BOARDMAN, Ohio — You can learn a lot about a person in an escape room.
Reasoning, memory, teamwork and thinking outside the box are just some of the qualities that are put to the test. Escape Boardman Hotel, at the Southern Park Mall, is the Mahoning Valley’s newest escape room. It opened in January and complements the original Escape Boardman on Glenwood Avenue.
In addition to being a fun way for companies, sports teams and other groups to build unity, the escape room has an uncanny ability to reveal people’s strengths and specialties.
Teams of eight or so are locked into a specific room and tasked with finding and interpreting clues to get out within an hour. Closed-circuit cameras are used to monitor the progress and guide the players if necessary.
“You get to see the working dynamic,” says Jeff Humphrey, one of the owner-operators of Escape Boardman Hotel.
“A lot of times a group comes in with specific bosses and a normal hierarchy but in a room that is relaxed and fun, you see how the dynamics work,” he says. “We’ve seen kids come in and take over the room from their parents because they are better at it.”
Humphrey, who is in the security industry, handles cameras and monitors from the control room.
Escape Boardman Hotel has a realism similar to a high-end Halloween attraction or even a movie set. It has a haunted house décor, designed by Nancy Smith, one of the owner-operators. She is an accountant, but has a passion for decorating.
To Smith, communication and intuition, are the keys to escape.
“A lot of it is built to where people are separated, so you have to have good communication skills,” she says. “There might be clues in this room to help those in another room get out. We get people to test themselves. You could have someone with a master’s degree who thinks he is as smart as can be, but you have to think outside the box. Some people shine.”
Escape Boardman Hotel has two suites ready, with two more on the way. In “Asylum,” four to eight players must find the antidote and free a family member from an evil doctor who plans to conduct experiments.
“Suite 1408” offers eight virtual reality team journeys that range from a haunted house to a jungle quest to helping Santa save Christmas.
Under construction are a suite focused on the doll in the horror film “Annabelle” – which promises to be the scariest – and another on emergency responders.
Each member of the Escape Boardman team brings a specialty from his occupation. Don Hepler handles marketing and sales, Ivan Bosnjak, computer and electronic technology, and Joe Terlecky, engineering and carpentry. The group got started three years ago when they opened the company’s original location at 7253 Glenwood Ave.
But the genesis of the business goes back even further to the extravagant Halloween parties the group became known for that were centered around scary costumes, props and rooms.
Turning their hobby into a business was a natural next step. And in the three years since Escape Boardman opened, it has outgrown its space.
Hepler says the operators of the Southern Park Mall approached the company because it’s the type of entertainment venue that fits the direction in which the retail mecca is moving.
They hesitated at first because they wanted a space with an external entrance so it could remain open when the mall is closed. When the former Armed Services recruitment center on the east side of the mall became vacant, the team jumped at it.
The new escape room is well-suited to businesses; it offers private appointments and even has a conference room for post-game discussions. About 40% of Escape Boardman Hotel clientele is business-related, Smith says.
The group excels at coming up with ideas and bringing them to fruition. But it also attends industry conventions to find out what is new and available.
A typical visit to Escape Boardman Hotel begins with the group of players watching an introductory video. The players are then broken up into smaller groups and led to their room.
“We pick the teams usually,” says Humphrey. “We find out who has experience with escape rooms and separate them. We separate families and couples, too, so they are forced to work with others.”
John Fryda, vice president of purchasing for Compco Industries in Salem, has taken his employees to Escape Boardman Hotel. He says it gets people to work together in a way that is fun and challenging.
“You need each other to complete the tasks,” Fryda says. “It’s set up so that one person cannot handle it by himself. You have to trust the people you work with, the same as you depend on each other every day in the workplace.”
Unlocking clues isn’t easy, he says.
“You think you’re going to get it done in a few minutes but each person has to find something, and then you have to figure out what to do next. It’s communication-oriented.”
After their most recent visit, the members of Fryda’s group went to dinner and discussed their experience. “We talked about what we could have done to find the clues faster, like, ‘If this person would have instead done this or that [at a particular time],’ and also about how we missed clues.”
Fryda says the team members have to be thinking alone and as a group if they want to get out.
“You need different types of people with different strengths, and you find out once you’re in there,” he says.
Donny Riccitelli, Boardman High School girls basketball coach, regularly brings his teams to Escape Boardman and Escape Boardman Hotel.
“If you take a look at a team, they all need to know their role,” Riccitelli says. “In an escape room, you have to understand that there are many different parts. Each team member has a specific skill set and they fulfill their role. And when you do that, it translates onto the basketball court.”
The visits also break the monotony of practice.
“We meet up afterward and talk about the things we missed, like in some of the riddles,” he says. “The answer could be right under your nose.”
Pictured: Nancy Smith, an accountant by day, displays her passion for decorating in the Asylum room at Escape Boardman Hotel.