Why escape rooms didn’t last long in Duluth

Solve Entertainment launched Duluth’s first escape room on Nov. 28, 2015 with a game called “Silent Night.” Pictured here is the first team to play. (Photo via Solve Enterntainment’s Facebook page.)

Duluth was right in step with the escape-room trend when it began to boom across the United States eight years ago. The city’s first escape room opened two days after Thanksgiving 2015. By the next summer, a second had opened. Both saw solid booking numbers early on and both made it through the pandemic, but by early 2022 both were out of business.

Though COVID-19 flattened the overall growth in the industry, 2022 was actually a rebound year. A report by Allied Market Research estimates the global escape-room market at $7.9 billion and projects it will reach $31 billion by 2032.

If escape rooms aren’t a passing fad and the pandemic was just an industry hiccup, what killed the trend in Duluth? It turns out both of Duluth’s escape-room businesses were operating out of old buildings that were changing ownership and slated for renovation. The combination of the pandemic interruption on top of the need to relocate is what spelled the end.

Solve Entertainment was first on the Duluth escape-room scene. The business was created by a partnership of Richard Hansen, Andy Bennett and Matthew Wagner. Then came Zero Hour Escape Rooms, founded by Lee Tufte. While both were open, Duluthians had a choice of around five different escape-room scenarios to play at any one time.

Escape rooms are immersive puzzle environments that usually facilitate teamwork and problem solving. Examples of modern escape rooms can be found from the mid 2000s, but they became more popular in 2015, a year that saw a sharp rise in escape-room facilities.

Zero Hour Escape Rooms launched in 2016 with a game called “Prison Break.” (Photo via Zero Hour Escape Rooms’ Facebook page.)

“It was a need that I believed Duluth wanted in their community to diversify from the breweries,” Tufte said. “There really isn’t any entertainment in Duluth for teens or adults.”

Tufte didn’t live in Duluth, so he partnered with resident Justin Pohlman to start Zero Hour. Tufte opened a Plymouth location shortly after.

According to Tufte, the Duluth Zero Hour had four games running concurrently and could host 50 to 60 players at one time. The escape rooms were especially popular for corporate team-building exercises. Tufte recalls baristas, health insurance companies and steel companies all participating.

“In those five years, I surpassed the Duluth lift bridge on TripAdvisor for reviews,” Tufte said. “The iconic Duluth lift bridge. I was definitely a staple for the town I felt like.”

In January 2022 Tufte sent his monthly rent to his landlord but it was returned to him. He was told his building was under new management and was given a month to leave.

“I sent my rent to the new owners of the building,” Tufte said. “And they told me I have 30 days to move my business out of their buildings; they were putting in apartment complexes.”

The USAN building, where Zero Hour was located, was sold to Roers Companies at the end of 2021 and the next year was remodeled to create 38 apartment units now known as Cove Apartments.

With no location and tight funds from COVID, Tufte elected to host Zero Hour’s last game in Duluth on Feb. 17, 2022.

“The situation that we had to face, trying to find a new location in February, 20 below, in a blizzard, wasn’t ideal,” Tufte said.

Solve Entertainment’s partners were Richard Hansen, Andy Bennett and Matthew Wagner, seen here on opening night in 2015. (Photo via Solve Enterntainment’s Facebook page.)

Solve Entertainment initially started with a temporary trial run during the 2015 holiday season in the Stanley Center at 408 W. Superior St. Its first event was Silent Night: A Live-Action Adventure, a Christmas Eve detective story.

“We did not anticipate that we would be doing anything past our first escape,” Solve Entertainment co-owner and UMD theater professor Matthew Wagner said. “‘We’ll open for a month and we’ll have some fun and we’ll see how it goes.’”

Solve found success immediately and continued in the Stanley Center full-time until moving operations in 2017 to a space above Blacklist Brewing Company at 120 E. Superior St. Blacklist later moved; Duluth’s Best Bread is now the ground-floor tenant in the building.

“We were kind of a hit!” Wagner said. “People enjoyed playing and business was doing pretty well.”

Solve changed location again, moving to the Hunter Building at 31 W. Superior St., where the business operated during the COVID-19 pandemic.

In response to quarantine protocols limiting the number of people in public spaces, Solve introduced Professor Prank, a live online game. It was played in countries all over the world.

The game was themed around a “social media prankster” live streaming himself pulling a prank on his science teacher Dr. Baxter, only to reveal the teacher’s sinister plot to create a boring world with no more pranks. Players were cast as viewers to Professor Prank’s live stream.

Professor Prank was largely created and solely performed by WDSE FM 103.3 “The North” morning host Luke Moravec, who also developed Solve’s The Babysitters game.

Playing the titular Professor Prank, Moravec wore a chest-mounted camera that broadcasted his point of view and players would tell him where to go and how to solve puzzles. Moravec also controlled lights, sounds and other effects during the course of a game.

Moravec occasionally dealt with technical issues on the fly and juggled resolving problems and staying in character. Despite the involved nature of performing and producing the game live, Moravec remembers it fondly.

“My life has been filled with creative endeavors, some better than others,” Moravec said. “I imagine that Professor Prank will be a top-three creative endeavor over the course of my life.”

When protocols allowed for Solve to host players in person again, groups were staggered so no two teams shared the space. The business managed to stay afloat through the pandemic but money was tight.

According to Wagner, Solve Entertainment closed in 2022 because the space it was using “was no longer up to code.”

“There were some things that we had to get up to code for our business and that ended up being a longer process than we had hoped for,” Wagner said. “And unfortunately, it was more money than we were prepared to spend.”

The Hunter Building was sold in March 2023 to Development Services Group and renovation work began there shortly afterward.

Neither Tufte nor Wagner have plans to reopen their Duluth escape-room businesses. Tufte said he believes such a venture could be viable if handled properly, but industry innovation might be challenging to overcome.

“With the right person, the right mindset, absolutely,” Tufte said. “But it would be hard.”

“In the last six, seven years, everybody’s trying to one up and get more creative as technology’s grown,” Tufte said. “I think the immersion has definitely increased that quality level that you have to produce. It would definitely make it very challenging for someone that hasn’t been in the industry for a long time to recreate.”

Tufte and Wagner reflected on their experiences owning escape-room businesses in Duluth.

“It’s a sad, sad day for Duluth when Solve Entertainment and Zero Hour were unable to operate,” Tufte said. “We weren’t competitors. We were both in an industry that we loved and enjoyed.”

“It was an absolute joy to do,” Wagner said. “Giving the city of Duluth something that they could do in person together with people you care about and have those memories. That was what made it so special and I do miss it greatly.”

Tufte owns and operates Zero Hour Escape Rooms in Plymouth and is “very happy” with the location. Wagner is working on a project that he’s been keeping underwraps.

“We don’t want to reveal it until we feel we’re totally ready,” Wagner said. “There’s something in the works but it won’t be at a permanent physical location. We’re working on something to surprise and delight again because we love what we did.”

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