By BECKY GILLETTE
The first escape rooms in Mississippi opened about two years ago, and have spread around the state. They are proving successful enough that two new escape rooms are being planned in the Jackson area, including one that will have a focus on team-building for companies.
Escape rooms are a game where participants are locked into a room and players work together to find clues and figure out puzzles. The idea is to find the key that opens the door before the time is up, which is usually an hour. Several escape room owners contacted by the Mississippi Business Journal said they have quite a few business customers who are interested in using the escape rooms for team building exercises.
A new escape room business will open in early December in Suite 270 at the Outlets of Mississippi in Pearl. Mark Stevens, owner of Paradox Challenge Rooms, said that traditional escape rooms provide a great environment for “team fun” which can help with morale in general. But he said they can also be more than that.
“What is often missing is taking advantage of the unique ‘team problem solving’ situation to highlight issues related specifically to communication and cooperation,” said Stevens, who also operates Paradox Challenge and Escape Rooms in Tupelo and Florence, Ala. “What we are doing at Paradox is taking the next step to make those lessons clearer and more actionable when they return to the work place. In the past, we have done that with post-game talks and those worked well. However, we believe we can improve on that substantially.”
Currently Paradox Challenge Rooms is shipping a mobile version of a new game they have created called Spy Catcher. Stevens said there are two unique aspects of this that relate to corporate team building. The first is that it allows groups to divide into two teams that can compete for time or have to cooperate through some form of restricted communication.
“The second is that it is designed to support multiple episodes, so we can use it to highlight different lessons we want to teach or just provide a second experience to practice what they learned in the first one,” Stevens said. “While this is a fun game for anyone, it was designed specifically to support the team problem-solving sessions we will be offering to businesses. It is our intent to focus considerable effort on corporate training sessions. We expect it to be a substantial part of our business, especially during typical work week hours.”
Paulina and Clint Sistrunk opened JXN Escape Room in January 2016. They have found also found interest in being used by businesses as a team-building activity.
“We have a lot of companies who bring employees here,” Paulina Sistrunk said.
JXN Escape Room is located on Foley St. in an old weather station, and the couple plans to open a second escape room, Interlock Tours, in late December or early January on 6718 Old Canton Road, Ridgeland.
“If you are tired of going to the movies or a restaurant, it is fun and something different to do for an outing with a group of friends or co-workers,” Paulina Sistrunk said. “It involves some creative and critical thinking, teamwork and communication. It is something that requires you to use your brain.”
Sistrunk said the old weather station has a “bit of a vibe,” and houses three different room scenarios—a cellar, a historical room, and spaceship room. They change up rooms occasionally order to keep it fresh and attract repeat customers.
Are escape rooms a sustainable phenomenon or a fad? Sistrunk said they think escape rooms have the potential to be a long-lived if kept fresh and interesting.
“That is what we are trying in the new location,” she said. “We have some interesting themes and designs. You can buy escape room games. We do not. We create all of our rooms ourselves. There will be more technology in our new rooms that will make it that much more exciting. So, we hope that will make it more sustainable. We continue to get new customers. Even with rooms we’ve had for some time, there is lot of life in them.”
Businesses are also frequently customers of Deadbolt Escape Rooms in Tupelo owned by brothers Shawn and Jason Brannon.
“We have cameras and microphones in all our rooms so we can see and hear what is being done in all the rooms,” Jason Brannon said. “Employers can watch and see who works together well and who doesn’t, who takes on leadership functions, and who doesn’t. They can determine who is engaged and who is not. You get to watch employees in a different setting.”
Brannon said they periodically change rooms out and do something new. Around Halloween the tomb room was very popular. They have five rooms and will soon have six. They have 792 total reviews on Facebook with 767 giving them five stars.
While there are companies who sell escape room ideas, the Brannons pride themselves in writing their own stories, themes and puzzles.
“It is all home grown,” Brannon said. “This started as a sort of a weekend job, but we have grown from three rooms to six. Now this is our job. This is what we do. I’m a freelance writer on the side. I have published a lot, fiction wise, so I found the story lines easy to do based on what I do.”
He isn’t concerned that escape rooms are a fad.
“It is on to us to make sure it stays fresh,” Brannon said. “We have to anticipate where this is going and think outside the box to do things people enjoy. We get a lot of school groups, church groups and birthday parties, big groups that we didn’t expect when we started it.”
Kody Liston opened College Town Escape Rooms in Hattiesburg in April 2016 during his first semester at the University of Southern Mississippi business college. In addition to three different scenarios at their location on 2206 Hardy St., they also build smaller scenarios that they take to different businesses.
“It is very enthralling,” Liston said. “It is like going to the movie, but you are almost in the movie. Instead of just sitting there watching, you are participating. It really requires teamwork to be successful in the hour mark you have to complete it.”
Liston said they do a lot of team building corporate events.
When Liston started the business, he drew up a business plan to seek investors. Because he was so young, a lot of people didn’t take him seriously. But he started turning a profit after one year and has repaid the original loan.
“It has really worked out,” he said. “We love what we do. We design all our scenarios inhouse. We don’t buy puzzles from any company elsewhere.”