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Escape room entrepreneur puzzles out how to connect people

Escape room entrepreneur puzzles out how to connect people

Tuesday, April 03, 2018

Durango is the kind of place people escape to, not from. It’s also the kind of place where people are always game for a new challenge. That knowledge was a primary reason Hanna Pierce felt confident opening Conundrum Escape Rooms in downtown Durango. Now nearly two years old, Conundrum offers two escape rooms and a board game store. What it really offers, though, is the chance for people to truly connect with each other.

“Escape rooms are adventure, and Durango’s all about adventure,” Pierce (Interdisciplinary Studies, ’15) says. “We’re trying really hard to provide the opportunity for anything that makes you put down devices and interact and use your brain. I knew Durango would be thrilled to have an escape room.”

Most escape rooms don’t open in towns as small as Durango, Pierce says, so her business often takes some explaining to people new to the concept of an escape room.

“We take a group of six people and we put them inside a themed room,” Pierce says. “We take away their phones. And we say, ‘You guys have to figure out how to escape this space together.’ They have sixty minutes to escape based on finding clues, puzzles, items in the room that work together in order to open locks and secret doors and hidden compartments. If they do so in less than an hour, then they’ve escaped. If they don't, then we come in and let them out.”

Trying to pitch an escape room is a tricky proposition, a puzzle all its own, because it’s impossible to fully envision the experience without actually visiting one of the rooms. When Pierce first learned about escape rooms, she thought it sounded horribly dull—like a padded jail cell with a jigsaw puzzle.

But in reality, the immersive one-hour adventure is one part intellectual stimulation, one part group collaboration, and one part imagination. Conundrum’s rooms welcome children as young as eight, and they are also an excuse for adults to play make-believe in ways they haven’t since childhood. The room themes lend themselves to the fun, with titles like “Jesse James Heist (a Wild West adventure)” and “Rendezvous at Dr. Frankenstein’s.”

“People get really into the story and the game of escape rooms,” Pierce says. “It’s like when you were a kid, and you’d come up with games like oh-we’re-lost-in-the-woods. The environment is intended for you to go in and feel like you're immersed into that space, so much so that you forget what’s in the outside world.”

She also stresses that the entire experience depends on the participants’ willingness to play along. Groups are never truly locked in—anyone is free to step out at any time, for any reason—and the spaces don’t pose problems for those with claustrophobia. “It’s like being in a house,” she says. “We’ve never had anybody step out because they were uncomfortable due to the space.”

Hannah Pierce, Conundrum Escape Rooms founderConundrum’s team designs the escape rooms in-house, including the décor, props, and the puzzles within them, and the rooms are redesigned periodically to keep the experience fresh. Every room has a different style of exit or task that you have to complete in order to escape. Pierce can’t give away details for any of the active rooms, but she’s proud of the creativity that goes into those escapes.

Whether or not groups successfully escape the room, they have another chance to connect with each other after the event. Conundrum also offers board and card games for sale in its entry space. These aren’t your traditional board games, either—they’re what are commonly called “Euro-style games,” which are much more involved and foster more interaction than typical roll-the-dice types of games. These styles of games tie into Conundrum’s philosophy of wanting people to interact with each other, Pierce says.

Euro-style games often have passionate followings, and the more complex ones require time and dedication to learn. Some are also significant financial investments, which is why Conundrum started offering board game rentals, as well.

“Sometimes games are expensive, or people are curious about these games but they don’t know if they want to commit to them,” she says. “So we do game rentals. You get the game for the whole week. You can take it home and check it out. We definitely have a couple of what we would call serious gamer games. But then we also range down from there to fun party games and really good family games.”

Pierce always bring the emphasis back to the connection between people. That level of interaction was what spurred her to develop Conundrum in the first place. She, her husband, and two of their friends tried their first escape room in Boulder. And even though they failed to escape, they engaged in a way they never had.

“I left that with my mind blown because I couldn't remember a time when we had spent an hour together without someone looking at their phone,” she says. “That’s when it clicked. I’ve been skydiving, I’m a skier, I lived in Hawaii, and there’s nothing I’ve done that I’m still talking about three hours later.”

Pierce stayed up that night researching other escape rooms. Three months later, she had a business plan. And in June of 2016, with plenty of guidance from the Small Business Development Center housed at FLC, she opened the doors to Conundrum.

She sees the roots of her business in her childhood in Crested Butte, where without a television in her house she was always playing and making up games with her friends. But she recognizes that her educational experiences at FLC taught her to take her less-than-traditional ideas from plan to reality. In earning her Interdisciplinary Studies degree, she emphasized elementary education, with all its creativity and implementation strategies.

“I had the ability to experiment with my classes,” she says. “It wasn’t so rigid. The Teacher Education department was so supportive of creativity. With being an elementary teacher comes a lot of mental ability to be creative on a whim, because you have to. There’s so much in elementary education that is not going to go to plan, or you need to think of a way to engage these kids that they’ve never seen before. So I contribute a huge amount of my ability to design the rooms and think outside the box to that education program.”

And while Pierce isn’t in it for the compliments, she certainly receives plenty of them for her work at Conundrum. She talks about the pressure of hosting people who design their travels around escape rooms.

“There’s escape rooms all over the world, and we’re in this small town with limited resources and I don't want to disappoint them,” she says. “And we’ve never had one of those people leave our room saying anything was bad. In fact, they come to us and they say we’re within their top five escape rooms. To receive that feedback from people who have done more rooms than even I have? It’s amazing. It makes me feel like I found a way to meld my love for education and challenging people and art into a business that is really well received.”

But still, she says the greatest feedback she’s ever gotten is from reluctant grandparents who end up cherishing the experience they just had with their children and grandchildren.

“It brings me a lot of fulfillment to have them come up to me and say, ‘I have never had the opportunity to spend this time with my family,’” she says. “I feel like people being together—and being together in an intelligent environment—is so key to happiness.”

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