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Monday Morning ‘MUG’ing: Success built on creativity, fun and escape artistry (5 photos)

This week’s Monday Morning ‘MUG’ing visits Countdown Escape Rooms, Thunder Bay’s first and only escape room.

THUNDER BAY -- Marcy and Mario Audet tried an escape room for the first time while on a family vacation to Winnipeg. Every year, Marcy and her sister take their families on a trip, and each member gets to choose one activity to do together. It was Mario’s turn to pick an activity, and “he picked this thing called an escape room, and we all went, ‘oh God, that sounds awful,’” Marcy recalls. “Nine of us, with five kids, locked in a room, it’ll drive us crazy. At the time the kids ranged from six to 19 and trying to find a family function for all of us is not easy.”

To her surprise, they absolutely loved it. ”Everybody got along. Nobody fought. We were flabbergasted at how much fun we had. We all canceled other plans and went back again and again,” she says.

When they returned to Thunder Bay, the Audets knew the city should have an escape room - so they started Countdown Escape Rooms.

It will be four years this coming autumn, but they have already moved twice to expand. They quickly outgrew their first place on Squier Street which had three rooms, and thought the five-room Roland street location would be good for a while. However, as the renewal of their lease came up last year, they began thinking that they could use some more space. They bought a warehouse (formerly the Horseshoe Tavern) on Cumberland Street and renovated.

The new location opened on May 1 with six large rooms and a boardroom that clients can use for birthday parties or meetings after the games.

All six rooms are created with careful attention to detail to make it as realistic as possible.

Luc Despres, who created the new sign in their lobby, also painted “the Sabotage” room. “He elevated that room to a whole new level,” says Marcy. “And the big news is, we’re going to Thunder Con, and Despres Metal Artwork and we are working together for a Game of Thrones room.” Despres will be creating the throne, armour and sword, and after Thunder Con, they will be installed at Countdown.

Marcy comes up with the storylines herself. Her daughter and her sister’s daughter used to have joint birthday parties as kids, and Marcy used to plan elaborate parties involving murder-mysteries for the kids to solve. “So when this came up, I thought, this could be fun. I could tap into my creativity again. I didn’t think it was going to take off like it has!”

About a third of their clientele are businesses doing it as a team-building exercise. Birthday parties make up another third, followed by ardent fans of the genre.

After starting their business, the Audets discovered that finding good staff was difficult. They have 11 part-time employees, mostly young students. Staff use cameras to monitor the rooms, but it’s not just sitting around waiting for people to finish. If players get stuck, the employee intervenes, giving them a little pep talk or clues. A lot of the fun depends on the staff and how they can get people excited, but for the employee, “it’s like watching the same movie over and over, and over again,” Marcy says. “I need cheerleader-type people.”

In each room, you get an hour to solve the mystery. “The Explorer’s Den” is for people who like cryptic codes, and “the Cabin” and “Survive the Night” are the scary ones, done in the darkness with a flashlight. “Sabotage” is the only game where two teams are in one room, competing against each other. Players pay $25 per person, and each room can accommodate from two to 10 people, although four is the recommended minimum. The rooms are complex so you are unlikely to be able to solve the mystery with only two people - unless you are the Audets. “We’re hardcore escape people,” Marcy laughs.