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Exit Strategy

Lise Lawrence

Lise Lawrence, in the study where a professor has disappeared — and visitors must learn why.

Escape Games have been growing in popularity across the U.S., but the Pioneer Valley lacked such an attraction until siblings Lise Lawrence and Tom Dahl opened Puzzled Escape Games at Eastworks in 2016. Since then, they’ve offered several levels of challenge to friends, families, and even companies that take advantage of the activity as a team-building experience. And an experience it is — one that can be as tense and unnerving as it is entertaining.

Picture this: you’re on vacation in Mexico, you visit a tequila distillery, drink too much questionable tequila, pass out, and wake up chained to the wall in a Mexican drug lord’s basement. Now, you have to figure out how to get out in just one hour, before he comes back.

That may sound awful, but plenty of people are happily signing up for the experience — well, minus the tequila.

Indeed, that story is the setup of “Escape from Escobar’s,” one of three escape-room experiences at Puzzled Escape Games, which recently celebrated its two-year anniversary at Eastworks in Easthampton.

Lise Lawrence, who launched and manages the attraction along with her brother, Tom Dahl, recently gave BusinessWest a glimse of what visitors experience on a daily basis, showing how a group of individuals are handcuffed to the wall in a dungeon set, and can’t reach each other — but each has a different perspective on the rest of the room, and they must work together to figure out how to free themselves, first from their shackles and then from the chamber itself.

“You have to communicate,” she said. “People in the front of the cell can see things the people in the back can’t.”

Lawrence, who has a background in film, and Dahl, an actor and screenwriter, established the first escape room in Western Mass. with the goal of building something different than the typical model of ‘find the clues, escape the room’ — even though there’s plenty of that.

“All these places are fun, but what we really pride ourselves on is storylines and set decoration and experience,” she said. “We want to create that real experience, where the only ones who can get you out are you and your team. If you’re alone, you can’t get out of your handcuffs; you need the other people.”

Of course, a game that starts with the claustrophobic tension of a dungeon and handcuffs might not appeal to everyone, which is why Puzzled offers two other experiences: “Find the Professor of the Occult,” and “The Lost Wand,” which appeals to the younger set.

In the former, players enter a large study lined with bookshelves, a desk, and several other items. “The professor’s gone missing, and his housekeeper heard a loud thunder noise, and she went in to investigate, and he was gone,” Lawrence said. “So you’re a paranormal investigator, and you have to figure out what happened to the missing professor.”

In each case, the scenario is introduced by a ‘game master’ who becomes part of the story before leaving the players to their own devices. “That’s another thing that sets us apart from other escape games, where it’s like, ‘OK, go in there and figure it out.’ The moment you walk in the door, you’re aleady engaged with us.”

In its two-plus years of operation, Puzzled Escape Games has engaged a steady flow of participants looking for a different type of activity. For this issue’s focus on sports and leisure, BusinessWest talks to Lawrence about why it’s fun for people to exercise their brains in this way — and why they keep coming back, only to be trapped again.

No Simple Escape

Anyone who thinks these games are easy can think again, Lawrence said — about 20% of teams manage to escape Escobar’s dungeon within the hour allotted, and about 30% figure out what happened to the professor and make their way out of his study. For the rest, well, answers are given to those who want them, while others choose to come back and try again.

“Surprisingly, people usually aren’t disappointed,” she said. “They’re like, ‘oh man, how far did we get?’ You can come back for half price if you want to play the same room again. Or we show you the rest of the tricks.”

Chalkboards outside each game celebrate

Chalkboards outside each game celebrate the teams who completed the challenge the fastest.

Dahl and a screenwriting friend based in Toronto — he and his wife are also partners at Puzzled — came up with the idea of launching an escape room after visiting several and realizing Western Mass. didn’t have such an attraction.

“They said, ‘we can create an experience without cell phones. We can have people work together and have fun using different parts of their brain,’” Lawrence recalled. “They noticed the biggest thing, when you go to other escape games, is that it’s not heavy on storyline. A lot of times, there’s not a lot of intro. We thought, ‘how could we make it a fully immersive experience?’

“That’s why, when you walk through the door, you’re immediately part of the adventure,” she went on. “The game masters are acting with you. As you’re asking, ‘oh, what does this open?’ and finding clues the puzzle, you’re also learning about what happened to the professor. Why did he disappear in the first place? You’re building the storyline. We have set designers on staff, so we’ve created a theater set, so you feel even more immersed in the experience.”

“The Lost Wand,” which opened in December, caters more to kids with its wizarding-school theme (shades of Harry Potter), but mostly draws adults, just like the other two games. It’s also easier than the other two, with a roughly 80% success rate; when kids play, certain puzzles can be switched out for easier ones, and the pass rate jumps to 100%. A wizard-themed party room adjoining the puzzle room hosts theme birthday parties and other events.

Yet, kids do surprisingly well in the other games as well, Lawrence said, especially “Find the Professor.”

“Funny enough, they do amazing in that room because it’s so academic,” Lawrence said. “I was hosting a group of 12- and 13-year-olds, six of them, and they got out. Kids that age might look for things we might not even think about.”

Still, kids dig “The Lost Wand” for the appeal of sitting in a Potteresque classroom, which sits just beyond a lobby filled with board games, tables, and quirky décor — and that’s part of the experience, too.

“It starts with our lobby. The doors are open, and sometimes people come in just to hang out and play board games,” she explained. “We have our wizarding music playing in the background, we have our fun lights, and this is a great place for people to ramp up and get ready for their game.

“Then,” she added, “the game master comes out and does the intro: ‘this is the Massachusetts Academy of Magic.’ Then the door opens, they enter, and their game experience begins.”

In all three games, teams may ask for up to three clues during the hour when they get stuck. “You agree together you’d like a clue, and you press the doorbell. Monitors are watching through cameras, so we have eyes and ears on you, and we give you the best clue possible.”

The lobby outside “The Lost Wand”

The lobby outside “The Lost Wand” is packed with games to pass the time while waiting for the main event.

Everyone gets one extra tip in “Find the Professor,” however — the hundreds of gold-colored books lining the long wall of shelves aren’t clues at all, and the game master says as much, to avoid having teams waste time on them.

“We tell people these gold books are just set decorations, and you don’t have to look in them or behind them,” Lawrence said. “Some people are like, ‘no, they lied to us.’ But we just don’t want to waste your time. Trust us, focus on other things around the room.”

You’re in the Picture

Lawrence draws on her experience creating film festivals to craft a much more interactive type of experience at Puzzled, while most of the staff have backgrounds in graphic design, painting, set design, and the like. The window in the “Lost Wand” classroom is a colorful, painted dragon’s head, and it’s illuminated at night, so visitors see it from outside Eastworks.

It’s not just families and groups of friends who take part in the games; companies have visited as team-building exercises, which is an especially good use of “Escape from Escobar’s,” with teamwork absolutely necessary to escape those initial handcuffs. “We really push to get groups and companies that want to have a fun activity that also enhances team building and communication. This is a great room for that.”

As for other visitors, they appreciate a different experience from the usual night out, even though not everyone is sold right away.

“A lot of times, there’s one person that’s dragged in, saying, ‘I would never choose to do this on a night out.’ Those are my favorite customers because they soon realize it’s not what they think. I was one of those. It took me two years before I did one because I didn’t want to get locked in a room; I didn’t want to feel stupid.

“But one moment can change all that,” she went on. “If they’re the one that finds the first clue, all of a sudden they’re part of that team. Now they’re the ones that get excited, like ‘wow, I had no idea that was going to happen.’ Most people walk out happy. This isn’t for everybody, but it’s for most.”

Because two of the games require at least four players, sometimes strangers are tossed together, depending on who shows up and when. “Those groups usually have the highest escape rate because there’s different minds in there all working together,” Lawrence said.

It’s fun to make progress on the puzzles, she added, even if the end result isn’t a timely escape — and, hopefully, it’s fun mixed with actual thrills. “In Escobar’s, people start thinking, ‘what if I really went on vacation and this happened?’ It’s freaky. People sweat because it gets intense.”

What she hasn’t sweated is launching a startup with Dahl, even after both had heard it’s not a good idea to be, well, handcuffed to one’s sibling in a business venture. But they’re close and get along well, she said.

“We both went to the performing-arts high school in Hadley, so we’re local, and it’s nice to create something artistic and bring something back to our community,” she told BusinessWest. “That’s literally the basis — how can we provide a fun, immersive experience for people? It’s a lot of work, but it’s rewarding. That’s why we do it.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Sports & Leisure

Upwardly Mobile

By Kayla Ebner

Hana Skirkey says rock climbers are drawn to the sport

Hana Skirkey says rock climbers are drawn to the sport for both the physical challenge and the welcoming community.
Photos by Kayla Ebner

Hana Skirkey says that, increasingly, individuals young and old are looking for outlets that are both mentally and physically challenging — a tough combination to come by.

Perhaps that difficult search for such an activity is why more people are turning to indoor rock climbing as either a fun activity or a competitive sport. It could also be because climbing offers individuals an opportunity to see some incredible places around the world. Or maybe, it’s because of the truly welcoming people that belong to the climbing community.

Skirkey, general manager of Central Rock Gym in Hadley, believes the the answer is, well, all of the above.

“Indoor climbing is great because you can do it in any type of weather, and the community here is amazing,” said Skirkey, who told BusinessWest that the Hadley location is ideally situated in many respects.

For starters, it’s within a few hours — or even a few minutes — of some challenging and thus popular climbing spots. Meanwhile, it’s situated in the middle of the Five College area — and perhaps 40,000 college students, who make up a large percentage of the growing climbing community.

Actually, Hadley is the second location for Central Rock Gym, or CRG, as it’s called. The company was founded by brothers Ed and Joe Hardy, who decided to bring their love for climbing to their hometown of Worcester, and opened their first location there in 2009. Hadley followed just two years later.

Today, there are nine CRG locations spread across Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island, and New York, and four more locations are set to open very soon. According to CRG’s website, a location in Manhattan will be opening this summer; another Bay State location, in Stoneham, will open in September; and two facilities, in Buffalo and Rochester, N.Y. will be debuting in November. In less than a decade, this business has grown from one facility to 13.

This profound growth reflects the steadily rising popularity of rock climbing — again, as both a recreational activity and competitive sport — in Western Mass. and across the country, for that matter.

The no-harness activity known as boulder-ing gives climbers a different type of experience.

The no-harness activity known as boulder-ing gives climbers a different type of experience.

And the Hadley facility is, in essence, a microcosm of this phenomenon, said Skirkey, referencing everything from the wide age disparity of CRG members — they range from 3 to 90 or so — to the way families are embracing the sport as a unit.

For this issue and its focus on sports and recreation, BusinessWest talked with Skirkey at length about rock climbing, CRG and its Hadley facility, and why the climbing community continues its torrid pace of growth.

Scaling Up the Business

Located at 165 Russell St., CRG’s Hadley facility is a short drive from some of the top climbing destinations in this region, including the White Mountains, making it the perfect spot for outdoor adventurers to train and have fun. There are also many local crags in the Western Mass. area, including Chapel Ledge in Ashfield, Mormon Hollow in Wendell State Forest, and the Skinner area in Hadley.

“There’s a lot of outdoor climbing specifically in Western Mass. compared to other parts of the state,” said Skirkey, who has enjoyed climbing for most of her life.

She graduated from UMass Amherst in 2010 and was the president of the UMass Outing Club (UMOC) where she enjoyed “fun — what some people call crazy — activities” with friends who had the same interest and excitement as she did for various outdoor hobbies. UMOC is a UMass Amherst registered student organization that organizes outdoor trips to both local and distant areas, taking part in activities such as hiking, rock climbing, cross-country skiing, and everything in between. Aside from being the president, Skirkey was also a hiking/backpacking and whitewater kayaking leader for UMOC.

Although she never imagined herself being a climbing-gym manager, Skirkey knew she wanted to be somewhere with like-minded individuals who enjoy being active as much as she does. And CRG is the perfect fit.

“It’s not a normal office job,” she said. “Being a part of the community is great here.”

A passion for those ‘crazy’ activities is one of the things Skirkey loves about the outdoor community. Making friends is easy, she explained, when everyone in a community loves to do a specific thing together — in this case, indoor rock climbing.

After graduation, Skirkey heard the gym was opening a location in Hadley, so she applied. She got a job as a desk staff member, and a year later moved on to assistant manager. She continued to climb — literally and figuratively — and eventually became general manager at Central Rock’s Hadley location.

Climbers prepare to scale the high walls at Central Rock Gym.

Climbers prepare to scale the high walls at Central Rock Gym.

As noted earlier, Skirkey is not the only college student drawn to the gym’s facilities. Students from the Five Colleges — UMass Amherst, Smith College, Amherst College, Hampshire College, and Mount Holyoke College — and many more schools in the Western Mass. area visit CRG to climb. Skirkey said she also sees students from Springfield College visiting the facility.

She noted that people who enjoy outdoor climbing come to CRG to train indoors on days and seasons when outdoor climbing is not feasible because the rocks get wet, or it’s just too cold outside.

“We’re between two and three-ish hours from other, bigger destinations, and then we also have a bunch of local crags people can go out to,” she explained.

CRG upgraded its Hadley location in December 2017. The original 12,400-square-foot facility was expanded to 26,000 square feet. This expansion added 8,000 square feet of climbing surface, 200 linear feet of new bouldering walls, and 24 top-rope stations on a new climbing-wall product. An additional 80 parking spaces were also created. The project expanded the fitness room to 2,100 square feet and nearly tripled the size of the yoga room, extending it to 900 square feet.

CRG holds daily fitness and yoga classes, Skirkey explained, adding that the expansion has brought a new level of service to the membership and guests they bring — and helped increase the ranks of both.

“We just felt like we were in this bubble that we needed to help grow,” she said. “People love bringing their friends here; it’s really nice to be able to accommodate that just a little bit better now.”

When planning the expansion, CRG looked at the busiest areas of the gym, as well as what needed to be improved in terms of spacing. Bouldering is a popular climbing activity that needs a quicker turnover rate, said Skirkey. There are several other types of climbing that a person at any skill level can do when visiting CRG.

Ascending Order

Skirkey described CRG as a very welcoming and community-oriented company, and noted that one of the most common things she hears in reviews is how friendly the staff is. No matter what age or skill level, anyone who walks through the doors is welcomed with open arms.

“It’s really easy to get into it and feel welcomed,” said Skirkey. “I don’t think you get that with most gyms.”

This welcoming effect has contributed to the growth of membership and the wide diversity within it, she noted, adding that the gym’s youngest climbing club ranges from ages 3 to 6 years old. Skirkey also noted that families often come in to enjoy climbing together, a much different family activity than most experiences.

Aside from the standard membership, which costs $85 a month, CRG also has a family plan for these families who love climbing together. The membership includes two people who are engaged or married, or two parents and their dependent children, for $125 a month. Those who want to add additional family members can do so for $30 a month.

Skirkey believes that climbing can help family members bond with each other.

“It’s nice for parents, too, because they can do something active with their kids,” she noted. “Especially for young kids, it’s critical to get into something that makes them feel strong. I think that’s really important for development.”

Climbers have two main options at CRG: bouldering and what’s known as top roping. Bouldering is climbing that a person can undertake after a brief orientation given by a staff member. This specific type of climbing is a free climb on a wall about 15 feet tall.

A renovation completed last year added 8,000 square feet of climbing surface

A renovation completed last year added 8,000 square feet of climbing surface to Central Rock Gym’s Hadley facility.

The other climb, top roping, is highly recommended for those who are new to the sport. Here, the climber is tied onto one end of the rope, and a supporting climber, known as a belayer, is connected to the other side, making sure the rope stays tight so the climber does not fall.

In order to start top roping at CRG, climbers must take a one-hour introductory class to learn how to belay properly. If a person is not interested in learning how to belay, they can schedule a staff belay in which the staff member belays while the customer climbs. In order to belay, a climber must be 13 years or older.

The intro belay class is $20 per person but free for members, and typically lasts between an hour and 90 minutes. During this class, the climber will learn knots, the belay process, and safety procedures practiced at CRG. The staff belay costs $30 an hour per climber. Both the intro belay class and the staff belay require reservations and are only offered at certain times during the week.

“I would say that roped climbing is a bit more beginner-friendly than bouldering is,” said Skirkey. “You’ve got a staff person when you do staff belay, and you’ve got a rope to catch you when you fall. The way that bouldering is … the type of movements are usually a bit more power-oriented.”

There are, of course, varying skill levels of climbing, and some people coming in are going to be far more advanced than others. CRG offers many options for beginners to help them adjust and start their climbing journey, and also has state-of-the-art facilities for more advanced climbers. Aside from the intro and staff belay classes, customers can also schedule a private lesson with a staff member to help them learn the ins and outs of climbing one-on-one. In the “Technique 101” class, climbers who are interested in learning some basic tips can sign up to improve their climbing skills.

Members ages 6 to 18 at Central Rock Gym may also form both competitive and non-competitive climbing teams to help gear up for competitions, or just for fun. In the past, CRG has sent several members to the Nationals run by USA Climbing. Skirkey says members have done exceptionally well at these competitions, and have even placed in third and sixth place. This year, the gym has six kids going to Nationals.

CRG offers plenty of options for climbers of different skill levels. The gym also offers day passes and discounted memberships for climbers 22 and under or 65 and older, and active military members.

Another characteristic that helps CRG stand out from other climbing gyms is the cleanliness and openness of the building itself, Skirkey said. Climbers will use chalk on their hands to help their grip as they climb the walls, and things can get dirty quickly.

“We dedicate a lot of our time to cleaning and making sure the facility has clean air to breathe and nice lighting,” she said. “A lot of climbing gyms can feel like dungeons.”

But not Central Rock Gym. Each facility, including the one in Hadley, has large glass windows that let in plenty of natural light, making the experience for climbers even more enjoyable.

She noted that CRG even connects people who do different outdoor activities. Sometimes, people who enjoy mountain biking or hiking will come in wanting to try climbing, and end up expanding their circle of friends. CRG is definitely a place that attracts the outdoorsy type, she added.

Due to the rising popularity, Skirkey recommends making a reservation, especially if a person lives far away from the gym.

Reaching New Heights

Summing up the many rewards offered by climbing, Skirkey said that, for those dedicated to this sport, it’s not all about getting to the top, although that’s a big part of it.

It’s also about the journey. Indeed, figuring out how to make your way to the top, step by step, is the best part, she told BusinessWest.

“I love it because it’s fun to try to figure out how to finish a climb and challenge yourself both mentally and physically,” she added.

From her perspective, those twin challenges go a long way toward explaining the growing popularity of climbing and the upward trajectory of CRG and especially its Hadley location.

And the best part is, they can both go much higher still.