When Carol Hall of Port Huron was laid off from her dream job in January, she didn't waste any time bringing her longtime goal of owning her own business to life.
Instead of sulking about being down on her luck, Hall got right to work handing out surveys and asking the community about Port Huron's entertainment needs.
Her dream was to create an escape room. But before diving in, she wanted to ensure it was something the community would support.
She posted online and even walked up to strangers at Meijer and asked people what they'd like to see entertainment-wise in the city. Knowing she wanted to start a business and had a love for seeing people happy, she was hoping "escape room" would be a recurrent answer, and it overwhelmingly was.
“It was nice to have the community confirm that that was a good avenue to take. It made me feel a little less scared about putting all of my eggs in one basket,” Hall says.
A few months later, the Blue Water regions first escape room, The Hallway Escape in downtown
Port Huron, was born.
“I think it was just the right time,” Hall says.
After taking the Economic Development Alliance’s classes, her business began to take shape.
What is an escape room?
Escape rooms begin with a group of people trapped in a room filled with props and a timer. Before the timer goes off, props must be moved to find hidden clues, codes must be deciphered, and riddles need to be solved. The number of clues makes it difficult for participants to figure out which ones are connected and how to move from one step to the next. The game is one big puzzle with many pieces that have to come together if players hope to escape before their time is up. A race against the clock, an hour in the case of The Hallway Escape, and the huge variety of clues means communication and teamwork are essential.
The Hallway Escape’s room is unique to its location. Hall worked with Larry Jones, the building's owner, to design and build an area that looks like a train car and is centered around Thomas Edison.
Dave Dazer, site manager at the Thomas Edison Depot Museum, taught Hall about Edison. Dazer told her the inventor got kicked out of school and began working on the Grand Trunk Railroad, which had a line that ran from Detroit to Port Huron. Edison would sell candy and newspapers off of the train and ended up printing a newspaper from it. So, participants explore the room as 12-year-old Edison would have seen it, since he spent his younger years in Port Huron. To set the scene, a story is told about the players visiting the Thomas Edison Depot Museum, then time-traveling to 1863 and figuring out how to return to the present.
In the works is a neighboring casino themed room, a commonly seen type of escape venue. Hall wanted one unique room and another that is “tried-and-true.”
Hall created the current room’s clues and details on her own and says devising them was one of the most fun parts of the new job. Having her own business means she gets to think outside of the box and explore daily.
“There is always something new. You get to wear a lot of different hats in the startup phase. It’s not a routine, same thing every day type of deal, which is nice,” she says.
Hall has also enjoyed watching as players attempt to solve the room that she already has figured out. She visited many escape rooms before ever considering opening a business, so she knew what problems players might run into and used that knowledge when plotting her own adventure.
All kinds of challenges came up for Hall, and as an entrepreneur, every issue falls on her. She had to find solutions. Many times, that meant reaching out and asking experts for help or teaching herself. She even handled issues as small as wiring and electronics for the clues by watching YouTube tutorials.
It has been tough to navigate delegation. While Hall has had help of multiple supporters, she has ultimately been responsible for all decisions concerning the room. Her cousin helps run games right now, but picking future employees will not easy for an owner who has put in so much time, money, and effort and wants the best for the business.
“I’m still working through how I want to move forward with future employees and their responsibilities, what things I want to keep my hands on, and what things I need to give up and let someone else help with,” Hall says.
Despite the obstacles, nothing major along the way came up that threatened her vision.
“As soon as I got far enough into the process, I wasn’t going to let anything stop me,” she says.
When complimented on her fast-paced business savvy, Hall continued with this idea:
“I’ve had a couple friends say that to me, and I started to think: everybody can do it! I mean, if I can do it, anybody can do it, so if there is something you want to do, start. You have one life,” she says.
The young entrepreneur is working with Great Workplace’s Kanchan Wankhede on setting up professional development sessions that would be available for companies by appointment during the week.
“When I was going to banks and places around here to open my business accounts, they all said they have done escape rooms in Detroit, Royal Oak, and Rochester, so they’re willing to drive. I’m hoping I can tap into that market a little bit because I think it’s something the area is lacking,” Hall says of the team-building component.
After Michigan’s first escape room opened in 2014, they have been booming business endeavors. There are over 25 escape rooms in the Metro Detroit area, but Hall is the first to embrace the trend locally.
A great start
So far, the innovative escape room has been well-received. Hall has had multiple test groups, starting with close family members and friends, then fellow members of the Blue Water Startups and Entrepreneurs group, and deejays from 96.9-FM and 105.5-FM who gave it favorable reviews.
Test groups were positive for testing out the room itself and for networking, which Hall has spent months doing. She says networking with as many people as possible has been critical to her business’ success. Larry Jones of Landmark Port Huron; Matt Brooks of ELEVEN19, Blue Water Startups, and Loft 912; Mike Mancini and Wankhede have all been integral in getting the escape room going.
Once she felt the room was at a high enough standard, the goal was to simply get the doors open.
“A lot of people get stuck on their plan and never start moving and going,” Hall says. “Plans are great, but you can’t possibly plan for what’s to come because there are so many unknowns along the way.”
Hall's been busy since the Hallway Escape's soft opening in mid-April.
One word can sum up the first half of Hall’s year: busy. It can be hard to manage time and get motivated when the timeline is totally up to her. However, the ability to create a vision and be her own boss is worth it.
“Now I’m working for me, and I’m choosing the work I tackle each day,” she says.
Boosting Port Huron
Being part of the recent rush of growing Port Huron businesses is exciting for Hall. Early on, many people advised her against starting her business here.
But she is seeing Port Huron become a destination for out-of-towners, something unheard of when she was growing up here. Now, she is adding to it by creating something new for tourists and locals to do. The escape room complements typical night out activities like dinner, drinks, or a movie, and gives people something to do when the weather is gloomy.
“I really believe Port Huron is making some sort of a comeback and hopefully becoming like a Grand Haven on the east side. I’m passionate about this area, and I want my son to grow up in a town where there’s always something to do,” Hall says. “I feel like there are more businesses opening up and making a splash, changing the mindset that there’s not much to do here.”
Hoping many more will come, Hall has been visiting high schools with Blue Water Startups. She is hoping to strike up the entrepreneurial spirit in students’ minds and encourage them to be open to unique career paths.
First timer escape room visitors, Hall has some useful hints for you. Be organized, she says, and start a pile for used props so other players don’t try to re-solve them. Look out for clues everywhere because it is easy to passover obvious items while searching for something hidden.
Escaping isn't easy. So far, more people have been stuck in the past than have returned to the future. Just be ready for a challenge.
Rates for the adventure are $25 per person, but if there are six booked together, one is free. Because of set-up and staff preparation, registration is required at www.thehallwayescape.com at least six hours before attending.
More information and updates can be found at www.facebook.com/thehallwayescape. Ages 16 and up can come without parental guidance, and children under that must have a parent sign a waiver.
Hours are Thursdays 4-10 p.m., Fridays 4-11 p.m., Saturdays 11 a.m. – 11 p.m., and Sundays 11 a.m. – 3 p.m. The Hallway Escape is at 218 Huron Ave., Suite B, in Port Huron. The business can be reached at (810) 689-9259.