The situation is grim: A hemotoxic poison has been unleashed and is quickly spreading around the world. Scientists are frantically scrambling to discover an anti-toxin, but people are already succumbing to the disease.

Luckily for you and your small group of friends, you’ve miraculously stumbled into the underground lab of one scientist who has come up with a vaccine. She’s nowhere to be found — and neither is the antidote. Instead, all you see is a room full of tubes, beakers, microscopes and other lab equipment. Somewhere in here are clues that could lead you to the vaccine — but will you find them in time?

The scenario might sound like something out of a science fiction blockbuster, but it’s actually run by Kato Escape, Mankato’s only escape room company. There, clients pay for the privilege of getting locked in a room for an hour, pitting themselves against clues and riddles to see if they can find the key and escape.

A unique opportunity

Elizbaeth Hanke opened Kato Escape in March of 2016, saying she got the idea from escape rooms in the cities that she and her husband, Jason, enjoyed visiting. The couple owned a building on Front Street but couldn’t find consistent leaseholders, so Hanke decided to just open her own business there instead.

“We just thought it would be something that would fit really well in this particular area,” she said. “(We thought) we might as well give it a shot. We’ve been in business for almost four years now, so it seems to have worked out very well.”

For Hanke, one of the most important factors she considered when planning her business was making it family friendly. While she and her family always enjoyed the escape rooms they visited in the cities and in other locations, it could be expensive when they had to pay for every family member. In addition, since most escape rooms just reserved spots and not rooms, you never knew who else would be in the room or if the group would be a good fit for younger kids. Because of this, Hanke offers people the ability to rent out entire rooms for one flat rate.

“When you’re mixed in with other people, that’s harder for families,” she said. “We specifically wanted to cater more to families and friends, amongst themselves.”

Hanke started with one room, “Ivan’s Room,” which revolved around finding the will of a greedy, disappeared uncle. Throughout the years, they added three other rooms — Mayan Escape, Tubes Lab and Directive 42—and they’re working on another one, The Oracle, which she hopes she open by Halloween.

New ideas

When it comes to how she dreams up her rooms, Hanke said she takes inspiration from all sorts of things. For the Tubes Lab, she was inspired by her husband’s work burying fiber and her own experience with planning and zoning buildings. Meanwhile, one of her rooms had a skylight in it that reminded her of the top of a pyramid, so she built the entire room around that, coming up with the Mayan Escape story. For that one, she recruited her Spanish foreign exchange student, who helped her come up with the story and also acted as the archeologist in the game’s introductory video.

Hanke also offers three mobile escape rooms: Solve the Case (a table game for up to eight people at each table, with the ability to serve about 300 people total), Noodlin Island (which can be played by up to 60 people) and The Oracle’s Tent (which is good for smaller groups, such as 10 people). The first two take about an hour to solve, while the tent takes only about 10-15 minutes. Each one comes with everything players need to figure out a solution.

Hanke said these mobile games are often used by companies for team building exercises, as well as events such as wedding receptions and after-prom parties.

“They’re a lot of fun,” she said. “We’ll take them to different events that have either a larger number of people than what our building can accommodate or businesses that are simply on a time crunch, so they can’t have every single employee come here and then go back. Each game is very diverse, so it takes a very diverse set of minds to figure it out, so hopefully it really encourages teamwork and group discussion about how they think something can be solved.”

Growing success

Throughout the years, Hanke has expanded to five part-time employees (plus herself), with plans to add another seasonal position for the holidays. She also hopes to hire a few more part-time employees to run the mobile games while she’s at the main location. Her “busy” season is October-March, but she’s open year-round and still does brisk business in the summer.

Hanke credits part of her success to where her building is situated — right in Mankato’s entertainment district. Because there are so many restaurants in the area, many parents drop off their kids at the Escape Room and then head someone for an appetizer or drinks while they wait.

Another draw is how inexpensive Mankato is compared to the Twin Cities or other areas. Hanke said 80 percent of her customers come from out of town, driving from Minneapolis, St. Paul, Owatonna, Rochester, Albert Lea, Blue Earth, Fairmont and other locations.

“We find a lot of people will come down from the Cities and make a day of it here, since it’s so much less expensive to do everything in Mankato than it is to actually do something in the cities,” Hanke said. “Being down by the restaurants has been very beneficial to us, so that people can make an entire day of it when they’re coming from out of town.”

Staying relevant

This wide client base is especially helpful, Hanke said, since people don’t tend to revisit rooms. Once they’ve solved the riddles, it’s not as entertaining to repeat the steps. Originally, Hanke thought the key to continuing to stay relevant with customers was working to add something new as often as possible, such as creating new rooms. She said she estimated Ivan’s Office would have an 18-month lifespan before it became stale and needed an update. However, because of her diverse client base, this hasn’t happened.

“We don’t see a slowdown in Ivan’s Office at all,” she said. “It’s already doing just as well as the other rooms.”

She added that MSU-Mankato and other area colleges have been instrumental in bringing fresh customers — both students and their visiting families — to her business. In fact, the majority of her clients are in their teens or early 20s, which is a lot different than she expected.

“MSU has new people coming in all of the time, so I get fresh blood from MSU constantly,” she said. “We get a lot of families, (because) it’s something all ages can do. We see a lot of people with grandparents, parents and kids. It’s hard to find something that an 80-year-old can do with a 6-year-old. Most of our rooms are diverse enough to fit most age groups.”

Business challenges

Hanke purchased the mobile “Solve the Case” game and “The Oracle” room from Old Town Escape, which recently closed. (She said she tweaked them a little to give them her own spin.) As for her former competition, Hanke stressed how hard it is to start a business and added that she hopes they are able to find success in the future.

“For me, being able to run my business full time and having professionals readily available made doing business easier,” she said, pointing out that she and her husband have run several businesses in the past.

“I think other businesses may also not realize are the cost of build-outs, the amount of time it takes to get permits, and that authorization can be longer and holding costs higher (than expected). There are lots of costs that were hard for me to calculate. I have had a lot of failures to work on. It’s just hard to succeed in business, especially the first time around.”

Hanke has had her share of failures, including efforts about two years ago to create a portable electronic escape box. Her hope was to cut down on reset costs.

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