GAME PLAN Karolina Stavela, who set up Éalú Escape Rooms in Westport in 2017, has plans to expand the popular business even further.
Teams of all ages can test their skills at the challenging games in Éalú Escape Rooms
While working as an outdoor instructor in the Killary Adventure Centre, Karolina Stavela loved the buzz of being in the outdoors – whether it was out on the water or climbing mountains in the wilds of Connemara.
As an outdoorsy person, she did not think anything would beat that buzz – until a few years ago, when she stepped into a locked room. She was visiting her native Poland, and she was trying out an indoor escape room – a new phenomenon that was sweeping across Europe at the time.
An escape room is a game in which a small team of players are put into a themed room and they must work together to find clues, solve puzzles and crack codes to escape in the time allotted.
What did Karolina find so compelling about the challenge? “It’s similar to the adrenaline and entertainment you get from a video game, except it is in a real world and you become a character of the game,” she told The Mayo News.
“I was very excited – I’d never experienced anything like it. I was very nervous to start with. I was blindfolded at the start, and I felt like I was in a different reality. I am an outdoor sport addict and love the buzz of going really fast or climbing really high, and this was the first thing in my life that didn’t involve sports but gave me the similar buzz and adrenaline. That is what made it for me.”
Immediately Karolina was hooked, and after reading up more on the concept, she made up her mind that she was going to start her own escape rooms in Mayo.
Perfect for the west
A 37-year-old native of the Polish city of Poznan, Karolina first came to Ireland in 2004. She was working for the summer in the hospitality business when she came across the Killary Adventure Centre. Soon she was employed there as an outdoor-pursuits instructor.
“I started coming every year during the summer season, doing instruction work, and a couple of years later I finished my studies in university in Poland and moved over here full-time.”
As part of her job in Killary Adventure Centre, she organised team-bonding programmes for sports teams and corporate companies. She soon noticed that the west-of-Ireland weather did not always play ball, and that some participants were not always suited to the more physically demanding activities.
“Somewhere in the back of my mind when I was running different activities and working in the adventure centre, I always thought that if I could focus on something of my own it would be fantastic,” she explained.
After experiencing the rush of the escape rooms in Poland, she saw how the concept could be a success here in the west.
In February 2017, she took the plunge and rented offices in the Westport Industrial Park on the Newport Road. She converted the space, and in May of that year, the Mayo’s first escape rooms, known as Éalú Escape Rooms, opened.
It’s thought that the escape room craze started in Japan in 2007 before it spread to the US and gained a foothold in many European countries. Ireland was late to party, and so for Karolina the most difficult part of the enterprise has been trying to explain the idea to people.
“When you tell people you are running an escape room place they imagine some sort of spa,” she said. “I used to get enquiries from people about make-up and massages!” Business was slow at the start, and Karolina admits that it was a stressful time and she was ‘full of doubts’.
Despite the early set-backs, word of her exciting new enterprise soon started to spread, and over the last three years it has become very popular, particularly with family birthday parties, company team-building events and stag and hen parties.
“They [hen and stag parties] come in and usually do it around noon, and it is a great ice-breaker … There would be people who never met each other, but straight away they can focus on the puzzle and there wouldn’t be the awkwardness of what to talk about because they are given the task and have to work on it straight away.”
While the games at Éalú (Irish for ‘Escape’) are entertaining, they also have educational benefits, as participants have to use their brains and their team-work skills to solve the puzzles together.
“In a short space of time you get to see people’s hidden skills. You use logical thinking, lateral thinking, group work and simple maths. There is a variety of puzzles and everyone will get to contribute at a different time. Young people learn things when they realising they’re learning, so it is a win-win situation.”
Éalú has two indoor games and an outdoor escape hunt, each with a unique story line. One of the rooms has a creepy ‘cabin in the woods’ feel, while the other has an ‘Indiana Jones Temple of Doom’ kind of vibe. In May, Karolina plans to open her third room, which she designed herself. It is no surprise to hear that she has loved playing puzzle games since childhood.
“Crosswords and word games were always something I enjoyed. I have two little boys at home, and we are constantly making homemade games which revolve around puzzles. It’s is something that comes naturally and always has done. I’ve been lucky enough to turn it into my work now.”
All around town
Karolina is already looking to the future, and she has ambitious plans to grow Éalú and involve other businesses in Westport to make the town the puzzle capital of the west.
“We would like to bring the fun of solving puzzles and working as a team or family all around Westport. The idea is to make a Gráinne Uaile-themed treasure hunt, with different answers will be found in several pubs around Westport.
“You will need to find the answer, but in order to do that you will have to visit different places around Westport with the answers hidden. It won’t be a case of just going from place to place, there will be a little bit of work and logical thinking involved. Once the course is completed, you email the answers [to Éalú Escape Rooms HQ] and you will be rewarded.
“There is a lot to do in Westport, but we would also like to make it the town that offers a greater variety of things … games to play and things to do that are not just based on physical activity … That would be the vision. The hope is that the games would add a new element to what Westport already has to offer.”