Will and Kim Rutherford did not originally set out to open Escape Artist Greenville. Their shared love of the creative and theatrical was more of a hobby that quietly began taking over most of their free time, and when they realized that their respective backgrounds had set them up for success in creating a top-notch escape room experience, they gave it a shot.
Constructing a haunted house within their home sparked an initial interest in escape rooms, Will says. “We did this crazy haunted house for like 10 years through our house and garage, and we spent three months setting this stuff up; we even had 12 actors. People suggested we should charge for it. But then we’d have to tear it down on Nov. 1, which was a real bummer.”
As an offshoot of their original haunted house idea, the pair began exploring the possibility of opening an escape room. Will’s background in engineering paired with Kim’s past experience in design work was the perfect storm to create Escape Artist Greenville.
Will defines an escape room as “an interactive adventure you get to play with your friends and family. The success is determined on how well you do. You’re going to unlock secret codes, compartments, and doors, and you’re going to have to work together to meet a certain objective.” He adds that the two prefer to call their experience “escape adventures” because of the multi-room aspect of the challenges.
“Where else can you get your team together working on something for an hour that is fun, that you can either accomplish or not and then learn lessons from that? It’s hard to find anywhere else.”
The success of Escape Artist Greenville led the Rutherfords to seek expansion, and they have now relocated to a building at 209 E. Stone Ave., which is five times the size of their previous space. The building has the capacity for five or six escape adventures, with three — Dr. Fratelli’s Cabin, The Fallout, and The Inventor’s Enigma — currently up and running.
“Just like anything creative, you get on a roll and then you get stuck on something that’s just not working,” Will says of the process involved in creating the rooms. “It takes months and starts with a simple, fun idea, like The Fallout, and having the two teams duel, and then we bounce ideas off each other to create certain emotions, like pure competition or adventure and mystery.”
Every room has a variety of different puzzles, and they are built into the most ordinary aspects of the room. “There is nothing readily apparent until you start moving things around and exploring the room,” Will says. Each puzzle type encourages different kinds of interaction between players. Some are communication puzzles, encouraging verbal collaboration; some are physical puzzles; and others are a mix of both.
“The most challenging aspect is that we have hundreds, even thousands of people coming through here, and people come up with the craziest ways to solve a puzzle. You can’t prepare for that,” Will says. “This is why the testing phase is really important to see how different people solve the problems.”
For Will and Kim, the most exciting aspect of the expansion is the potential to add themed rooms that are unlike their current offerings. “Our most commonly asked question is, ‘Are they scary?’” Will says. “And the answer is no, not at all. But eventually we hope to add a horror room, since we have a background in that, and also a room that is pure comedy, like escaping your aunt’s boring dinner party.”
In addition to the entertainment they provide for groups of friends and families, Will and Kim have discovered that Escape Artist Greenville draws a surprising amount of attention from businesses.
“Escape rooms are a huge draw for corporate meetings. It is excellent for all kinds of corporate groups who are looking for something that is fun and away from work, that can still be branded as team building,” Will says. “Where else can you get your team together working on something for an hour that is fun, that you can either accomplish or not and then learn lessons from that? It’s hard to find anywhere else.”
Escape adventures, while being disguised as a fun activity, tap into communication and teamwork skills. “You will learn a lot about the people you work with,” Will says.
Branding Escape Artist Greenville as a unique instrument for corporate team building has been a key part of the Rutherfords’ success, and later this year, they plan to open an event and meeting room to continue to draw local businesses. “It will be for birthday parties or anything like that, but also many corporate groups want to meet after they do a room and discuss some of the things they learned, and this will be a great opportunity for them to do this,” Will says.