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North Hills Monthly

For Your Next Escape...Try an Escape Room

Jun 30, 2016 08:55AM ● By Jill Cueni Cohen

"It’s an experience in human interaction; human nature," explained Joel Magill, manager of Escape the Room, located on Carson Street in the South Side. He and his staff watch from another location and give random clues while players attempt their escape from selected locations, such as an average apartment or a newsroom. 

"One group will fly through a section where another will get stuck, and it’s not at all predictable,” he continued. “When I first started working here, it was like watching sports; you’re rooting for them, and then they’ll do something silly and you yell at the screen. It’s entertaining and frustrating at the same time."

Born from a video game in 2006, permanent escape rooms quickly became popular in Asia, Canada and Israel. In the past couple of years, escape rooms have started to pop up in U.S. cities. The first escape room in Pittsburgh opened in Greenfield a few years ago, which inspired the newest escape room, IQ Escape, to open on McKnight Road in the North Hills this past April, according to co-owner Eric Lloyd of Wexford.

"The U.S. is the last country to catch on to this," said Lloyd, noting that there are more than 100 escape rooms in Toronto alone. "There were none (in the US) four years ago, and now there are about 800 escape rooms in this country. Two years from now, that number could easily reach 3,000.

"The trend is exploding and will be a long-standing industry," Lloyd predicted, explaining that the game's greatest appeal is that fact that it's fun for everyone, regardless of age...or anything else. "In one day, we might host a children’s birthday party as well as a group of retired doctors from UPMC," he said, adding that during their captivity, IQ Escape teams might be asked to solve crimes, save the world, travel through time, or pull off a bank heist. "It's a form of entertainment that appeals to all demographics...and it's something different to do."

Magill went down the list of participants: "Whole families, from grandparents to 10-year-olds, groups of friends, bachelor parties, birthday parties, date nights..." he said, adding that companies often use the game as a team-building exercise for coworkers or even as a tool in the hiring process. 

Lloyd said that his facility has a separate space that's big enough for 30 individuals. "We rent the room to businesses to do their employee training from 9-to-5, and then they play the game afterward," he said, noting, "There's no better way to see how people interact with each other than in an escape room. You see who is cooperative, who's stubborn, and who is handling pressure well. For instance, the head of HR can watch and assess how new hires interact during the 60 minutes that they're playing the game."

"Our group of 20 recently utilized IQ Escape's conference room and lounge for corporate training and then split up to practice team-building in separate escape rooms," recalled customer Eric West of Pittsburgh. "The staff was exemplary and catered to our every need. I’ll be recommending IQ Escape to anyone looking for a new twist on training, development and just plain old fun."

There are currently only a handful of escape rooms in the Pittsburgh area, and both Lloyd and Magill urge people to try out each one. "We go to the other escape rooms to see what they’re doing, because each one is unique," said Magill, who is happy to tell his customers what's out there. "Once you’ve done it, you already know the puzzle."

"Eighty percent of the population doesn't know what an escape room is, so competition is actually good, because even the worst escape room is still entertaining," said Lloyd, adding that the game is addictive. "If you go play in the South Side escape room and you have a really good time, and I promise you will, you'll want to play another one. It's rare in business that a competitor can actually be synergistic, but while this industry is in its infancy, we're actually helping each other."

"It's not your typical evening out," said Magill, adding that the game has the potential to build relationships...and break them apart. "One time, I'm pretty sure I watched a divorce start to happen when one couple got really heated about solving a puzzle. But for the most part, it's all about having fun. When families come in, it’s interesting to watch the kids figure out certain puzzles that the adults just can't."