A few years ago, folks might have scoffed at the idea of paying to get locked in a room for an hour. Now the escape-room concept is so popular Duluth is home to two such businesses, and they book up fast.

“Looking at the success of various escape rooms around the country, it seemed to be a fun and good fit for Duluth - a fun and intellectual city,” said Justin Pohlman, who with lifelong friend Lee Tufte recently opened Zero Hour Escape Rooms downtown.

Zero Hour, at 5 W. First St., joins SolveEnt, which opened last November and is set to move into the building formerly occupied by Last Place on Earth at 120 E. Superior St.

“I see it more as industry partners than competitors,” Pohlman said, since a variety of escape-room games keeps the scene lively.

Scenarios for each game differ, but the concept is the same - solve puzzles to advance through the room and break out before the clock runs out.

“Like a real-life video game,” Pohlman said. “People come in expecting it to be scary and stressful, but the games we have now aren’t really.”

Zero Hour offers a prison break and an adults-only hotel lock-in called Hangover Duluth, and will soon add The Wheelhouse, a multiroom ship-saving adventure. SolveEnt has The Cabin and Mycroft’s Revenge, rated R for “tension, fear and gore.”

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Customers range from small groups of friends to bachelorette parties to corporate retreats, and individuals can sign up to join a group as well.

All the games had limited room last Friday and Saturday, with some slots already booked full - so business is going well, for now. But can it move from trend to long-term enterprise?

“The industry is definitely in its early stages,” said Pohlman, 32. “As long as we keep holding ourselves to high standards,” success will follow.

Escape rooms originated in Europe and have spread across the U.S. in the past few years like a pandemic - which is probably an escape-room scenario itself.

A study published last year said escape rooms are in their second generation - the first being simple sets and a box or two that needed unlocking; the current being an immersive experience with storylines and nonlinear puzzles.

“There is debate to what the third generation of rooms will hold. Will it be more complicated?” ponders the paper’s authors, Adam Clare, Markus Wiemker and Errol Elumir. “Will it encompass more immersion, including sound, smell, taste, touch? Will the use of actors for more social interaction be employed? Or, will it be something entirely different?”

The future of the industry might be born right here in the Twin Ports.

“Our personal goal is to make each room better than the last,” Pohlman said. “The sky’s the limit.”

Games eventually will have to be retired and replaced in order to get customers to come back and keep revenue flowing. It’s tough to get repeat customers, because once you’ve solved the games, that’s it.

“Unless you’re trying to impress a blind date,” Pohlman joked. But he’s convinced that as games come and go, a wide swath of people will keep coming through his doors for some live-action entertainment. “It’s not like you’re going to just one movie a year.”

Zero Hour’s location seems curious at first, as visitors walk past the Duluth Area Chamber of Commerce’s office and up a short flight of stairs. But it’s perfect, and very adaptable, for Zero Hour.

“The suite itself fits all our needs and probably not many others,” Pohlman said, pointing out the quirky layout.

He and Tufte, also 32, have known each other since they were kids growing up in Crane Lake outside of Voyageurs National Park. Opening Zero Hour was a way for them to be creative in a new and potentially profitable way.

“People ask if we ever tire of watching people come through solving the same puzzles,” Pohlman said. “The most rewarding part is people experiencing something you created, and the joy it brings them. We haven’t had an unhappy customer yet.”

Online

Zero Hour Escape Rooms: zerohourescaperooms.com

Solve Entertainment: solveentertainment.com