The Art of Confounding People
Trapped in a room with her husband and some friends, clock ticking away, Hanna Pierce worked frantically to solve the puzzle preventing their escape. When she first heard about this place, the idea of being trapped in an enclosed room with nothing but her friends and her wits was scary and foreign, but now her heart raced with excitement and adrenaline.
Precious time slipped by, and before they knew it the timer struck zero.
Pierce didn’t make it through her first escape room, but when her group of companions was still talking about the experience hours later, she knew there was something to them. She was determined to bring the concept back to Durango. Today, she owns and operates Conundrum Escape Rooms with her husband, Chris.
Growing up, Pierce always had an entrepreneurial spirit about her.
“I always had a gazillion lemonade stands and a girlfriend of mine and I, when we were 12 years old, started a dog walking business,” Pierce said. “I like to keep myself busy and I like to find things I enjoy doing … I wanted to be an artist, I wanted to be an interior designer and I wanted to be a teacher.”
The desire to teach eventually brought her from Crested Butte to Durango, seeking a degree in elementary education from Fort Lewis College.
“When I was looking at colleges I really wanted to go to UCCS and then I learned that half of my classmates were going to UCCS so I decided to figure out which college everybody wasn’t going to and went to that one,” she said. “Mostly just for change of pace, change of people.”
Spellbound by the town and the campus’s beauty, Pierce moved down to Durango and began her journey through higher education. Along the way, it became a home for her.
“I met my husband my second year at The Fort and there really has been no doubt in my mind about staying in Durango,” she said. “This is where [the best friends] I’ve ever had are and I feel so connected to the town.”
Completing her degree in Spring 2015 and on the cusp of student teaching in the school district, she had a revelation about her future.
“I wasn’t really excited about where the job market and opportunities were going for the future,” Pierce said.
So instead of following her dream of teaching, she made the segway into a job as an assistant to the children’s librarian at the Durango Public Library.
In October 2015, while visiting friends in Boulder, her aspirations took another turn. The friends she and her husband were visiting began talking about a so-called puzzle room and wanted to give it a try.
“ … The way it was being described to Chris and I by Ryan, our friend, it sounded like a nightmare; something I absolutely wouldn’t want to partake in,” she recalled. “He kind of made it sound like a padded jail cell with a jigsaw puzzle, and if you didn’t solve the puzzle in an hour they would never let you go.”
Despite her apprehension, they decided to give it a shot and found themselves at Enigma Escape Room on Pearl Street. When they arrived, their phones were taken away before they got sealed up with only their wits to help them escape.
They collectively worked together to try and solve various puzzles and riddles, each leading them a bit closer to the key that would set them free. With only an hour to beat the room, it became a race against the clock.
“We didn’t escape, we got about 98 percent of the way through the game, but we left the experience so impressed by the interactions we had had with our friends,” she said.
While they may have left defeated, Pierce, her husband and their friends found themselves talking about the experience hours later.
That’s when the wheels started turning.
“I very quickly realized that it not only was a business that really intrigued me but also was a business that could do really well, especially in a town like Durango that is so adventure focused,” Pierce said.
With its hunger for adventure, Durango has ample opportunity to play, explore and challenge oneself outdoors. But Pierce felt the town needed an outlet to feed that hunger in the evenings, especially downtown.
“We have an insanely wonderful tourist industry, but it’s really challenging for them to find something to do after 5 o’clock that’s not ‘go to the bar and have a drink’. And for a lot of families that’s not a great option, so that was when I recognized that for night adventure, which we’re always busy at night, this was an awesome opportunity,” she said.
There’s also ample evidence that the people of Durango enjoy being challenged intellectually, based on the number of pub trivia nights available, Pierce said.
With these three considerations in mind, she got to work. Conundrum Escape Rooms opened on June 10, 2016, with its Sherlock Holmes themed escape room, but not without months of research and planning.
Knowing the importance of location, they were able to secure a spot at 736 Main Ave, Suite 100. The downstairs location, complete with grungy brickwork and an open floor plan, was perfect for their business.
It’s important to note, neither Pierce nor her husband had an education or previous background in opening or running a business. Approaching the city and asking for permission to open their business was a major hurdle along the way.
“Everybody definitely gave us this look of ‘I’m sorry, you’re doing what? This sounds crazy’”, Pierce said.
Despite the initial skepticism, Pierce was able to win them over.
“They wanted to support what we were trying to do because it was different; it was unique; it wasn’t something that the town has seen yet,” she said. “So a lot of people, even though they were kinda confused about what it was, were really willing to give us the support and the materials and direct us to who we needed to go talk to next.”
One of the people they needed to talk to was Durango Fire Protection District Fire Marshal Karola Hanks, especially after an Animas High School escape room project ran into fire code issues.
“A huge philosophy for us, opening, was that we were going to be completely transparent and straightforward with everything we wanted to do, specifically with the fire department because we knew that that was going to be a big challenge for us,” she said. “So we started communicating and meeting with Karola Hanks really early on in the process.”
Pierce credits Hanks with helping Conundrum reach its level of success. Hanks helped conduct research about what other municipalities had done with regulations and, as proves true in many cases, limitation and constraint breed creativity.
“One of the big rules that she very much stuck to … is we’re not allowed to ever lock the doors, where most escape rooms do have doors that are locked,” Pierce said. “So, figuring out how we can make games that aren’t ever locked is a little bit challenging, just because opening the door is the super exciting moment.”
With Hanks' help, though, Conundrum has innovated upon the escape room experience to help address that rule by “coming up with unique ways [to end the escape room] instead of a key to open a door, which in retrospect I think has been an awesome force.”
“It’s one of those things you figure out: how can I still make this really exciting and give the customer the feeling of ‘I’m successful; we did it; that was amazing’ and not just have them find a key that lets them exit out of a room."
Pierce often gets positive feedback from escape room veterans because Conundrum offers something different than the typical lock-and-key storyline.
She does concede, however, that there are definitely times they wish they could lock the door to add to the experience.
On June 1, after three months of designing, building and testing their friends in their first escape room at Conundrum, they got their first phone call--a group of six to reserve their escape room experience for opening day.
“I was shaking so bad and I hung up the phone and I looked at [Chris] and was like ‘we just got our first reservation for a group of six people’ … I’ve been skydiving and I don’t think skydiving, adrenaline-wise, compares to the feeling,” she said.
Since then, Pierce says business has grown substantially. During their first summer, Conundrum saw largely tourist traffic through the business, but after setting up a pop-up escape room (a portable, bite-sized, escape room experience) at Durango’s Oktoberfest celebration and, later, the What a Girl Wants Expo, that flipped.
“We went to Oktoberfest with our pirate-themed [pop-up] room and that was kind of a pivotal moment for us with the local community and being able to reach the people who live in Durango a lot better,” she said.
Overnight, things seemed to switch. When Pierce and her husband went out for a drink or dinner, they would mention that they owned the escape room and suddenly be met with enthusiasm and recognition rather than the blank stares they’d been accustomed to.
Working at Conundrum sounds like an entertaining experience. The game masters, as they’re called, help oversee the progress of groups by watching them through cameras placed throughout the escape rooms. An unofficial part of each team, game masters provide up to three clues, as needed, to groups stumbling through the clues and puzzles.
This provides some interesting interactions and intriguing insight into group dynamics and problem-solving.
“My favorite are groups of 13-, 14-, 15-year-old teenage boys because they come in extremely, extremely confident … Within the first 15 minutes, they’ve used all of their clues and they’re begging us for more,” Pierce said.
“I love that, just because they’re so funny and they’re so sweet and they come up with the most clever ways of saying ‘we know we used all of our clues but …
Another favorite of Pierce’s are family groups that include every generation, grandchild to grandparent.
“It’s usually grandpa or dad that, when they get here, they’re like ‘I don’t know what I’m getting into; I don’t want to do this; this doesn’t sound fun’ . . . Within the first half hour of the game they’re the person that’s the most into it,” she said.
There’s something about solving a mystery, unaided and undistracted by technology, that seems to bring people together.
“When they leave we almost always get the feedback of ‘I’ve never had that kind of experience with my whole family where we’ve all been so engaged and having so much fun and it was enjoyable for all age ranges’,” Pierce said. “So that’s really important to us.”
“So I think for me, one of the greatest pleasures I get from it is seeing people separate from screens and just interact as a group. Growing up in a really small town I kind of miss that there are no screens, there’s no television, there’s no--maybe some music--but you’re talking to people, you’re with people, you’re working together,” Pierce said.
Back around New Years, after Conundrum had been open for a few months, Pierce was talking to her mom about the business’s success. Her mother responded, pointing out how the job lets her be that artist, interior designer and even teacher that she’d wanted to be since she was a little girl.
“So it really encompasses all of the things I wanted to do into one area, which is perfect. It really is my dream job and I just went out and made it for myself.”
Conundrum Escape Rooms
You can find Conundrum Escape Rooms behind Durango Coffee Company and next to Grassburger, just off of Main Ave.