Clark County game retailer thriving on escape rooms

Popular activity catching on with families, companies that use them for team-building

By Troy Brynelson, Columbian staff writer

Published:

 

A Clark County company is banking on the idea that sometimes we all need an escape from responsibility. But their escapes aim more for thrills than relaxation.

In a 10-by-10-foot room designed to look like a high-tech server room, James Omelina, owner of Mythic Escapes in Vancouver Mall, will hand you a walkie-talkie. Ask for help, he suggests, or if you need a break for any reason. After that, you’ll have 20 minutes to find a way out of a room that seems to contain only a mounted television, a pair of coveralls, a locked tool cabinet and a trash can in the corner.

That’s the basis of an escape room, an increasingly popular game pitting groups of people to solve a room of riddles. It is catching on with families and casual players, as well as companies that want employees to blow off steam in a new way that builds teamwork skills.

For Mythic Escapes, it is a growing but somewhat uncharted business that they hope to lead. Omelina, who grew up in Battle Ground, has eyes on not only growing its walk-in business, but also selling custom rooms to other businesses for marketing or entertainment.

“All of us have an idea of what it would look like to be a regional company,” he said.

Open doors

Even though Nicole Guddal’s group had two engineers in it, she noted, she was surprised how long it took them to solve a Blackbeard-themed escape room. The room has a swinging black gate in the middle, with props like a stuffed dog holding a key in its mouth, a picture of various flags and cryptic messages on the walls. They had an hour to complete it, and got out with barely three minutes to spare.

“We wanted to do it without using the hints and clues but we caved and needed some assistance to keep us in the right direction,” the Milwaukie, Ore., resident said. “Would definitely recommend it and do it again!”

Successful escape rooms are engrossing and a little addictive, according to Omelina. They first took hold a decade ago in Japan, where companies sought to bring suspenseful point-and-click video games into reality. Escape rooms soon spread through Asia and eventually made their way to the U.S.

It’s difficult to tell how many escape rooms exist now. A 2015 report from MarketWatch calculated there were more than 2,800 worldwide at the time. Like haunted houses, they don’t usually require permits or licensing and are thus harder to track.

More than a dozen operate today in the Vancouver-Portland metropolitan area. Despite the growth in competition, business thrives because players want to try them all, Omelina said.

“The only bad competition for me is a bad escape room,” he said, noting that he’s run more than 200 escape rooms around the world. “We want everyone to be good, too, because we want everyone to have a good experience.”

As a former Marine Corps infantryman and an engineer with a lifelong gaming hobby, Omelina draws a lot on his experiences to get the rooms built. They can use pneumatics, temperature sensors, radio-frequency identification chips and more. A temporary, spaceship-themed room used 18 computers employing thousands of lines of proprietary code.

“It was a spaceship,” the 39-year-old said. “For the first time in my life I’m utilizing all these bizarre skills I’ve accumulated in my life.”

Omelina declined to disclose sales figures, but Mythic Escapes has three locations already after first opening at Vancouver Mall in summer 2016. A fourth room is planned at Mythic Realms, a sibling company in Salmon Creek that mainly sells trading cards and board games. Having an escape room there could drum up retail sales, too.

Supporting sales that way is exactly how the company can pitch selling custom escape rooms to other businesses. Game stores, coffee shops or bars can tap into another type of customer who already seeks out the rooms. Custom rooms could cost between $30,000 and $120,000 based on size, but Omelina’s pitch is that they would add $25,000 a month in revenue once word gets around.

Another pitch would be that it could be a marketing tool for any company that recruits regularly at conventions. A 10-by-10-foot escape room could be mobile.

Omelina hasn’t sold any yet. He said they are still fine-tuning the process. He highlights how low the expenses are — after buying it and getting trained to run the room, the only costs would be cleaning it every now and then. Staffing an escape room really just comes down to a game master.

“It takes us time to train new game masters. You don’t want to steal anybody’s ‘aha’ moment, because that’s the experience that makes the game,” Omelina said.

Piecing the puzzles

Skyler Doherty, of Battle Ground, completed an escape room right before Halloween with his mother and some of her friends. Part of the room called for sticking a mirror in hole to discern a code, then use that code as a cipher for a lock combination. The experience had a way of bringing out people’s problem-solving skills, he said.

“We started to go through clues so fast and when we got hung up on one clue everyone would put their clue on hold to help out,” he said. “We had a real good team. Just being timed was a thrill, everyone wanted to get out.”

Hearing about escape rooms as these kinds of abstract obstacle courses convinced Kendra Reed, a Vancouver branch manager for Opti Staffing Group, to take nine employees through an escape room. She said usually bonding is a night of karaoke or happy hour drinks. This was a jolt.

“All of our divisions were mixed up, working together. It really gave us the opportunity to showcase people’s strengths and problem-solving skills,” she said. “People were yelling, sweating, laughing.”

Big corporations are keyed into this, too. Escape rooms in Vancouver and in Portland say they are welcoming divisions from HP Inc., Intel and Nike, to name a few. Military groups and government officials have used the rooms, too, said Tom Johnson and Ed Wolf, who run Hour to Midnight in Northeast Portland.

“We get all kinds of groups. The larger enterprises are always out looking for these types of things to do but we’re kindly surprised with the littler places that find these things to do,” said Wolf. “Law firms, auto body shops, (chemical) testing labs … It’s a little bit surprising.”

Mythic Escapes earns revenues mostly through the everyday crowd, but about 20 percent of revenues come from corporate team-building, Omelina said. They also host classes and serve food, if need be, in order to accommodate bigger offices.

David Goldstein, chief operating officer of TeamBonding, a Boston-based company built specifically to throw these kinds of corporate events, said escape rooms are the latest trend to catch hold in the corporate realm, which is sometimes a little later to the party than the mainstream.

“We’re still doing reality TV-based team-building events, like ‘Survivor,’ voting off the island or voting onto the island,” Goldstein said with a laugh. “Sometimes it takes a little while.”

But even though they have usurped these kinds of events recently in corporate circles, he’s not convinced escape rooms are going to stick around.

“This is going to be a fad,” said Goldstein, who founded the company 20 years ago. “It’s going to be survival of the fittest at some point. I don’t think that a lot of people that are getting into the business are business people. They have an idea that’s really cool, but then they rent the space and say, ‘Where do we go from here?’ ”

He wondered, too, if escape rooms won’t soon see their past come back to haunt them. Escape rooms spun out of video games. Gaming’s next big wave, virtual reality, could upend their market, he said.