By Roberta Codemo
Central Illinois now has access to the hottest game sensation sweeping the country. A longtime fan of escape room video games, Rebecca Henderson, founder of SMARTpath Education Services, first founded Escape Bloomington – a live interactive version of the popular video games – in Bloomington in 2014 as an offshoot of her company, before expanding into the Springfield market in September.
“Most are focused on entertainment,” said Henderson, speaking from the business’s second location, Escape Springfield, 2272 N. Grand Avenue E. “Ours is focused on team-building.” Only open for two months, the business is already generating buzz through word of mouth and business is growing. Seventy players came through the venue on opening weekend.
Henderson said it made sense to open a location in Springfield as a lot of Springfield residents were traveling to Escape Bloomington. She plans to open additional Escapes in Peoria and Champaign.
“This is a new concept,” said Henderson, referring to the use of Escape games for the purpose of team-building. It promotes communication, collaboration, critical thinking and creativity. Players are led “like lambs to the slaughter” to their room and locked in. They then have one hour to solve a series of increasingly challenging puzzles to find the key to unlock the room. It encourages lateral thinking skills and forces them to depend on each other in order to get out and survive.
“Everyone can participate,” said Henderson. “It requires brain power as opposed to physical challenges.” After the session, team members go over what they learned and discuss what led to their success. Everyone learns more about one another and how to work together and can take this back to the workplace.
The Springfield location offers players their choice of two rooms – named “Dr. Tomy N. Pieces” and “Education Creation” – that are patterned after rooms at Escape Bloomington. A CSI room is planned, which will be unique to Escape Springfield.
Each room is designed around a theme. Because Henderson has found a lot of people don’t like scary games, she tries to offer rooms that are geared towards families. “We would love to do a theme room around Springfield history,” she said.
The rooms can accommodate up to 12 players and are recommended for ages 14 and up. “They’re designed with adult brains in mind,” said Henderson.
“Teams have no idea what they are getting themselves into,” said Meghan Bertoni, store manager, who had never played escape room video games.
“We didn’t know what to expect,” said Kenny Morris, founder of K.M. Hair Works and Spa, 3201 Sherman St., who recently took a team of eight staffers. “We enjoyed ourselves very much. It was a great evening.”
Staffers often don’t have the opportunity to spend time together outside the salon. One of Morris’s staffers had visited a similar venue in St. Louis and told his daughter about it. She told him, “’I know it’s cheesy sounding but I think we ought to try this.’”
The K.M. Hair Works staff ranges in age from 25 to 62 and some have been with Morris for more than 40 years. “We work long hours,” said Morris. “It was an opportunity to get to know them outside the salon. I saw some real leaders.” He plans on taking another group.
The experience builds cohesion and brings people together. Different roles emerge. The experience forces people to express themselves in ways they normally wouldn’t in any other situation. Teams find there are individuals who are good at math or who have leadership skills but don’t express this in the workplace.
The business is looking ahead to expanding and is looking for a west side location to cater to more businesses. They would eventually like to offer six rooms.
“It’s something different to do in Springfield,” said Bertoni.
Roberta Codemo is a full-time freelance writer. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.