ken brought two employees back; I was one of them. Slowly but surely, we started bringing back more and more [employees] as business came in. Then the second shutdown happened after Thanksgiving. That’s our busiest season because that’s when all the families are in town and want to do escape rooms. A bunch of escape rooms were like, ‘This is going to kill us. It’s going to kill us.’ I’m friends with all the escape room owners in town, so I got them all together for a meeting here. They decided to open the Monday after Christmas as a ‘brain gymnasium,’ because at the time, gyms could be open. And because we are such a niche business, we weren’t classified [by the city] in any way, so we classified ourselves as a brain gymnasium to keep open. One of the escape room owners said, ‘I got a lawyer if we need it,’ and we all agreed, ‘We got this. We’re gonna fight this, and we’re just going to band together, and we’re just going to reopen.’

The last week of December before New Year’s ended up paying our entire January rent because we got so busy, so fast. It was good that we were able to recover. Some of the other escape rooms were able to recover like that too, and we’ve really bounced back since then.

What do you think the business community should know about escape rooms?

I think that escape rooms are still a hidden gem for the business community. ... You can learn so much. It is a huge team-building event, and it brings people closer together. You can bring complete strangers in, and they would bond just from doing a room together. [Escape rooms] aren’t well enough known, and they need to be. It’s a huge tool that people can use to build teams. We even have military units coming in — and watching them, you can definitely see the differences in jobs and how that impacts the way people think. 

That’s why I love this job. I love the different ways people think. I’ve been here forever, and I [still see people] try brand new things. To watch people think outside the box and be proud of themselves is huge for me.