Niles duo brings escape room business to Buchanan, South Bend
Published 1:30 pm Friday, March 1, 2019
Sitting in front of a monitor in a separate room, Niles resident Matt Herm watched as a group of people poured over documents and suspect lists strewn about a table. Two of the group broke away, searching through file cabinets, turning over coffee cups and flipping through newspaper clippings to help the group solve the case at hand.
Seeing the group struggling to find the answers, Herm typed a short message on his computer, which then showed up on a screen inside the other room.
“They just need a little clue,” Herm said, swiveling in his chair to face his cooperator Aaron Smith. “Now they can get a little closer to solving the next puzzle.”
The whole scene seemed like something out of a spy movie, which was by design. The group was working through an escape room themed around the story of a Cold War era spy.
“You really become one with the story,” Smith said, perched on a stool next to Herm. “It’s like a real-life game of Clue or something you would see out of a movie. It brings you into that environment.”
Herm, 29, and Smith, 28, both of Niles, are the business operators of Outsmart Escapes, an escape room business with locations in Buchanan, South Bend and Elkhart. The pair opened their first escape at Tippecanoe Place in South Bend in 2016. At the time, the escape room was one of the first in the Michiana area and one of fewer than 500 in the country. Since then, the industry has boomed with escape rooms popping up everywhere, becoming a favorite activity for people of all ages. Now faced with a successful, but uncertain industry, Smith and Herm said they are working hard to flex both their business muscles and their brains to come up with best puzzles and experiences they can to keep up with demand.
“It’s a new industry, so the learning curve is a lot higher than with other businesses,” Herm said. “But we have been doing well.”
As both Herm and Smith have been involved with the Niles Scream Park, they began researching escape rooms first as a way to add a new attraction to the haunted park, according to Smith. However, once they looked into it, they thought there was a market for escape rooms year-round in the Michiana area. It was a gamble that paid off as all three of the Outsmart Escape locations have achieved success in a relatively short amount of time, they said.
Currently, Outsmart Escapes has six escape rooms at their three locations, each centered around a specific theme. Most recently, the pair opened a Titanic-themed room in South Bend and a jail-themed room in Buchanan.
The objective of an escape room is to solve a series of riddles and puzzles using physical, hidden clues. In the case of the Cold War spy room, clues and puzzles lurk in many places — underneath a coffee cup, behind a two-way mirror or hidden among a stack of papers.
“For the most part, we come up with a theme and develop all of our own [puzzles],” Smith said. “We try to make it as immersive and authentic as possible.”
The immersive, authentic nature of the escape room experience can be attributed to the growth of the escape room industry, according to both Herm and Smith.
“Spending time together is something of a novelty these days because everyone is kind of glued to their phones, and it’s hard to get people in the same room,” Herm said. “People used to have game nights, and this is a way for people do still do that even though no one does those kinds of things anymore. It is bringing back that kind experience for people to spend time together and accomplish something. This is both quality time and fun.”
However, even with all the growth of the industry, Outsmart Escapes’ future is still unknown, as Herm said that the business currently does not plan to expand further than it already has. He and Smith are taking a “wait and see” approach to the escape room industry, as the demand of the industry could change in a moment — from the technology to the puzzles themselves.
“It’s a fresh industry, and its evolving really, really quickly,” Herm said. “The industry is still figuring out what it wants, but I do think people want this immersive experience. I think we have done the right thing there.”
Despite being young business owners in a relatively new field, both Herm and Smith said they are excited for the future of Outsmart Escapes, and they hope Michiana residents will continue to want to solve their puzzles and follow them going forward.
“It’s exhilarating in a way,” Herm said. “Anytime you start something new, it kind of becomes your baby, and you want to see it succeed.”
“In this business, you certainly get to share your creativity with others,” Smith added. “You have a lot of fun, and that’s what we want to encourage for our ‘sleuths,’ as we call them.”
Photography by Sarah Culton