NC Trend: No place to hide

 In April 2016, NC Trend

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By Rebecca Logan

In the world of corporate team building, there may be no escaping the escape room.

The entertainment genre — in which teams, often ranging from six to a dozen people, must solve puzzles in order to earn passage out of elaborately themed rooms — has been spreading across North Carolina at a rate of nearly one market per month.

Asheville’s first escape room opened in September, with two competitors quickly following suit. Fayetteville, Jacksonville, New Bern and Wilmington all have escape rooms that have opened since October. Companies have just as quickly signed up their employees, paying about $20 to $30 per person, though many escape rooms arrange group discounts. 

“When you work together all the time, conflicts do arise. So we thought it would be something we could do and just have fun,” says Lindsey Otero, half of the husband-wife team that owns Otero Family, Cosmetic and Implant Dentistry in Wilmington. Their staff recently visited Cape Fear Escape Room, where participants choose from a time-travel themed room, a chemistry crime scene or a speakeasy. The group had 60 minutes to make its escape and managed just that, with seconds to spare. 

“The main thing we were hoping for — and which we saw — was teamwork. Everyone definitely came together and did their part. Even the ones who are usually more reserved really got into it and solved some of the puzzles,” Otero says.

As of early March, escaperoomdirectory.com listed 470 escape room sites in the U.S. This was triple the number operating in June, according to MarketWatch. Escape rooms caught on in Asia a few years ago and spread to Europe before making their way to American cities like Los Angeles and San Francisco. By 2014, they had taken hold in markets like Charlotte and the Triangle, which now have several escape rooms between them. The businesses are a mix of franchise and independent operations.

“It’s something new and different. And it’s not a mindless activity,” says Gayla Joeckel, an owner of Escape Room Fayetteville.  “It’s not like going to a movie theater where you go, sit together, then get up and leave. There can be an adrenaline rush. It’s almost like playing a video game — but in real life.”

Michael Sullivan was playing a video game when he first started thinking about opening an escape room. “Not everyone wants to get together to do rope courses, rock climb or play paintball,” says Sullivan. “This is something everyone can do together.” Last year, Sullivan opened Winston-Salem’s 2,400-square-foot Escape Room — large compared with most sites — where live actors portray zombies roaming a dark warehouse as participants search for a light switch. The experience is too intense for some. Sullivan estimates that about 5% of participants want to pull out, prompting action by employees who are watching and listening from a control room. “We’ve got microphones. So if somebody does get to that point, we try and coach them through and remind them that it’s just a game,” Sullivan says. “We want them to get through and feel proud of themselves. But if somebody does feel like, ‘Nope, that’s it,’ then we have a staff member go in and escort them out.”

The Conundrum, one of three Asheville escape rooms, also uses live actors. “We took the basics of an escape room and decorated with theater,” says owner Shawn Verbrugghe. He also owns Pubcycle, a bring-your-own wine or beer tour business featuring a pedal-powered trolley on wheels.  “People would finish [a tour] and ask us, ‘Well, what now?’ ” he says. Last fall, he opened The Conundrum.

Team building is on the minds of many managers who want to strengthen workplace connections, says Mario Moussa, a management consultant who teaches at the Wharton School of Business in Philadelphia. “I don’t want to seem negative or cynical,” he says. “But I wouldn’t want anybody to see these sorts of events as quick-fix opportunities. There are no quick fixes. That said, I think anything can be positive if you use it in the right way.”

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