By Emilee Wentland
They lock you in and don’t tell you how to get out.
Typically, this is all participants know about escape rooms prior to visiting Escape EC, Eau Claire’s newest escape room co-owned by Jack Trautlein.
“This is most of the people’s first escape room,” Trautlein said. “So we’d like to make it a positive experience (for them).”
Trautlein opened Escape EC in August with his fiancee, Jessica Stickler. Escape rooms are life-size puzzle rooms where participants find clues and solve puzzles to “escape.” The trend began in Japan before it migrated to Europe and eventually became popular in the United States, according to National Public Radio.
When participants book their time slot online, they’re able to choose which room theme they’d like to do as well as how many people in are in the group.
Before they begin, Trautlein reads an introduction to the group to set up a story line and give explanation to what the participants will be doing.
Then the participants go into the room where they search underneath, on top of and sometimes inside objects to find clues and puzzles. From there, they solve clues to figure out how to escape within the time limit.
The process requires a lot of thought. At first a lot of the clues don’t seem to have a connection. However, once group members work together to figure out what everything means, they’re rewarded by “escaping” the room.
University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire student Kimberly Theisen has experienced an escape room before in Czech Republic and was excited to participate in one closer to home.
“I enjoyed it a lot,” Theisen said. “It was super fun to do it again because I liked to figure out the puzzles and work with other people to figure out the solution to a problem.”
Trautlein and Stickler designed, decorated and came up with a story line for “The Professor,” the first room they created for Escape EC. The theme, although original, was roughly based on Indiana Jones, Trautlein said, and the room has decorations and clues based on adventure and treasure hunting.
The newest room at Escape EC, “The Witness,” is cabin-themed. The walls are covered in recycled wood that Trautlein and Stickler stained. He also found a way to put lights in between the real walls and the “cabin” walls, so the participants are given the illusion they’re in a cabin outside rather than in a building on Westgate Road.
Trautlein says he’s considering eliminating the time limit for participants, because the deadline proves to be difficult for some people and they’re unable to escape in time. Since Escape EC is often the participants’ first escape room, failing to escape the room may discourage people from participating in other ones in the future, Trautlein said. His goal is to not only inform people about escape rooms, but encourage them to participate in others later.
For Trautlein, the most rewarding part of running an escape room is seeing the groups have fun while they’re participating. There’s a camera installed in the room so he can watch the groups solve the puzzle and give them hints if necessary.
When Stickler met Trautlein, he didn’t seem like someone who would start his own business, she said, but after he began his current job at JAMF Software, he became more business-oriented.
“He just has really fun, unique ideas,” Stickler said. “So it’s been fun to watch him throughout the process (of opening Escape EC).”
Trautlein has experienced many escape rooms in the past and his favorite was a cabin-themed room he did in Duluth, Minnesota. He said the room made him think and getting out was a challenge because nothing was exactly what he expected.
Currently, Trautlein has a partnership with an anonymous donor to benefit a local charity. For each ticket sold at Escape EC, Trautlein will donate $5 and the donor will contribute $10 for a total of $15 donated per ticket. The donations will go to Family Promise, a homeless shelter in Eau Claire. So far Escape EC has raised over $300 for the shelter.
Trautlein said he wanted to work with charities around Eau Claire through Escape EC and decided to do it sooner rather than later.
“Instead of making all of our initial investment back right away, we decided we didn’t need to be a certain size to (work with charities),” Trautlein said.
Trautlein said he hopes he will be able to work with many other local charities and continue to provide a fun, unique experience for participants as Escape EC grows as a business.