Escape From West Texas on CNBC’s West Texas Investor’s Club: Interview with Ginger Flesher-Sonnier

Ginger Flesher-Sonnier is the Owner & CEO of Escape Room Live. The company currently operates Escape Room Live DC near Glover Park and Escape Room Live Alexandria. They will be opening a second Escape Room Live DC location in Georgetown later this summer, and their Alexandria-based games have been some of the most wonderful room escapes we’ve encountered.

West Texas Investors Club is a television show on CNBC. As described on the CNBC website, “Self-made multimillionaires Rooster McConaughey and Butch Gilliam invite ambitious entrepreneurs from across the country to come down to West Texas and make their case.”

“Escape From West Texas” (Season 2, Episode 10) aired on June 14, 2016. The episode features Ginger pitching for a $4 million investment in her escape room business. She accepted $800,000 for 40% share of her company and their help expanding her business into corporate resorts.

The full episode is available on CNBC’s website.

We recently spoke with Ginger about her experience on the show and where her company goes from here:

Room Escape Artist: Tell us about your experience on Escape From West Texas. For context, when was this filmed?

Ginger: Mid-February, 2016.

How did this all come about?

They actually reached out to me and asked if I would be on the show. I had seen their show after Shark Tank one night last summer and really enjoyed it – so much more than Shark Tank, surprisingly – so I agreed to go through the casting process. They had 10,000 applications this season so I am honored to have actually been approached by them.

What was it like seeing yourself walk off a private airplane in slow motion?

Surreal! But fun. The whole experience was amazing.

How much of your experience in West Texas do viewers see?

An extremely small part! Imagine boiling down about a week of filming to mere minutes. My pitch actually lasted 3 hours. Same with the negotiations, which wound up taking place into late Friday night (hence my puffy face… it was an exhausting week). The entire ride with Gil never made the show, nor his serenade at the end.  

In the episode, the investors play one of your games. How long did you have to design and fabricate the room on the show?

All I can say is that I did have longer than one day! That would have been impossible. But I can say that we did construct it from scratch completely ourselves (my husband and I). 

Wide view of the "Escape West Texas" jail game. The key focal point is a large megal safe that reads "Wells Fargo Bank."

What specific design considerations went into this game?

I really wanted to create something that spoke to their West Texas heritage, so we decided on the West Texas Jail Break. It was much more appropriate than my Edgar Allan Poe room would have been!

Close up of the marshal's desk in the Escape West Texas jail.

Were you worried that these guys were going to be terrible at your game?

Ummmm…. they were.

In their defense, they had no idea what the heck to expect. Editing, editing, editing! The game was so much longer than that what viewers see, with many more puzzles. They edited it down to two or three. They even mismatched puzzles and their endings with editing… it was surprising but looked fine.

Close up of the wall in the Escape West Texas jail dipicting a high level of detail in the room's design.

The investors weren’t too keen on your restaurant & bar concept or locations in Vegas, Disney, or Times Square. What do you think of their assessments?

They are dead on about the low profit margin of restaurants. We ARE adding bars to our locations wherever it is possible, though. I still disagree about being in a place like MGM in Vegas and that is still not off the table.

The investors pushed the importance of the corporate client and you’ll be using their connections to open in corporate resorts. When should we expect to see these resort games opening?

We are meeting with Hyatt and Hilton in the next couple of weeks. A television show is also in discussions. Things have been crazy, especially with us opening this new location in Georgetown complete with a liquor license.

The good news is, we have paired up with Larry Kirchner from The Darkness, a haunted house in St. Louis, to build all of our rooms and he is AMAZING! You will be blown away by the Titanic, Ghostbusters, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Friday the 13th, and Mummy rooms. They have CGI, lighting effects, sound effects, and incredible theming. They aren’t cheap though, and all in all will come in at about $100,000 apiece.

Larry’s ability to build multiple rooms quickly in his warehouse from the ground up, disassemble, ship, and reassemble onsite has opened up a whole new world. Getting consistently themed rooms into resorts now seems much more feasible.

We are also working with a professional and seasoned puzzle designer who has vast experience in designing for the best puzzle hunts in the world. He is local to us and we work extremely well together.

What new design considerations do you see as factors for resort-based games? 

Simply put: more automation, including automatic reset of the games. This is in addition to the increased immersion through true set design and special effects, of course.

How will you handle quality control in these diverse locations?

Our Director of Operations and his VP of Operations are gearing up to be mobile. They are very excited.

What overlap or conflict does this deal have with the partnerships you’ve formed with movie studios? 

None.

In the negotiations, you counteroffered with $800,000. That was a very specific number. How much time did they allow you to research before giving them this number?

No time. I replied immediately.

If we do the math, you valued your company at $2 million. Given that you’ve grossed $2.3 million in 15 months, help our readers understand why you took the deal.

I agree that the valuation was not good, especially since our gross receipts for 2016 should be over $4 million. Here was my thought process, although things are still fluid in the deal: These guys have far more connections than you can even imagine – in Hollywood (Rooster is Matthew McConaughey’s brother, after all), New York, Wall Street – so the growth potential here goes beyond anything I could do myself. Given that fact, as an example, 60% of $100 million is a lot more than 100% of $10 million, don’t you agree?

And are you happy with the outcome?

I love these guys. I love creating. And I really love being a successful entrepreneur. I’m happy as hell.

Ginger and Rooster clinking beer cans in celebration of their deal on The West Texas Investors Club.
Escape Room Live Owner and CEO Ginger Flesher-Sonnier pitched investors Rooster McConaughey and Butch Gilliam on “West Texas Investors Club,” which airs Tuesdays at 10PM/ET on CNBC.

Escape Room Live Alexandria – Poe-ranormal Activity [Review]

“The generous Critic fann’d the Poet’s fire, And taught the world with reason to admire.”

Edgar Allan Poe

Location: Alexandria, VA

Date played: May 28, 2016

Team size: 8; we recommend 5-6

Duration: 45 minutes

Price: $28 per ticket

Story & setting

We were the team of paranormal investigators called in when a historian vanished while searching Edgar Allen Poe’s old chambers for a lost manuscript. The game started just after the our investigative team had split up (because that’s always a good idea when searching a spooky location) and been locked in separate rooms by the building’s ghosts.

The story worked.

The set was well constructed, beautifully designed, and immersive. It captured the aura and symbolism associated with Poe.

Interior game image depicts a silhouette of a woman, a painting of a naval battle, and a sconse.

Puzzles

The early puzzles required communication between our two groups, separated by a locked door. The split was balanced and the puzzles were expertly intertwined.

Poe’s work inspired the puzzles in Poe-ranomal. Not surprisingly, this escape room leaned heavily on word-related puzzles. While clues in the game provided us with all the necessary information to solve the room’s puzzles, a bit of familiarity with Poe’s work proved advantageous.

Standouts

Poe-ranomal was no exception to the immersive design we’ve come to expect from Escape Room Live Alexandria. In this instance, they built a relatively mundane stage that delivered dramatic interactions through hidden magic.

The ghost tracking device added to both the game mechanics and the ambiance.

Late in the game, dramatic practical effects truly enhanced the climax of this escape room.

The attention to detail in the theming demonstrated that the game designer had, in fact, read the works of Edgar Allen Poe… which, tragically, is not always the case in escape rooms themed on authors.

A statue of a raven, perched on a stone.

Shortcomings

When our two teams reunited part way through the game, we now inhabited all together the same game space we had thoroughly explored independently. We spent significant time explaining to each other which items had already been solved, or what their unsolved status was. Throughout the game, we had to be particularly mindful of teammates starting in on already-solved components.

Some of the technological interactions lacked clear feedback in the form of obvious new information. In multiple instances, we were positive that our actions had triggered something, but couldn’t quickly figure out what was now available to us. This solution confirmation delay briefly stifled momentum.

We experienced a mechanism failure with the final interaction of the game. It was disappointing not to see this game’s dramatic conclusion. Escape Room Live Alexandria refunded our tickets to make good on this shortcoming, as they would for any customer in this situation, and for that we salute them… not enough companies follow this practice after significant failures.

Should I play Escape Room Live Alexandria’s Poe-ranormal?

Poe-ranomal was a beautifully simple stage that revealed complex design mechanics as the game unfolded. It expertly wove the paranormal into a story flow. The theming and story demonstrated subject matter expertise in a way that many literary-themed escape rooms do not.

Even with the ghost tracking, this game was not scary. There were dramatic moments, but this was still a family-friendly experience.

Escape Room Live Alexandria is a company that minds the details of their experiences: from their magnificent waiting room, to their humorously delivered rules and setups, to the staging, and puzzles. Even when things go wrong, they are on top of it. It’s a fun operation to visit.

Book your hour with Escape Room Live Alexandria’s Poe-ranormal, and tell them that the Room Escape Artist sent you.

Escape Room Live DC -Back to the 80s! [Review]

Hints? Where we’re going, we don’t need hints (unless something breaks).

Location: Washington, DC

Date played: January 8, 2016

Team size: 8-12; we recommend 6-8

Price: $28

Theme & story

Back to the 80s! is like totally 80s!

We were sent back in time to find the greatest mix tape ever made. Every prop was an 80s pop culture reference and the soundtrack was also incredibly 80s (in a good way).

A boom box cassette player/radio

The storyline was paper thin, but it didn’t matter. Back to the 80s! is a walk down nostalgia drive… Or a trip to “the olden days” depending upon your perspective.

What if I wasn’t alive or don’t remember the 80s?

Escape Room Live DC’s website states:

“Knowledge of 1980s trivia is not necessary to escape the room (but it sure may make it easier!). All information needed is inside the room.”

I’ll second this statement. Observant players will be able to get out without hints or knowledge of the 1980s.

If you’re going in without knowledge, don’t be afraid to ask for a hint here and there. Some elements of the game are incredibly intuitive if you’re in on the jokes.

While I got all but one reference (that I was aware of), I left the room feeling like I would have been baffled by some of the puzzles if it weren’t for my understanding of the references.

That said, the New Kids On The Block reference was hilarious… Escape Room Live has mastered puzzle puns.

Three shelves with a variety of toys, clothing and movies from the 1980s
Even the Care Bears were invited to the party.

Playful puzzles

The overall mix and quality of puzzles in Back to the 80s! was stellar.

There was something for everyone and the playfulness of the puzzles themselves was the standout quality of the game. Escape Room Live DC did a wonderful job of turning the toys, music, and references into a string of delightfully campy games.

Watercolor painting of an unsolved 3x3 Rubix Cube
I am happy to report that we did NOT have to solve a Rubix Cube… But we brought someone who could have if we needed to.

Groundhog Day

Thus far I’ve played four games with Escape Room Live and I was surprised to see a couple of puzzles that were effectively repackaged from some of their other games.

They were cool puzzles and one of them was executed better in Back to the 80s! than it was in the game where I first saw it, but it was disappointing to know the solution to a puzzle because I had already seen it before.

And yeah… Groundhog Day came out in 1993. Close enough?

Bad setup

Like Oliver North… We had a bad setup, and it cost us our game.

We were rocking the 80s when our game came to a screeching halt. One of the critical props in the room had two tiny pieces missing that cost us somewhere in the realm of 7-10 minutes, which is very significant in a 45 minute game.

Our puzzlemaster wasn’t aware of our struggles because when we asked for help, he hadn’t realized how deep into the game we were.

The two missing pieces (which were probably stolen by the previous team) burned down so much time that the clock was expiring as I accessed the final puzzle. I knew what I had to do to win, but didn’t have the time to execute.

Like the sudden demise of Atari, it was disappointing.

Escape Room Live DC - Back to the 80's! Team Shot
Tragically, Lisa’s giant cell phone was cropped out. We were calling each other.

Should I play Escape Room Live DC’s Back to the 80s!?

Yeah… Back to the 80s! is a rad game.

The setting was a blast, the puzzles were fun, and the overall experience was about as playful as escape rooms get.

The self-plagiarism of puzzle design in Back to the 80s! was a disappointment, and the bad setup that we experienced really put a damper on our night (bad setups are a very rough way to go down), but we had fun nonetheless.

Whether a room full of 80s props and references is a museum or a memory, Back to the 80s! is a game worth playing.

Book your hour with Escape Room Live DC’s Back to the 80s!, and tell them that the Room Escape Artist sent you.

I’ll be back.

Full disclosure: Escape Room Live DC comped our tickets for this game.

Escape Room Live Alexandria – Sherlock Holmes: A Matter of Time [Review]

“There is nothing like first-hand evidence.”

-Sherlock Holmes

Location: Alexandria, Virginia

Date played: November 1, 2015

Team size: up to 8; we recommend 4-6

Price: $28 per ticket

A serious Sherlock Holmes escape room

There are many Sherlock Holmes room escape games. They are usually a generic detective mystery, and have elected to use the name “Sherlock” as a synonym for the word “detective.”

Sherlock Holmes: A Matter of Time is the first Holmes themed room I’ve encountered that suggests that the designers may have read a book by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

The story felt right.

The room looked right.

And the props were of the right era (with the notable exception of a modern mass transit map).

221B Baker St. is the address of Sherlock Holmes. It's the details that count.
221B Baker St. is the address of Sherlock Holmes. It’s the details that count.

Puzzles

Brace yourself for the greatest puzzle solution pun ever. I’ve never seen a whole team love the answer to a single puzzle the way we all loved this one.

Each segment of this game offered a unique challenge and an unexpected solution. And they were all a ton of fun, with the notable exception of one puzzle that had the two people solving it wishing that real life had a Ctrl+F function built in.

Escape Room Live does great work with sensors and electronics. Some of them didn’t feel quite at home in a Holmes game. There were moments in the game that felt a little bit too magical. This feels like a strange criticism, but this room was at its best when it was making us feel like Victorian detectives.

Escape Room Live Alexandria - Sherlock Vice

Hinting

Similar to the The Wizard’s Apothecary, Sherlock Holmes: A Matter of Time offered a hinting system that felt like it belonged in the game. It wasn’t as jaw-droppingly cool The Wizard’s Apothecary, but it worked just as well with the theme.

More mystery

In Sherlock Holmes: A Matter of Time we found ourselves trying to unravel a mystery. Escaping the room was not the goal.

To that end, I would have loved it if the final puzzle lent itself more to deductive reasoning. The puzzles themselves were great. However, the final puzzle kind of hit us in the face with the solution in a way that wasn’t anywhere near as satisfying as the steps that led us to it.

Escape Room Live Alexandria - Sherlock Desk

Facilities

Escape Room Live Alexandria offers the most elegant facilities we’ve encountered in an escape room.

Their website contains a (somewhat dizzying) 3D walkthrough that provides a look at their overall space as well as detailed glimpses into their Sherlock Holmes room and their Professor Morarity game (which we didn’t have time to play).

Should I play Escape Room Live Alexandria’s Sherlock Holmes: A Matter of Time?

This decision is elementary, my dear reader. This is a must play game.

It was beautiful, fun, and exciting.

Escape Room Live Alexandria - Sherlock Victory

At 45 minutes, it ran a little short, but it didn’t have much fat on it. There were times where the game itself felt so modern and polished that it knocked my suspension of disbelief for a loop, but these were infrequent. The errors came from too much polish where they usually come from a lack thereof.

I love the way Escape Room Live Alexandria handled the Holmes theme. I loved the creativity and passion that they poured into the puzzles. And I just love the way they minded the details.

As Sherlock Holmes himself said in The Man with the Twisted Lip, “It is, of course, a trifle, but there is nothing so important as trifles.”

Book your session with Escape Room Live Alexandria’s Sherlock Holmes: A Matter of Time, and tell them that the Room Escape Artist sent you.

Full disclosure: Escape Room Live Alexandria comped our tickets for this game.

Escape Room Live Alexandria – The Wizard’s Apothecary: ​The Power of the Rings [Review]

There’s magic in Alexandria, Virginia. Go experience it.

Location: Alexandria, Virginia

Date played: November 1, 2015

Team size: up to 10; we recommend 4-6

Price: $28 per ticket

REA Golden Lock-In Badge
2015 Golden Lock-In Winner

Production value

From the moment we exited the elevator, we entered the world of Escape Room Live Alexandria.

That world included a reception area and a spacious, styled, and decorated lounge and function room. The space was comfortable, inviting, and designed unlike any other escape room we’ve encountered.

The lounge was themed better than most average escape rooms... And far more massive than this photo suggests.
The lounge was themed better than most escape rooms… And far more massive than this photo suggests.

This production value and styling extended to the The Wizard’s Apothecary: The Power of the Rings. The set was remarkable and believable, in so much as wizardry was believable.

Story

The King’s wizard is missing and only you, as the wizard’s apprentice, have the skills necessary to find him. You have 45 minutes in his study for this task.

Escape Room Live Alexandria is not legally allowed to lock players in rooms. Thus, they created a win condition completely divorced from escape. The game didn’t suffer because of this.

Magic

As one would expect from a wizard-themed game, puzzles unfolded in unique, magical ways. The uses of sensors to create moments of magical happenings were clever, creative, and exciting.

Escape Room Live Alexandria - Wizard's Apothecary - Spellbook

Hints

This game also had a magical hinting system through one of the props in the room. Thus the fiction was sustained throughout the entire experience.

This technique made requesting a hint fun (which is impressive because asking for a hint is decidedly not fun).

Choke point

The Wizard’s Apothecary had one massive choke point in its gameplay. There was a single prop that affected so many puzzles that it created multiple bottlenecks as various members of our team vied for it to solved different puzzles.

This didn’t wreck our experience, but it forced us to stand around waiting… Which isn’t awesome when the timer is ticking down.

45 minutes

The games at Escape Room Live Alexandria are only 45 minutes long.

Normally I find 45 minute games too short. In this case, however, it was 45 minutes without much fluff or tedium. It worked because all of the puzzles were strong… But I would have loved to see a few more challenges and an extra 15 minutes of play.

Escape Room Live Alexandria - Wizard's Apothecary - Magical Items

Customer care

Before the game started, a staff member quickly delivered the game set up and walked us through a poster of “don’ts” in a lighthearted, but serious manner. It was well performed.

The staff at Escape Room Live Alexandria were all exceptionally welcoming. They even opened early for us and then held our suitcase in their closet while we went out to lunch. They earned a lot of appreciation from a pair of weary travelers.

Should I play Escape Room Live Alexandria’s The Wizard’s Apothecary: The Power of the Rings ?

Absolutely.

A magical room calls for magical solutions. Escape Room Live Alexandria’s brilliant and seamless use of sensors elevates the gameplay to a level that few escape rooms rival.

The Wizard’s Apothecary felt like another world with its own physics and logic. The puzzles were creative and challenging.

Escape Room Live Alexandria minded all details: the décor, rules, hinting systems, gamemasters’ performance, and even the hilariously hidden camera. All of this added up to a fun, inviting, and worthwhile destination.

Escape Room Live Alexandria is an hour on the metro from Washington DC’s Union Station, or 20-30 minutes by Uber, but it is worth the trip if you can spare the time. Plus, downtown Alexandria is adorable. You can round out a half-day excursion with eating, drinking, shopping, and general site-seeing.

Every member of our team enjoyed this game. In fact, one player mentioned that her only disappointment was that she didn’t get to solve all the puzzles because they happened while she was solving something else.

Book your session with Escape Room Live Alexandria’s Wizard Room, and tell them the Room Escape Artist sent you.

Full disclosure: Escape Room Live Alexandria comped our tickets for this game.