The intrigue plays out several days a week in a studio apartment in downtown Leesburg, accessible only through a small parking lot and up a steep flight of stairs. It is a “safe house” for a spy — a Russian agent now cooperating with the U.S. government.
Across the hall, several wayward students are hatching a plot to escape detention from a classroom with furnishings straight from the 1980s.
The safe house and the classroom — in a suite of rooms above MacDowell Brew Kitchen — are not real. Nor are the scenes that unfold there. They are the “escape rooms” run by Exit Plan, a locally owned business that creates puzzle-filled adventure games for groups of people to solve.
Four Ashburn neighbors launched the business in April to capitalize on the increasingly popular concept, in which participants are given one hour to sift through clues and solve a sequence of challenging puzzles to complete their mission, which might involve averting a catastrophe or simply escaping the room.
Kathryn Ciliberti, who owns the business with her husband, Chris, and their neighbors Bruce and Stacie Hardy, said they that were inspired to launch Exit Plan after helping their sons solve escape rooms in the District and Alexandria.
“It took us an hour and a half to get [to Alexandria] on a Thursday night,” Kathryn Ciliberti said. “Over dinner, we were looking at each other and going, ‘Loudoun County needs this, and if we don’t do it, someone else is going to.’ And we were like, ‘Let’s make it happen.’
“Bruce is a former Navy SEAL,” she said. “And when you say, ‘Let’s make it happen,’ he makes it happen.”
Although Bruce Hardy formerly owned a home improvement contracting company, the other three partners had never owned a business. But each had skills to contribute as they prepared to launch Exit Plan.
Chris Ciliberti, a commercial real estate developer, helped identify possible rental spaces. Kathryn is a marketing consultant. Stacie Hardy, a pharmaceutical representative, helped with accounting and interior design. And Bruce used his construction and technology skills to remake the rooms.
They also had to create a scenario, including a series of puzzles, for each room. Bruce Hardy compared it to writing a movie script.
“You come up with a theme, and . . . write a list of every single item that can coordinate to that type of theme,” he said, adding that a safe house scenario with spies would probably involve guns, secret codes, maps, computers and passwords. Then “you fit those into the scenario and the path [toward a solution] that you want to build.” Next, they tested the path to make sure it would be challenging, yet possible to solve in an hour, he said.
Exit Plan offers two escape rooms. The scenario for Safe House involves a Russian spy who had been working with the U.S. government before disappearing. With national security at risk, he must be located quickly.
In the other room, Escape Detention, participants play the roles of students who need to create a plan to dodge confinement by starting a commotion.
The business is open Thursday through Sunday for groups of about eight to 10 people. The escape room adventures are also available for parties and corporate groups daily by appointment.
“Companies are looking for something different to do with their teams,” Chris Ciliberti said. “This is not only a fun and interesting thing for them to do, it really does involve teamwork, how you communicate, how you work together. You can see who emerges as leaders.”
Because the scenario for each room is always the same, Exit Plan will have to create new rooms and puzzles to generate repeat business. Plans are in the works for a third room that will open this fall, Bruce Hardy said. The owners would also like to open similar businesses in the region.
Kathryn Ciliberti thinks the escape room concept is reaching a “tipping point” with respect to public awareness.
“Nine out of 10 people I talk to never even heard of escape rooms, even though it’s been around for a while,” she said. “I believe that over the next six months everybody will have heard of it.”