Generally speaking, if you happen to find yourself trapped in a small room with five other people and forced to solve a series of logic puzzles in order to escape — a process which may or may not involve wriggling through a narrow, secret passageway — you’re probably either a character in a “Saw” movie or you’re about to wake up in a cold sweat. Either way, it hardly seems like an experience you’d want to relive, let alone employ as a means of recreation.
But just as roller coasters capitalize on our primal fear of heights, a new entertainment business model uses natural human aversions to enclosed spaces and timed quizzes to appeal to a specialty audience using a relatively new concept: escape rooms. It’s an idea that’s growing in popularity around the world — and by next spring, there could be one in East Lansing. ESC the Room received its first approval last week from the East Lansing Planning Commission.
“I was in China last year, and some of my cousins took me to an escape room,” said Matt Ao, founder of ESC the Room. “I thought it was a great idea, and we had a lot of fun. When I got home, I found out there were some here (in Michigan), but there were none in the Lansing area. So I started thinking.”
Ao, 23, is a software engineer at TechSmith in Okemos. A startup business he was involved with fell apart a few months ago, which is when he decided to open an escape room in Greater Lansing.
“I thought it might be tough because of the safety (aspect), but I was confident I could pull it off,” Ao said.
An escape room involves a small team of people who are locked in a space and must work together to find a way out within one hour. Of course, for safety reasons, the room can be vacated immediately in case of emergency. Sometimes escaping is a matter of figuring out a computer password using clues within other clues. Other times, it’s a series of interconnected puzzles that leads to a key. It can even involve a scavenger hunt that requires collaboration between two groups who can’t see each other and who have different sets of information.
“There are so many ways you can go with it,” Ao said. “There’s not really a danger in running out of (ideas).”
ESC the Room will consist of three separate puzzle rooms, which range in size from about 300 square feet to about 350 square feet. Each room will have a theme — one will be a walk-in closet, one will be an office space and one will be a bomb shelter — which will have various degrees of difficulty. Ao says about 95 percent of teams should be able to get out of the closet, about 75 percent should be able to escape the office, and about half should be able to solve the bomb shelter. Ao is working with an architect to design each room — including the construction of secret passages. The facility will take over the space formerly occupied by What Up Dawg?, 301 M.A.C. Ave. in downtown East Lansing.
“I did my undergrad at MSU, so I know downtown East Lansing pretty well,” Ao said. “Even if it’s only popular with 1 percent (of the local population), it will still bring in enough people to be profitable. I could have found a much cheaper place if I’d picked a place outside East Lansing, but I think this will do very well downtown.”
Ao also pointed to the popularity of escape rooms in Asian countries, noting that MSU’s sizable Chinese student population could bode well for ESC the Room. He said he’ll likely charge about $20-$25 per person and estimates it will cost about $20,000 to build out the space. ESC the Room could open as early as March if he receives final approval by Jan. 5.
“There aren’t a lot of moving pieces when it comes to building this kind of business,” Ao said. “It’s not like running a restaurant, where you have to keep track of inventory. It’s just a matter of constantly coming up with new puzzles so people will want to come back and try again.”
News dropped this week that the new brewery that will be built at the site of a former PNC Bank in Lansing’s east side will be a mid-Michigan branch of Battle Creek-based Arcadia Ales. The brewery will be a partnership between Arcadia and Urban Feast, the restaurant group behind downtown eateries Troppo and Tavern and Tap. No start date for construction has been announced yet.