On Tuesday night, financial advisor Jared Yuen found himself locked inside of a rundown hotel room.
Everything, at first glance, seemed normal, but as Yuen started tearing apart the room to search for a way out, he uncovered cryptic codes and obscure clues hidden throughout — all, presumably, leading to the key that would release him.
Here’s the thing, though: Yuen paid to get locked in the room.
He was at Breakout Waikiki, which offers live, interactive games known as escape rooms. It’s a growing trend throughout the world — and now has come to the Islands. Rooms vary in theme and details, but basically they all require participants to break out — usually within an hour — by solving a series of puzzles (and often tearing apart the room to do so).
Breakout Waikiki opened Nov. 23, launched by three entrepreneurs from Kansas City, Missouri — Matt Bay-singer, Ryan Henrich and Lucas Thompson. So far, it’s got two different room options: the hotel that Yuen was in called Room 13, and a secret op-themed game, Manoa Mission. A third room called The Hatch (where you’re trapped in a bunker; think Lost) is set to be unveiled this weekend, and a fourth with a stock market theme is slated to open in January.
“What we wanted to do is make you feel like you’re in a movie, that you are transcending out of your normal, everyday experience,” Henrich explains.
The Waikiki location is a follow-up to their Break-out Kansas City, which they opened in May — and they’re already currently working on a third in Lawrence, Kansas.
A key motivation for starting Breakout, Henrich explains, was to “get away from the spoon-fed type of experience.”
“You go to a movie or you go to a show, and it’s all completely consumed entertainment,” he says. “You are not involved in it, you are not participating, and you are just observing.”
Escape rooms are a sort of backlash to that type of consumptive, technology-fueled entertainment — offering a visceral experience that requires you to engage with the room and the people in there with you.
“If you go in the room and you don’t do anything, nothing happens,” Henrich continues. “There is nothing that pops out. There is nothing that is given to you. There is nothing that does it for you.”
“I think that people are kind of aching for a way to have that shared experience outside of staring at your phone or being together in a movie theater,” adds MacGregor Greenlee, who moved from Kansas City with his wife Savannah to be Breakout Waikiki’s manager and assistant manager, respectively.
Maybe it’s that notion that could partly explain the explosive popularity that escape rooms have achieved in recent years.
For all the ways that live-action escape rooms require human interaction, it’s ironic, then, that their origins can be traced to technology. The concept first appeared in video games, and later phone apps. The first known real-life escape room appeared in 2007 in Japan, hosted initially as a one-time event by magazine publisher Takao Kato, who later started a whole company around the concept.
The idea spread — at first throughout Asia and Europe — and more recently, escape games seem to be sprouting up everywhere. It’s estimated that there are thousands throughout the world and hundreds within the United States. In a July article, MarketWatch called the industry “unbelievably lucrative” and reported that some businesses have seen an 800 percent revenue growth rate in just one year.
“Two years ago you could count the number of room escapes in the United States on one hand,” says Lisa Radding, a New Jersey-based onomastician, who along with tech strategist David Spira reviews escape rooms on their blog Room Escape Artist (roomescapeartist.com), where they also keep track of new businesses in North America. The pair has played 75 games across the U.S. and in six countries. “Today, our map has hundreds of companies, and far more games. We’re adding new locations to the map on nearly a daily basis; they are opening faster than we can find them.”
The local market, too, is starting to look as though it’s poised to take off. There’s also Hawaii Escape Challenge, a traveling service that sets up an escape scenario in your desired location for events like corporate retreats or birthday parties. Hawaii Escape Challenge is slated to open a permanent location in Pearl City in February. The owners of iTrampoline, meanwhile, also have plans to open an escape room in their Kapolei complex next year. And at Breakout Waikiki, though they admit it has been a bit of a slow start, they already have had a number of repeat customers.
Breakout may be a new venture for Baysinger, Henrich and Thompson, but all three are seasoned entrepreneurs.
The trio met in high school in Kansas City and later attended college together at University of Kansas.
“I don’t think we realized it then, but we all saw the world very similarly,” Henrich recalls. “We didn’t see the world like most of our friends did, where they all wanted to get desk jobs and work a bizillion hours a week in a cubicle behind a computer monitor. We saw opportunities and options and had big ideas.”
After college, they set about putting their ideas into action. They each have their individual projects: Bay-singer runs a wedding video company, Thompson is in finance and property management, and Henrich creates custom furniture and owns a display and sign manufacturing company. Baysinger and Thompson also own a soda shop together, and earlier this week, Henrich launched a bar that pairs gourmet doughnuts with craft cocktails in Kansas City.
“We are always looking at opportunities — any time we see an open field where there is a need or an underserved market,” Henrich says.
But when Baysinger proposed that they check out an escape room in Tennessee last year as a potential business venture, Henrich admits that he initially was skeptical. It was the middle of the work-week, and he didn’t want to take a full day off to go out of town just to play a game. But Baysinger insisted. And, he revealed, he’d actually already booked their plane tickets so, well, they didn’t really have a choice.
By the end of a frenetic hour in the room, Henrich was convinced.
The trio drew up a company logo on a paper napkin on the flight back home, and within a week, they were signing a lease for their first Breakout facility.
Back in Room 13, Yuen was feeling pretty good around the 30-minute mark. The group had been digging through the room individually, then coming together when they found a clue. They seemed to be making steady progress, and when they finished what they’d deemed a large part of the puzzle, it felt like it was just one step away from being solved.
They were wrong. Instead, they just unlocked a whole new part of the game — and fell down a rabbit hole of new hints.
“I thought we were done and that we would be the new, fastest world record, only to find out that there were more clues to solve,” Yuen recalls.
“I started to have internal doubts … We still had clues left to solve, and I felt we didn’t have enough time to solve them.”
But he got back to work, trying to solve a particularly intimidating code of numbers that seemed to somehow correspond to letters, then following a set of mysterious directions throughout the room, as the rest of the team worked to unlock boxes and pieced together block puzzles as the clock ticked down.
In the end, they cracked the code — with only 20 seconds remaining.
Breakout Waikiki staffers say they love watching the rooms (they’re there to provide clues when needed) — especially when teams uncover the “wow moments” of the game. But for Greenlee, what he really loves is the moment after.
“What really attracted me to this business is what happens right after you get out of the room, when people are talking about it,” Greenlee explains. “Rather than that one line that was really funny, or the cool special effects in the movie or anything like that, they are talking about when you found that code.
“It is just such a great shared experience that they can talk about, and it brings them together as one group,” he says. “It is such a bonding experience.”
That, the Breakout crew feels, taps into something larger, something perhaps more primal. (It’s not surprising that the minds behind these elaborate codes also have heady philosophical reasonings at the root of their business.) An experience like this, they say, is one of true connectivity, where everyone contributes, and where it can illuminate a little bit about the people you go in with.
“There are few things more important in life than feeling known — I don’t believe anybody really likes to be detached,” Henrich says. But in today’s society, he feels, “the way that we interact with our peers, our family, friends, coworkers, there is this distancing that is happening, and it pushes people further and further away.”
In these rooms, Henrich hopes people will find “a new way to interact with each other, and really another way to put down your cell phone and engage with other humans on a person-to-person level.
“It brings you together, it’s fun, it’s something to talk about,” Henrich continues. “And at the end of the day, it kind of taps into that idea of feeling known.”
For more information on Breakout Waikiki, call 926-1418 or visit breakoutwaikiki.com.