Spokane Journal of Business

Claustropanic: A New Escape


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-—Treva Lind
A not-really-dead Bruce Burns and his wife, Jeannine, show off one of the features in Claustropanic, their new escape-adventure business.
-—Treva Lind
Claustropanic co-owner Jeannine Burns says the couple decided to invest in detailed props and decorations, such as the ones shown above, instead of hiring actors.

Game lovers find secrets behind three doors at Claustropanic in Spokane. 

Visitors could bump into padded walls or see a murder victim’s chalk outline as they seek to escape from a locked room that holds up to eight people. Groups must decipher codes, discover clues, and solve puzzles to find a way out in a 60-minute, beat-the-clock challenge. 

Claustropanic owners Bruce and Jeannine Burns, husband and wife, opened the new business Aug. 21 in a leased 2,600-square-foot building at 1325 E. Francis. Customers can choose an escape scenario from among one of three themed rooms: a crime scene, an insane asylum, and a kidnap situation room. 

“It’s almost like a live video game, and you’re the character,” says Bruce Burns, 44. “I think people like finding clues to be able to solve a puzzle.”

Adds Jeannine Burns, 42, “Nobody has freaked out, or wanted to quit or walk out the door. They’re all having a great time.”

Nearly 100 customers booked a session at $20 per person during the first two weekends. Claustropanic stays open Friday nights and during weekend hours, but the Burns will schedule by-appointment sessions on other days. Individual participants are told they may be placed with others in a group to fill a room.

Such escape room entertainment has grown in popularity worldwide and more recently in the U.S. Locally, a similar business, Escape Spokane, opened in July at 7456 N. Division. That venue offers live actors and a prison escape scenario. 

Bruce Burns first heard about escape room entertainment being popular in Japan. Earlier this year, he read an Internet article on the concept. 

“I did some research and thought, this would be good for Spokane,” he says. 

Participants who go through the escape rooms have fun, but Burns also sees people working hard to win. 

“You see the competitiveness among the teams and family members,” he says. “Everyone knows there’s a way out. There are those who want to have the best time to get out of a room. Everyone wants to be the first one, or the best ones, to do it.”

As of Aug. 30, a group hadn’t won a coveted escape before time ran out at Claustropanic. 

“It’s doable in an hour, but no one has escaped out of a room yet; they’ve come close,” Burns says. “We’ve had groups that are a minute to two minutes off.”

Common mistakes include not counting correctly on a puzzle and simply second-guessing themselves.

He adds, “They can come back. If we see that folks are really getting stuck in a certain area, we’ll give them a clue.” 

Claustropanic doesn’t hire cast members as part of staging its rooms, Jeannine Burns says, adding that the couple opted to invest in detailed room decorations and props. For example, a full-body straight jacket is staged across a bed in the asylum.

“It’s just a prop; we don’t put anyone in that,” she adds. Other psych ward visual effects include eerie blinking lights and a warped clock hanging on the wall.

Her husband renovated the interior and did all the design work, mainly at night, for two months prior to the opening.

“He’s done such good detail in each room that it’s really a shock-and-awe experience for people,” says Jeannine. “We have surveillance, so we can see their reactions.” 

She also is a real estate agent with Kelly Right Real Estate, formerly Soleil. Her husband is a maintenance supervisor for the Rockwood Retirement Communities South Hill campus, where he’s worked for 20 years. He also owns a business called A Backflow Guy, which tests backflow devices for water districts.

The couple’s son and daughter sometimes help out, but the owners are the only two Claustropanic employees. If business picks up substantially, they say they might hire up to two employees.

Claustropanic also is available to businesses that would like to book escape rooms for team-building among co-workers, the owners say. 

“It does promote teamwork in that you see people talking back and forth across the room with the different clues,” Bruce says. “Some people listen, and some people don’t. It’s amazing to watch a group of people and their minds all thinking differently trying to come up with solutions.”

He adds, “When you have eight brains in there, it’s fun to watch. Someone is saying the right number, and no one is listening. It was the right number, but the person after saying it three times will think, ‘OK, it must not be the right number.’”

Claustropanic requires that players leave cell         phones and other devices in locked storage during games. Although a room is locked, someone can choose to leave from an alternate exit if a safety issue arises, but that removes an individual from continuing in a game.

The owners say families enjoy booking the crime scene room, which is the most family-friendly scenario and offers more than 15 puzzles to solve. 

“It’s something families can do together as opposed to laser tag or roller skating,” Jeannine says. “It gets your mind thinking. Parents like that it gets you off a device and it gets you more active, as opposed to sitting in front of a computer or with an app on their smartphones.”  

Her husband adds that people often are tempted to go online to find clues for those device-carried games. “Here, we want you to try to figure it out. We want you to enjoy the experience of your own live game,” he says.

The business requires that children under age 16 be accompanied by an adult who pays the entry fee, and all players sign a waiver. Bruce adds that children under 12 might find the puzzles too demanding, although a girl about that age recently solved a word puzzle clue that the rest of the family wasn’t able to figure out.

The Burnses admit that some people are tentative at first about the kidnap and asylum rooms, but they say customers end up enjoying those areas once they enter and get lost in the game. The players are led into each room and told a scenario of what is happening.

Jeannine says she and her husband always ask if visitors have ever been to an escape room before. 

“Ninety-nine percent say no,” she says. “We explain to them what to expect. We give them a scenario in that room, and each room has a timer they can see that counts down. We’ll slide a note under the door if they get really stuck.”  

Although players in the kidnap situation are blindfolded and bound by real handcuffs, people discard those challenges fairly quickly, the Burnses say.

“People take off the blindfolds right away and say, ‘OK,’” Bruce says. “They kind of forget reality. They’re in the moment and trying to solve the puzzles to figure it out.”

The owners also have the venue designed for customer fun before and after sessions. A waiting area near the entrance has dart board and toss games. Afterward, people can line up for photos in festive hats and with props in front of a Claustropanic sign.  

The business gets most of its business from word-of-mouth referrals and social media.

“People go to work and talk about it,” Jeannine says, “so after the first weekend, we received multiple bookings on our website.”

Treva Lind
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