RECM Team Doesn’t Let Opportunity Escape

Time was running out as a team of BYU recreation management students rushed to diffuse a bomb in the office of a Russian spy. Though the stakes felt high, the students were in no danger; this was just an intense escape room game.

In escape rooms, players work together within a certain timeframe to solve a series of puzzles pertaining to a plot. The rooms are meant to be entertaining and are often used for team-building exercises.

On top of solving the puzzles in the escape room, the students had to figure out another puzzle—how to optimize the experience for future customers. Students Julia Blackham, Dania Ellingson, Jocelyn Murray, and Niels Karford recently helped Dan Thuet, president of escape room company The Escape Key, revamp his customers’ experiences.

The project happened in part thanks to a conversation recreation management professor Mat Duerden had with Thuet, in which he suggested that Thuet should hire some of the recreation management students to work for him.

At first, Thuet wasn’t interested because he thought students from the program wouldn’t be the right fit. “I told him, ‘This isn’t really an outdoors thing,’” Thuet says. But once Duerden explained that the recreation management program is about designing, implementing, and evaluating experiences, Thuet agreed that it seemed like a good idea, and he decided to have the students help him.

The students traveled to Salt Lake City and tested out the room that was giving Thuet the most problems: a Russian spy-themed room in which participants had to sneak into a spy’s office and solve puzzles such as diffusing a bomb, answering riddles, and finding other clues to get intel. Thuet had gotten complaints from customers who felt the experience in that particular room wasn’t fulfilling.

The team put together a journey map for the experience—something they had learned to do in their classes—and identified areas for improvement, such as providing bonus objectives to the room for people who finish the puzzles early. Thuet was impressed with the students’ work.

“I got way more feedback than I expected,” Thuet says. “It is going to be valuable for the company as I design rooms and do different things.”

The students say they gained valuable experience from working on the project.

“It was exciting to see how we could use the theories we’ve learned creatively, and to stretch them and apply them in a way that we hadn’t talked about in class but that was equally important and valuable,” Ellingson says. “Having the opportunity to incorporate theories that we’ve learned in several different classes together to solve one problem was a lot of fun.”

Duerden says projects such as the work his students did for The Escape Key help employers recognize the skill sets students in the recreation management program possess and how they can be valuable in a variety of situations.

“Companies know they need people who understand how to create experiences for their employees and customers, but they don’t always know who they should hire to do that,” Duerden says. “We’re increasingly hopeful that we can help companies find our students and that they’ll be able to have that experience.”

BYU recreation management students (from left) Julia Blackham, Dania Ellingson, Jocelyn Murray, and Niels Karford.