No escaping success in this ‘escape’ business

Andrew McJannett-Smith is standing in the middle of a room with a corpse on a table and a bucketful of amputated limbs. “My wife is the one who comes up with all this,” he said, gesturing to a body bag. “She is the genius.”

McJannett-Smith and his wife, Traci, created Escape Expert in Dallas, a warren of six rooms with themes ranging from a haunted house to “The Matrix.” Inside each room, people pay about $28 each to spend one hour trying to solve clues, figure out puzzles, open locks and finally escape. It’s the largest escape business in Dallas, and it’s also the most difficult to conquer. The success rate is less than 50 percent. “It’s fun, and it’s great team building.”

Escape adventures are America’s strangest new success. They are popping up at an exponential rate, from a handful a few years ago to hundreds now.

For the McJannett-Smiths, it all started with Taylor Swift.

“My daughter’s a Taylor Swift fan, and she told me, ‘Dad, I want to go to Nashville,'” said Andrew. So the family went to Nashville. While they were there, Traci looked for something fun to do. She booked the family into a local escape room. “We had a fantastic time,” Andrew said. “We didn’t escape, but my wife had a great time, I had a great time, my kids had a great time.”

CNBC's Jane Wells examines some of the props used at Escape Expert in Texas, which  features six rooms with various themes, including this room based on an autopsy gone wrong.

Erika Santoro | CNBC
CNBC’s Jane Wells examines some of the props used at Escape Expert in Texas, which features six rooms with various themes, including this room based on an autopsy gone wrong.

Once back in Dallas, the couple thought they might go to a local escape room for fun, except they found nothing remotely similar to the experience in Nashville. “They had only one here, it had a zombie in it, and my kids were too scared to do the one with the zombie in it.” So McJannett-Smith and his wife figured they’d start their own company.

“Even if we were half as good as Nashville, it would be really, really good for Dallas,” he said. The couple spent months doing research, monitoring how booked up business was at the company in Nashville. “I saw that there was definitely demand,” said Andrew. However, he did not want to rush in. He wanted to “escape” his financial mistakes of the past. “I’ve been in business a few times in my life, I’ve been an entrepreneur, and I’ve always been too late,” he said. “I hope this is the one that is going to make me a millionaire.”

Finally, the couple and a partner (since bought out) scrounged together $45,000 to start Escape Expert a year ago. Traci McJannett-Smith has always loved puzzles and crime dramas, so she had the job of cobbling together the escape experiences. Andrew’s job was building the rooms. They did nearly all of the work themselves. “We felt like giving up in the first few months just because there was so much hard work involved.”

Both were working full time at other jobs as they built out the company. They planned to run Escape Expert on the weekends, but aGroupon offer that kicked off the grand opening quickly sold out. “It got beyond a weekend thing,” said Andrew, “so we started taking all our vacation time.” Then came more business from companies wanting to use Escape Expert for corporate team building. Dallas is ranked third in the nation in Fortune 500 companies. “Within one month, I had to leave my job, because it was just going crazy, we had too many corporate bookings.” Corporate customers have included Texas Instruments and American Airlines.

Escape Expert had been doing about $20,000 a week in sales with anywhere from 150 to 200 groups. Business was growing so fast the owners have been planning to open three more locations, including a move to Houston, which is ranked second for Fortune 500 companies.

Perhaps the surest sign of significant growth in the industry is the recent curveball Dallas County threw Escape Expert and its competitors. Issues about zoning for the enterprises have led the county to demand each business provide more parking spaces. The McJannett-Smiths believe it is more economical to relocate to nearby Plano, which has the added advantage of placing it closer to many corporate headquarters. A move is underway.

Before the move, however, this reporter joined a group from a local real estate company to try to escape from one of the rooms. I learned how quickly an hour can fly by. My teammates taught me the importance of pointing out every detail, to notice everything out loud. Something I might see could be a clue that matched up with what another person in the room was seeing, but we wouldn’t know that if we didn’t vocalize it.

Escape Expert founder Andrew McJannett-Smith explains the inspiration behind his autopsy themed escape room.

Erika Santoro | CNBC
Escape Expert founder Andrew McJannett-Smith explains the inspiration behind his autopsy themed escape room.

I also learned that the person you might think would be a natural leader isn’t always the best puzzle solver, while wallflowers can suddenly shine. “We had a small company come in, and one guy got a promotion, because of how he played in the escape room,” McJannett-Smith said. “You’ll learn who are the go-getters, you’ll learn who will work with others, you’ll learn who will sit back and do nothing, you’ll learn who will take credit for other people’s work.”

As the couple relocates to Plano and scouts out new locations, they are expanding the business by consulting with other escape adventure companies in other cities. The McJannett-Smiths are selling ideas, concepts and puzzles for rooms. “We charge $15,000 a room,” said Andrew. Six customers have so far paid for those services, even buying props from some rooms as Traci creates new, more challenging escape experiences.

One key to success has been making it very difficult to escape. For example, one room at Escape Expert has only had an escape rate of 8 percent, but this doesn’t seem to discourage people. In fact, it often guarantees repeat visits, as competitors return to try to conquer that room. “If you do not have a mental workout, and it’s too easy, you’ll come out feeling, ‘Well, that was simple,’ and you wouldn’t have actually got anything out of it,” Andrew said. “We start it hard and get harder.”

He’s also learned that you can never guess who will beat the odds and escape. Take the case of the bachelorette party which arrived by limo, drunk. “There was so much alcohol in the air, I wouldn’t dare light a match,” he said. “I even put a bucket in the room with them, because I didn’t think they’d even stay upright and keep everything in.” The women not only managed to figure out how to escape the room in one hour, they did it in 40 minutes, setting a record. “I was amazed.”

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